Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal; Sketches of Superstitions, Saturday, March 13, 1841, pp.63-64.

[Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal Contents]



   IRELAND has long teemed with superstitions of the wildest and most imaginative cast. Indeed, up to the present day, civilisation has been more ineffective in rooting them out from that country than from any other that can pretend to a place among the de-barbarised regions of the earth. In the western and south-western provinces of the island, in particular, the people still cling tenaciously to the superstitions of their forefathers; and of this fact not only the narrative of tourists, but the records of justiciary courts, afford many recent proofs. Deaths are yet not unfrequently occasioned by children being dipped in rivers and sainted wells to cure them of being fairy-stricken; and young women labouring under severe puerperal illness are often allowed to perish from inattention, because their friends regard them as changelings, the real parties being carried off, according to the general belief, to serve as nurses to infant fairies. Ireland being still in this condition, it is obvious that the inquirer into the superstitions of that island must enjoy a great advantage over those who but rake up the ashes, as it were, of similar follies, in places where they have been long extinct. Mr T. Crofton Croker has indeed shown this to be the case, most convincingly, in his three entertaining volumes on the “Fairy Legends and Traditions” of his native land. To this work, the most ample existing repertory of knowledge on the subject, and to the essay by Dr Grimm of Gottingen, printed along with it, we are happy to acknowledge large obligations in drawing up the following account of the superstitions of Ireland. 

   In addition to that ubiquitous supernatural race, entitled good people, elves, or fairies, to whom the same characters of diminutive stature, beauty of person, social habits, and mixed qualities of disposition, are every where ascribed, the Irish have long put faith in the existence of various other supernatural tribes, of which traces are to be found in different countries, but which have characters peculiarly well-marked in the Green Isle. The most prominent of these spirits are the cluricaune, the banshee, the phooka, the merrow, the dullahan, and the fir-darrig. Before the strange habits ascribed to these imaginary beings are adverted to, it may be observed regarding the elves, that the Irish, like most other nations, believe in the existence of two kinds, good and evil. The good elf or fairy is called shefro, she or shighe being the root of the term, as is partly shown by the word ban-she. Even the shefros have dark shades in their character; as, though they sometimes confer benefits on mortals, they steal children and nursing-women, and all their beauty and the splendour of their dwellings are regarded as illusory, they being really old and ugly, and their palaces hovels. But the worse species of elf, styled in Irish the leprechan, is all evil together – in short, a malicious demon. Ireland is rife with stories of the mischiefs brought by the leprechan on poor men, their crops, cattle, and families. 

   The cluricaune, unlike the elf, is altogether a solitary being. he presents, when seen, the comical appearance of a little old man, with a pea-green coat adorned by large buttons, broad shoe-buckles, and a cocked hat of the old French cut. He is perpetually found smoking and drinking, and his favourite resting position is on the top of a cask in some well-filled cellar. He seldom exhibits himself wilfully, but is sometimes caught unexpectedly by the eyes of mortals, and on such occasions, people who are knowing in these matters endeavour to seize him, for he has properties which make him a most valuable servant. The cluricaune has a purse about him, containing one shilling, and if any one can get hold of that purse and coin, he gets a treasure indeed; for, when paid away, the shilling always returns to the purse. But the cluricaune is commonly too old, or too tricky, for his captors. He carries about with him a double of the magic purse, and when people think they have the real shilling, behold they have only a current coin of the realm, which, goodness knows, is very unapt to return if once sent away! Then the tricksy spirit will strive to make his captor turn his head to look at something or other; and if this is once done, by the laws of cluricaune existence, the spirit can make himself invisible, and nothing will be heard more of him, but his mocking laugh of triumph at his escape. Again, if he is compelled to point out where treasures lie, he urges his mortal captor to mark the place with a stone, or some such thing. If this be done, the vainly triumphing mortal, when he returns with his spade to the place, will find a dozen marks instead of one, and will again get nothing for his pains but the pleasure of hearing the mocking “ha! ha!” of the cluricaune. 

   Though a valuable servant, if rightly managed, the cluricaune is a very bad master. Like the nis of Germany, he sometimes attaches himself to a particular family, and domineers over them in the most intolerable way, being ejectible neither by bell, book, nor candle, coaxing, nor abuse. In some of the former sketches upon this subject, it was mentioned that an Irish gentleman, who was troubled with a familiar, thought to get rid of it by removal to another house, but was shocked, on the morning of the flitting, to hear a voice exclaim from the bung-hole of a cask, on one of the loaded carts, “Here we go, master! here we go – all together!” “What! are you there too? then we may as well stay where we are. Unpack the carts.” The cluricaune was the familiar spirit who had the honour to figure on this occasion, as he has done on many similar ones, according to the creed of Ireland. 

