Superstitions & Customs

FAIRIES, BANSHEES AND GHOSTS: The ‘Skeagh’ or Fairy Thorn

I think years ago the older people did believe in fairies, you know, they did believe in them. Even here, now, in the Glen, you’ll see in fields where the fairy thorns are still there and they wouldn’t touch them. They do believe in it because it was handed down from their forefathers, you know, before them. (Margaret O’Boyle)
An Ideal Place For Fairies To Dance

You daren’t take a bit of a skeagh bush in to the house, at all. No, it was deadly. There’s a beautiful big skeagh bush up beside McNaughton’s farm, at my grandfather’s, where I was reared, and it’s in a circle, you know. If ever there was a place for fairies to dance around, it’s ideal. It’s a thorn, and it’s all covered with beautiful blossoms. Anyway, there was one branch, and it was great for swinging on, you know, it would ‘go with you’ a bit. I remember whenever my sister Mary died, as a child, my grandfather took wire, and he tied that branch up, and I was cautioned, on the peril of my life, I wasn’t to go near that bush. So anyway years passed, I never bothered, you know. There wouldn’t be much attraction, like, when you would get past a certain stage. You, sort of, had a dread of it anyway, and when the cows used to sometimes be in the garden, all of a sudden they would give a snort in the air, you would think they’d seen something, and then they’d gallop like mad from one end of the field to the other, but we could see nothing. Anyway then, och, I was grown up, and my grandfather, just only the week before he died here, had these sticks at the fire, you know, the open fire, and I’m looking and I said, “Where did you get those sticks out of?” Och, he just gave a laugh. I said, “Don’t tell me you took that off the skeagh?” “Och, what odds about it,” he says, you know, laughed. He died the next week, but. Like…he was just only, I suppose, convincing himself that superstition was wrong. Anyway that was that, and all his life he wouldn’t have touched it, and there he was. It was wee bits, just on to the fire, and you would know them for there was this ould grey chrotly growth on the stick you know. It was aged looking. It was funny for him even to carry the thing, you know. (Annie McKillop)

Fairy Music Fills The Air

Every so many years, there’s a thirteenth moon in the year. Do you know, on the night of the thirteenth full moon, you can hear the fairies playing their music? You can just hear it. It just seems to appear from nowhere in particular. It’s like that stereo sound. You just can’t pinpoint it at any one particular spot, but that music just seems to fill the air. (Francis McCaughan)
French Fairy Music in Glenariffe!

There was a big tree growing beside where we lived in Glenariffe and they always said that the fairies lived in it. This day there was a man, a sailor man, and he said, “I’ll put an end to the music.” And he went away to Cushendall and he got a mouth organ. He went up into the tree and played in the tree where the fairies were supposed to be. The next morning people heard this music, that was supposed to be the fairies, and it was this French fellow. People thought that it was the fairies but it wasn’t the fairies at all. (Sarah Gribben)
Keeping the Fairies Away

The ould people had some odd ideas. The night before May morning, they were supposed to put May flowers on the door and the fairies would carry them away; it was only for luck. That was to keep the fairies away. They said the Glens was full of fairies. I don’t know, I never seen them, but they were supposed to be dancing out in the fields we called ‘The Klack.’ (James Hunter)

There’d be wild bad luck over the head of it

Around the farm places, and round other old places, there was a big, big thorn bush. They were skeagh bushes that belonged to the fairies. Now there’s not a man in Ireland would have cut one of them down, because you would have had wild bad luck over the head of it, if you’d have touched it. Nobody ever cut them. There was lots of them in Carey up where I was. Now I can tell you this! We used to sit there and talk in the old road there on a summer’s evening, and there’s a great big skeagh bush at the side of that hill there. There’s a big mound of a place, and there’s three steps on it, and that was the fairies’ hill, and they lived there, and they would come out in the summer time, and they did a great bit of dancing, wee people, fairies and they had music, and danced away on a summer evening. I’ve never seen them, but you would hear the old, old people talk about them. They would come out and they would sing and shout and laugh. Och aye. Nobody would go near the fairy hill. (Jimmy Davidson)
There was one field they called ‘Hughie’s field’. There was a tree grew in the middle of it, that never was touched. It was supposed to be unlucky to touch it. (Margaret McGowan)
In my time there was certain thorn bushes, would have grew in isolated parts or fields, and they wouldn’t allow you to cut them. They called them the fairy bushes, oh aye. (John Duncan)
Run for your life and keep any good luck to yourself!

