Not only are charms and incantations employed for curing disease, but they are also used to induce disease and death, in the form of maledictions and curses, and in the name of the Evil One.

A sheaf of corn is sometimes buried with a certain form of dedication to Satan, in the belief that as the corn rots in the ground, so will the person wither away who is under the curse.

Another form of malediction is to bury a lighted candle by night in a churchyard, with certain weird ceremonies. A young village girl, who had been treated badly by her lover, determined on revenge, and adopted this mode of curse upon him. He was a fine, healthy young fellow; but suddenly he began to pine and dwindle away, and then every one knew that the girl must have buried a candle against him. Great efforts were made to induce her to tell where it was buried, but she resisted all entreaty. At last, however, the candle was found, and the man had to eat it in order to neutralise the curse. Yet even this disagreeable remedy was of no avail, for the young man still continued to pine away, and in a short time he lay dead.


Epidemic diseases that will carry off an entire family can also be produced by the devil's magic, and smiths and old women are generally adepts in the black art. St. Patrick prayed to be delivered from smiths, women, and Druids; and even to the present time the smith is considered powerful in the working of charms, either for a blessing or a curse, and the peasants are cautious not to offend him.

The Lusmore, or Fairy-finger, is a deadly poison, and sometimes has been used in malice to produce convulsions in children.

In the case of a sudden fainting or swoon, the individual is supposed to be struck by a curse, and if he is unable to answer questions, he is tried with a grannoge, or hedgehog, and if it erects the spine it is a sure sign that the person is under the influence of the devil. Or the suspected person is wrapped in a woman's red cloak, with the hood over the head, and laid in a grave cut two feet deep.
There he remains some hours covered with clay, all but the face, and if he becomes delirious and raves, then the people know that the devils are round him, and his death is considered certain.

Imbas forosma (the knowledge that enlightens) was a weird and fearful pagan ceremony by which evil was invoked, and men gained knowledge of the future after offerings made to their idol gods. The performance was accompanied by strange and solemn incantations and mystic rites, but all of too terrible a nature to be revealed to the people.
They were known only to the Druid priests, and by them held sacred.

If an infant is very small and weakly, it is supposed to be a fairy changeling, and under a curse.
To test its nature, the child is placed upon a shovel before the fire. If it is a fairy imp, it will assuredly, after a little while, fly up the chimney, and disappear; but, while waiting for the solution of the question, the poor baby is often so dreadfully burned that it dies in great torture, though its cries are heard with callous indifference by the family around.


To obtain the power and secrets of witchcraft, it is necessary to visit a churchyard at midnight, and cut off the hand of a recently buried corpse with your own hand. This is preserved by drying or smoking, and can then be used with great and fatal effect. Old women are known as the strongest tools of the devil, and as having the most fatal powers of witchcraft. These witch-women are recognised at once by their glittering eyes and long, skeleton fingers ; and if they have a dead hand in their possession, their influence is irresistible.

If a witch-woman overlooks a beautiful child, it is doomed to die. If she overlooks the churn, the butter will be carried off to her own churn, though she has nothing but water in it. Beware of her.
When she enters the place, put a red coal under the churn, and tie a branch of the rowan tree on the child's cradle, and a red string on the cow's tail then they are safe. Every one who enters while churning is going on should take a turn with the dash, and say: "God bless the work;" but a witch- woman dare not say the words; therefore, if she refuses, she is known at once to be fatal and unlucky.

Stroking by the hand of a dead man can cure many diseases. It has also the power to bring butter to the churn, if the milk is stirred round nine times with it while a witch-prayer is recited. But many awful things must be done, and evil rites practised, before the witch-words can be learned and uttered.


An oath taken upon a skull brought from the churchyard is used for clearing from guilt. But should the oath be taken falsely, the sin will rest upon the race to the seventh generation, and all the sins of the man whose skull was used for the clearing will be upon the head of the false swearer also.

There are two stones in Joyce country, Connemara, and if any one who is falsely maligned turns these stones while he prays a prayer against the wrong-doer, the prayer will be granted, and some evil luck will fall on the wrong-doer as a punishment from the hand of God.

