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When in Rome, do as the Romans do. We’ve all heard the saying, but when writer Elizabeth Nelson travelled to Ireland she didn’t realize that this meant she would be hanging out the third floor window of a castle, or craning her neck in the hope of kissing the famous Blarney Stone. Read on to discover the magical world of Irish superstition.
Text by: Elizabeth Nelson
Country: Ireland

his past summer, my two sisters and my cousin and I decided that we wanted to explore our Irish heritage. So we rented a car in Dublin and set out on a month-long adventure. The beautiful Irish countryside, so green and lush, was just like the postcards, with sheep blocking the road and pubs full of people willing to buy you a drink for a story or a song.

My mother was born in Ireland but immigrated to Australia at the age of two. Though many aspects of her identity are now rooted in Australian culture there is one thing she carries with her that is a truly inherent link to Ireland: superstition.

Growing up we were always reminded of this with such sayings as: “knock on wood” (to stop the devil from getting ideas from what you just said); “don’t paint the devil on the wall” (when you’re suggesting something bad that might happen); and “someone just walked over your grave” (when you shiver for no apparent reason). My sisters and I would never dream of walking under a ladder, opening an umbrella indoors, or breaking a mirror. So when we travelled to Ireland, I was sure some of my mother and grandmother’s sayings would be heard, but I never imagined the extent of the superstition to be found throughout the country.

Ireland is soaked with a sense of history. Each and every thing we visited had a long past, from the castles to the pubs and from the hills to the farmhouses. Superstitions and traditions of folk music, art and story-telling can be found in each and every little nook of Ireland. The colourful imagery that is evoked by the Irish phrases my mother often says is reminiscent of this.

Superstition in Ireland can be linked to the historical pagan religion of the country that was adapted and moulded to become a part of the Irish Catholic religion. Evidence of this can be seen in many of the old churches where you can sometimes spot ancient symbols of the pagan gods hidden amongst the woodwork. This combination of earthy pagan rituals and ostentatious Catholic rituals made Ireland a ripe spot for superstition. Every small thing is given meaning and linked to ‘good’ or ‘bad’. People do – and don’t do – things for reasons they can’t explain.

One such curiosity is the mystical “fairy mound”: ground that is raised and stands in the middle of a field so that the farmer must plough around it. I asked a friend from County Meath why the farmer doesn’t just get it bulldozed over. He looked at me with full seriousness and simply said, “The fairies would get him”. Then he continued, “The last man to try shifting that fairy mound died of a heart attack that night”. I told him I thought he was pulling my leg and he offered me the chance to move a fairy mound. Now, being a good girl, brought up on a strict diet of fairytales and superstition, I told him I didn’t want to risk it, and neither did my sisters or cousin. “You see?” he said, “No one will move them, so there they stay”. Whether there is an old relic hidden under this hill or whether it is simply a mound of mud we may never know. But we do know that no one will shift this mound in the near future for reasons beyond scientific explanation. So the mound is left for the fairies.

There are many fairy mounds scattered around Ireland, but there are even more castle ruins. The Irish countryside is littered with ruins of once magnificent castles. The majority of the castles are protected by the government and can be neither destroyed nor fixed. Many of them are covered in green moss and ivy, some with whole trees growing from the middle, and yet some, like the Blarney castle with its roof completely collapsed, are still sound enough to hold busloads of tourists.

The Blarney castle is home to the famed Blarney Stone, which is simply a rock that was placed in the castle. However, many believe that if they kiss the rock it will empower them with “blarney”: the gift of eloquent speech. So when I found myself lying down facing the sky with two men holding me and lowering me down so that I was upside down and leaning over the battlements of a three-story castle, I seriously wondered about the truth that lies in superstition. I wondered whether there is any truth in all the little fairytales, whether walking under ladders really matters. Then I figured that it doesn’t really matter if it’s true or not, as long as it makes a good story. So I stretched out my neck and did what I’d gone there to do: I kissed the icy flat rock in front of me, the acclaimed Blarney Stone, and secretly hoped there was something in the story and that I had gained the “Gift of the Gab”.


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Easy Summary

Ireland has a long and colourful history. Superstitions and traditions of folk music, art and story-telling can be found everywhere. Superstition in Ireland comes from the historical pagan religion of the country that eventually became a part of the Irish Catholic religion.

One superstition is the “fairy mound”: ground that is raised and stands in the middle of a farmer’s field. It is believed that if someone moves a fairy mound something really bad might happen to them. There are many fairy mounds around Ireland, but there are even more castle ruins. Most of the castles are protected by the government. Many of them are covered in green moss and ivy, some with whole trees growing from the middle. The Blarney castle has its roof completely collapsed, but is still sound enough to hold busloads of tourists.

The Blarney castle is home to the famous Blarney Stone: a rock that was placed in the castle. Many believe that if they kiss the rock it will give them the gift of “blarney”: the gift of eloquent speech.

 

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