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Whitsuntide in old Ireland
by Bridget Haggerty

In contrast to Easter Sunday, which was considered a very lucky day, Whit Sunday was quite the opposite. All precautions were taken against accident or ill-fortune and very few people would set out on a journey or risk doing anything dangerous - particularly if it involved water.

Water was completely avoided, for it was thought that the danger of drowning was very great. People didn't bathe or go swimming; the fishing and sailing boats were left idle; and it was considered very foolish to even walk along the edge of the sea, river or lake. The reason for this was based on an old superstition that all of those who had perished in that water rose up on Whit Sunday to try and persuade or force the living to join them. If that gives you goose bumps, it gets even grimmer.

It was widely believed that any animal or human born at Whitsuntide would die a violent death or cause the death of another. However, there was a simple way to avoid this fate and that was to have the infant creature kill something. Most often, a live insect was put into a baby's hand and the little fingers squeezed on it until the insect was dead. Having caused a death, the child was freed from the spell. A baby animal was made to perform the same ritual so that it too, would be saved from the ill-fortune of being born on this day. Counter charms such as this one were very common in old Ireland and were often used to protect against an evil influence.

For example, it was believed that people, especially children, who were suffering from an illness were more likely to die at this time of year than at others. In some parts of Ireland, a green sod was laid on the head of the afflicted person in hopes that the mimicry of a burial might prevent an untimely death.

While Whit Sunday was rather somber and depressing, Whit Monday was a favorite day for honoring a patron saint, devotions at holy wells and enjoying the festivities at a local fair. That was until 1829, when it ceased to be a Holy day of Obligation for Catholics. Since then, most of the activities associated with Whit Monday have died out.

What does linger on around Whitsuntide, however, is that niggling anxiety about the old superstitions; so, this writer won't be taking any chances. Living in a land-locked city makes it easy enough to avoid walks on the beach; we're a fair distance from the nearest river or lake, and we took our showers last night. No births are imminent, so we're safe there, and we ran all of our errands yesterday, so there's no need to venture out on any journeys. What we'll probably do is spend a leisurely Sunday morning puttering in the yard, enjoy a pub-style lunch, and then take a nice long nap. Afterwards, we'll become couch potatoes. For this daughter of the ould sod, that sounds very appropriate and, God willing, we'll survive the evil influences of the day. We wish for you the same!


 

Fri, Nov 3, 2017

The Round Towers

The Round Towers of Ireland are remarkable among the world's ancient monuments; one author has called them 'Elegant, free-standing pencils of stone.' Today, 65 survive in part or whole. Hand-crafted in native stone and cemented with a sand, lime, horsehair and oxblood mortar - a technique imported from Roman Britain - it's said by many historians that they were built by monastic communities to thwart Viking invaders. And yet, there's reason to believe that the towers were built long before Christianity came to Ireland. Whatever their origins, monasteries did indeed flourish where the round towers existed. And why not. These imposing edifices provided a watch tower, a keep and a refuge.
Image: By kind permission of Stephen Cassidy, The Cassidy Clan.


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