If a young man is suddenly taken with weakness and depression of spirits, it is believed that a fieldmouse crept down his throat while he lay sleeping under the hayrick, and to cure him he must be well beaten, in the name of the Trinity, with a stick cut from a tree, in the hollow of which a field-mouse lay hidden. And, after the beating, the mouse is struck by the same stick till it dies.


If any one suspected of the evil eye looks fixedly at you, say at once: "The curse be upon thine eye." The evil-eye influence is particularly strong at Beltaine (May Eve). And it is then advisable to sprinkle oatmeal on the cow's back, and to bleed the cattle and taste of the blood. In old times, the men and women were likewise bled, and their blood was sprinkled on the ground; but this practice has now died out, even in the western islands, though sacrifice through blood is always considered sacred and beneficial.

The blight on cattle comes from some individual whose glance has a natural malignant power. You may know such persons at once by their lowering brows and sunken eyes. Distrust them, they are evil. Persons of defective baptism are also dangerous, for the devil already claims them for his own.

To break the spell of the evil eye, drive the cattle at once to a holy well, and make them drink of the blessed water. But if in going they chance to look at a graveyard, the cure will not succeed. Prayers, also, must be recited while the cattle are drinking at the well, and through the prayer of faith the spell will be broken.


The popular superstitions of the Irish people seem to have remained unchanged from the earliest time to the present day. A writer who travelled in Ireland in 1690 — Lawrence Eochard, of Christ College, Cambridge — mentions several of the usages which none of the peasants would dare to transgress, that came under his observation.

"The people," he says, think it wrong to rub down or curry their horses, or to gather grass to feed them, upon Saturdays.

"They also esteem her wicked and a witch who asks for fire on May morning, and butter would only be given to a sick body, and then with a curse.

"If butter is stolen, they cut away some of the thatch from over the door and cast it into the fire, believing that so the butter will be restored.

"When going out in the morning, they are very careful who they meet first, for good luck, or ill luck, may come for the day in that manner to a man.

"Before sowing the corn, some salt is flung on the earth; and in the towns, when a magistrate first enters on his office, the wives and daughters, along the street, fling wheat and salt down on him and his followers."


He also notes the very simple diet of the people, and their temperance as to food.

"The Irish," he says, feed much upon herbs, watercresses, shamrocks, mushrooms, and roots.
They also take beef broth, and flesh, sometimes raw, from which they have pressed out the blood.

They do not care much for bread; but they give the corn to their horses, of whom they are very careful. They also bleed their kine, and as the blood stiffens to a jelly, they stew it with butter, and eat it with great relish, washing it down with huge draughts of usquebaugh."

Amongst the stimulants recommended by the later Irish physicians, we find saffron named as "the most excellent of tonics; "also aqua vitce and sugar, with bread soaked in it, that it may not harm the brain, is specially advised as an energetic strengthener of the organs of the body.


White frankincense beaten up with white wine is profitable for the brain and the stomach, and an excellent cordial may be made of one part gentian, and two parts centaury, bruised well together, and mixed with distilled water for a drink. But these things are for the learned and the aristocrats. The peasants still cling to their simple herbal cures and mystic charms, and the ancient usages of the old-world times.

To ascertain the result of a fever the people will take a black cock, split him open, and apply the halves, while still hot, to the soles of the feet.
Should they stick on, the patient will recover; but if the pieces fall to the ground, then death is certain.

If any feathers of wild fowl be in a bed the patient will not sleep, and his death will be disturbed and painful. The only help is to hang a horse-shoe on the bed, or to place the sick person's shoe face downward.


On St. Bridget's day a crop of peeled rushes is nailed to the door, and a mat of fresh hay is laid down for the Saint to kneel on, in case she comes to pray for any sick member of the family.

St. Bridget was very high -tempered and haughty in her ways. One day she came to attend mass at St. Mark's chapel, but found, when she arrived, that the ceremony was all over. Then she was angry, being accustomed to much reverence, and asked the Saint, indignantly, why he had not waited for her arrival, to which St. Mark answered: "For no man nor woman shall I delay the holy rites of the Church." Then Bridget grew more angry, and prayed that a lake might cover the Saint's court and chapel. And so it was, for the waters began to rise till the court, and chapel, and the Saint's cell were all submerged, and the great lake was formed as it now exists. But once every seven years, on St. Mark's day, the bells can be heard ringing in the lake, and the chant of the choristers; and of a summer's day, down deep in the water, can be plainly seen a heap of stones, and the people know that they are looking on the ruins of St. Mark's chapel, banned and doomed by the power of the holy Bridget.


