It can definitely be argued that superstitions are intrinsically tied in with traditional folklore, and with a culture as steeped in customs and fables as Ireland’s, it’s no surprise that there are more than a handful of superstitions unique to the country and its people.
The phrase ‘the luck of the Irish’ isn’t all it may seem. In fact, it isn’t in the least bit what it sounds like at all. Dripping with irony, the sarcastic phrase refers instead to the bad luck that has befallen both Ireland and many an Irishman. With that, it’s no wonder that Irish folk have a well-rounded and equally well-cultivated list of unlucky omens that should always be avoided at all cost – or as much as the situation may permit. For example, finding a magpie at your doorstep looking at you symbolises an impending death that cannot be averted, and similarly on the bird-related front, killing a robin redbreast would mean an onslaught of bad luck for the rest of your life.
Besides being a potentially painful ordeal, stumbling at the foot of a grave is considered bad luck, although actually falling and touching the ground in the process would signal the fact that death will be in your near future – before the year is up, to be exact. Other choice bad luck omens include: girls whistling, crowing hens, accepting a lock of hair from your lover, if your chair falls when you stand up and a hare crossing your path, specifically before sunrise. Fishermen are also encouraged to return their first salmon catches of the season to ward off bad luck, just as one should never ask a man going fishing just where he is headed to. Unlucky omens to encounter while on a trip include magpies, cats, or limping women. If you get your top wet, while washing the dishes – unwittingly or otherwise – you will end up marrying a drunk.
The Irish also have an extensive list of lucky symbols. For instance, if you hear a cuckoo, or see not one, not two, but three magpies on your wedding morning, you’re in for good luck. Once again on the bird front, if you hear a cuckoo on your right, you’re in for an entire year of good luck, just as finding a hen and her chicks venturing into your house is a sign of good things to come.
Faeries – the overarching category under which leprechauns and banshees fall – also play an integral role in Irish superstition. Several attempts have been made to venture guesses about their origins, though, as expected, not one has had much success in proving their credibility. The first of which would be that faeries are, in fact, the Tuatha Dé Dannan, the original gods of Ireland, who were defeated by the Sons of Mil. The result being that they were diminished in size and banished to live amongst the hilly plains. With the power of immortality amongst others, faeries are invisible to humans, only seen by whomever they may choose to be seen by. Another story alleges that they are fallen angels, much like Lucifer. While some fell into Hell when they were cast from Heaven, others fell onto earth, where they live until this day as faeries. There are both benevolent as well as malevolent faeries, the latter having developed a deep-rooted resentment towards human beings, as while mankind will be granted immortality with ‘The Last Day’, faeries will, on the other hand, simply vanish off the face of the earth.
There isn’t a shortage of superstitions revolving around faeries. To preface this, it is widely believed that faeries should never be referred to as “faeries” aloud, as they prefer, instead, to be called ‘The Wee Folk’, ‘The Other Crowd’, or ‘Them’ – anything but ‘faeries’. A definite harbinger of misfortune would be to build a house or do anything to obstruct a fairy path, as that would lead to sickness, and eventually death. Likewise, their mounds and burrows should never be disturbed, as doing so would (unsurprisingly) incur their wrath. As legend has it, three young Irish lads once decided that digging up a fairy mound for buried treasure would be a bright idea. This only led to their painful deaths.
While there are superstitions that may come across as highly baseless (for example, the one about ginger women being evil), one cannot deny that there may just be some truth, or at the very least, a semblance of perfectly logical reasoning behind some of them.
Photo: Robin Red Breast by Shutter Ireland Photography