Today I return to Irish animals but not from a cryptozoological perspective this time; rather a mythological or folklore perspective. Of course these areas overlap. This series does not pretend to be exhaustive; I am relying on two documents: Irish Superstitions and Legends of Animals and Birds and Birds by Patrick O`Sullivan (1991) and Myth, Legend & Romance An Encyclopaedia Of The Irish Folk Tradition by Dr Daithi O'Hogain. (1990) I do not know how many parts this series will run to but there will be enough parts to give credit to the subject.
BIRDS IN IRISH MYTHOLOGY
'The most celebrated bird in Irish mythology must surely be the swan. The children of Lir, Fionnuala and Aedh, Fiachra and Conn,were transformed into swans by their jealous stepmother, Aoife. Under this terrible enchantment they were obliged to spend three hundred years on Loch Dairbhreach, three hundred years on Sruth na Maoile and three hundred years at Irrus Domnann and Inis Gluaire. When the treacherous Aoife cast her spell upon her stepchildren she said:
Out out, upon the waters child swans of Lir
Fortune smiles not on your days of glory
Well may your friends bewail your fate
With clamorous birds shall be your doom' (1)
The swans were later (900 years later!) converted to Christianity on the island of Inis Gluaire by a holy man.
'The hedgehog with its spiny coat scarcely needs to be described. It hibernates in winter and during hibernation its temperature drops…It was said to steal milk from cows in some parts of the country. Its most distinctive behaviour pattern is,of course, to roll itself into a ball for protection, when its sharp spines must surely seem intimidating even to the most fierce of predators. Travellers were believed to be very fond of the flesh of the hedgehog. There was a fairly widespread belief that they rolled it up in a ball of clay and cooked it in that fashion. When the animal was cooked, the clay would crack,the spines and skin coming away with the clay. The flesh was then ready to be eaten.' (2)
'In many parts of Ireland the shrew was held to be a relative of the weasel, which it is not. In olden times there was at least one curious superstition regarding this diminuative animal. A cow that had been walked upon or run upon by a shrew would develop terrible swellings and would die if immediate action were not taken to remedy the situation. Such a cow was said to be `shrew-struck`. It was thought that the only way to save the cow`s life was to burn the body of a shrew and apply the ashes to the swellings.' (3)
'The otter is related to the stoat and the badger…The otter eats a great variety of fish but in Irish tradition his speciality was the salmon. It was widely believed that when he grabbed a salmon, he turned it down with the flood, and the flooding waters choked the fish…According to tradition, Lord Belmore of Florencecourt kept an otter as a pet…[The otter`s ] skin was also highly valued, and accounts of otter hunts were a regular feature of local newspapers throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth century.
'An interesting tale of an otter hunter goes as follows:
Once there was a man who spent a great deal of his time hunting and killing otters. On one occasion he caught an otter and when he was removing it from the trap, the otter snapped at his hand and inflicted a deep wound. The man tried one remedy after another but none of them worked and there was no improvement in the condition of hand. Then someone told him that he should kill another otter and eat the flesh and that would effect a cure. He did this and it is said that his hand was cured.
'According to the old saying, the otter was one of three things that never rested - the others being a steep waterfall and a demon from hell.' (4)
1.P. V.O` Sullivan Irish Superstitions and Legends of Animals and Birds (1991) p.21