The little gray Leprehaun has the secret of hidden gold, and by the power of a certain herb he can discover it and thus become master of unlimited wealth. But no one has ever yet obtained from the tricksy little sprite the name of the herb or the words of the charm which reveal the hidden treasure, only the Leprehaun has the knowledge.

There are also herbs of grace to be gathered on May morning which give wealth to him who knows the proper form of incantation; but if he reveals the mystery he dies. So the adepts keep the secret, being afraid of the doom. Yet the peasantry still make constant efforts to find the hidden gold, and many curious rites are practised by them to obtain a knowledge of the mystic herbs.


The most sacred trees in Ireland are the yew tree, the rowan, the hazel, and the willow. The hazel is the most effective against demon power and witchcraft. It was by the use of a hazel wand that St. Patrick drove out the serpents from Ireland, one only escaping, who plunged into the Great Lake at Killarney, and remains there to this day crying to be released. And with a hazel stick a person can draw a circle round himself, within which no evil thing can enter, fairy, or demon, or serpent, or evil spirit. But the stick must be cut on May morning, and before sunrise, to make it powerful.

The rowan tree is very sacred, and branches of it should be hung on May morning over the child's cradle, and over the churn and the door, to keep away evil spirits and evil hands. The blessed power of the hazel and the rowan is firmly believed in to the present day, and is still used as the best safeguard against witches ; for the Irish, like their Persian ancestors, are fervent tree-worshippers, and no tree is considered malignant in its influence.

The willow is thought to have a soul in it which speaks in music; for this reason the Irish harps were generally made of the wood. Brian Borohm's ancient harp, still in existence, is made of the willow tree.

Whoever has the four-leaved shamrock has good luck in all things. He cannot be cheated in a bargain, nor deceived, and whatever he undertakes will prosper. It enlightens the brain, and makes one see and know the truth; and by its aid wondrous things can be done. So the people say: "Whoever has the four-leaved shamrock can work miracles."
But it must never be shown to man nor mortal, or the power would exist no more.


It is very dangerous and unlucky to cut down an ancient tree made sacred by the memory of a saint.
One cold, winter's day, during the hungry times, a farmer was tempted to cut down a few branches of a huge alder that shadowed the ancient well of St. Moling; when, on looking back, he saw his house in flames. Immediately he rushed to the spot, but, on reaching home, found that all was safe and no flames were visible. So he returned to his work of cutting off the branches, when again the red flames rose high over his cottage, and again he hastened to the spot to extinguish the fire; but with the same result, all was safe at his home.
So, determined not to be disappointed a third time in getting the branches, he returned to the tree, and lopped off as much as he required from the sacred alder, and carried the bundle safe home; when, to his dismay, he found that the cottage was burned to the ground, and he was left without a roof over his head.


Great virtue is attributed to the briar, especially in cases of a sprain, or dislocation; the species bearing a reddish flower being the best for use. A strong twig of this is taken, about a yard long, and split evenly from end to end. The pieces are then held by two men with clean hands, about three feet apart — the mystery-man pronouncing an incantation, and waving his hands over them until the twigs seem endowed with life, and rise up and approach each other till they touch; then a piece is cut off at the point of contact, and bound firmly over the sprain, the mystery-man all the time never ceasing his incantations, nor the waving of his hands. The ligature is left on for three days, after which time the sprain is found to be perfectly cured; but the power of the split sticks is entirely neutralised, should either of the men holding them be illegitimate.

The buds of the briar are used in spring to make a refreshing drink for the sick, and the roots in winter. The roots are boiled for twelve hours in an earthen vessel, then a small cupful of the liquid is administered frequently to the patient, who, after some time, falls into a deep sleep from which he will awake perfectly cured.


Everything in nature, above and around them, exercises a mysterious influence over the Irish mind, and is connected, the people believe, with their fortune and destiny, either for good or evil.
Trees are venerated and held to be sacred and beneficial; but, strange to say, birds are not trusted, as if some malign spirit were in them. They come and go, according to the popular belief, with significant messages from the unseen world of good or bad omen, but generally with warning and prophecies of doom. The water-wagtail is particularly disliked, for it has strange mystical powers, and its presence always forebodes something fatal.

