Opinion: Tradition dictated that Irish people should avoid all the dangers associated with Whit Sunday by not leaving the house

By Marion McGarryGalway Mayo Institute of Technology

We have become used to being told to stay at home in recent months by the government due to the Covid-19 pandemic. In the past, tradition dictated that Irish people should not venture out on a certain day in the year: Whit Sunday. This was considered the unluckiest day of the year and it was best to avoid all dangers by not leaving the house. There were many strange beliefs of this day which falls this year on May 31st.

In Ireland Hallowe'en is the ghostliest time, and Bealtaine is the day when faery activity is at its height. But Whitsuntide was when it was believed that true evil was present on earth and true evil is best avoided. Until recent times, many interesting customs were practised, including the sprinkling of blood to appease evil spirits and counter-spells cast on infants born at this time.

The seventh Sunday after Easter is known as Whit Sunday, traditionally regarded in Ireland as that "fatal and unlucky time" and thought to be the unluckiest day of the year. The name "whit" is thought to be derived from "white" referring to the purity of Christ. Whit week runs from Whit Sunday until the day before Trinity Sunday. This was considered a highly threatening time of the year, when evil was at its most potent, a time for accidents and bad things to happen.

How to avoid accidents

People therefore put counter measures in place to break any potential spells and the protect themselves.  Any activity that might cause accidental harm was to be avoided at Whitsuntide. Setting out on a long journey or commencing a dangerous occupation was discouraged. Games such as hurling or football were not played on Whit Sunday in case of accidents.

Water in particular was regarded to have "an evil spirit in it" at this time so sailing, swimming, crossing water or even walking along the water's edge were advised against at this time. Boats were considered to be at risk of overturning. An old myth was that all of those who had died by drowning would come back on Whit Sunday to force the living to join them in the water.

Anyone born at Whitsuntide was thought cursed and sure to cause a harm to others in the course of their lives. They were known as "cingcíse" and it was foretold that those born at this time would grow up to kill another, known as the spell of "the wicked hand". If such a person injured another, even by accident, it would end fatally - the wound would take long to heal and potentially cause death.

Sick people were not to be left alone at this time and certainly not left in the dark

To counteract this prophesy, the baby cingcíse would be made to crush and kill something small in its hand (such as a worm or a fly). Alternatively, a shallow "grave" was dug, in which the child was laid for a few moments to break the spellAlthough cingcíse were considered to be contrary and difficult people, they also had some gifts, such as the ability to strike anything they aimed at.

Animals born at this time were also considered to be cingcíse, and a foal or a calf was thought especially unlucky. To counteract this, a sod of earth would be ritually placed on the baby animal's head for a few moments. Farmers would resolve to try to sell such animals. Similarly, it was considered most unlucky to hatch eggs during Whit week as it was thought the chickens would either be deformed or die.

Sickness and Whitsuntide were interlinked. It was thought that a person would be sick for the entire year if they were sick on Whit Sunday. The sick were perceived to be particularly vulnerable and, if one took ill at this time, there was thought to be a great danger of death, as evil spirits were on the look out to carry such defenseless people away. Sick people were not to be left alone at this time and certainly not left in the dark. Light was very important in guarding the sick against the evil spirits of Whitsuntide, as was fire.

As evil spirits were thought to be about, holy water was sprinkled especially copiously at this time in the home, on the farm and on animals. Folklorist and author (and Oscar Wilde's mother) Lady Wilde believed that spirits were most likely to "bewitch the cattle, carry off the young children, come up from the sea to hold strange midnight revels, when they kill with their fairy darts the unhappy mortal who crosses their oaths and pries at their mysteries".

A person who bathed on Whit Sunday would get ill and not recover, while a person who slept outdoors on Whit Sunday might become insane. In the more distant past, blood was poured out as an offering to the evil spirits. Some people made two bonfires and passed livestock and animals through them all in attempting to drive the evil of the day away.

Added reasons then not to leave your home, stay safe and above all avoid the water next Sunday! 

Dr Marion McGarry is an art historian, author, independent researcher and lecturer at Galway Mayo Institute of Technology


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