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Superstitions have formed the basis for many customs and practices in every civilisation and indeed this is very true when considering Irish customs and habits, be they related to religion, illness, births, marriages , death ,animals, insects, fairies ,trees, wells and stones. These customs, superstitions or pisreoga, inform us of a culture and a way of life that goes back thousands of years. Of course most of us pretend not to be in the slightest bit superstitious, but how many of us become slightly nervous when the little robin hops in the back door? Is this a sign of a death in the house? But none of us would dare kill a robin- that was certain to bring bad luck. Many of us refrain from taking out the ashes on New Year’s Day or on May Day. It would be unusual to find a family who doesn’t have a horseshoe nailed over a door somewhere on their property. This brings good luck-but the shoe must be found, not given.
Numbers and birds, cats and most farm animals figure in lots of our pisreoga .We all know about the magpies- 1 for sorrow, two for joy, 3 for a girl and 4 for a boy; 5 for silver, 6 for gold, and 7 for a secret that’s never been told! But equally, to see 3 magpies was thought to be the sign of a forthcoming wedding, as was finding 2 spoons in your teacup. The bride should always wear “Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue”. A fine day was important as “Happy the bride the sun shines on” A statue of the Child of Prague was put out under a hedge or bush on the night before the wedding---facing south and a handkerchief on its face—and a fine day should follow! It was believed to be unlucky to marry on a wet day, as the bride would weep for sorrow for the rest of the year. The choice of day was important too-
Monday for wealth,
Tuesday for health,
Wednesday the best day of all;
Thursday for losses,
Friday for crosses,
And Saturday no luck at all!
A horse-shoe was given to the bride to bring her good luck.
 It would be lucky to meet a man –not a red-haired one- on the way to the church. The groom should not see the bride in her wedding dress before the wedding day; neither should they see each other on the wedding day until they meet in the church. A married woman should accompany the groom to the church. The new bride was carried across the threshold of her new home by her husband and an oaten cake was broken over her head to ensure plentifulness in the future. The bride threw her bouquet among the unmarried ladies and the girl who caught it would be next to marry, Half of the dowry was paid on the wedding day; the other half when the first child was born. The newly married woman did not return to her own family until one month after the wedding- this was called “the month’s visit”
I have already referred to the terrible apprehension felt on seeing a robin in the house, but equally worrying was the sound of a cock crowing during the night or the wailing and keening of the Banshee (Bean Si, a fairy woman). These sounds definitely meant a death in the family. When a person died, it was customary to stop the clock and the mirrors were faced into the wall or covered. The doors were then opened to allow the soul to depart. The body was not touched for three hours after death. The people who were laying out the corpse should not reach over the body for any reason- they were to walk around the bed/coffin. The water used in washing the body was spilt under a hedge or some place where nobody would walk. It was customary to tear off a corner of a sheet from the bed of the corpse and this was used as a cure for toothache; and the ends of the candles used at the wake were supposed to be a cure for burns! Neighbouring women, called “keeners”, gathered round the body and at regular intervals during the night, would praise him/her in a long chant-like pitch. (Caoineadh agus olagón). When the coffin was removed from the house, it was left to rest on four chairs before being lifted into the hearse. The chairs were then knocked over. Some neighbours always stayed in the house while the funeral went to the church. People closed blinds and doors as a funeral went by: it symbolised keeping death out but also a reminder to the soul that the time for visiting is now over so be on your way. The route to the church or graveyard was always” the long way round” as to take a shortcut would be disrespectful. It was very important that the coffin was carried by four men of the same surname and also the same surname as that of the deceased, if possible. Gravediggers usually left their shovels in the form of a cross on the newly opened grave. People watched their steps in the graveyard as to stumble there, was deemed unlucky. A lump of clay was often taken out of a cemetery as a cure for toothache and a pinch of salt was consumed after coming from a funeral to protect against death. When meeting a funeral, people would always turn back and walk 3 steps with it. This was called Trí coiscéimeanna na trócaire or the three steps of mercy or compassion. To wear a new outfit for the first time to a funeral would bring bad luck. After a death, the horse was usually sold. The bereaved people wore black during the mourning period, which usually lasted one year.
Superstitions associated with animals and birds are plentiful indeed and quite honestly defy all logic! One magpie chattering at your door was regarded as a sign of a death but two of them would bring good luck. If you see two hens fighting in the yard, you can expect visitors; and if a cock comes to the door and crows, visitors are certainly on the way. It is considered lucky if a hen and clutch of chickens arrive at your door; or if you meet a white lamb in the morning; or if the first call of the cuckoo comes from the right hand side; and of course don’t forget to jingle the change in your pocket on hearing that first call, to ensure good luck: and whatever direction you are looking when you first hear the cuckoo, you will travel in that direction before the year is out. However, a crowing hen, a whistling woman and a black cat are considered unlucky in a house. It is unlucky to spill salt, but you can undo the damage by throwing a pinch of it over your left shoulder. As sparks fly out from the fire, you should spit on them and you will get money.
Cats figure frequently, too, in this type of lore. We all like to believe that we are “asFairy Bush At QuinaltaghFairy Bush At Quinaltagh lucky as a black cat”, but would consider it unlucky to meet a cat when on a journey; a lame woman and a magpie pose the same threat! Also, we should be very careful, when discussing private and confidential information, that the cat is out of earshot-he is not to be trusted and may carry the story to the neighbours. Hence, the warning: ”Sh, the cat is listening”. They say that “Curiosity killed the cat”-well, if you meet a man going fishing, please refrain from asking him where he is going- it will bring you bad luck.


Some trees were believed to be endowed with magic qualities- especially the rowan, holly, elderberry and whitethorn. They were regarded as symbols of the farming year- their white blossoms a sign of spring and the end of winter frost; their red autumn berries a promise of renewed life. The hawthorn tree of course has always been singled out for special attention. How many times have we heard the warning: ”Woe betide the man who damages a fairy thorn, that is one, not planted by man, but growing on its own in the fields or on some ancient fort or lios.”
This is just a small taste of the many and varied customs, superstitions, pisreoga or beliefs which were, and maybe still are, part of our culture and heritage. God between us and all harm: fingers crossed and touch wood. Oh, and make sure that when leaving the neighbour’s  visiting house, ”Go out the door you came in -and bring the bad luck with you”! Now, can you honestly answer the question: Are you superstitious?