A gentleman in the County Cork happened to be suffering from an attack of fever; but no danger was apprehended until one morning early, when a water-wagtail came to the window and tapped furiously at the glass with his bill, as if trying to break the glass and enter the room. For three mornings this was repeated, by which time the sick man's nerves were so completely shaken that he gave himself up for lost, and in four days he was dead. But, to the surprise and terror of the family, the bird still continued to come each morning and strike the window as before. Then, the wife, who was kneeling by her husband's coffin in prayer, rose up and said: "Behold! the spirit of doom has come for another of the family; one death is not enough: let us watch and pray." And the evil came as foretold, for when returning from his father's funeral, the eldest son was thrown violently from the carriage, the horses having taken fright in some unaccountable manner, and the young man was carried home dead to his unhappy mother.

The robin redbreast is the only bird looked upon with favour and veneration by the peasantry; for they believe that he once hid the Lord Jesus from his enemies, by covering Him with moss, but the water-wagtail plucked away the moss and so discovered our Lord to the Jews; for which act the bird has even been considered unholy and un- lucky, while the robin is held sacred, and no one would dare to injure it.

When a raven is seen hovering round a cottage, evil is near, and a death may follow, or some great disaster; therefore to turn away ill luck, say at once: " May fire and water be in you, bird of evil, and may the curse of God be on your head for ever and ever."

If any one is sick in the house, and the cock, crows with his head to the fire, recovery may be expected; but if he crows with his head to the door, then death is certain.

If a hen crows on the roost it is a sign that the fairies have struck it, and the head of the hen must be immediately cut off and flung on the ground, or one of the family will surely die before the year is out.

Never disturb the swallows, wherever they may build, and neither remove nor destroy their nests; for they are wise birds, and will mark your conduct either for punishment or favour.

The first time you hear the cuckoo, look down at your feet; if a hair is lying there you will live to comb your own gray locks at a good old age.
There is an old rhyme respecting this bird:

If a cuckoo sits on a bare thorn,
You may sell your cow and buy corn;
But if she sits on a green bough,
You may sell your corn and buy a cow.


When a person is dying, twelve rush-lights are lighted and stuck in a bowl of meal, and left burning till the death takes place; then the candles are extinguished, and the meal is given to the first pauper who passes the door. The corners of the sheet, also, that wrapped the corpse, are carefully cut off and laid by as charms for disease.
The pins, likewise, used in laying out the dead, are preserved reverentially, for they have great power as mystic charms ever after.

Amongst fatal signs, the most fatal is to break a looking-glass, for then it is certain that some one in the house will die before the year is out. And there is no mode of averting the evil fate. This superstition still holds its power over the people; indeed, amongst all classes to the present day the omen is looked upon with dread, and a firm belief in its fatal significance.

To break the spell of witchcraft, it is good to eat of barley cakes over which the exorcist has said an
incantation. But the patient must eat of them only on Mondays and Thursdays, and the Monday following; never on a Friday.

On Twelfth night the people make a cake of yellow clay taken from a churchyard, then stick twelve bits of candle in it, and recite their prayers, kneeling round, until all the lights have burned down. A name is given to each light, and the first that goes out betokens death to the person whose name it bears, before the year is out.

On Candlemas night the same trick is practised; twelve lighted candles are named after the family, the first whose light burns out, dies first; and so on to the last, who will be the survivor of all.

On Ash Wednesday, every one is marked on the forehead with the blessed ashes, and the black mark is retained carefully through the day, the priest himself having touched the brow with his finger. Also, a coal is brought from the priest's house to kindle the fire, for the consecrated coal brings good fortune to the house and the inmates.

It is good to cut the hair at the new moon, and by the light of the moon itself; but never should the hair be cut on a Friday, for it is the most unlucky day of all the year, and no one should begin a journey, or move into a new house, or  commence business, or cut out a new dress on a Friday; and, above all, never bring a cat from, one house to another on a Friday.

The creation of Adam, the Fall, the expulsion from Eden, and the death of Christ, all took place on a Friday; hence its evil repute and fatal influence, above all other days of the week, upon human actions. But the fairies have great power on that day, and mortals should stay at home after sunset, for the fairies always hold their revels upon Fridays, and resent being interfered with or troubled by the human presence.

