The future, in its cloak of fog and mystery, has long been the object of curiosity and worry, urging us to grasp at the unknown and search for evidence of what is yet to come. Some turn to tarot cards, others read their horoscope, or watch for magpies and lucky numbers to judge how their day, week or year will unfold. The Irish tradition is no exception, and many examples of divination are included in A Handbook of Irish Folklore by Seán Ó Súilleabháin. Listed in the Handbook are acts of divination, particular practices said to be able to reveal unknown information, as well as other ways of discerning foreknowledge about what is in store for us, such as prophecies, dreams and omens.
Whether good or bad, omens can reveal information about our biggest questions, such as life, death, marriage and, naturally, the weather. Lists of these signs and omens fill pages of The Schools’ Collection, citing many examples of various omens, from dropping the ring during a wedding ceremony (a sign of bad luck) to finding a horse-shoe (a sign of good luck). Similarly, dreams may be interpreted to foretell the future of the dreamer.
While there are many opportunities for divining the future throughout the year, divination was often practiced on days of festival and celebration. All four quarter days are associated with these practices, but it would be fitting to name some examples practiced around Hallowe’en, as the festival is fast-approaching. Some divination practices on the evening of November night are well-known. The practice of finding a ring in cakes of báirín breacis popular around the country, as we can even buy a loaf already packaged with a ring inside. When homemade, other items were included in the recipe, each indicating the future of the one who finds it in their slice of brack. Finding the ring signified marriage, while a coin indicated wealth, a piece of cloth indicated poverty and a religious medal indicated that the finder would take up holy orders. Other items, like a pea or a piece of wood could also be included, each accompanied with particular meaning. Alternatively, the prophetic items were added to the dinner of colcannon, rather than to the cake mixture.
Another divination game practiced at Hallowe’en includes three saucers each filled with water, clay or a ring. To play the game, a person was blindfolded before they could reach their hand towards the saucers, and whichever they selected would determine their fate. Should they choose the ring, they would soon be married, while the water foretold a journey and clay foretold an early death!
Marriage divination was particularly popular on Hallowe’en night and games were practised in order to determine the marital future of young people. For one, two nuts, or two beans were placed beside each other on the grate of the fire. The nuts represented a would-be couple, and if the nuts stayed together then the couple would prosper, but if they jumped apart, the couple would be doomed. Another practice involved spilling molten lead through the handle of a key into cold water, such as in this example from the Schools’ Collection:
A piece of lead piping is melted in a small pot and poured through the ward of a large door-key into a bowl containing cold water. Of course the pieces of lead immediately harden and form diverse shapes, and these are distributed among the girls. The shape that each girl gets represents the trade or profession of her husband-to-be. (NFCS 341: 336, Inchinaneave, Co. Cork)
While these acts of divination took place amongst the other Hallowe’en games of bobbing for apples, snap-apple, etc, other practices of marriage divination might also take place outside of the celebratory activities. There are several practices in which a young man or woman would arrange particular details before going to sleep, all in the hopes of seeing their future spouse appear in their dreams. Leaving a shirt to dry by the fire might prompt a vision of a future husband, who appears to turn the shirt so as it can dry on the other side. If a young woman goes to sleep incredibly thirsty, her future husband might offer her a drink in her dreams, and if she washes her face before bed without drying it, he might appear to offer her a towel. Crossing one’s shoes before bed could also reveal the face of a future spouse in one’s dreams. The practice of setting a particular item under the pillow before going to sleep was also supposed to encourage dreams of a future husband. One particular item was the yarrow plant, cut in a particular fashion, accompanied with a rhyme, as in the following account from Co. Tipperary:
Ten yarrow leaves are plucked, the tenth is thrown away, and nine are put under the pillow to dream on. If a woman dreams, she is supposed to see her future husband in her dreams and vice versa with a man. The plucking takes place quietly, no one is supposed to see the person plucking the yarrow leaves. While plucking each leaf the following words are said:
Good morrow, good morrow, good yarrow
Thrice good morrow to thee
I hope before this time tomorrow
Thou will show my true love to me. (NFCS 530: 224, Redwood, Co. Tipperary)
Others might venture out to pull up a cabbage and inspect its roots, which would reveal something of the look of their future spouse. It is also said that those who visit a lime-kiln might be able to hear the voice of their future beloved, if they throw in a ball of yarn and try to wind it up. When the yarn catches, they ask who is holding the other side, to which their future spouse should answer. This and other practices such as looking for a reflection in a mirror at midnight are sometimes treated with caution, as some young people are said to have seen unwanted visions as a result and never recovered.
Whether it is luck, long life or simply a merry night you wish to portend this Hallowe’en, we wish you all the best omens, dreams and premonitions!
This post was researched and written by Ailbe Van Der Heide, National Folklore Collection.