My Grandfather had to work hard when he was carting lime. At that time there was no such thing as horses or cars or motors or anything, there was nothing that run on wheels. He carted lime with a horse and cart, twice on the one day to Coleraine, from Ballintoy. There was one time that he was going down to Ballintoy, this time, very early in the morning, maybe he was only about 10 or 11, and there was a band of wee folk, walking over Craigabann, walking over the kilns. He says he left horse and cart and all and run for his life. It seems that was what you called ‘dames’, they were wee dames in the country at that time. He was frightened of them. They were playing a band and they were over the top of the kiln. So then there was another scene that he used to tell us about, at Limavar, Hunters of Limavar. There was wee folk there, and this wee woman came up, and she asked the woman of the house if she’d change the group of the byre, because her weans had the measles, and the pee was running down on their head. So they changed the group in the byre, and she came back then when her youngsters were better, and thanked them for it. And then there was another scene that my mother used to tell me. There was some old woman that went to a well every day, and there was a half crown left for her, but she was never to tell anybody that she got this half crown, and I suppose she couldn’t keep it to herself any longer, but she told somebody, and she never got another half crown. Some wee woman always come and left this half crown. So whether them things was true or not, I don’t know, but they told you all these things about the wee folk, but my Grandfather maintained that it was true, and he was a terrible good man. When Duncan’s quarry was working away, they come on this tunnel. Now this is true. It is there for you to see it, and it was built about this height up from the ground, all built of wee stones. The sides was built, and the roof was on, and a lot of people come to see it, you know. In olden times, it was the fairies’ tunnel. You could go in as far there, and if you had a candle, the candle went out. We were in a brave bit and then we come out. I hated going out at night when I was young. You were frightened. Did you ever hear the stories about the Halloweve night – that the wee folk rode the yellow benweeds in the field? Well we used to have a field of benweeds, and we used to be afraid to go down by this field. I never saw them but this was the talk. Then, you know, if you went through the moss, and maybe kicked up the moss, there would be sparks come from it, and I remember hearing about this fellow, who was going through the moss from somewhere, where he was playing cards. And, you know, it’s supposed to be, that the devil is after you when you play cards. He happened to kick up some of the moss, and these sparks flew, and he run for his life. He thought it was the devil. (Mary McCurdy)
Strange Happenings

A big lot of them believed in fairies, and they were things happened, even down in my life that, you know, you would nearly argue that they were fairies, but there was nothing to substantiate it, you know, but the people did believe in them things. (Agnes McCrory)
A Stolen Child

Aye they used to say there was a youngster stole, at a time, up the country. They got her in three days time, down in the park. She was just kept alive on water, in a wee tin. She had been away for three days. Oh, she would have been two or three. Oh, it would be over 100 years ago. It is only hearsay today. (Alex O’Boyle)
Feuding Fairies

A neighbour woman, she told us about a wee man that went in til her, a wee fairy, and he came in, and she gave him a bowl of milk and a soda farl, and he ate the thing very quick, swallowed it. Then he told her that he was going to the Margy Bridge, which was in Ballycastle, that was 18 or 20 mile, and he had only a minute to be there, and they were having a fight with the Scotch fairies. They were the Irish fairies. And she said, “How will we know if you won?” He said, “If we win there’d be good times in Ireland, and if we don’t, there’ll be bad times in it, and when we come back again, Ireland will be free.” Oh, it’s over 100 years ago. And it was bad times was in Ireland, you know. Whether it was genuine or not, she told me it. She was an ould woman, and I’m sure she wasn’t telling a lie. (Maggie Jane McNeilly)
Fairy Revenge?

The McNaughton side of the house was very superstitious about fairies and things like that. At the side of their house there was a skeagh bush, so there was. My mother would have believed, maybe, a bit in the fairies, you know, but she wouldn’t have believed much in people praying prayers on you, or anything like that, you know, because that wasn’t the way she looked at things, you know. She went about her own business, and nobody would do her any harm because she wasn’t doing any harm to anybody else. Over at home, where they lived, their cows was burnt, do you see, and it was supposed to be somebody burnt a bit of the skeagh bush, you know, and then the cows was burnt and things like that. There was supposed to be a woman, up this road, had seen fairies. There was supposed to be a fairy man went into her as she was baking bread. Now whether it was only an ould wife’s tale or not, I don’t know. (Francis Quinn)
An unbeliever

Well there was quite a lot of ghost stories told, down the Quay Road. There was ones used to say they saw lights there, and the fairies and all that type of thing, but I never saw anything. My father was always very much against superstition and the fairies. He’d listen to them, but that’s all. ( James Clarke)
The Banshee – “she calls for certain people”

Well there is a lot have heard the banshee alright. She calls for certain people, certain names. The O’s and the Mc’s she calls for. She’s not easy seen, but she can be heard, alright. (Alex O’Boyle)
Distance is no problem

