Emerald Isle

Mallaithe the Cursed Places of Ireland

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

Three marks of evil

You will know the cursed place by these three tokens – an elder tree, a lonesome calling corncrake, and thickets of nettles. Should a traveller see, smell and hear these signs they would know to turn around quick and hurry back the way they had come, before something unpleasant took an interest in them!

The Irish made cursing into an art form and a craft, a science unto itself, with many different forms, varieties and levels of curse. Whether it was walking on the eggshell of a piseóg or getting the full and fearsome lash of a priest's curse, the people of Ireland had great faith in their curses.

But if you were to ask them about the Mallaithe, they would tell you that no faith was needed and say no more, going silent and looking askance at the shadows in the corner.

Knowledge of these places, which were avoided by the wise and by more wholesome animals, was passed down by word of mouth from ancient times and written in the Trecheng breth Féne, or Triads of Ireland. This was a book composed in the form of a triadic arrangement of the judgments and sayings of the Irish.

Three was a very important number to the old Irish, a mystical number, and they tended to pay closer attention to things which happened in threes, taking it as a sign of otherworldly activity. But they often cloaked their wisdom in words which had meaning only to one another, meaning which has often since been lost.

And so it was with the Mallaithe – an elder tree meant a foul or unpleasant smell, a corncrake meant an unwelcome or unpleasant sound, and the nettles stood for unpleasant sensations, underfoot or to the hand. The name might call to mind fetid swamps and bogs, filled with biting things and pestilence, but there was another deeper and darker aspect to the Mallaithe.

If a hawthorn fairy tree was cut down, a cairn was broken or an old fairy mound was despoiled, the land became accursed and left as an abode for nameless dark things. If a house was built nearby, it would be covered by a dark cloud of misfortune until it was burned completely to the ground.

One place widely known as a Mallaithe was the old Hellfire Club, built on the site of an ancient cairn which had been razed by William Connolly. Shortly after it was built the roof was lifted off in a terrible storm, but the stubborn aristocrat roofed it in stone, whereafter it became a place of terrible repute, uncanny visitors and evil doings, until it burned and was left abandoned.

Many an old farmstead and ruined cottage in Ireland is overgrown with nettles, some say as a fading echo of the curses left behind by their evicted former inhabitants.

A flute made from the elder tree could be used to summon spirits, and its berries were made into a thick wine at Samhain, which was consumed to give visions and help with divination. So widely known were the Mallaithe that you could curse a person by saying that you hoped their descendants would become elder trees, nettles and corncrakes!

The site of the Hellfire Club is marked on the map below.

Further Folk and Faerie Tales of Ireland

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