Report by Sandra Millsopp
Ulster superstitions and folklore were the subject at the February 2011 meeting of Bangor Historical Society. Dr. David Hume gave a most interesting, illustrated talk. He discussed various types of superstitions and explained how they may have arisen.
His first example concerned a place outside Carrickfergus, called Loughmourne. According to legend there was once a village there. A pedlar came to sell matches, but no one would buy them. He then cursed the village for its lack of generosity and said it would be water next day. The villagers laughed, but next day the land became muddy, eels appeared and the village became flooded. In 1881 the Belfast Water Commissioners bought the lake to act as a reservoir. When water was drained archaeological remains were found. When the water level fell in 1901 discoveries of such things as cairns, ornaments and smelting pots were made. There were five crannogs in the lake. Four of these artificial island dwellings were connected by causeways, while the fifth was further out in the lake. Archaeologists think that they were made using timber, stones, etc. compacted into a firm surface, which rose above the water from the lake bed. The houses may have been built out into the lake for defence. It is possible that, centuries later, when people saw the crannogs, they did not understand them and so the legend of the cursed and drowned village grew.
Dr Hume then explained that cows were the subject of many superstitions. One was known as “blinking cattle” ie cursing them so that for example they did not produce milk. An ill-disposed person could curse the cattle or it might be attributed to witchcraft or to the fairies. People did not seek a natural explanation for the illness. There were ways to undo a fairy curse. One was to use fairy bullets. Dr. Hume showed us a possible example of a fairy bullet. The idea of fairy bullets was especially prevalent in County Antrim where bullet shaped stones are found in the limestone. These stones are in fact the fossils of squid.
The idea of fairies may come from the waves of people who entered Ireland in ancient times. This led to conflict. One such group was the Tuatha de Danaan who were supposed to have come from the east. They are associated with magic and the Lia Fail. A new wave of invaders defeated the Tuatha de Danaan, who are then supposed to have gone into the underworld or spirit world. They came out, often for mischievous purposes, and then went back to their abode. In fact defeated groups were assimilated by the newcomers, but the legend of fairies persisted.
There was a form of underground dwelling which could have given rise to these ideas. It was the souterrain. These go back to early Christian times and are found in Scotland as well as Ireland. They were constructed by scooping out earth, building passages and chambers of stones and then covering them over with a mound of earth. They were entered by a tunnel and people had to crouch down to crawl along it and enter the chambers. There are two main theories about the reason for their construction. The difficult entrance suggests it may have been defensive and indeed there was an exit some distance away. The other idea was that the souterrain was for the storage of food, animals etc. and animal bones have been found in them. It is possible that there were elements of both uses. It is easy to see how later people, who did not understand them, may have imagined they were the home of little people.
Another type of place associated with fairies are Irish raths or Norman mottes. People thought that the fairies came out and danced around the mound. If a person saw this happening they would disappear into the mound and not be seen again. Superstitions also grew up around fairy thorns. If they were cut down or damaged then bad things such as sickness and death would happen. Such ideas are still prevalent today and motorways have even been diverted to avoid them.
The banshee is another superstition often attached to large houses such as Shane’s Castle. It is supposed to howl if there was going to be a death in the family. Old Irish families are supposed to have banshees. Some think the root of the word is Gaelic “woman of the fairies”. Others think it might come from the wise woman who was wise in medicine, healing etc. Most big houses would have had a wise woman or nurse who attended the sick. She was also involved in mourning. Indeed there were keeners or mourners who were professional. Dr. Hume suggested this could be the origin of the banshee legend or it could have elements of all these ideas.
The Ordnance Survey memoirs compiled in the 1830s are an important source of information about superstitions. These include fairy forts and thorns, devils in the form of black dogs, and fairy bullets. Another idea was that a strange dog or cat coming into a house would bring prosperity. People in the Glens of Antrim believed in charms, goblins and banshees.
Many superstitions were rural and concerned death. One idea was to put a cloth over a mirror to stop the spirit of the dead person catching sight of itself and becoming restless. Clocks might be stopped and there was waking at the house until daylight. The latter may go back to Celtic times and be associated with the idea of light casting away darkness. Some of these ideas still persist in areas like the Glens of Antrim.
In east Ulster horse skulls may be found buried under floors or in the walls of old buildings. In 1983 a group was found under a cottage in Carnlough. There are several theories about them. Some people see them as a foundation sacrifice. Others think they may have been there to improve acoustics. It is possible also they were favourite animals buried for good luck. As well as in houses examples of skulls have been found in an old Kilkeel church and an Orange Hall at Dromara. The idea is also found in Scandinavia and Dr. Hume suggested the Vikings might have brought it to Ireland. Another superstition connected with the Vikings survived in Islandmagee: the idea that they brought their own soil to be buried in. There is some soil in a cemetery there which appears to be different to the surrounding earth. Dr. Hume suggested that soil may have come as ballast in Viking ships.
Another superstition which comes from the west coast of Scotland involves magic shoes underneath floor boards. The custom dated from mediaeval times and continued into the nineteenth century. They were placed there to protect the building, but there may also be a sense that they may have contained the spirit of a person who had died.
Dr. Hume argued that all these superstitions suggest that people were using them to try to explain their surroundings. They were handed down through oral tradition from many centuries ago. Ireland’s isolation from mainland Europe enabled them to flourish longer here.
Dr. Hume finished by giving some examples of ghosts or spirits. Kilwaughter Castle outside Larne is now derelict. Many years ago a farmer on the estate was supposed to have heard horses galloping past during the night, but there was no sign of hoof marks in daylight. This is known as the Kilwaughter night riders. At Dalway’s Bawn there was a story of a banshee living in one of the turrets. It was known as Oonagh and is supposed to have moved to a new house which the Dalways built nearby. Things were moved around or damaged so Dr. Hume thought it sounded more like a poltergeist than a banshee. A lady of the house got her husband to remove the top storey of the house and this solved the problem.
A white lady is associated with Redhall near Larne. Locked cupboard doors opened and paintings fell off walls. At Ballygowan, near Ballynure, there was an incident in 1866 involving bogles or house ghosts. These are most associated with Scotland and Northumbria. Stones and even potatoes were thrown at two particular houses. Finally Dr. Hume told of an experience of his own at the site of the battle of Cowpens in the USA. For a split second, out of the corner of his eye, he saw a horseman, but when he looked round there was nothing there. A friend confirmed that ghosts had been seen at the battlefield. Dr. Hume suggested that there are some places where energy has been left behind and some people are able to pick it up.
Mr Alan McAlister proposed a vote of thanks to our speaker for his fascinating talk.