Emerald Isle

Irish Moon Knots

Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales tales of Ireland

The ties that bind

The tying of elaborate knots to bind a wish or curse is an ancient practise in Ireland. The followers of Manannan, lord of the waters, were reputed to tie reeds into eldritch shapes and cast them into bogs as an offering. Different knots had different spiritual meanings, as with the St Bridgit’s cross, rushes woven into a Christian icon. Our famously beautiful Celtic knotwork may even be an expression of this tradition!

Druids in earlier times would croon strange melodies under the sickle moon as they worked spells and incantations, spirits and even storms into their knots with careful and cunning fingers, but of that the wise will say no more, although some may whisper of serpent-ways and converse with, or even worship of the wyrms of old.

Belief in this sort of thing persisted for long and long throughout Ireland, some say even to the present day. For the piseóg or word of the curse was closely linked to súgán ropes, which are a kind of straw rope you may have seen used to make the seats of chairs or beds in old cottages. The word súgán also means weakness, as a term of contempt, and sometimes a woven straw doll was used instead, particularly in the south of the country.

This rope would bring together the ingredients of the curse, and woe betide any who broke the bonds in an unfitting manner.

But not for malevolent purposes alone were knots tied, for the Parshell cross was meant to keep the dead from your door at Hallowe’en, being two lengths of rowan wood tied with red thread and wheaten straw according to a certain ancient pattern.

These kinds of bindings were collectively known as bhuarach, or cow-ties, and were traditionally used to keep cows from kicking and wandering while they were being milked. Witches, it was said, would make bhuarach from the hair of cows’ tails and use it to magically steal the milk and good luck from a farmer.

This was done by boiling the hair and then twisting it very hard into a rope with an eye at each end, through which a small stick or bone called a buairicín was pushed. There are accounts of women seen in farmers fields going around with a bhuarach and bucket collecting a hair from each cow or milking one cow from each local farmer as well as collecting the morning dew from the farmers’ fields.

The farmer himself might make one and take it to church to receive a blessing from the priest, especially on Palm Sunday and on Bealtaine or May Day morning to help milk their cattle. If a witch could steal that, I’ll tell you the farmer was in trouble!

The witch would make milking motions with it and chant wicked curses to drive away the farmer’s good luck or steal all his milk.

Of an even more sinister sort was the buarach bháis, or the binding of the dead. Reputable accounts tell that workers of the dark arts would make a cord from “an unbroken hoop of skin cut with incantations from a corpse across the entire body from shoulder to footsole and wrapped in silk of the colours of the rainbow and used as a spancel to tie the legs of a person to produce certain effects of witchcraft,” or so claimed the redoubtable Father Dinneen in the eighteenth century.

It had been made from the illegitimate daughter of Sir Henry Lynch-Bloss at the instruction of his jilted mistress Sibella Cottle, the jilted mistress. This was then meant to be tied around the head of the man a woman wanted as a husband and called a boghain a bhfasgaí, or ring of service.

It could also be worn as a belt to change one’s own shape or that of others, among other strange properties. Some of the bog bodies which have been recovered from their aeons-old resting places have such cords tied around their necks.

Stories tell of parish priests finding these strips of skin even into the twentieth century and burning them publicly after Mass!

Read now the tale of the death-spancel, which means in English that very same thing as the buarach bháis...

High up among the dusty rafters of Aughagree Chapel dangles a thin shrivelled thing, towards which the people look shudderingly when the sermon is of the terrors of the Judgment and the everlasting fire. The woman from whose dead body that was taken chose the death of the soul in return for a life with the man whom she loved with an unholy passion. Every man, woman, and child in that chapel amid gray miles of rock and sea-drift, has heard over and over of the unrepentant deathbed of Maureen Houlihan.

They whisper on winter nights of how Father Hugh fought with the demons for her soul, how the sweat poured from his forehead, and he lay on his face in an agony of tears, beseeching that the sinner whom he had admitted into the fold of Christ should yet be saved. But of her love and her sin she had no repentance, and the servants in Rossatorc Castle said that as the priest lay exhausted from his vain supplications, and the rattle was in Dark Maureen's throat, there were cries of mocking laughter in the air above the castle, and a strange screaming and flapping of great wings, like to, but incomparably greater than, the screaming and flapping of the eagle over Slieve League. That devil's charm up there in the rafters of Aughagree is the death-spancel by which Dark Maureen bound Sir Robert Molyneux to her love.

