01 Jul 2022

Forgotten Folklore: Superstitions

By Fiona Heavey

By Fiona Heavey

Best of luck to you and yours on this Friday – Friday the 13th.

Friday the 13th is known as an unlucky day, shrouded in mystery and evil.

It’s not certain where the superstition about Friday the 13th comes from but one of the most common theories is that there were 13 people at the Last Supper and Christ died on Good Friday, hence Friday the 13th. There are also Spanish, Norse and Old English theories but this is one of the most quoted. Either way, believe or not many of us are just that little bit more careful crossing the road, driving or getting out of bed on Friday 13th – just in case.

Friday the 13th is not just an Irish superstition, but in general we are well known for our pagan adherence to superstitions. From black cats to walking under ladders, to spotting magpies and throwing salt over our shoulders we are the Superstition capital of the Western World.

Birth and marriages carry a large number of traditional rules, but no event has as many superstitions to stick to as funerals.

This week we take look back at funerals customs in the county in the late 1930s.

Funeral Customs

When a person dies it is a custom to stop the clock and cover the mirror with a white cloth. The dead body is called a corpse and the Protestant families dress it in a white robe called a shroud, while the Roman Catholics dress it in a crown habit.

The bed is draped in white and usually a small table is placed beside it with a white cloth on it and two candles are left burning on it in tall candlesticks. The corpse is kept in the house for two nights and the bedroom door must be kept open as it would be unlucky to close a corpse up in a room.

All the friends and neighbours from far and near gather in for those two nights. In some places they bring a parcel of tea and sugar. This is called a ‘comóra.’ Most of the people stay up all night.

Tea is given round during the night and lots of loaf bread and jam, also clay pipes and tobacco. This is supposed to be the dead person’s last treat to all these visitors.

In some districts storytellers and singers keep the people amused and they do not find the night passing. Some superstitious people consider it very unlucky to leave “a wake” (as this gathering is called) after 12 o clock.

The banshee is supposed to cry for a week before the members of certain families die. They do not cry for everybody. Others appear to their friends before they die.

The corpse is always put in a wooden casket all mounted and decorated with brass or silver and a large brass plate on the lid, and on this plate is the person’s name, age and the date of death.

The whole talk amongst Protestants is who will have the biggest procession and amongst the Roman Catholics who will have the biggest amount of offerings.

In Co Leitrim money is lifted over the dead to have masses said. The amount lifted depends on the dead person’s means, generosity and popularity.

It is the custom to have beautiful wreaths of flowers placed on the coffin and afterwards on the grave. The relatives all wear black and sometimes black and white as a sign of mourning.

Some people erect a headstone to their dead relations. Long ago a flat tombstone was laid over the grave. The names, ages and dates of death are cut on these. Very old families have vaults in which the coffin is laid. Each grave plot is marked out with an iron railing or stone curbing.

The graveyard in which the Protestants of this parish bury is at Manorhamilton. The oldest headstone in it is to James Taylor dated 1859. This is called the new graveyard. There is an old graveyard down at the back of the town. Only the oldest families bury in it.

Collected from Scoil Whiterock, Cluain Chláir. Author unknown.

Leitrim School’s Folklore archive (1937-38) is available in Leitrim County Library and is the property of the National Folklore Collection UCD

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