I am happy to inform you, dear reader, that if you are viewing this blog post, you have survived one of the most ill-fortuned days in Irish folk tradition, occurring Sunday last. Whitsunday – Domhnach Cincíse in Irish – was a day regarded with suspicion and trepidation, and Whitsuntide or Whit week, the period from Whitsunday to the following weekend, was approached with much caution.
Also known as Pentecost, the feast is celebrated in both the Christian and the Jewish tradition. By Jewish tradition, the feast occurs fifty days after the day after Passover, while Christian tradition marks Whitsunday as the seventh Sunday after Easter, in celebration of the Holy Spirit descending on the disciples. The term Whitsunday appears to have come from ‘White Sunday’, most likely in references to white robes worn by those baptised at the feast, as baptisms were common at Easter and at Pentecost. The Irish word Cincís is no translation of Whitsunday, however, and takes its meaning from the older word of Pentecost, meaning ‘the fiftieth day’. In other countries, including Britain, outdoor activities, fairs and processions would be held on Whitsunday and Whitmonday. There does appear to have been patterns and fairs held in Ireland on Whitmonday, but as Kevin Danaher states in The Year in Ireland (1972), these practices fell away when Whitmonday ceased to be a holiday of obligation in 1829. Some accounts from the Schools’ Collection still attest to fairs at this time, including several accounts from Baile Bhuirne, Co. Cork, quoting Whitsunday as a day of visitation to Naomh Gobnait’s well.
More prominent in Irish folk tradition, however, is the belief that Whitsunday is a time of danger and misfortune. Many accounts attest to the danger of water on that day, and entering water any deeper than ankle-depth was thought to be ill-advised, as it would place the person at serious risk of drowning. Other risky activities, such as shaving, or even shearing sheep, as well as playing sports, were avoided, as injuries and illnesses incurred on Whitsunday were thought unlikely to heal. Several accounts state that one must not go to sleep at all that day.
Most prominent of all beliefs regarding Whitsunday, however, were those surrounding children and animals born on that day. The term cincíseach was applied to both and it was predicted that they would “kill or be killed”, that is that they were destined either to suffer a violent death or to cause it. Other accounts describe those born on the day as ill-tempered, temperamental and ‘cross’, and foals and other animals born that day were said to be untrainable and dangerous. Luckily, folk tradition also offers two distinct resolutions for the unfortunate fate of the cincíseach. Young babies might be given a small insect to hold, such as a worm or a fly, and it was thought that in crushing the small creature to death that the prophecy would come to pass prematurely. The same practice could be orchestrated for a young animal, by letting it walk on a small creature. Similarly, another cure addresses the second risk to those born at Whitsun, by placing a green sod on the head of the child or animal. This practice, with its use of earth, is symbolic of burial, replicating the death of the child or animal, and neutralising the prophecy by falsely bringing it into fruition. Other accounts even state that the animal or child must actually be buried up to the neck in clay.
Whitsunday is not the only time that could have lasting effects on the birth of a child, however. Many other conditions of birth could affect one’s destiny. Children born at night were said to be able to see ghosts or the fairies, while those born with a caul would never be drowned. Two particular factors could give a child healing abilities. Those born as a seventh son or daughter were said to have the ability to cure various illnesses, while a child born after the death of their father (‘posthumous’) would have the ability to cure thrush, or sometimes chincough. Writing as part of the 1937-1939 Schools’ Collection, a school teacher rather scornfully describes this practice:
‘In this and surrounding localities many people believed (and still believe) that a Posthumous Child possesses the power of curing “Craos Galar” – a disease of the tongue and palate in children. It generally affects very young children and is held to be dangerous if not combat[t]ed immediately [when] it makes its appearance. The affected children had to be brought to the Posthumous child three mornings in succession. Both parties should be fasting. The Posthumous child had to breathe or blow his or her breath thee times each morning into the open mouth of the patient who was then considered perfectly “cured”. If the afflicted one could not be brought to the house of the Posthumous child then the latter had to go to the former’s house.
N.B. Three Posthumous children were pupils of this school since my appointment as Principal Teacher here over 31 years ago. Needless to say I have discouraged and denounced this silly superstitious belief but notwithstanding this the custom still prevails. I remember some years ago one of these Posthumous children (now a young man of about 23 years or so) gave me the following excuse for his absence from school on the three previous days “that he had to go back to Madigans (some three miles distant from his home) to cure Johnny”!!’NFCS 600: 46
Luckily for us, the period of Whitsuntide has all but drawn to a close, and it is once again safe to go paddling in water deeper than our ankles!
This post was researched and written by Ailbe Van Der Heide, National Folklore Collection.