   The banshee is also a spirit which attaches itself to particular families, but is of a very different character from the cluricaune. The banshee is not a spirit of fun and trickery, but of gloom and death. Bean-shighe, signifying she-fairy, is understood to be the uncorrupted form of the term. This spirit attends on some particular house, always ancient and illustrious, and, whenever any of its members are “sick unto death,” sends forth mournful shrieks of warning under the windows. The Highland family of Maclean of Lochbuy is one of the few Scottish houses, believed (once at least) to have such attendant spectres. In Ireland the Butler, O’Brien, Kearney, Rice, and Hussey families are among those haunted in a similar way; and Miss Lefanu, a niece of R. Brinsley Sheridan, tells in her Memoirs of Mrs Frances Sheridan, published in 1824, that the lady’s death in France, as some of the family living in Ireland declared, was indicated to them there by the banshee of the Sheridans. They were very angry when some sceptic hinted, that, Mrs Frances Sheridan being a Chamberlayne by birth, the banshee, which never wails but for blood-relations, had made a mistake in this case. 

   The banshee is commonly held either to be the spirit of some unfortunate ancestress, or of some person, who, like the Bodach Glas of the MacIvors (a sort of male banshee), had been misused by an ancestor, and stuck to the family, in a spirit of revenge, to triumph over them in their hour of distress. Though it may be thought scarcely worth while to examine into this superstition in a spirit of serious and expository inquiry, yet one remarkable banshee case affords such an excellent opportunity for doing so, and is besides in itself so curious, that we shall relat4e and make some observations on it here. Lady Fanshawe, a woman of unimpeachable veracity, was the original narrator of it, in a passage of her memoirs of her husband, describing her stay with him in Ireland. She relates that she and her husband, describing her stay with him in Ireland. She relates that she and her husband went to pay a visit to Lady Honor O’Brien, an unmarried lady who did not enjoy the best character in the world. “There,” she says, “we stayed three nights. On the first of these nights I received a great surprise in my chamber, when, about one o’clock, I heard a voice that wakened me. I drew the curtain, and in the casement of the window I saw, by the light of the moon, a woman leaning into the window, through the casement, in white, with red hair, and pale and ghastly complexion. She spoke loud, and in a tone I had never heard, thrice, ‘A horse!’ and then, with a sigh more like the wind than breath, she vanished, and to me her body looked more like a thick cloud than substance. I was so much frightened, that my hair stood on end, and my night-clothes fell off. I pulled and pinched your father (Sir R. Fanshawe), who never woke during the disorder I was in; but at last was much surprised to see me in this fright, and more so when I related the story, and showed him the window opened.” “In the morning (continued Lady Fanshawe) about five o’clock, the lady of the house came to see us, saying she had not been in bed all night, because a cousin O’Brien of hers, whose ancestors had owned that house, has desired her to stay with him in his chamber, and that he died at two o’clock; and she said, ‘I wish you to have had no disturbances, for ‘tis the custom of the place, that when any of the family are dying, the shape of a woman appears in the window every night till they be dead. This woman was many ages ago deceived by the owner of this place, who murdered her in his garden, and flung her into the river under the window; but truly I thought not of it when I lodged you here, it being the best room in the house.’ We made but little reply to her speech, but disposed ourselves to be gone suddenly.” In this case – one much rested on by believers, on account of the narrator’s good sense and high character – the marks of deception seem to us palpable as the light of day. The opened window might in itself settle all doubt, for true spirits find highways in key-holes, and despise the opposition of glass panes. Then the Lady Honoria’s equivocal reputation must not be forgotten; and it is to be observed that it was she herself who came, by daylight, to “wish they had had no disturbance,” and to tell them of the banshee and the “dying cousin.” We have only her word for there being any such dying cousin; but, however this may be, beyond a doubt Lady Honoria was mystifying her guests. If a reason is sought, it might be found, perhaps, simply in her romping character; and she might also have a fancy to quiz a woman who had the advantage of her in sense and virtue; or she might be keeping up the honour of the O’Briens, and the O’Brien banshee. But the open window is the strong point. We may conclude by observing that it surprises us to find these proofs of deception passed over by Sir Walter Scott and all who have noticed the case. Mr Croker explains it lamely, by speaking of the “turbulent times” and “lively imagination” of Lady Fanshawe. Every word and act of hers proves that she had a sound, clear, and unexcitable head. 

   The phooka is perhaps the most characteristic and truly national of all the Irish spirits, and one of the best defined in its habits and main features. Not that we can procure any precise idea of what the phooka is in point of personal formation, for it is sometimes a horse and sometimes an eagle; but its doings are always the same. It is an evil spirit, resembling the Tartar steed of Mazeppa – a creature which whirls the person who falls into its power, through the air, over bogs and precipices, at the wildest speed. In short, the phooka is the spirit of the mountain stills of Ireland. Its victims are sufferers from the nightmare of intoxication. This explanation of the phooka superstition is certainly the correct one, and so any body may be assured on looking at the famous story of Daniel O’Rourke, who fell asleep under the castle walls of Carrig-a-phooka, and whom the phooka, in the shape of an eagle, carried up to the moon. Well does Mr Croker know the true source of the phooka’s bewitchments, though indeed many other superstitious imaginings may not unreasonably be assigned, in part at least, to the same cause. This individual spirit, however, is certainly the especial spirit of the worm. Morty Sullivan, Mr Croker tells us, once set out upon a journey, and towards night fell in with a strange, red-eyed old woman, who asked his name. “Morty Sullivan, at your service,” said the boy, meaning the last words only in civility. The old woman, however, read them otherwise, and took him at his word. Hurrying Morty onwards for a bit, she at last showed him a jet-black horse. “Mount, Morty, mount!” said she, and, without more ado, pitched him on to the back of the steed, which bounded off like the wind, “now springing down a fearful precipice, now clearing the rugged bed of a torrent, and rushing like the dark midnight storm through the mountains.” Morty Sullivan was found next morning at the foot of a rock, sorely bruised, and he is said to have sworn on the spot, by the hand of O’Sullivan (and that is no small oath), never again to take a full quart bottle of whisky with him again on a pilgrimage.” Thus archly does Mr Croker indicate his notions of the superstition under consideration. Father Mathew will assuredly banish the phooka from the emerald of the deep. 

