St Johnston and Carrigans Donegal



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Folklore and My Binnion Childhood – Patrick Gormley

My name is Patrick Gormley. In my earlier days, I heard much about the oral history of the St Johnston and Carrigans area but unfortunately I was rather late in attaining a perception of how important this history was and is. But better late than never!

I was raised in Craighadoes, on the side of Binnion Hill, and was familiar with much of the local folklore. It was a sort of an isolated existence – not exactly old-fashioned or modern but a merging of the elements of both in such a way that it was hard to distinguish one from the other.

I went to school in Drumucklagh just a few weeks short of my fifth birthday. I remember feeling intimidated at the size of the school. Everything looks huge to a small child.

The school was partitioned in two. Junior and High Infants, First Class and Second Class were all put together in one room. Ethna McCloskey was my first teacher. It was only when I went into the room for the higher class that I realised  that there was more to the world that just Ireland. Prior to then, I thought Ireland was the only country there was.

Maths was my most detested subject and I can clearly remember the sums marked out on the board as Tens and Units. I was no fan of Irish either. Religion was very elementary and we got stickers with prayers and pictures to put in a book reminiscent of a scrap book. Miss McCloskey used Ice Cream wafers to train us for First Communion. As far as I was concerned, that was my Communion! I perceived the real First Communion more as an excuse for receiving gifts of money!

There was a well in a field nearby. Pupils were sternly warned to stay away from it but that only planted in us the desire to go to it. I was caught trying to make my way to it alone. Another rebellious thing I did was refusing to eat my lunch.

Lunch was bread jam and butter with a bottle of milk. The wooden floor came in handy if I decided I wanted to bang my feet on it to make a racket.

We were warned that when playing with plasticine not to mix the different colours together. We did and it became a bland brown colour.

I progressed rapidly in English and never was fond of games and just wanted to read instead. I had a strange longing for a day when information could come at the touch of a button. Little did I know that those days were coming.

My townland had strong traditions of occult lore such as ghosts and visits from the Devil. The story of men playing cards nearby down a lane and the Devil dressed in black coming to play was a scary one. The story of a neighbour and two others meeting a woman dressed in white on the road near Carrickmore was another chiller. The neighbour was undisturbed by what she saw but one of the other witnesses was, as a consequence, psychologically troubled afterwards.

Another chiller was the Stumpy’s Brae story – a ghoulish resurrection story of a man returning for his vengeance against his avaricious killers. The story of my Uncle Bob having cycled over the Brae one night made it seem so real. He arrived home in a state of incoherent terror but proved reticent in saying what scared him at the Brae. I didn’t like to fear that there was something behind the tale. I was prone to horrific nightmares as a child – maybe the ghostly tales had something to do with that!

The Devil seemed to be feared so much that babies were never taken out of the house except for the christening as it was thought to be bad luck.

 Christenings took place as soon as possible after birth. The bulb of some species of grass was known as Wee Folks Purdies. Having tasted the bulb I began to doubt that the Wee Folk really boiled them for their spuds!

Reading the stories of changelings in Ireland’s Own issues with the Green Cover was bittersweet. The changeling was one folklore tale I didn’t want to be true. There were some people who I heard were classed as changelings. The changeling was a wizened and sickly fairy child. A fairy woman would steal the
baby from the cot and take it away forever. She replaced the baby with her own child, the changeling. Placing fire tongs nearby was a charm that allegedly
deterred this ghostly child-snatcher.

Despite the tradition that the Guinea Hen was bad luck, we got one. It got out of my arms and was never seen again. Some would say that was luck! I believe I was told to cut the feathers off one wing so it couldn’t fly. To be sure, my contrarian self cut two wings but badly and it still got away like hopping.
Neighbours thought they could hear it on the hill for some time afterwards. I liked the dock leaf for it had a reputation for healing and soothing nettle stings.
Sometimes I stung myself on purpose to try the dock on it. It really did seem to work.

Washing the hair on Good Friday was thought to work as charm against getting colds and flu.  Despite the warnings that it was bad luck, I did like to gather snowdrops and take them into the house!

I remember my first visit to Mongavlin Castle. It was not the castle from the fairy-tales that I kind of hoped I’d see. It was a ruin that even on a nice day radiated gothic horror. I knew the rudiments of the tale of the wealthy and evil lady who built it. She reputedly had a harem of Crawfords and her ghost enrobed in white allegedly haunts the site and has been spotted even in houses nearby! I remember feeling it was not a place I’d even want to think about at night!

It is interesting how the folklore and superstition I remember seems to have disappeared today. Then I think how they have really just changed form and are
still with us in principle. They tend to be fads that come, morph and go in a flash.

Today’s folklore and superstition has a more scientific veneer! Like the thought that you become immune to multi-vitamins if you take them beyond a few months! How things change in so little a time!