Report by Sandra Millsopp
Dr David Hume was the speaker at the March 2018 meeting of Bangor Historical Society. He gave an illustrated talk on bygone superstitions of Ulster. These often grew up as a means of explaining what people did not understand.
His first example concerned Loughmourne where legend says there was once a village. A pedlar came to sell matches, but no one would buy them and so he cursed the village and said it would be a lake next day. The curse came true. In 1881 the Belfast Water Commissioners bought the lake to act as a reservoir. When the water level fell in 1901 cairns, ornaments and smelting pots were found. There were also five crannogs in the lake. Four of these artificial island dwellings were connected by causeways, while the fifth was further from the shore. It is possible that during an earlier dry spell people saw the remains and developed the legend to explain them.
Another superstition was “blinking” cattle ie cursing them so that for example they did not produce milk. It was thought the cattle had been cursed by an evil neighbour, a witch or a fairy. One remedy was to use fairy bullets: bullet shaped fossils of squid found in limestone.
There are many stories about fairies. These may have arisen from ancient invasions of Ireland by groups such as the Tuath de Danaan who were later defeated by new invaders and then fled to the underworld or spirit world. A type of early Christian underground dwelling called a souterrain may have given rise to these ideas. They were constructed by scooping out earth, building passages and chambers of stone and then covering them over with a mound of earth. They may have been built for defence or for the storage of food, animals etc.
Another type of place associated with fairies are raths. People thought the fairies came out of these and danced around the mound. Anyone who saw this happening would disappear into the mound and never be seen again. More superstitions grew up around fairy thorns. If they were cut down or damaged then death or sickness would follow.
Banshees were attached to old Irish families and were supposed to howl if someone was about to die. Possibly the idea came from the wise woman or healer in the house who keened at deaths. The word means woman of the fairies. When the Ordnance survey memoirs were compiled in the 1830s, the authors recorded many of these superstitions.
Many superstitions were associated with death. The weaver poet John Orr recorded some: a cloth was put over a mirror to stop the dead catching sight of itself and becoming restless, clocks were stopped and plates taken from cupboards and shelves.
Horse skulls were embedded in in gable walls, especially in eastern Ulster. Suggested reasons for this custom include foundation sacrifices, acoustic aids and good luck charms. A similar practice was found in Scandinavia and the custom may have been brought to Ireland by the Vikings.
Dr Hume then recounted several stories which are less easy to explain. An estate employee at Kilwaughter Castle in the eighteenth century saw horsemen rushing into a field, yet there were no traces of hoof prints in the field next day. Dalway’s Bawn was thought to be the home of the banshee Oonagh. A house nearby was regularly trashed, but this stopped when the top storey was removed. A field at Red Hall was supposed to be the scene of appearances by a white lady. At Island Magee a man fishing saw a light at dusk and figures lying down covered by tarpaulins. The area was the scene of a bad shipping disaster.