Now we’d a cousin came home from New Zealand, and her sister died there, just about the beginning of December. She said she heard the banshee some whean of days ahead of that do, you see. Although she knowed the sister wasn’t well, when she was here last summer, she thought she was mending, you know. She heard the banshee, but she had a sister-in-law that was bad with cancer at the same time, and she understood it was her that was dying. That woman died on a Friday morning, and she said she phoned the family to New Zealand, for to let them all know. Whatever one she phoned, to let them all know, she said the daughter had phoned her, in the morning time, to hear how the Aunt Mary was, because she had heard the banshee. She told her that the Aunt was dead, you know. But that’s why she phoned. She heard the banshee too. So out in New Zealand they must talk more about the banshee than here now. I was out a lot at night, back and forward, and I never seen anything worse looking than myself. (Francis Quinn)
A funny sort of craking noise

I heard it one time after I was married, whenever I was building the cairn, before this old man that was in the cairn died. I heard the banshee that night. It was a funny sort of a noise, a craking noise, craking noise and then sometimes when you were out at night, you thought there was somebody after you. (Mary McCurdy)
A ‘Ban He’? “Wild For The Sound Of The River”

Well I’ll tell you all I know about the banshee. There was a wee, wee man about this size, and he would always roam along the edge of rivers at night, and this is true. They were wild for the sound of the river. If somebody was in the house, that wee old man and would cry and cry and cry, and maybe in a day or two the man or woman died. (Jimmy Davidson)
GHOST STORIES
Da, the Devil’s in the bed!

There was a man McAuley that lived up there, at the end of the road, in that house that’s derelict now. This man McAuley, his wife died, and left him with three daughters, and this man was very afraid in the dark, this is a true story. So he would go to the town, every Saturday night, to get his provisions. He would go down and he got the bus at the Glenshesk Road, down there. And whenever he came back home again, he always had to get the three daughters to come down to the end of the road to meet him with a light, to bring him up, because he was scared stiff in the dark. So this night, the three daughters went down to meet him, and there was one of the local men had an ould dog that died with mange. I dont know whether you know what mange is, but the hair comes off, very unpleasant looking, but anyway there was another local man up there and he was a bit of a rascal, you know. He seen the daughters going down to meet ould Mick from the bus, and he went out, and he got this ould dog that died, and he took it over and he put it into the bed, Mick’s bed. He put a night-cap on it, and lit a candle at the side of the bed, and then he lay at the back of the ditch to hear the craic whenever Mick and daughters came up home. Anyway they came up, within striking distance of the house, and seen the light on and Mick, he says to one of the daughters, “Did you leave a light on in the house?” She said, “No I didn’t.” So he says, “Go on you girls, on over, and see who’s in the house.” So they went over, and they looked in the window and seen this ould dog with the cap on it, and the candle. “Oh Da, the devil’s in the bed.” So then there was a whole furore started up, and they had to send for Paddy Laverty, he was the next nearest neighbour, to come to get the devil cast out. So Paddy, he done the exorcism in the house, and got Mick back in again. I can remember that story as well. I was only a wee boy at the time, and it was true. It actually happened. ( Francis McCaughan)
Ballinlig House

This is the small dining room. We cater for small groups in here. It is scary at times. I remember staying here … Brother Eugene spent a couple of years here on his own, when he retired. It had just been renovated, and we were kind of, in need of a presence here. We come up at weekends you know. One night, I was here on my own, and sometime in the early morning I heard the knock at the bedroom door. I hopped out, but there was nobody there. The following night I was also on my own and I could hear the footsteps up the stairs, and again I hopped out. It wasn’t pitch dark you know, obviously I had been dreaming. It was around the same time. It’s scary. It’s strange and I wouldn’t be a very brave person, you know, but I wasn’t afraid at the time, for some reason. (Brother Leopold)
A false alarm

I remember, coming in from the out-farm one night, and then I went over to the neighbour’s, for a ceilidh there. Near 11 o’clock at night I had to come up through the fields, very dark, but as I sort of knowed the run, it was okay. I was coming out over onto the road, over the fence, the field was below it, you know. It happened to be about six foot below the road. I climbed up on top of the ditch, and as I put my leg over the wire, this white thing was on the other side of the road. It scared me, but I had to go on. I walked on and I sort of looked round, it was just like a white sheet and when I got another look, I seen it moving, and it struck me what it was. It was a beast of our own that had come out onto the road. In them days, they were black and white ones, and I didn’t see the black bit on him. It could have been a red and white, but I seen the white bit. It did scare me, but that’s what it turned out to be. (John Duncan)
Turning the tables

