Ireland is a land of superstitions. Take it from me. I grew up surrounded by these superstitions. Pheasant feathers or lilac were never to be brought into my granny’s house.
God forbid a robin landed on a window sill and flew indoors – he bore the news of imminent death. When visiting a house for the first time, we had to leave by the same door we entered. I could go on and on.
Although most Irish people today probably don’t believe in many of these superstitions, our Irish psyche holds a healthy respect for them. Abiding by the rules of ancient Irish life comes naturally to many of us. We adhere to an unwritten mythical code out of pure habit, automatically reenacting behavioral patterns learned in our childhood years.
As I thought about Irish superstitions I was taught as a child I asked myself an inevitable question:
Why are the Irish so superstitious?
In today’s post I hope to explore some of the reasons why I believe the Irish seem to be consumed by irrational fears and beliefs. Listing all of our crazy superstitions is a job for another day, and probably fodder for a whole collection of blog posts, so instead let’s try to focus on the great big why surrounding Celtic faith in the supernatural.
What is a superstition?
Superstitions are beliefs based on myth, magic, or irrational thoughts, that are not based upon reason and knowledge. Superstitions are intrinsically tied to traditional folklore, and let’s face it, Ireland is a country steeped in legends and myths with a vast array of characters from faeries to changelings, to wily leprechauns.
The origins of superstitions:
The exact origins of many old superstitions may never by known, but they do appear to be an odd mixture of paganism, Christianity, and folklore, and deeply influenced by social history.
Human nature is such that we always search for a cause for things we cannot understand. That desire to figure things out is the root of all scientific progress, but on our journey in search of answers, many wrong conclusions have been reached.
When searching for a reason for things beyond their comprehension our ancestors explained situations as best they could, albeit their answers were steeped in mythical origins. The wrong answer was deemed better, than no answer at all.
Coincidence or a greater force at work?
Sometimes unhappy coincidences reoccurred frequently enough for a blind link to be acknowledged, and a superstition to become enshrined in the general belief system of a community.
Irish superstitions are ultimately concerned with addressing the helplessness of the human condition. In times of trouble, and there were plenty such times for the Irish in centuries past, our ancestors turned to old superstitions which may or may not have helped them at all.
This blind faith in haphazard cures and beliefs probably brought comfort and hope to those who felt helpless. Whether the warding off of ill luck was real or imagined, at least reassurance lay in attempting to control these evils.
Enduring legacy of superstitions from the time of the druids:
Ireland remained under the influence of Druidic teachings far longer than any other European nation. This can be attributed to the island’s remoteness on the western edge of the continent, and its freedom from Roman conquest. When early missionaries converted the Irish to Christianity they did so with minimal conflict, adopting a creed of tolerance for the old way of life.
No persecutions are recorded. Rather than destroying sites of ancient worship, the new church transformed them into shrines of prayer and centers of worship by associating them with a saint. This policy of tolerance for old Druidic superstitions may account for their survival.
The Irish have clung to the ancient customs of their forefathers for thousands of years. An enduring belief in a fairy race may be traced back to the time of the druids.
The Penal Laws:
The Penal Laws were statutes passed by the English parliament to penalize the Irish for their Catholicism. First written in 1695, the Irish suffered their consequences for more than 100 years.
A number of these laws excluded Catholics from working in any field of scientific study, thereby limiting our ability to rationalize some of these old beliefs. Irish Catholic children were forbidden to attend school.
Scholars and poets taught young Irish people in clandestine hedgerow schools, with curricular emphasis placed upon passing the legends and myths of ancient Celtic culture to the next generation. Irish belief in the supernatural was thereby strengthened.
The Penal Laws were enacted because Catholics were deemed to be superstitious and idolatrous by their Anglican rulers. I believe the Irish solidified their superstitious practices out of pure stubbornness, and in direct defiance of the laws designed to curtail them. If you tell an Irishman he cannot do something, then rest assured he will die doing it.
Are the Irish more superstitious than other cultures?
William Butler Yeats, the most famous of all Irish poets, recognized that the Irish were more superstitious than other races. He wrote:
“…. for everyone is a visionary, if you scratch him deep enough.
But the Celt, unlike any other, is a visionary without scratching.”
He also observed the peculiar, contradictory belief system of an old woman he met in the west of Ireland.
“One woman told me last Christmas that
she did not believe either in hell or in ghosts.
Hell she thought was merely an invention
got up by the priest to keep people good;
and ghosts would not be permitted, she held,
to go ‘trapsin about the earth’ at their own free will;
‘but there are faeries,’ she added,
‘and little leprechauns, and water-horses, and fallen angels.'”
– W. B. Yeats
Why do superstitions live on?
In light of all the scientific evidence that exists today to debunk these superstitions, why do old Irish superstitions live on? I don’t think there is a person alive with a drop of Celtic blood who can categorically deny they harbor an innate respect for some old wive’s tale. Well, perhaps we don’t truly believe in all those omens of bad luck, but at the same time we wouldn’t dare change the original name of a boat, nor move house on a Saturday.
I think this adherence to an old superstitious code comes from a reverence for the past. We recognize that these old beliefs have been handed down to us from many generations that have gone before us. By sticking to their old code of mythical behavior, we acknowledge their legacy, and let the spirits know we understand the influences that helped shape their lives.
Because God between us and all harm, who knows what might happen if we blatantly went around the place ignoring flocks of magpies desperately trying to let us know if any luck might be in store for us.
Slán agus beannacht!
(Goodbye and blessings)
Irish American Mom