Countryside secrets revealed

MODERN living has cut many of us off from the natural landscape but for many generations flora and fauna were inextricably linked to their spiritual beliefs and social customs.

As a child, I remember finding ribbons with my sisters to put outside on Brigid's Eve on January 31 because of the local belief that, if they were damp in the morning, it meant the saint had blessed them and given them healing protection - particularly good for sore throats.

Farmers used to shake holy water in each corner of their fields on May Eve to protect against bad luck in the coming year and guard against the power of 'piseogs' or superstitions.

You can scoff now, but imagine being completely reliant on your own crops and livestock - no supermarkets or social welfare officers - and living within the narrow constraints of an extremely conservative society and before penicillin was discovered.

You'd take all the help you could get - even a little magic.

Conor McKinney, living landscapes manager for Ulster Wildlife, is hoping that by telling people about the beliefs and traditions of the past and their link to nature he can underline the importance of protecting our natural heritage.

From 4pm to 7pm today, Ulster Wildlife will host an evening of stories, folk tales and reminiscences of Fermanagh's magnificent meadows, their wildlife and old farming traditions.

A traditional storyteller will tell tales from the region to captivate all ages, from the 'fear gortha' or hungry grass that was believed to have been planted by disgruntled fairies, to the screech of a barn owl which gave rise to the legend of the banshee.

There will also be traditional songs and dances provided by the mischievous Marlbank Strawboys (Mummers), who used to disguise themselves in straw or hay to dance at weddings.

The event takes places at an old cottage - where food and drink will be served - on a traditional meadow in Killykeegan Nature Reserve, the largest limestone pavement in Northern Ireland. "This is a beautiful landscape that has a story to tell. The flowers and animals are part of our natural and cultural heritage that is at risk today," says Conor.

Their dedication is such that researchers spent two years visiting nursing homes and day centres chatting to older residents about the traditions and beliefs they grew up with. "We discovered some fascinating stuff by encouraging people to talk. For instance, seeing an Irish hare was bad luck if you were with a pregnant woman because it would place a curse on the child. "You would have to tear the hem of the woman's dress or a piece of cloth to deflect the curse and prevent the baby being born with a harelip. "Stoats were believed to be venomous.

If you disturbed them they would drink from the teat of your cattle and poison the milk, or they could spit on you and cause damage. "I talked to a woman who could remember making a mad dash up the lane on her bike to get away from a stoat."

Farming communities used to come together every year to help bring in each others' crops - no big machinery back then. It was a time of sweat and solidarity. But that didn't stop someone hiding eggs on a rival's land to bring them bad luck.

It was a classic piseog that used to drive panic into the intended target if they discovered the eggs.

In fact, Conor came across a story about two families embroiled in a long-running feud that began with the discovery of eggs on one side's land.

Barn owls are often quoted as the animals associated with sightings of the 'Will o' the wisp' and the 'Banshee'. "These birds can seem illuminated due to their white and golden plumage catching moonlight and also boast hair raising screeches as their call," explains Conor. "Will o' the wisps are often said to lure the unsuspecting away and get them lost in the hills where they would starve. Banshees are tied to old Irish families and are said to warn of impending death,"

There was a strong belief that it was extremely bad luck to cut down or uproot a hawthorn that was a 'fairy tree', which supposedly provided shelter for fairy folk.

I would bet that you could travel to any rural community in Ireland and someone will have a story about a foolish fella whose family was blighted with misfortune after he destroyed a fairy tree.

It's worth having a look at BBC archival footage from 1964 where locals in Annacloy are worried that civil engineers removed a thorny tree to make way for a road ( Conor is keen to point out that, while life was tough, people didn't live in a constant state of terror in olden days - nature was also cherished for its curative properties. The water from boiled clover was used to wash sores, while meadowsweet was used to cure people suffering from insomnia, hallucinations and ghostly hauntings. Thistles were used as a cure for kidney inflections in Co Donegal and were sometimes used to treat open wounds, and we probably all know that dock leaves can treat nettle stings.

Your humble spud was thought to have wart-healing powers if you buried it in the soil so that both would shrivel up.

Because of their bright yellow flower, Cowslips were associated with the May Day festival, when a variety of yellow flowers were collected by children in order to protect against malevolent beings, believed by many to be more active on quarterly days such as May Day. Cowslips were also used to make an ointment which was thought to cure deafness.

What is incredible is that many of these traditions, beliefs and old cures are found throughout the island. "Not everybody is aware of the landscape around them and you could say that about conservation as well," says Conor. "We want to make people aware that the natural landscape has a story to tell and is worth preserving."

* To learn more about today's event visit


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