Emerald Isle

The Irish Bee

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Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales from the Historical Cycle

The humble bee, an important part of ancient Irish culture

The Irish bee has been a beloved part of the culture and folklore as long as there have been people in Ireland, producing honey for cakes and mead as well as beeswax which has no end of uses. Many's the warm summer evening has been filled with their gentle humming above the beautiful flowers they help to pollinate.

And yet for all that, old stories tell that the bees are quick to take offence, and should be treated as you would your own family! Everything to do with people getting married and having children, as well as those who have passed away, should be whispered to them.

They don't go so much for the local gossip mind you as they're usually too busy and almost never read the newspapers, but they'll tell one another important tidings as they dance. Neither was it considered good to argue or curse near the beehive for fear they'd up and leave, and then they had to be followed by women and children banging pots and pans. Should they land on a dead branch, that meant death was coming to someone nearby.

If someone got married, a slice of cake was left near the hive, and in the event of a death, a black ribbon was laid across it before the wake was held, and they were to be told before sunrise of the next day so they could prepare to attend the funeral.

St. Modomnóc of Ossory was famous for his hives of loyal bees. Having been granted their care in a corner of his monastery in Wales, he made sure only the tastiest flowers were planted and he would speak to them as he walked among them, never being stung once, although great clouds of them would buzz around him.

When he decided to return to Ireland, thrice the bees came and landed on the ship's mast, and he set up more hives at his church in Bremore, near Balbriggan.

Other Saints were well known by their association with bees, like Saint Gobnait, who asked their help to protect her people!

The English soldiers came and took a lot of stock in Ballyvourney, but on their way out the east road, Saint Gobnait released the bees from the bee-hive. They started to sting the soldiers until they were left without an eye or a nose and they were forced to leave the stuff behind them.

If a bumblebee or bumbóg was to come to the window, it would be to tell those within of a visitor on the way, and if the bee had a red tail, it would be a man, and white, a lady. And if he came in, it was neither man nor woman but a nice bit of money that was on the way! Should you dream of being stung by a bee, it was believed a friend would betray you.

In olden times, it was the custom that only by the exchange of gold, gift, barter or loan could a beehive be bought or sold. The old people had many laws and beliefs to do with the bees, called "bee judgements". Under the law of the free Feni which was written and enforced by the poets who became Brehon judges, if bees took nectar from another person's land, it was considered trespassing!

If that happened you could keep your bees for three years, but on the fourth the swarm had to be given to that person on whose land they had been feeding, and so each year after everyone would get their own swarm, as sharp-eyed Gaels raced after bees to see where they were going, and covered the fields with flowers while they were at it. Hives could be given in tribute to a king.

If someone got stung they could get a pot of honey, as long as they hadn't killed the bee that did it, but if someone was killed by bees their family could claim two full hives.

It is said that the sting of the bee could help with the pains of old bones and other problems.

On the map below is marked the church of St. Modomnóc!


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Irish fairy tales, Irish folklore