Opinion: piseogs were believed to be deliberately enacted with evil intent and came with connotations of magic and voodoo

By Marion McGarry, Galway Mayo Institute of Technology

Pisoegs or pishogues are those odd baseless superstitions that have a long tradition in Ireland. The word piseog has different contexts in Ireland: it can mean a superstitious belief or practice, or it can mean a charm or spell.

In the first form, piseogs are pretty common beliefs and superstitions, and some are not exclusive to Ireland. Mainly quaint beliefs like these are related to retaining luck and are common the world over. They have their more modern equivalents, such as misfortune being accrued by stepping on cracks on the pavement or "joy" being expected on seeing two magpies together. These persist today.

There was also a long practice of particularly Irish piseogs. If you look at the invaluable Schools Folklore Collection, you will see many entries for piseogs. These include "if you break a mirror, it is a sign of seven years bad luck"; "if you meet a red haired women when you are starting on a journey you will have bad luck on that journey" or "if a coal falls from the fire it is a sign that you will have a visitor".

From RTÉ Radio 1's Countrywide, John Flaherty on piseogs in Ireland

Along with these superstitions, there was a strong rural belief in faeries and their appeasement for fear of accruing bad luck. People would not throw water out at night without shouting a warning for the faeries to stand clear. Before tasting their poitín, illegal distillers would spill the first drop on the ground for the faeries. The cross marked on brown bread was, according to some stories, rooted in faery placation. There were many such beliefs, with some regional variations.

Magic and voodoo

However, the word piseog also refers to spells deliberately enacted with evil intent. This is the altogether more sinister side of the piseog in Ireland and there are connotations of magic and even forms of voodoo at play here.

There was much belief in these, especially amongst the rural population, until the mid-20th century. In the days before scientific understanding and modern medicine, the idea of luck was a huge concern. Bad luck was often seen as being something you obtained by upsetting the wrong people or supernatural beings. If your crop failed, your butter did not churn or your health or the health of your livestock failed, it may have been a punishment obtained by you somehow. People were paranoid that somebody, somewhere might be working charms against them. Even people who were exemplary citizens were wary of charm setters.

From RTÉ Archives, Anna Sexton tells Frank Hall on a 1986 episode of Hall and Company about Cavan piseogs and superstitions

In this context, the enactment of piseogs were essentially a form of folk witchcraft, a form of malevolent magic to wish misfortune or death on someone. Piseogs are distinct from cursing, which also had a long tradition in Ireland, with cursing people were entitled to make curses but only if the curse was just.

These were not Christian beliefs but, in an Ireland where life was often difficult, it seemed sensible to hold both Christian and folk beliefs at the same time to protect one's luck. With land and resources so scarce, there was great paranoia about the potential of others wanting to do evil and gain from your misfortune. Much of this was fermented by worry evoked by life lived in such precarious times.

May Eve

The best time of the year for charm setters was May Eve, which was associated with strong folk-magical and supernatural beliefs. It was believed that this was a liminal time when the presence of the Otherworld was closer and when faeries or the mortal charm setters with evil intent were at the height of their power. Charms were thought to work especially well if enacted at this time. As a result, people, the family home, farms, livestock and even well water were all in danger of being cursed or stolen and had to be protected with rituals or things.

Evil piseogs

Most piseogs involved jealous people wishing ill luck on their neighbours. A common one involved the charm setter burying eggs on the land (or hiding them in the straw stores) of the neighbour: as the eggs rotted so too did the neighbour's fortune. Some piseogs involved burying parts of a diseased animal’s carcass on the land of the neighbour in the hope that their livestock would die from the same disease.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Sunday Miscellany, Cyril Kelly's The Past is a Foreign Country on piseogs and customs of the past

Another piseog involved the stealing of the farmer’s last sheaf of the harvest. Also known as a Cailleach, this was essentially a bundle or plait of foliage that rural people believed to be very powerful. It was believed good for the health and luck of the household and farm. After the harvest, the sheaf was taken and stored carefully in the roof rafters or above the fireplace.

But if the last sheaf was stolen it could be used in a voodoo type of ritual, where it was given the name of its owner and "killed" by stabbing. It was buried and as it decayed, so too did its owner. The spell could only be broken by finding where the sheaf was buried, digging it up and burning it.

How to overcome piseogs

There was nearly always a route to salvation with piseogs via a way to counteract the spell or charm. However in order to do this, one had to figure out first that a spell had been cast, find the charm setter and get them to confess and reveal where the cursed offering was. It had to be then located, dug up and burned in order to thwart the spell. May Eve was also considered a time when counter charms like these were at their most potent.

Watch out for the slippery visitor who said 'blessings on all I see here' then blinked as they did so

There were also practices that offered protection from the enactment of piseogs on you from another. Holy water generally was considered a good protection against piseogs and certain Rogation days in the Christian calendar were considered good times to sprinkle holy water for protection. 

There were also practices that proved your neighbour was not acting against you. For example, if churning butter failed, it had financial repercussions for the household, so a visitor to the house during churning would be asked to ritually lend a hand at the churn to show his or her intentions were good. A visitor was also expected to offer a blessing: 'god be with you', ‘god bless all here’ or ‘god bless the work’. Watch out for the slippery visitor who said ‘blessings on all I see here’ then blinked as they did so - whatever could they be up to?

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