The Folk-Lore Journal/Volume 4/Donegal Superstitions
By G. H. KINAHAN, M.R.I.A.
SHEETIN is a very fair pronunciation of the Irish words sidh (fairy) and teine (fire), or, loosely translated, fairy-struck or shot. There is a very general belief in Ireland, even among the people of English and Scotch abstraction, that cattle can be fairy-struck or bewitched, and in the co. Donegal the first is called "sheetin" and the second "blinked," the Irish believing most in the first; the Scotch element, which is great in the county, in the second. To take them in order:—
Generally in Ireland, but more especially in Munster and Connaught, the fairies are supposed to throw soighd (anglicè darts), these being the flint implements that are picked up here and there in the fields; and, to cure the cattle, formerly they gave it a hair of the dog that bit it, the flint being boiled in a pot of water and that given to the cow, or the flint was passed over the cow, it at the same time being rubbed in places with it. The exact formula that was gone through I have not been able to learn, because, although once it was the general cure in Donegal, it has now become obsolete, a "sheetin" cow being now measured. Measuring is as follows:—The beast is measured three times, beginning at the butt of the tail, and thence along the back to the head, and back under the belly, the measure being man or woman's half arm, from the elbow to the tips of the fingers; next it is singed—a lighted turf held in a tongs being ran three times along its back from the butt of its tail to the top of its head, and afterwards three times round its body, beginning at its backbone, this operation being performed by two persons starting at each side, who hand the tongs from one to the other. Then the cow is given a physic made of the scraping from nine pots (either common pots or kettles will do), with a little gunpowder. A cow that was so treated got back her milk in six weeks—a positive proof of the efficiency of the cure.
In Donegal women have what they call "heart-fever," or a sort of "alloverness." Wise women are able to cure it by "measuring." They measure round the body over the heart with a green string.
A witch or "blinker" in general is a woman. In Donegal they do not appear to be as cute as those of the co. Wexford; as the latter, if they injure their neighbour, benefit themselves, while in Donegal they act solely for malice, without the least gain to themselves. Not long ago in the co. Donegal there was a famous blinker called "Mag." Nothing could pass her; everything she looked on came to grief, and, in some cases at least, nearly instantaneously. A man and his pair of horses were returning from ploughing; he had to pass Mag's door; she happened to come out as he did so, and one of the horses dropped down dead. A neighbour had two fat pigs; they did their best to keep Mag from seeing them; she came, however, one day, and the next, one was dead. She was death on chickens, ducklings, and goslings; if Mag saw them when they first came out they never thrived.
ST. BRIGID'S WELL.
A Legend of dark Donegal.
Not far from the picturesque little village of Stranorlar, renowned as the last resting-place of Isaac Butt, the founder of the Home Rule movement, lies a calm, placid sheet of water known to the peasantry as Loch Lawne. In its southern side, about three feet from the pebbly shore, is the famous Well of St. Brigid, surrounded by a mound of small white stones brought from almost every part of Ulster, and surmounted by pieces of linen, sticks, and crutches left by those who had the happiness of being cured by its healing waters. It has long been considered a pious custom for the pilgrim, on his first visit, to place three white stones on the ever-increasing mound.
In the year 18— the concourse of pilgrims being larger than usual the owner of the estate in which the lake is situated, under pretence that his crops were in danger of being destroyed, closed all ingress to the holy well. The peasantry became excited; threats were indulged in by some; petitions were made by others, but in vain. He was a man of gentle, but by times (as in the present instance) of stubborn manner. He knew no fear, and threats as well as petitions were entirely disregarded. For three months his hateful mandate was in force.
One morning the inhabitants of Stranorlar awoke to find the following placard on the trunk of a large beech-tree, long used for public notices. It was signed by the owner of the estate:—"Free Access to St. Brigid's Well."
Many were the suppositions of the pious villagers as to the cause of his relenting; some said that his cattle were all dying; others, that good St. Brigid had sent him a warning from Heaven. Be this as it may, a great change had come over him; his toleration was the wonder of all. Pilgrims might trample his oats, break his fences; he would only remark, "I will be nothing the poorer."
Sitting one evening by his blazing peat-fire, many years after, he said to me: "I will tell you an incident that happened long years ago. You were then a mere boy. One morning I found my fences thrown into the lake. I became angry, and, falsely suspecting the pilgrims, I poured forth threats and curses against them and closed all ingress to the well; I even determined to drain it by means of a channel connecting it with the lake. To accomplish this spiteful work I chose a clear moonlight night. Taking a gun and spade, I set out by the shortest route to the well. Judge of my surprise on finding it illuminated as if by hundreds of candles! Trembling, I aimed my gun and fired. Not a light was extinguished— on the contrary, I seemed only to have increased the brilliancy of the scene. As I was pausing, not knowing whether to proceed to the well or return home, I saw a beautiful maiden rising, as it were, from the lake, attired in a long, flowing white robe, girded by a blue sash. On her breast sparkled gems more dazzling than the sun. She glided as I have seen swallows, without touching the earth, and hovered over the well. No doubt it was St. Brigid. . . . . I often think of calling on Father C—, and joining the Catholic Church."
He is dead now, but his son, who inherits his liberal spirit, has made an excellent road to St. Brigid's Well. And the peasants thereabouts tell the strangers that linger on that romantic way the story I have told you.—S. D., in Ave Maria.—Derry Journal, March 12th, 1885.
Sea-Swallows on Lesson Fern.
The fishermen on the Munster and Connaught salmon rivers have a great respect for the sea-swallow, as they say that whenever they are numerous salmon will be plentiful that year. I do not know the reason why both should come together; it is of course possible that there may be some sort of food which both the birds and these fish prey on, which has attracted both. That such, however, is the fact I could never prove.
Superstition in the co. Donegal.
On the evening of November 27, between 6 and 7 o'clock, there was a considerable fall of stars at Ramelton, co. Donegal, very brilliant, although the night was overcast and cloudy. They seemed to be coming from the N.N.E. They caused great excitement while they lasted, as some thought the end of the world had come, others that there was a riot and great bloodshed in Derry at the election, then going on, while one man insisted that they were only rockets sent up by the people of Derry to celebrate the victory of Mr. Lewis.
March in Ireland is the hardest time on cattle, and every one looks forward for the first of April. The legend goes, that there was an old cow nearly starved with the cold and want of food on the 31st of March, and she said: "To the devil I pitch you March, April has come." March, however, heard her, and went to April and borrowed six days from her, and before they were out the old cow died. This year the "borrowing days" have been as bad as could be, both for man and beast.