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The Mallacht - Art of the Irish Curse

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

Through his occult power, he turned on them a magic breath

Cursing of various sorts has a history as long and rich as Ireland's own, stretching from the very earliest tales of the first settlers in Ireland all the way to the modern day. Whether a quick muttered malediction on someone who had crossed you or an elaborate, lengthy poem intended to satirise and ruin the legacy of a king, the mallacht, or curse, has served many purposes through the ages.

Curses were divided into various types – from the casual curse to the openly occult piseóg, as well as Druidic battle curses called the Anáil Siabhráin, which meant the breath of the demon, or the breath of the underworld. It was used to great effect at the siege of Knocklong:

Through his occult power, he turned on them a magic breath
and as a result every man in the crowd took on the appearance of the druid himself.
Each man became a grey-haired imposing figure such as the druid himself was.
They had crossed the stream in pursuit of the druid
and now they turned on each other and the massacre began.
There was pulling out of hair, struggling, giving blow for blow
and each one delivering mighty savage strokes on the breast and face of the other
for each one believed that it was the druid himself that he was attacking
.”

"After this, Colpa set out for the ford at Ráithín an Iomardaigh and while he was on his way from the camp Mogh Roith dispatched a magic breath northwards against him so that the stones and sand of the earth became furious devastating balls of fire all the way to the ford. Only with difficulty could Colpa put his foot on the ground as the fire singed and scorched him and the sedges of the plain turned into raging dogs barking and screaming at him. And it was as if the bushes of the plain were savage, immense, rough, fat-necked oxen who roared and screamed at his approach. Seeing all this, Colpa was filled with dread."

Géises were a kind of curse or forbidding which was placed on every Irish person at their birth, usually being a list of things they were to avoid or disaster would follow. The sugán was a twist of straw rope with curse words bound into it as it was woven, and there were also intricate bardic curses, or the curses of the file, which meant poets or more often seers.

Before battles began in earnest, heroes would first engage in a duel of curses and formal insults, the bríatharcath, and their wives sometimes got in on it too! The terror of the curse was so widespread and persistent that by the seventeenth century, laws were passed in Ireland by both the Church and the nobility forbidding the “monstrous curse”.

Gaelic was considered far superior to English when it came to cursing, with at least thirteen different words to describe a curse and many others for the act of cursing and identifying the accursed as well!

But most cursing was of a more mundane and workaday sort, such as “that ye may never have a day’s luck! That all belonging to ye may die with the hunger! That your eyes may fall out of your head!”

The solemn curse was a more serious business, and just how serious it was depended on who was casting it – the unpaid blacksmith was notorious for the power of his curses, the curse of a spurned beggar was feared, the curse of a widow cast from her home was to be avoided at all costs, but none came close to the awesome supernatural force of the priest's curse.

Priests in Ireland employed curses for all sorts of purposes, in their conflicts with the protestant English, to shame parishioners who were acting in a scandalous way in public, and even to get votes for Irish candidates during such elections as were held!

But of course it wasn't just the priests using curses for political gain, as one letter sent to a landlord in the late 19th century showed:

“may you wither up by the fire of hell soon and sudden, may the flesh rot off your bones, and fall away putrid before your eyes, and may the consolation of eternal flames come to be your consolation in your last illness, and the hearthstone of hell be your pillow for ever”

Not to beat around the bush or anything! But as lyrical as the Irish solemn curse was, it couldn't hold a candle to the curses of the old people of Ireland. Such an art did they make of it that only certain grades of Druid, Poet and Satirist could use particular forms of cursing, and the curses themselves were carefully divided into three parts.

The satirical curse was known as the Áer, which means cutting or slashing, and the satirist was a terrible enemy indeed, for their curses were meant to take literal immediate effect, like unseen magical weapons. Satirising a person without good cause or without proper authority entitled the victim to the same fee as if they had been murdered! Members of the poetic orders would be hired as mercenaries to lampoon the enemies of powerful Irish lords.

There were three types of satirical curse, and these were declaration, insult, and incantation. Each of these three types were again divided into many parts, for example the satirical curse of the incantation, of which there were ten types.

The ten were called “son of womb” or innuendo, “word in opposition”, the satire of outrage, the  outrage of  praise, the touch of satire, the touch of praise, full satire, sarcasm and glám dícind, a type of spell which results in the guilty party manifesting three blisters on his face in an endless or permanent bite, and finally the “dark word” spoken in private, which caused various forms of blindness.

To show the power of the glám dícind we need look no further than the tales of Cú Chulainn, whose own foster brother Ferdiad is forced to fight against him to the death, for fear of the shame that could be inflicted by the satirists, the biters of cheeks, who were employed by Queen Medb.

We find in other ancient tales the power of a justified curse, as when the poet Cairpre was received poorly by his host, the noble Bres. He was taken to a narrow, dark and dim little hut for his lodging, and given three little dry cakes for his breakfast, so he decided to cast a satirical curse upon his ungracious benefactor.

Without food speedily on a platter,
Without a cow’s milk whereon a calf thrives,
Without a man’s habitation after the staying of darkness,
Be that the luck of Bres Mac Eladain

And so it came to pass!

It would seem that the justification of a curse was important, and the curse would only work on someone who deserved it. A curse cast without good reason would not only fail, it would rebound back on the ill-wisher unless they quickly cancelled their curse with a prayer! “When we do not deserve the curse we would not heed it, the curse of the wicked never availed,” as one farmer in Mayo was heard to say.

Curses could be defeated with a quick riposte, so that if someone said “bad luck to you,” you could negate the malediction by quickly saying “good luck to you, and may neither of them come true!” So the best curses were well prepared in advance, being complicated and difficult to answer.

The practice of cursing persists in Ireland to the present day, although not to the extent it used to of course, although even fairly recently there are records of sophisticated curses being laid upon evildoers.

In the 19th century people who were being evicted would cast the “fire of stones” curse, building up a pile of stones in every hearth in the house, saying “not until these fires burn shall the newcomers have any good luck”.

In Donegal around 1884 there was a hated landlord who had demolished almost fifty homes so that he could have a better view of the landscape, and of him it was said “on Tory Island, off the Donegal coast, there is a stone which, if it could be turned, and the name of Mr Adair repeated over it, would have been sure to bring about his death within a year.” Tory island was reputed to be the ancient home of the dark sorcerer Balor of the evil eye.

Some twenty years later the curse was repeated, when the HMS Wasp was sent to evict Inishtrahull islanders who were in arrears on their rent. However, as the ship approached the island at about 4am, it ran aground and quickly sank, taking fifty two of the fifty eight crewmen down with it.

As the story went, a man who claimed to be the King of Tory Island, a strange fellow by the name of Heggarty, had unleashed the curse of the stones upon the ship and sank it. When the local priest heard of this pagan carry-on however, he went to the clifftop and took the stones from their bullaun resting place, throwing them into the ocean in rage, and they have never been seen since.

Ballinamallard, which means “the ford of the curses”, is marked on the map below.


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