The Devil and Irish folklore

An article on folklore which appeared in the North Clare Local in January… 

Lucifer as depicted by Gustave Dore (via Wikimedia Commons)

Lucifer as depicted by Gustave Dore (via Wikimedia Commons)

The Devil is a busy man, going by the amount of times he appears in Irish and international folklore.

Like the personification of death, he is everywhere and anywhere at any time. While God doesn’t visit earth too often, the devil is always around the corner.

There is quite a difference between the devil as he appears in the Bible and how he appears in folklore. Our traditional conception of the devil as a red-skinned figure with cloven hooves and horns is not strictly a biblical one.

While Satan and his demons are mentioned as having horns in the Book of Revelations, elsewhere it’s stated that they can take any form they choose, and are masters of disguise. After all, it’s hard to trick people into sin if they know who you are.

So where does the horned devil come from? Yet again, Christianity has appropriated pagan symbolism for itself. Ancient pagan gods and heroes including Pan, Herne the Hunter and Dionysius were all depicted with horns at various points. Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, and his Roman counterpart Bacchus, revelled in disorder and chaos. Pan too had his moments, once seducing the moon goddess Selene by dragging her to earth. Herne is less wild, but he a doomed figure of some kind, fated to guard Windsor Forest in the UK forever, due to an unspecified offence.

The Sabbath of Witches by Goya (via Wikimedia Commons)

The Sabbath of Witches by Goya (via Wikimedia Commons)

Pan is our most likely candidate for our modern image of the devil. Both he and Dionysus were fond of wine, women and song, but Pan had the hindquarters of a goat, a central animal in Greek agriculture. He also became very popular around the 18th century in more liberal circles. The image of Pan as Satan also dates from this time. Before then the devil was a kind of scaly, dragon-like figure.

The devil was no joke in the Bible, but in folklore he is a trickster kind of figure. In many Irish stories, the ‘divil’ is the kind of entity you can outsmart and prefers freaking people out than coaxing them into evil.

The Devil loves to gambling, especially cards. A variation of the tale of the late-night card players is heard all over Ireland, but the essence is the same.

One night (often during Lent or another religious festival) a group of men stay up late to play cards. They are joined by another mysterious player, all in black, who wins his hands. The Ace of Spades tumbles to the floor, someone leans down to pick it up, and spots the stranger’s cloven hooves.

This was said to have occurred in Maynooth, where some seminarians stayed up late card-playing rather than studying. Apparently, the hoof-print can be still seen.

It seems no matter what form he takes, there’s no hiding those hooves. Thomas Connolly, of Castletown, Celbridge, Co Kildare, was out hunting one day in 1767. On his way home he was joined by a strange rider. The hunt had been large and Connolly assumed he knew the man, and invited him back to his home. The stranger fell asleep, exhausted, and Connolly instructed his servants to remove the man’s boots. Instead of feet, they were horrified to see cloven hooves.

Detail from painting of Saint Juliana of Nicomedia (Wikimedia Commons)

Detail from painting of Saint Juliana of Nicomedia (Wikimedia Commons)

The Devil began to cackle and throw things before disappearing into a burst of flame, leaving an ineradicable mark on the floor.

An extremely famous story is associated with Loftus Hall, Co Wexford, often called Ireland’s most haunted building. Charles Tottenham, his wife and daughter were caretaking the building for the Loftus family when a boat washed up at Hook Head. A mysterious stranger arrived at the house, who Anne fell for.

Like in the Maynooth story, Anne was playing cards with the stranger when she bent down to pick a card from the floor, seeing hooves.  She confronted him, and the Devil merely laughed and flew up through the ceiling, never to be seen again.

Anne went mad and starved herself to death in her room. Reportedly, she was found dead, still sitting and watching out to sea, and it proved impossible to straighten her body. Her ghost is still said to wander the Hall.

Sadly, the tale that the roof could never be repaired is not true, as the whole building has been rebuilt since the supposed events in 1766.

There were people that were simply too much hassle for the Devil to take on. The Irish folk song ‘The Women Are Worse Than The Men’ details a woman who is sent to hell and torments the demons and imps. The Devil returns her to her husband, with the lines “Now, I’ve been a divil the most of my life,
But I ne’er was in Hell till I met with your wife.”

More next month about Old Nick, and the story of Dublin’s Hellfire Club.

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