Report by Ian Wilson
The customary large attendance at the January meeting of Bangor Historical Society were treated to an intriguing talk on Irish folklore and superstitions by Laura Spence. Laura had gallantly stepped in a short notice for the scheduled speaker, Dr Margaret Ward, who was unwell.
Folk traditions obviously occur in all nations, but seem to have been, and indeed continue to be, particularly strong in Ireland. This may be because Ireland is at the extreme western edge of Europe, added to the fact industrial development and urbanization occurred more slowly. Folklore seems to be tied in to national identity in Ireland rather more than other countries.
Most of the audience had seen a fairy thorn tree, often standing alone in a field. Believed to be the abode of the ‘wee folk’ few people are prepared to cut one down and risk bad luck. Even in recent times, a major road scheme in the west of Ireland has had to be diverted to bypass one ( a show of hands revealed that no member of the audience would cut one down!). The widespread belief in fairies may be a folk memory of a race of smaller people who inhabited Ireland before the Celts.
Commemoration of the important landmarks in life - birth, marriage and death - was and is naturally accompanied by many and varied beliefs and customs. A horse-shoe for wishing luck on a just-married couple is better hung with the ends facing downwards, to let any malign spirits fall to the ground ! Laura dealt too with the eerie figure of the banshee, often, it is claimed, heard to wail to portend a death.
Laura also delved into folk cures. In the absence of medical services as we would know them, people had no other option but to visit a recommended healer. The seventh son of a seventh son was always revered as someone with a special healing gift. Also, natural resources close by were used, a logical example being cobwebs to knit together a gash. In fact, just in recent weeks, national media had picked up on a scientific examination of clay found on Boa Island, Co Fermanagh, which was used for combatting infected skin and wounds. It was demonstrated that it did indeed contain rare elements that produced this beneficial effect!
Such is the breadth and fascination of the subject that Laura promised to great acclaim to return in the 2019/20 season to present the second part of her fascinating talk.