Four boys in the Braid went up to an ould boy that lived, all by himself, up in Slemish, and they went up to scare him one night, and they said, “We’ll tell him ould fairy tales, you see. That’ll scare him, and he’ll not go to bed.” Four of them! They went up, and one boy told a big tall yarn, and the other boy told a big tall yarn to the ould boy, and they told him stories, to about five minutes to 12 o’clock at night, and when they had done, the boys were feared with telling their own stories. And the ould fella looked up, (and he called 12 o’clock ‘twall’ in the Braid, t-w-a-l-l, for twelve) and he says, “Boys, it’s five minutes to twall.” And he says to this boy, “William, will you go out to the byre, and open the door, and reach in round the corner, and you will get a three-toed grape and bring it in to me?” They started to laugh. William says, “What do you want with the three toed grape?” “Well,” he says, “the devil comes in here every night at 12 o’clock, and he comes in full of fire, and he fights me there on the floor, and the only thing the devil is feared of, is that three toed grape. Bring me it in quick, for it will only be three more minutes until he will be in here.” The boy didn’t bring in the grape. The four of them away and down the hill as hard as they could go. It was him scared them. (Davy George McCrory)
Premonitions

I took rheumatic fever when I was fifteen. Before that I was sleeping in a wee room on my own, and this morning, in broad daylight, there was something came over me but I couldn’t see it. There was something walked over me in the bed, roaring, and I was frightened to get out of bed, and I couldn’t speak, and I thought I could shout, “Ma,” but I couldn’t speak. After that I took rheumatic fever and I was terrible ill. I saw angels singing hymns … that happened to me. Then I used to have terrible dreams. and my mother she used to say, “I hate you telling them dreams.” I dreamt I saw my own funeral going down the lane, and the next day, or the next couple of days after that, there was a funeral went down the lane. It was an old woman that lived further up. (Margaret McGowan)
Disclaimers

We used to hear plenty about ghosts and fairies, and one thing and another, but I never seen nothing. You know fairies, ghosts, people that was dead appearing again, and people seeing … or, you know, like a wraith, you know. But I never saw nothing in my time anyway, you know. (Frank McCormick)
“The hair standing on your neck”

But I don’t think there is much to the old superstitions. It’s like seeing one magpie. You’d far rather see two magpies. And oh ghost stories! Oh they were hair-raising and they told these ghost stories round the fire, you see, and then you had to go upstairs. There was no lights. You had to go up in the dark to go to bed, and the hair standing on your neck, you know, getting banished up the stairs. (Annie McKillop)
Aye there used to be a man called Paddy McDonnell who lived farther over the road there, and he used to tell ghost stories. I think it wasn’t right, in a way, because it left you, when it came dark at all, you wouldn’t go outside the door. (Hugh McCormick)
SUPERSTITIONS AND CUSTOMS
New Year

Oh I heard of superstitions, yes. ‘The first footing’ that was one. Well, eh, you don’t want to be a ‘first footer’ into your own house. You wanted somebody else to be sure and come. They wanted a dark-haired person, for coming in and ‘first footing’ on New Year’s Day. Oh a red-head was bad luck. (Alex McKendry)
Well, there was a lot wouldn’t clean out houses or anything on New Year’s Day. Oh, just an ould superstition sort of a thing and it wouldn’t be lucky. (Alex O’Boyle)
Easter

On Easter Sunday we dyed our eggs. Whin blossoms and tea leaves, that’s what your eggs were dyed with. None of these fancy dyes that you have today. Oh regular eggs, yes, they were boiled hard. But you put in these eh, whin blossoms to colour them yellow. And you went out and rolled them, and hid them, or somebody hid them and you had to go to find them. (Alex McKendry)
In case animals got blinked

On May Day they used to get salt blessed, in case things would get blinked, you know, but, no, my mother never bothered too much about that. (Francis Quinn)
High jinks at Hallowe’en

At Halloween there, we dressed up and out you went. Well, I suppose we lifted off gates, and took them away and hid them, and in the earlier days when there was no tractors there, there was just horses and carts, I’ve heard of people taking the wheels off a cart, and taking the wheels off your cart and swapping them over, and doing things like that. I remember my own sister, she was very scared at night. So there were members in the family, and they were going off to rap doors on Halloween night, and they didn’t wait for her. So what we done was, we went out and hung an old petticoat out on to a tree. So whenever they were returning from rapping the doors, they seen this ghostly figure hanging on the tree, and they didn’t know what on earth it was. They just made a race to run past it, and into the house, and they came in and they were completely breathless. We knew rightly what it was, of course, so anyway we went out to investigate where this ghost was. As luck would have it, the petticoat had dropped off the tree on to the ground, and when we went back out again, it was nowhere to be seen. To this day, my sister is convinced that it was a ghost. (Francis McCaughan)
Don’t start a job on a Friday

