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Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales tales of Ireland
To cure or to curse
Dotted around Ireland in many places can be found bullán stones, meaning “bowls”, which are stones, large and small, with a depression or bowl in them, often filled with water. These are usually of great antiquity, stretching back before the time of St Patrick and before the time of Cú Chulainn and Fionn Mac Cumhaill, and who can say, even before the time of the Tuatha Dé Dannan?
You might find a bullán known in the area adorned with religious icons, filled with coins or other gifts, and decorated with flowers. Needless to say the Church was less than enthusiastic about their pagan origins, as the sixth century Council of Tours ordered Christians:
“...to expel from the Church all those whom they may see performing before certain stones things which have no relation with the ceremonies of the Church... ”
These mysterious stones have long been a source of wonder and magic to the people of Ireland, and although the Church repurposed many of them as holy water fonts or for baptism, many of the ancient traditions surrounding them remain to this day.
Most often they were known as either cursing or curing stones, and tales tell of wise women of Ireland who could heal ailments and injuries using the water from these bulláns, or could instead put a curse on someone by “turning the stone”! This didn't men they lifted the stones bodily of course, many of them are fixed fast to the earth, but rather they walked around the stones in what was known as a pattern before casting their curse. Some stones can be quite large, and have many basins in them.
Not all of them are of such great age mind you, in Killare Saint Aid was said to have banged his head off a stone at his birth, which left a dent and became another bullán. Often enough a bullán is associated with a saint who is said to have knelt there to pray, or used it as a pillow.
Where there are not offerings, a pebble or rounded boulder can sometimes be found in a bullán stone, and in Ballyvourney the pebbles are turned around whenever a pattern or walk is completed. If someone wished to put a malediction on another, they might turn the stones anti-clockwise at dawn, but the curse had to be justified, or it would come back to them before the sun set! And the effect was said to be dramatic - even sinking ships, as the tale of the HMS Wasp and a man called Heggarty on Tory Island shows.
The curse of a widow or traveller were said to be the most powerful, and to be free of the curse you needed to put your hand into the same bowl from which the curse was cast.
The only thing we know about them for sure, in truth, is that we don't know much about them, except such remnants as remain in folk memory, and as enigmatic and mysterious as they are, their appeal grows all the more.
Ballyvourney bullán is marked on the map below.
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