It is of such power that no man born of woman can resist it, save by the power of the Cross, and 'twas little Robert Molyneux of Rossatorc recked of the sweet Christ who perished that men should live—against whose Cross the demons of earth and the demons of air, the malevolent spirits that lurk in water and wind, and all witches and evil doctors, are powerless.

But the thought of the death-spancel must have come straight from the King of Fiends himself, for who else would harden the human heart to desecrate a new grave, and to cut from the helpless dead the strip of skin unbroken from head to heel which is the death-spancel? Very terrible is the passion of love when it takes full possession of a human heart, and no surer weapon to the hand of Satan when he would make a soul his own. And there is the visible sign of a lost soul, and it had nearly been of two, hanging harmlessly in the rafters of the holy place.

A strange thing to see where the lamp of the sanctuary burns, and the sea-wind sighs sweetly through the door ever open for the continual worshippers.

Sir Robert Molyneux was a devil-may-care, sporting squire, with the sins of his class to his account. He drank, and gambled, and rioted, and oppressed his people that they might supply his pleasures; nor was that all, for he had sent the daughter of honest people in shame and sorrow over the sea. People muttered when they heard he was to marry Lord Dunlough's daughter, that she would be taking another woman's place; but it was said yet again that it would be well for his tenants when he was married, for the lady was so kind and charitable, so gentle and pure, that her name was loved for many a mile.

She had never heard the shameful story of that forlorn girl sailing away and away in the sea-mist, with her unborn child, to perish miserably, body and soul, in the streets of New York. She had the strange love of a pure woman for a wild lover; and she thought fondly when she caressed his fine, jolly, handsome face that soon his soul as well as his dear body would be in her keeping: and what safe keeping it would be.

Sir Robert had ever a free way with women of a class below his own, and he did not find it easy to relinquish it. When he was with the Lady Eva he felt that under those innocent, loving eyes a man could have no desire for a lesser thing than her love; but when he rode away, the first pretty girl he met on the road he held in chat that ended with a kiss.

He was always for kissing a pretty face, and found the habit hard to break, though there were times when he stamped and swore great oaths to himself that he would again kiss no woman's lips but his wife's—for the man had the germ of good in him.

It was a fortnight to his wedding day, and he had had a hard day's hunting. From early morning to dewy eve they had been at it, for the fox was an old one and had led the dogs many a dance before this. He turned homeward with a friend, splashed and weary, but happy and with the appetite of a hunter. Well for him if he had never set foot in that house.

As he came down the stairs fresh and shining from his bath, he caught sight of a girl's dark handsome face on the staircase. She was one of the servants, and she stood aside to let him pass, but that was never Robert Molyneux's way with a woman. He flung his arm round her waist in a way so many poor girls had found irresistible. For a minute or two he looked in her dark splendid eyes; but then as he bent lightly to kiss her, she tore herself from him with a cry and ran away into the darkness.

He slept heavily that night, the dead sleep of a man who has hunted all day and has drunk deep in the evening. In the morning he awoke sick and sorry, a strange mood for Robert Molyneux; but from midnight to dawn he had lain with the death-spancel about his knees.

In the blackness of his mind he had a great longing for the sweet woman, his love for whom awakened all that was good in him. His horse had fallen lame, but after breakfast he asked his host to order out a carriage that he might go to her. Once with her he thought all would be well. Yet as he stood on the doorstep he had a strange reluctance to go.

It was a drear, gray, miserable day, with sleet pattering against the carriage windows. Robert Molyneux sat with his head bent almost to his knees, and his hands clenched. What face was it rose against his mind, continually blotting out the fair and sweet face of his love? It was the dark, handsome face of the woman he had met on the stairs last night. Some sudden passion for her rose as strong as hell-fire in his breast.

There were many long miles between him and Eva, and his desire for the dark woman raged stronger and ever stronger in him. It was as if ropes were around his heart dragging it backward. He fell on his knees in the carriage, and sobbed.

