Cards and Card-Playing in the National Folklore Collection

The beginning of October signals that we are now in the middle of the autumn season and that the long winter nights are drawing in. This is the season to pursue indoor activities and, as Hallowe’en approaches at the end of the month, the season to appreciate the spookier material within the National Folklore Collection, such as the following story from Co. Westmeath;

Once there was a man who used to be always playing cards. He went to ‘ramble’ every night where he could have a game. He had to cross a site on his way home.

As he was returning late one night he saw four men playing cards on the stile. They asked him to play, and he took a hand. He won the first game, and continued winning ‘like hell’. Soon he had two pounds winners.

This time the cards were dealt out, and he was going to rob with the ace of clubs. As he was playing his ace it happened to fall out of his hand onto the floor. He stooped to pick it up, but instead of the card he caught hold of a cloven foot! He fell in a dead faint. When he came to again he saw no men, no cards, no table. Neither had he his two pound’s winners!

NFCS 743: 162

This story is a short version of a migratory legend known internationally, titled ‘The Card-Players and the Devil’. It is well known in many countries and has been given the legend type ML 3015 by Reidar Christiansen in his work on migratory legends. Many readers might recognise a similar story told about Loftus Hall, Co. Wexford, or the Hell-Fire Club in Co. Dublin. There are several other versions told about different ‘big houses’ around the country, as Éilís Ní Anluain discusses in her article on the subject, including Kilfane, Co. Kilkenny, Castletown House, Co. Kildare and Dunboy Castle, Co. Cork. Other versions tell of the card player walking home late at night, followed by a black dog, or an unseen figure. It was thought unlucky to walk at night with a pack of cards in one’s pocket, unless the deck was ‘báite’or ‘báiteach’, meaning it was split with one half of the cards facing the other. While many other stories about the devil in Irish folklore portray him as easily tricked, in this migratory legend he is often a terrifying figure who refuses to leave the premises until he is exorcised, sometimes leaving a permanent scar on the building.

A fenced mansion in an unknown location. Photographer: Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh. National Folklore Collection, UCD.

The connection between card-playing, and by association, gambling, with the devil is also well known internationally, and popular attitudes to cards were often suspicious or disapproving. Ní Anluain also points out that the group of card players in this legend are often partaking in other habits that may be considered immoral, such as arguing, swearing, drinking and staying out late. Card-playing has also been periodically banned in different cities throughout history in an effort to curtail gambling, with the earliest known ban instated in Paris in 1377. Despite this, we know that card-playing was (and is still) a popular pastime. This is well illustrated by two published lists of vocabulary in Irish on the subject, one written by Seán Ó hEochaidh, full-time folklore collector in Donegal, and the other by lexicographer Tomás de Bhaldraithe. Both lists contain words and phrases used during game play, including terms for the different cards: An tSaileog Rua (‘The Ace of Hearts’ in Cois Fharraige, Co. Galway), and Náprún an Ghabha (‘The Ten of Spades’ in Cloich Chionnaola, Co. Donegal), to give just two examples. Ó hEochaidh suggests that this rich vocabulary was much enjoyed by the card players:

‘Sílim go mbaintear níos mó pléisiúir as na h-abairtí atá ag baint leis na cárdaí ná a baintear as a n-imirt fhéin. Má bhíonn duine tráthach ar scoil cárdaí a mbéidh eolas aige, agus é ag baint féidhme as an rud a ba ghrách le na leithéid siúd ’e shean-chearrbhach a rádh, is íontach an sult a bhaintear a chomhluadar as.’

I believe that more pleasure is taken from the phrases about cards than is taken from playing them. If a person who was ready-witted and knew much on the subject was attending an evening of card-play, and using the terms an older card player was likely to say, the company would enjoy it immensely.

A pack of Spanish playing cards from the 19th century with suits of cups, coins, clubs, swords. HA:1926.15.1-48 (displayed in “Soldiers & Chiefs” exhibition at National Museum of Ireland – Decorative Arts & History) © National Museum of Ireland
Images of playing cards from the collection of Francis Douce esq, as published in The Sports and Pastimes of the English People by Joseph Strutt. 528.H.28, National Folklore Collection, UCD

Some popular games mentioned in the material of the National Folklore Collection include familiar names, such as Snap, Old Maid (or Old Bachelor), Begger My Neighbour, and Twenty Five. Some accounts under ‘Games I Play’ in the Schools’ Collection go into detail about the rules of the game and how it is played. Indeed, card games remain an excellent example of oral tradition, as games using standard packs of playing cards are rarely learned in any other capacity other than taught to us by our elders, friends or other social groups. 

Card tricks, it seems, were also formally practiced, particularly at fairs. The specialist library of the NFC holds a section on games, sports and other amusements, and card playing is included in several books. Full explanations for games like ‘Pig’ and ‘Families’ are written for children in Three Hundred Games and Pastimes (or ‘What Shall We Do Now?’), published in 1922, while descriptions of cards played at wakes is included in Seán Ó Súilleabháin’s Irish Wake Amusements.

Cleasa ar Chártaí, written and illustrated by Liam Ó Míodhcháin. 528.I.22, National Folklore Collection, UCD
Three Hundred Games and Pastimes (or ‘What Shall We Do Now? NFC 528.J.93, National Folklore Collection, UCD

The subject of controlling one’s luck at cards is also well documented in the various collections of the NFC, and players are said to undertake symbolic actions to change their luck, such as walking three times around their chair, or going outside to turn a stone. Those seen to have bad luck at cards are thought to have possibly killed a dog or cat, and this is the reason for their misfortune, while another explanation could be that the card player was sitting under a rafter. It could also be lucky or unlucky to have certain people watching over one’s shoulder while playing cards. Pinning a pin or a needle on the inside of a card player’s coat is thought to bring them luck in cards, as is the presence of a woman knitting behind the card player.

Whether your preferred autumnal pastime involves staying in for a night of cards, or exploring the strange and sometimes scary stories to be found in Irish folklore, we hope you have an enjoyable October and a happy Hallowe’en!

This post was written by Ailbe van der Heide, Cúntóir Leabharlainne | Library Assistant, Cnuasach Bhéaloideas Éireann | National Folklore Collection.

Further Reading:

De Bháldraithe, Tomás. ‘Foclóirín na gCearrúch.’ Béaloideas 19, no. 1/2 (1949): 125-133.

Laird, Jay. ‘History of Playing Cards.’ in Carlisle, Rodney P., ed. Encyclopedia of Play in Today’s Society. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2009.

Ní Anluain, Éilís. ‘The Cardplayers and the Devil (ML 3015): Regional and Social Variation in Ireland.’ Béaloideas 59, (1991): 45-54.

Ó hEochaidh, Seán. ‘Cárdaí Agus Cearrbhachas.’ Béaloideas 22, (1953): 83.

One thought on “Cards and Card-Playing in the National Folklore Collection

  1. Finola Finlay says:

    What a wonderful post with great illustrations. I miss card playing – we loved it as kids when our parents took the time to play with us. 

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