   The merrow of the Irish is, as regard the meaning of the term, precisely the English mermaid, morúach being a compound of muir the sea, and oigh a maid. Yet the merrows of Ireland approximate more to the ideas entertained by the Shetlanders regarding the seal than to the common notions of mermaids, as half-human, half-piscine beings. The people of the far north imagine the seal to put off its skin every ninth night, and to appear then in a form completely human; and they further say, that fishermen have sometimes caught females without the seal-skin, and have taken them home as housewives. Some such notions have the Irish of the shape of the merrow, though it does not appear that they conceive it to be transformed, but merely to be a being, in a human shape, capable of living in the deep; only so, however, when in possession of a cohuleen driuth, or little enchanted diving-cap. Mr Croker gives an entertaining little legend, illustrative of this subject, which we shall repeat, slightly abridged, for the amusement of our readers. 

   Dick Fitzgerald was sitting one morning by the side of the sea, smoking his pipe, quite lonesome, and thinking to himself that a man without a wife was, after all, like a bottle without a drop of drink in it, or the left leg of a pair of scissors, or any thing not complete; when lo! he saw a beautiful young creature, combing her long sea-green hair, upon the ocean-sands. Beside her lay a little cap, the cohuleen-driuth. Dick knew what was what, and seized the cap, knowing that he was then sure of her. When the merrow saw this, she fell a-crying, and very salt, no doubt, were the tears she shed. “Don’t cry, my darling,” said Dick; but, as she cried the more, he thought she did not comprehend him, and tried the universal language, which all women, fish or no fish, understand. He took and squeezed her hand, which was a very pretty hand, only a little webbed between the fingers. The merrow was wonderfully pacified, and ceased whining at once. But she had yet doubts. “Man,” said she, looking up in Dick’s face, “man,” says she, “will you eat me?” “By all the check aprons between Dingle and Tralee,” cried Dick, amazed, “I’d as soon eat myself! Ah! some ugly thief of a fish put that in your head.” “Man,” says the merrow again, “what will you do with me, if you won’t eat me?” The neat way she called him “man” settled the matter entirely. “Fish,” returned he, trying to speak short like her, “fish, here’s my word for you, this blessed morning, that I’ll make you Mrs Fitzgerald, before all the world.” “Never say the word twice,” says the merrow; “I’m yours, Mister Fitzgerald. Just stop till I twist up my hair.” So she put her hair in order, which was all right, as she knew she was going among strangers; and then she was ready. But first she stopped down, and whispered some words close to the sea. “I’m just sending word to my father,” said she to Dick, “not to be waiting breakfast for me.” “Who’s your father?” said Dick. “Why, he’s the king of the waves, to be sure.” “A king’s daughter? Oh! I’m nothing else but a made man. There’s plenty of money in the sea, and, to speak truth, I have nothing but a straw bed at home. But, perhaps, you’ve got no such things as beds with you?” “By all means,” said the merrow; “plenty of beds, Mister Fitzgerald. I’ve fourteen oyster-beds of my own.” “You have?” said Dick, scratching his head; “clearly yours is the very cut of a plan, to have bed and supper so handy!” 

   However, bed or no bed, Dick went off with the merrow to the priest; but his reverence demurred. “Is it a fishy woman you’d marry?” “Please your reverence,” said Dick, in an under tone, “she is as mild and as beautiful as the moon!” This argument had no effect; but at last Dick said, “She has all the gold in the sea for the asking. I can make it worth any one’s while to do the job.” Oh! that alters the case,” said the priest, and so he at once made the merrow Mrs Fitzgerald. After this, Dick and his fishy wife lived very happily, and had two or three children; till one day, when Dick was from home, the merrow fell to cleaning the house, and found her little cohuleen driuth in a corner, where it had been hidden. She no sooner saw it, than she was seized with a longing to visit her relations. Down she went into the sea, intending to come back soon, but her people, seemingly, would not let her return. A sorry man was Dick Fitzgerald when he came home, and heard from the children what had happened. During his whole life afterwards, he still looked for her. “Surely (said he) she would not leave her husband and children of herself.” She never came back, however, although she had been so good a wife, that her memory is still preserved in the country, under the title of the “Lady of Gollerus.” 

   The residue of this subject, an entertaining one we hope, must lie over to a future number.

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