If he had known how to pray he would have prayed, for he was torn in two between the desire of his heart for the dark woman, and the longing of his soul for the fair woman. Again and again he started up to call the coachman to turn back; again and again he flung himself in the bottom of the carriage, and hid his face and struggled with the curse that had come upon him. And every mile brought him nearer to Eva and safety.

The coachman drove on in the teeth of the sleet and wondered what Sir Robert would give him at the drive's end. A half-sovereign would not be too much for so open-handed a gentleman, and one so near his wedding; and the coachman, already feeling his hand close upon it, turned a brave face to the sleet and tried not to think of the warm fire in the harness-room from which they had called him to drive Sir Robert.

Half the distance was gone when he heard a voice from the carriage window calling him. He turned round. “Back! Back!” said the voice. “Drive like hell! I will give you a sovereign if you do it under an hour.” The coachman was amazed, but a sovereign is better than a half-sovereign. He turned his bewildered horses for home.

Robert Molyneux's struggle was over. Eva's face was gone now altogether. He only felt a mad joy in yielding, and a wild desire for the minutes to pass till he had traversed that gray road back. The coachman drove hard and his horses were flecked with foam, but from the windows Robert Molyneux kept continually urging him, offering him greater and greater rewards for his doing the journey with all speed.

Halfway up the cypress avenue to his friend's house a woman with a shawl about her head glided from the shadow and signalled to the darkly flushed face at the carriage window. Robert Molyneux shouted to the man to stop. He sprang from the carriage and lifted the woman in. Then he flung the coachman a handful of gold and silver. “To Rossatorc,” he said, and the man turned round and once more whipped up his tired horses. The woman laughed as Robert Molyneux caught her in his arms. It was the fierce laughter of the lost. “I came to meet you,” she said, “because I knew you must come.”

From that day, when Robert Molyneux led the woman over the threshold of his house, he was seen no more in the usual places of his fellow-men. He refused to see any one who came. His wedding-day passed by. Lord Dunlough had ridden furiously to have an explanation with the fellow and to horsewhip him when that was done, but he found the great door of Rossatorc closed in his face. Every one knew Robert Molyneux was living in shame with Maureen Houlihan.

Lady Eva grew pale and paler, and drooped and withered in sorrow and shame, and presently her father took her away, and their house was left to servants. Burly neighbouring squires rode up and knocked with their riding-whips at Rossatorc door to remonstrate with Robert Molyneux, for his father's sake or for his own, but met no answer. All the servants were gone except a furtive-eyed French valet and a woman he called his wife, and these were troubled with no notions of respectability.

After a time people gave up trying to interfere. The place got a bad name. The gardens were neglected and the house was half in ruins. No one ever saw Maureen Houlihan's face except it might be at a high window of the castle, when some belated huntsman taking a short-cut across the park would catch a glimpse of a wild face framed in black hair at an upper window, the flare of the winter sunset lighting it up, it might be, as with a radiance from hell.

Sir Robert drank, they said, and rack-rented his people far worse than in the old days. He had put his business in the hands of a disreputable attorney from a neighbouring town, and if the rent was not paid to the day the roof was torn off the cabin, and the people flung out into the ditch to rot.

So the years went, and folk ever looked for a judgment of God on the pair. And when many years were over, there came to Father Hugh, wringing her hands, the wife of the Frenchman, with word that the two were dying, and she dared not let them die in their sins.

But Maureen Houlihan, Dark Maureen, as they called her, would not to her last breath yield up the death-spancel which she had knotted round her waist, and which held Robert Molyneux's love to her. When the wicked breath was out of her body they cut it away, and it lay twisted on the ground like a dead snake. Then on Robert Molyneux, dying in a distant chamber, came a strange peace. All the years of sin seemed blotted out, and he was full of a simple repentance such as he had felt long ago when kneeling by the gown of the good woman whom he had loved. So Father Hugh absolved him before he died, and went hither and thither through the great empty rooms shaking his holy water, and reading from his Latin book.

And lest any in that place, where they have fiery southern blood in their veins, should so wickedly use philtres or charms, he hung the death-spancel in Aughagree Chapel for a terrible reminder.

The household of Henry Lynch-Bloss in Balla is marked on the map below.

Further Folk and Faerie Tales of Ireland

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