Piseogs are the disappearing, peculiarly Irish, superstitions that attend every aspect of human behaviour. Ian Ó Loingsigh takes us back to the days when the act of cursing implied something slightly more sinister than calling your friend a fuckhead for robbing your flip-flops.
One often wonders what has become of that famous Irish spunk that we’re all supposed to be full of. Siphoned off by weekly rituals of city-centre mental obliteration, compromised in consistency by an unhealthy diet of TV and cultural insecurity, only to be dried up within the kleenex of inertia and societal ennui. It often seems that our fierce sponc has all but crusted over and flaked away, and with it, our worldwide reputation for being fighters, lovers and dreamers. In ages past, violent forms of revenge upon our tyrants and oppressors were far more commonly indulged in, but forget about the Whiteboys and the Ribbonmen: it was the actions of elderly widows, and in particular their specialised brand of supernatural class warfare, which could really put the wind up landlords. Thus showing equivalent acts of violent energetic revenge with male regenerative substances to be nonsensical and redundant.
Folklore, in documenting how people viewed the world around them, is not shy when it comes to expressing the vitriol and rage which was felt against the upper classes. Legends which describe widows cursing their landlord have enjoyed widespread popularity in this country, particularly in the wake of the evictions which spread across the country following the Great Famine. These stories detail the ultra-violent revenge which was reportedly waged upon the landlord who happened to evict a poor widow from her home. As the most vulnerable member of society, the widow’s power to curse people via ritual, imprecation and prayer, seemed to stem from her perceived powerlessness at the time. The most common of these rituals involved the widow kneeling down, sometimes in an area of strategic importance eg. outside the home of the intended target. This act could also be coupled with the widow raising her arms in the air and praying destruction upon her target.
The curse could cause ill fortune or bad luck to follow the target and his family for seven generations. So that a male member of each generation of the family would meet ‘with either a violent or an untimely or some other kind of tragic end’. It could also cause the target’s prized land and livestock to die away:
‘The animals did not prosper and the majority died on it. When he would put the seed into the ground nothing would grow in its place but brambles and thistles. The potatoes also decayed…They used to blacken again in the ground’. Alternatively, it could simply cause an immediate and painful death: ‘He got on his horse, he was riding a horse, he was a good horseman, he had two mile to ride then to the Big House; and when he landed at the Big House he was hardly able to get off his horse, with illness, and him a young man at the time. He lived three days, and [then] he died.’
It wasn’t just landlords who were liable to be cursed by the widow. Any powerful male who acted against her best interests could find themselves regretting their actions with bailiffs, agents, land-grabbers and lords all coming under the terrifying power of her curse.
The thing to note about these legends, even if one does take their veracity with a pinch of salt, is that they were not only fanciful stories. As any good student of folklore knows, the life of a folk legend is usually bolstered by a level of belief in the events described. In this respect, stories involving the widow’s curse are no different. A court case which was reported in the Kildare Observer in May 1881, describing a widow who knelt down and cursed the landlord who wished to evict her, is testament to the gravity with which such situations were taken at the time. Another thing which is clear from this newspaper report, as well as others, is that real-life widow’s were capable of utilising the motifs in the stories in order to empower themselves.
One wonders about other real life situations which could have strengthened belief in the widow’s ability to curse. The well-documented history of the de la Poer Beresford family of Curraghmore house, Co. Waterford, undoubtedly did. The deaths of male members for seven generations of the family undoubtedly served to do just this, and to this day legends regarding the widow’s curse are more common in this area of the country than in any other.
Psychosomatic responses to certain external stimuli are a real and documented phenomenon. In the case of the widow’s curse, we can only speculate on the results of this type of response on those people who believed not only in the efficacy of the curse, but also in their own personal guilt in the situation. One is reminded in this respect of stories involving the imprecations of Lodowick Muggleton, a key figure of the Muggletonian religious movement which developed in seventeenth century London. Apparently, the curses which he was so fond of uttering, gave rise to ‘spectacular incidents, in which the power of auto-suggestion seems to have brought about the rapid demise of several victims.’ One of these ‘spectacular incidents’, apparently led to one of Muggleton’s targets being struck dumb, falling sick and dying ten days after being cursed.
As we all know, there is a current bunch of wealthy and powerful males in this country, as well as a large section of discontented elderly people, who along with many other vulnerable groups in society are being forced to pay severely for the financial frivolities of a greedy and short-sighted minority. I don’t think I am the only one who would welcome the sight of gangs of blue-rinsed elderly women kneeling down at the gates of the Dáil, muttering dire curses, condemning each and every one of those responsible to a violent, untimely death.