This article appeared in the North Clare Local in January.
The Irish, generally speaking, love pork products. Whether it’s bacon and cabbage or a full Irish breakfast, many of our most famous dishes rely on pig meat.
In the years before the Famine, the rural Irish had a healthy, if plain, diet. For small tenant farmers, pigs were hugely important. Unlike cows, they did not need a large amount of space, and they could be fed anything. Virtually every part of them could be used for food (“everything bar the squeak” as the phrase goes). Pigs were often called “the gentlemen who paid the rent”. The horrible old stereotype of the Irish keeping “pigs in the parlour” did have a grain of truth to it. Very poor tenants with hardly any land did keep pigs in their cottages. Contrary to popular belief, pigs are very clean, intelligent animals. Pigs were also a common sight in urban areas, and many foreign visitors to Ireland commented that there seemed to be more pigs than people.
Due to their association with prosperity, pigs were seen in Irish culture as good luck (a belief shared by the Germans, another nation with a devotion to sausages). It was believed that pigs could see the wind rising, and if they gathered straws in their mouths, a big storm was coming. Pigs could cure warts; if you rubbed the wart with an apple and then gave it to a pig, you transferred it to them.
Pigs are supposed to be scared of mirrors. Scientists have found that pigs do recognise themselves in mirrors, one of the few animals intelligent enough to do so.
Not all pig beliefs were positive, even in Ireland. A pig crossing your path was an ill omen, and if it made a particular whining noise that meant there would soon be a death in the family. Pigs should only be slaughtered when there’s an “R” in the month and under a full moon.
Sailors also believed that pigs were unlucky, and never used the word pig at sea. In parts of Yorkshire, you weren’t even allowed to use the name on land. The reason behind this is unclear but it may come from the belief that pigs were sacred to the gods of the sea, and taking their names in vain was a way to anger them. (Slaughtering a pig at sea was a way to guarantee a vicious storm.) A Bible story where Jesus chased an evil spirit out of a man into a herd of pigs, and then drowned them, may also be behind this. Finally, in Greek mythology, Circe the witch transformed Odysseus’ sailors into pigs.
As many of us will know, Judaism and Islam both see pigs as unclean, dirty animals, and the consumption of pork meat is strictly forbidden in these faiths.
Back in Ireland, there a number of places named after boars and pigs- Ros Muc (place of the pig) in Galway and Kanturk (Ceann Torc, the boars’ head) in Cork are just two examples. One of the more interesting stories is from Co Kildare. A track in the Curragh is known as the “Race of the Black Pig”. The story goes that a schoolmaster in Drogheda long ago was in the habit of turning his charges into pigs. They were startled by hounds while in this form and scattered across the country in their fear. The raised ditches they left behind, including the one in Kildare, were known as “Gleann na Muic Dubh”.
Black pigs attracted darker superstitions. It was believed that malicious fairies took this form, and horror fans will remember “Jodie” from The Amityville Horror was a pig-like demon with red eyes. The Irish in former times thought the fairies were at their worst in this form.
In Enniscrone, Co Sligo, there is a black pig festival. This is to remember a supposed black pig from Donegal with poisonous skin that rampaged through the town. The townspeople chased it with spears and weapons to a field called Muckduff where they managed to slaughter it. The pig wasn’t finished. The poison remained in its bristles, and a man who touched its carcass died instantly. Knowing they would never make rashers from this piggy, the crowd buried the pig under rocks. There is now a statue on the spot where the pig was buried.
Many of us had piggy banks when we were growing up, but sadly this is nothing to do with pigs themselves; these were originally made from a type of clay called “pyg” and the name has transmuted into the animal over the century. Having said that, there are some very old examples of piggy banks from Indonesia, meaning the animal has long been associated with saving money.
Next month we will discuss the very curious legends surrounding pig-faced women and learned pigs.