Electricity killed superstition, but does a dark side still exist

In his weekly column John Arnold takes a look back at some superstitions of old.
Electricity killed superstition, but does a dark side still exist

LET THERE BE LIGHT: The ESB brings electricity to Ballinspittle, Co. Cork, in June, 1956, ushering in a new era of light

I SUPPOSE very few people nowadays are superstitious, as the belief in such things has largely faded out of people’s memory.

Some say when ‘the ESB came’ it did away with a lot of old ways of thinking. A lot of things that went bump in the night or seemed eerie and shadowy were brought out of the dark and into the light.

There’s no doubt that the electric light certainly changed the way people perceived what they had previously termed ‘ghosts’, just as cobwebs came into view, previously dark and mysterious corners and nooks came into full vision and the aura of hearing things without seeing them vanished.

There was more, of course, than the coming of ‘the light’ to the change in attitudes to previously firmly held beliefs. No-one under 60 years of age can now hardly remember a time when there was no television.

At a family gathering last weekend, a group of us were tracing our Twomey roots, branches and trees. One person said they recalled when a certain elderly family member, Babe Twomey, first saw the television. If it was raining on the TV, she’d say “My God, ’tis woeful weather outside today” — sure, the sun might be splitting the stones the same day, a case of seeing was believing!

Only people over 80 years of age can recall houses lit only by tilly lamps and candles. As we move farther away from a time of literally no technology to this present time where we are snowed under with it, we tend to shape all our patterns of thinking around science and certainty.

If something can be proved it can be believed, but the room for imagination, even doubt, has been largely erased.

As a result of all this modernity, old ways and old practises are generally dismissed as belonging to the Dark ages, the time before everything got ‘Smart’.

A man said to me recently that we hardly have time to think nowadays, but another in our company quipped “What are you on about? We don’t have to think now, sure there’s electronic yokes for everything!”

They were both right, of course, and we can’t rewind the clock or un-invent what’s been invented — but we shouldn’t lightly dismiss lore of the past.

Much of the stuff our ancestors garnered and gathered was simply handed down from generation to generation. No doubt in the handing down things got added and subtracted from, but the truth was still at the heart of most of it.

Maybe pisheógs are still amongst us but we don’t call them by that name anymore! After Cork footballers were beaten by Kerry in last year’s Munster championship, I met a gleeful Kingdom native now domiciled on the banks of our Own Lovely Lee.

We had an argument — no, that’s too strong a term, more of a discussion or debate — on the whole question of Kerry’s consistent knack of inflicting heavy defeats on us Corkonians.

I maintained that we here on Leeside promote both hurling and football equally whereas Kerry devotes almost all its resources and manpower to the big ball.

We argued the toss over and back, hot and heavy at times, but always in a friendly way! We talked of fielding and kicking ’til the cows had come home.

We parted amicably as usual, with me cursing Kerry’s innate knack of destroying our hopes. My friend wouldn’t be of any evil inclination but I’m nearly certain that day he put the ‘Kerry pisheógs ‘ on me!

Up until that very day, my toes always pointed straight ahead, every single one of them. But whatever happened shortly after that, the big toe on my left leg got a notion to stray. Instead of pointing towards Dublin as is right and proper, it veered towards the left sharply as if heading towards Killarney — more suffering and torture!

This particular big toe decided to undermine its next door neighbour and the second toe is now leaning as well.

Well, after a while I consulted an orthoticologist — he removed a fine swelling from my wallet and then told me it was a bunyan.

A few years ago I had a bout of gout and lads, it was very painful. Well, if my bunyan keeps heading westwards at the rate it’s going, I’ll be in serious trouble. I have asked my Kerry friend to take the pisheógs from my foot — I’ve even offered him a five year ticket for the new Pairc Ui Chaoimh in return! As Eamonn Kelly used to say of Kerrymen and priests: “They have the power.”

Students of folklore tell me that there are myriad stories down the years about ‘the evil eye’ — nothing to do with Sally O Brien and the way she might look at you, that’d be more the ‘glad eye’. No, but certain people seemed to have power of a dark nature.

Look, as I said years ago, if you think there is good in the world then as sure as night follows day, there’s evil as well. I’m not sure about the motives of yer man in Korea or even Trump but they certainly have the potential to do more harm than good. Their ‘my nuclear button is bigger than yours’ dialogue is reminiscent of the old adage that ‘sticks and stones might break my bones but names will never hurt me’ but in all fairness it’s childish stuff. T’would be funny, even farcical if the future of humanity wasn’t at stake.

Name-calling on the International stage today is like cursing the neighbour over the ditch long ago. Jealousy and envy are ever present and they were the main reasons behind pisheógs in times past.

I know many people (myself included) who still wouldn’t walk under an extended ladder. Many hotels don’t have a room No 13 and Friday the 13th certainly isn’t the most popular date for major functions — is that all just ‘auld superstitions’ and ‘a load of codswallop’? Maybe so, but let no-one try to convince me that evil and evil spirits are not still as present as the air we breathe.

One of the most common pisheógs used down the years was the placing of gluggers or rotten eggs in drills of potatoes or in other crops. Why would bad eggs bring back luck? It seems the whole concept of ‘luck’ was very important, especially in farming. Anything ‘bad’ was unlucky and that’s why when one sold an animal to someone you’d always give some bit of luck-money with the beast being sold. Naturally, you’d hope the purchaser would have luck with the animal, sure they’d be back to buy again next year if things went well.

Money made from the sale of eggs was always regarded as ‘lucky’ and many’s the family that got a few extras for the home from it. Eggs were a sign of fertility, new life and symbols of spring and Easter. Just as good eggs were important to the wellbeing of households, the ‘gluggers’ signified everything that was bad and evil.

I suppose the idea of ‘luck’ is old fashioned nowadays but I recall my mother referring to it in years gone by. If a cow or animal died on the farm she might say ‘May all the bad luck of the year go with them’. On the other side of the coin she had great time for good luck symbols like holy water, St Bridget’s day crosses and Blessed candles.

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