Superstitious Beliefs of the Fishing Community

By Mícheál Ó Coileáin

DISTRICT DIRECTOR: Mícheál Ó Coileáin / EDITOR: Brendan O Sullivan

There are many mysteries and superstitions of the seas and coastal areas along the North Atlantic – Ireland is no exception. There is also an associated vocabulary of fishermen, who for superstitious reasons cannot mention certain individuals or animals while at sea. Instead they use alternative words which are widely understood within the fishing community.  The use of special terms while at sea and the avoidance of certain words must be seen as symbolic acknowledgement of the sea as another domain, fundamentally different from the land and its activities.

The examples used below were all collected by the Irish Folklore Commission over the past 80 years and more details can be found in Bairbre Ní Fhloinn’s wonderful book – ‘Cold Iron’, published by Comhairle Bhéaloideas Éireann, 2018.

Dingle, Co.Kerry

Seosamh Ó Dalaigh, a collector with the Commission, told of a belief from Dún Chaoin, that the fox, or anything of a red colour, should not be mentioned out at sea in a boat or to fishermen on their way to work. Mischievous people would annoy fishermen on their way to sea, by calling out the curse ‘Madra ar do dhuán’ – ‘A fox upon your hook’. So firm was the prohibition against using the word rua, red or russet at sea that a man called Pádraig O Guithin from the Great Blasket, known as Pádraig Rua was referred to at sea as’ Peadaí deaghdhathach’ – ‘brilliant coloured Paddy’.

In Brandon, if fishermen met a pig on the road or saw one in a nearby field, they would turn home and avoid going to sea for that day. In other places fishermen would never mention the pig while baiting their hooks as it was sure to bring ill fortune. While at sea, pigs were referred to ‘as the fellow with the curly tail’. Kevin Flannery of Dingle, tells a story of an apprentice fisherman who was a cook on a fishing boat working out of Dingle, who brought bacon on board – it was quickly thrown overboard as the meat of the pig was also bad luck.

Similarly, the fox was an object of name avoidance among fishermen. The fox can be referred to as ‘the bushy tailed fellow’ or in Galway there is a phrase for the fox as ‘fear na gcluasa biorach’ ‘the fellow with – the pointed ears’. Mossy Moore, a fisherman from Dingle, once saw a fox in the fields as they left the harbour, and promptly turned home such was the superstitious fear.

The hare was another animal never mentioned while fishing. Fishermen on the west coast referred to the hare as ‘fear an eireabaill bháin’ – ‘the fellow with the white tail.’ The term ‘Cold Iron’ was a common phrase used by fishermen at sea to refer to the animals mentioned above. In the way that land based folk use the term ‘touch wood’, those at sea may have used ‘Cold Iron’ in a similar way, when discussing the taboo subjects. 

Dingle

Finally and bizarrely, in parts of Kerry, particularly Ballinskelligs and Dingle, ‘salmon’ was a word not mentioned on white fish boats. The salmon was referred to as ‘Fish’ – a generic rather than descriptive term. They also referred to them as ‘the boys’ or ‘gentlemen.’

‘Ní deireann na hiascairí bradán in aon chor nuair a bhionn siad ag iascach, ach ‘an buachaill’ a thugann said air’

One comment

  1. Imagine loosing your income for a day, especially in a profession where there were many days when it was not possible to work? Superstitions are (were?) very powerful. Might further study lead to a deeper understanding of the human condition?
    Why are/were anything associated with the fox, the colour red, the pig, hare, salmon so feared so at sea? Is the origins of those fears known?
    Did all of those questions lead to many hours of thought and discussion on the Great Blasket or in Kilreilig?
    Any Kerry story that can create such interest must be prized.

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