It is unlucky to meet a red-haired man or woman "the first thing in the morning; but a freckled, red-haired woman is particularly dangerous. Should she be in your path on first going out, turn back at once, for danger is in the way. Some say that Judas Iscariot had red hair, hence the tradition of its evil augury.

It is unlucky to offer your left hand in salutation, for there is an old saying: "A curse with the left hand to those we hate, but the right hand to those we honour."

It is unlucky to sit down thirteen to dinner, for one of the party will certainly die before the year is out. This is a most wide-spread superstition, and extends to all classes from the highest to the lowest. It probably originated from the fact that Judas was the thirteenth at the Last Supper, and the evil was in his heart as he sat at meat.

There are some days in the week considered unpropitious by the people for certain work or projects. Thus, no one should undertake any business of importance on Wednesdays or Fridays, nor set out on a journey, nor get married; and should the ancient superstition he disregarded, evil will fall on the sinner, and whether it comes from heaven or hell, come it will, so the peasants believe, for the fairies are out on those nights, and have their revels and dances, and no mortal should trouble them. But the fairies never have three parties in the week, for that is the number of the Trinity, and is sacred and holy; so they leave the other days free to men. There is a popular rhyme concerning days and children:

Monday's child fair in the face,
Tuesday's child fair of grace,
Wednesday's child lone and sad,
Thursday's child merry and glad,
Friday's child must work for a living,
Saturday's child is Godly given, but
Sunday's child will go straight to heaven.


In old times it was thought right and proper to have separate burying-grounds for the different classes. There was one for aged strangers, another for infants who died unbaptized, for they could not be admitted into consecrated ground. Suicides were buried separately, in a place called, "The Wounded Man's Grave." Women who died in child-birth had also a special burial-ground, and the men were buried alone. In the County Tyrone there is a male burying-ground, and if a woman enters it and stands upon a grave, she will assuredly die before the year is out. Consequently, no living woman will pass the gate, only the dead men. The dead are very strict as to form and usage, and would all rise up from their graves if one, not of their class, were laid amongst them.
Also, if anything lies heavy on the conscience of a dead man, he will appear to his people and give them no rest till the disturbing cause is removed.
A very respectable aged man having died near Dunmore Castle some few years ago, his brother buried him with all honour in the graveyard near by; but the corpse would not rest quiet. At night, and in lonely places, the ghost would appear and fix his dead eyes on the brother, but say no word, and look so mournful, that the poor man had no joy in life and knew not what to do. Then he consulted the priest at last, and his reverence gave him some holy water blessed and consecrated by himself with special prayers, and told him to take the flask with him at night to the place where he usually met the ghost, and question him as to the cause of his disquiet. So the man went as desired, and drew a circle round himself as he stood, and poured the holy water all over the place. And at twelve o'clock exactly the ghost appeared; and when he got within the circle the man felt brave enough to speak, for he knew he was protected by the holy water. So he asked the ghost: "Why have you left the grave to trouble me? "Then the ghost told him that only one thing prevented him getting to heaven, and he would never have rest unless this sin were removed from him, for the thread that sewed his grave-clothes was stolen thread, and the angels wouldn't touch him while it was there, so he had to wander about, and had no place of rest either on earth or in heaven, and he bade the brother go to the grave and rip the clothes, and take away all the thread and burn it, and get a mass said for the repose of his soul, after which he would have rest. And all this the brother did, even as he was desired, and the ghost was seen no more.
A corpse must not be touched by any hand, nor keened over, until two hours at least have passed after death, for the soul must be given time to settle quietly in its new place of rest; and the voice of the mourners might quicken the dead into a brief return to temporal life, when the pangs of a second death would be greater even than those of the first. The body is then washed with soap and water, and dried with a liuen cloth; and the use being over, the water is spilled, and the cloth buried in a hidden place in the earth, where no foot will tread and no eye will behold them till a twelvemonth has passed by; for if any person stood upon the ground where the water was spilled; he would be fated to wander about the fields all  night, not knowing where to find his house till the cock-crow in the early morn.

Ancient Cures, Charms and Usages of Ireland

Main Library