Birds, Beehives & Bereavement
Dogs, Banshees, Piseogs (or superstitions). A priest curses mayo football, and how all of this is placed in the funeral tradition.
In rural areas, if somebody dies in the house where bees are kept, you must go straight to the hive and tell the bees of the bereavement otherwise the beehive will perish and the family will not flourish.
Banshees feature a lot in Irish death customs – a voice recording from 1961 in the Folklore Dept of UCD concerning Irish Funeral Customs has this Dublin woman proclaim:
‘The Banshee was heard regular in Ringsend – the people believed in it – and the minute you’d hear that Banshee, you knew there’d be a death in the family’.
In some cultures, the repeated pecking of a bird on a window foretells a death, but in other cultures, this pecking bird signifies bad luck in general – either way, it’s not good news!
Birds falling down chimneys on the other hand, is considered a definite omen of death. If a bird falls dead down a chimney, a funeral is said to take place in the near future.
Birds have always been writ large across funeral tradition and superstition. The writer Daniel Defoe wrote about an ancient Sussex belief that a large Heron was always seen perching on the Cathedral just before the death of the resident Bishop of the day.
Birds brought solace, not just bad omens. In ancient times, it was believed that your beloved departed relative would return to you in the form of a bird, at least for the duration of the mourning period.
Sailors drowned at sea carried much folklore and superstition – for one thing, fishermen (often right up to today) refuse to learn to swim – they believe if the sea will take you, it’s best to surrender to your fate. And so their souls were said to rise up and inhabit the soul of the seabird, so that even in death they would forever be connected to the sea.
The Curse of a Priest on those who Disrespect the Dead.
In Biblical circles, Magpies get very bad press when it comes to funeral etiquette! While the humble raven dresses in black for a funeral, the magpie (who refused to enter Noah’s Ark) also disdains to respect the dead by flaunting his white plumage in the face of grief and bereavement.
Footballs and Funerals, Magpies and Mayo
And if you fast forward from Biblical times to the ‘modern’ days of 1951 on Ireland’s West Coast – the fateful day that the victorious Mayo Footballers came through the village on Foxford with the Sam Maguire Cup. But the coach that day broke a time honoured funeral tradition – they overtook a Funeral Hearse and cortege on the street and the local priest was so incensed by this lack of respect for the dead, that he put a ‘Piseog’ (Irish superstitious curse) on Mayo football from that day out. And Mayo have never won an All-Ireland from that day to this.
Gruesome Death Tales of the Unexpected: Power Released from the Spirit Of The Dead Body.
The recently deceased body was said to carry great power. The hands of the woman who cleaned the body was granted healing gifts – but only if she massaged from the sole of the foot of the dead person right up to the top of their head. Then her hands could cure certain maladies and ailments.
Dublin Undertakers are often quoted as saying their job satisfaction comes from at least helping the family arrange a meaningful funeral – and making sure the corpse is laid out in the very best way possible. But you don’t usually hear a Dublin Funeral Director speak about healing powers in his hands!
Goriest of all were the stories of how a severed hand from a dead body could transfer riches from your enemy to yourself. It had to be a so-called ‘wise woman’ cutting the hand off. Then the hand of the deceased was to be placed in a bucket of milk and many verses recited over the hand. Thieves in a house could also use that hand as a talisman. If the robber placed a lighting candle in the palm of the dead hand, that meant they could maraud freely through the house and nobody would wake up. If someone came home unexpectedly, the burglars would be rendered invisible as long as they held tight to the hand of the recently deceased.
Romance Linked (literally!) to the Rituals Of Death
This, the most blood-curdling story of all. Awoman called Selina Cottle was fearful that her lover was losing interest. So Selina drew on the powers of witch-craft – an old Funeral Custom called Spancil of Death (An Buarach Bháis) in Irish.
You have to cut an unbroken ribbon of skin from a corpse, running from the feet, up along the spine of the deceased right up to the head, and as you take the skin, you recite secret incantations. Then you weave the long strip of skin with ribbons of silk, tie your lovers legs together overnight, and he will then be forever spellbound in your affection.
Oh, and not unrelated to the funeral habits of the Connacht Footballers overtaking the Hearse, Selina – she of the dead body power source – hailed from Ballina in Co Mayo!