You weren’t allowed to cut peats on a Friday. You had to go on Thursday and cut a whean of peats, then you were all right to go on Friday. If you started to cut peats on a Friday, they would be burnt … that was their belief. (James Hunter)
And if you’re maybe going out to plough, maybe you were going out to start on a Friday to plough or something. If it was six o’clock on a Thursday night, you had to yoke them horses, and take them out, and open two furrows in the field, if you were going to start on a Friday morning. Oh very fretty at that time. (Johnny Adair)
An unusual barometer

But that’s the way it was … they used to hang up the seaweed, hung it up off the ceiling and whenever it started to drip on to the floor the weather was for changing, it was going to be wet. That was the weather-glass. They really believed in it. I suppose there was something in it. The heat of the house made it drip. (James Hunter)
Beware of those red-haired women If you met a red haired woman going to the town you would have stopped. You would be better turn or you wouldn’t get rid of the stock. You would get no sale that day. Very unlucky for a red-haired woman to meet you. (Johnny Adair)
Churning problems

If anybody come for milk, you shouldn’t refuse it. A woman looked after two men and they lived beside her and she made the butter. And she, well the man milked, but she done the churning and made the butter for them. Well this girl come for buttermilk to bake. He said he had none and he wouldn’t give it to her. They churned for two hours and there never was a drop of butter came on the churn. There was never as much as a drop. Didn’t know what was wrong! They went on and on. They churned and churned until they were sick, sore and tired and who came in, he was a grand big man from down here, the Priest. “Well Mrs McAuley, are you churning?” She says, “ We are. We are churning Father this two hours and there it is, there‘s not a drop of butter on it.” He says “Give it a whean more crashes.” The butter came on the churn whenever he said that, after them churning for two hours. (Johnny Adair)
Cures

People had ‘cures’ for things. A man would have had a donkey and he used to lead you round three times. It was just something they done. I remember having measles too and the room all darkened. No there was no real cure they just kept the room dark. You had sore eyes and sore ears and they kept the room dark. (Kathleen Gallagher)
The Glens’ Charms

Didn’t you ever hear tell of the Glens, charms? Don’t I possess two of them myself, the curing of ringworm and warts. There’s hardly a day or night in the week, that I haven’t somebody call with me. The human spittle and the sign of the cross; you have to call on the Man above, that’s as well as that. It cures ringworm and warts. But then there’s some people has to come back to me about warts. None ever had to come back with ringworm.
The charm for stopping blood

That was an old woman down the road that gave it to me, when I come out of Torr Head. I was only 7 years of age, I tell you. She gave me the charm for stopping blood, but don’t I forget the first verse and don’t I remember the second? Many a time I wondered whether the second one would do, or not. The second verse, I remember that well, it was “In the name of Jesus Christ who shed his last drop of blood on the hill at Cavalry, I bid you cease to flow”, and it stops immediately. Don’t I remember a man about 40 years ago, sitting on Waterfoot Bridge, sitting having a smoke and there was a car came up from Cushendall at 60 mile an hour, and turned round and cut the leg off him there. The man was going to bleed to death before a doctor could be got. There was a man down the road, Paddy McCafferty. Paddy was an alcoholic. Wasn’t he lying in one of the pubs in Waterfoot. They had to go in and carry Paddy out, to the man that was bleeding to death, to stop the blood. Paddy had the charm. In fact, if I remembered that first verse, I would have it myself.
Shingles – an awful bloody thing!

Aye, if you go to the County Tyrone there is a whole lot of charms in the County Tyrone. There is one time I had to go about shingles. They’re an awful bloody thing! There is an old man, away down along the shores of Lough Neagh, can cure shingles, Henry Joe O’Neill they called. Doesn’t he put you in a wee dark room, and he lights a blessed candle, and he just leaves you there. He leaves you there for so long. Don’t they come to me from the County Down, with ringworm. The come to me from Toome. They come to me from all across County Antrim; they come to me from across the water, some from England. Do you see, the doctors can do very little with ringworm. They can do very little with warts. The veterinary surgeons, they can do nothing with them either.
Handed down in the family

That was handed down to me from my father. A Parish Priest gave that cure to my father in the middle of the 19th Century. As long as my father was living, didn’t I not do it, but my father died in 1945 and I took it up then. I used to accompany him when he was going to do it. (James McHenry)