These two women are chatting at the doorway of a Claddagh house on Dogfish Lane c1920. The lane is cobbled, the geese and hens are pecking around, the thatch roof is perfect, there are flowers on the windowsill, everything is calm and peaceful, but what are they talking about? Could it be about piseógs, about the ‘good people’, the fairies, the banshee?
Like fishermen everywhere, Claddagh men had their lucky and unlucky days and woe to him who dared to cast a line on an unpropitious morning. They would not on any account start the fishing season unless the bay was blessed, they would not put to sea if a hare appeared to any of them, they always went to sea with oat-cake, salt, and ashes, as they believed anything that passed through fire was blessed. If a crow flew over the boat and croaked, it was a good omen. If you walked over the Wolfe Tone Bridge after midnight, you were liable to be attacked by a gliomach.
As in the rest of the country, some of these beliefs and theories gathered legs in the retelling and evolved into local legends and superstitions. In the Claddagh, there was a legend of a mermaid who used to appear at the Pier Head at low tide, combing her hair. As the tide turned, she would swim out to sea, only to return again on the tide. This continued until a group of local boys decided to follow her, but she disappeared into the sea and was never seen again. Maybe it was the same mermaid who was later seen occasionally, right up to the 1930s, at Mutton Island.
Another Claddagh legend involved ghost ships. Gregory Yorke was a Galway captain of a ship called Celt which went down in 1869 and all on board were lost. A friend of his, Máirtín McDonagh, often told the story of sailing with a crew on a dark night past the Margaretta Buoy when suddenly, through the mist, they saw a great spectral ship with ominous black sails bearing down on them. The ship disappeared temporarily in the mist, but, “The Conamara banshee was striking up a tune with the Margaretta foghorn”. The Celt reappeared and surged past them heading for Galway. Máirtín and his crew were convinced it was Captain Yorke heading to his home port.
Claddagh children were warned not to go near the seashore in case the ‘red woman’ might grab them. She was a fairy woman very like the banshee. Another local piseóg relating to death was the ‘Cóiste Bodhar’, the silent, or deaf, coach, a messenger of death that was said to take the spirit of the deceased back to the ‘other world’. It could never return to the ‘other world’ without a passenger. The headless driver named Dullahan had a long whip with which he could pluck the eyes out of anyone who looked at him. His four horses were also said to be headless. Everyone in the village was to be absolutely quiet when the Cóiste Bodhar was passing through.
All of the above are included in a new book written and published by William Henry, entitled Away with the Fairies. It is a collection of fairy lore and supernatural tradition from around Galway, stories and beliefs passed down from generation to generation. These have been collected by Willie Henry over many years and make up a fascinating volume that should be in every Galway library. Highly recommended, in good bookshops at €20.