‘One night there was a man and his wife and family sitting around the fire and a knock came to the door. The man was getting up to open it when someone struck him with a sod of turf on the back. A great number of fairies came in and they started beating the man and his wife and children. They brought the man away with him. After a few days, he came back to his wife and he said to her, “You can save me tomorrow night. We will have a race and I will be on the third horse and when I will be passing you out, throw a sod of turf at me and I will be saved.” Next night when he was passing her out, she threw a sod of turf at him and he was saved. The reason the fairies beat him was because he had no water in the house. He kept enough water in the house after that.’
This strange story, of which there are many variations across the country, was told to a young schoolboy, Pádraic Mac an Ríogh from Oranmore, by his grandmother. Pádraic was one of a small army of senior pupils in our national schools in the west of Ireland, who, on the eve of World War II, collected a wide range of folklore and folk memories from their elderly family members and neighbours.
Prompted by the Irish Folklore Commission, and with the cooperation of schools, an extraordinary picture emerged of Galway and its people, their beliefs, traditions, cures, songs, riddles, and stories that enriched their lives, more than 80 years ago.*
The above story may seem trite and vaguely amusing today, but told around a fire, on a winter’s evening, in pre-TV times, it probably brought a chill to its listeners. Cáit Ní Ioláin from Baile Chláir, was told that on every Halloween night the fairies changed where they lived. When they are moving from one place to another, they spit on apples and blackberries. People say that you should not eat them after that night.
‘Long ago there was a ghost out in the tide near Island Eddy. For several nights before severe weather the ghost would be shouting and screeching. The older people used to say that this ghost was once a baker who lived in Kinvara. He used to sell loaves that were not the proper weight. When he died, he was sent out there to do penance for his sins.’
‘Young people play tricks on Halloween night too. They wait for night to come. At supper, the woman of the house cuts a sweet cake that contains a ring. Everyone wants a ring. The person who gets the ring will be the first person to marry that year. Children play games such as ducking for apples in a tub of water. It’s a great pity that Halloween doesn’t come more than once a year!’
Intimacy of prayer
In the 1930s, when jobs were scarce, and emigration at least offered a young man or woman the opportunity to grow and develop, English was by far the most useful language for England or America. Irish, the vernacular in only scattered communities, was being abandoned. Except by God. Many people retained the Irish language for the intimate areas of their lives especially for prayers. The old people had a prayer for every occasion. After waking up, they’d say: ‘As You brought us safely through the night, may You bring us safely through the day.’
A woman when she finishes milking the cow, makes a cross with the milk on the cow’s back, to bless her.
Banking up the turf fire they’d say: ‘I bank this fire as Christ preserves us all - Brigid at its foot, Mary at its top; preserve the house and all its inhabitants til morning.’
There were prayers and little invocations for virtually every activity including passing a graveyard, coming into a house, leaving a house, undressing at night, and making up a bed.
When a person sees the first star in the evening, he’d say: ‘A thousand thanks to God for the first star tonight.’
‘The young women would go to a boundary stream and take a mouthfull of water and keep it in their mouths. They’d go around listening at the closed doors of three houses of the same surname, and if they heard the same man’s name mentioned in the three houses, they’d hope it was the man’s name they would marry.
If they didn’t hear any man’s name mentioned they’d be in despair thinking they would never get a husband, and remain single.’
‘They’d take an apple and peel it without breaking the skin and throw the peel over their shoulder. Whatever letter it made when it fell on the floor, that would be the first letter of the name of the man they’d marry.’
‘Long ago the people of Galway used to get married on Mondays, Wednesdays, and sometimes Saturdays. If you got married on Tuesday, Thursday or Sunday they would have no luck. The man always puts the woman in front of him when they are leaving the church.’
‘Long ago the man used never see the woman until the morning when they were to get married. The people used never get married in the month of May. The mother of the girl that was to get married used to give some stock to the man, such as cattle or money. If the girl gets married in blue/ She is sure to come through/ And if she gets married in red/ she wishes for dead.
The man sometimes gives the priest three pieces of money, to get blessed. When the money is blessed, the priest hands it back again to the girl, for which she is to buy a pot and a piece of iron.’
‘Long ago the people said if there was a corpse in the church when people got married, they wouldn’t have a happy marriage. They said too that the first married person to go out of the door (of the church ), would be the first to die.’
‘When a person marries he gets small gifts from the local people, and if he has a rich father he gets land, an animal and money. That’s a custom the people had long ago...’
Caitríona Hastings, commented that reading through the original data she felt that it ‘allowd her to take the pulse of a people at a particuar point of time - a pulse not always audible in written documents or even in photographs.’
NOTES: Much of the material relating to Galway is available in the city library, or from www.dúchas.ie.
I am taking the main findings from Caitríona Hastings excellent City of Streams - Galway Folklore and Folklife in the 1930s, published by The History Press Ireland, on sale €20.
NEXT WEEK: because of unprecedented interest in the poet Sylvia Path’s brief stay in Cleggan shortly before her suicide, I am going to repeat some Diaries published in 2015. Ted Hughes and Assia Wevill came back to live in Connemara for a time. And I will try and tell that story.