There is an innate syncretism that surrounds catholicism and its relationship with different paganisms, i.e. indigenous cultural practices, that involve a lot of practical themes across the board.

When people are first coming to decolonise their christianity, I find that it’s definitely easier if you’re catholic because many of the practices were absorbed or catholic-washed with a very thin veneer.

We see this in Italian, Spanish, and Mexican catholic practices amongst others. We see it in Black liberation religious practices like Vodun/Vodou, Candomblé, Santería/Lucumí, etc. We also even see it in Protestant branches of BLR hoodoo/Rootwork/Conjure evidenced by the work of Dr. Katrina Hazzard-Donald. We see it in Brujeria/Curanderismo. Often saints and madonnas are stand-ins for orishas and other indigenous deities; so that traditions can still be practiced although masked for safety.

Irish saint veneration is a little different though.

Catholic folk magic in general tends to focus on madonnas, novenas, saints, and ancestors. For those of you that don’t know, madonnas are representations, frescos, paintings, or statues of Mary that are majoritively her holding a baby Jesus/Yeshua in her arms; but not always.

It is the month of May, Bealtaine as Gaeilge (Bealtaine in Irish), and it is a huge Irish catholic custom to venerate Mary all month. Whether or not she is represented with a baby Jesus it doesn’t really matter, but what does is a blue or linen altar cloth, or the cleanest tea-towel you can find, votive candles, prayers, and fresh “wildflowers, like buttercups, primroses, and wild bluebells and cowslips”.

This is done to protect the home from maliciousness, from evil, from the Sidthe and all other harms, and also to ensure good luck, health, and wealth for the year. All very reminiscent of Irish pagan Bealtaine practices. Just think of the May Bush and May Bough traditions that we are seeing: a happy revitalisation in Ireland.

For more information on Bealtaine traditions, the Irish Pagan School has an incredible 2.5 hour course along with some free resources. As does University College Dublin in their folklore podcast series.

It makes me wonder though, are madonnas seen in the same way in Ireland as they are in other catholic cultures? But — this is a question for further ethnographic work…

Moving on from madonnas though is the idea of novenas and candle magic.

Irish scholar and engineer Orlagh Castello has done amazing research into Brig, flame keeping, and Irish Catholic Magic as “practical approaches to problem solving”. Renown American scholar Morgan Daimler has also done excellent work that ties all these fibers together in her Pagan Portals book about Brigid.

The practice of candle magic and novenas (nine-day long candle petitions to saints or to Mary) are done in different ways and places. Candle magic is widespread in Ireland. Castello shares in her Catholic Magic course about how lighting a candle in Ireland is more of a practice done for someone else and is only active while the candle is lit. Prayers are said while lighting and very often done for people other than yourself. It can be done of course, but it has more oomph if done by someone else, especially women in the family. Now, if you can’t be going to someone about a really private matter, you would go to the church and light a votive candle instead; and then go about your business. Again because the magic is only being worked while the flame is alight, and it isn’t safe to light a candle at home and leave it unattended.

Novenas on the other hand are something altogether different. Bridget Haggerty details the Our Lady of Knock novena tradition done annually in Ireland, and when searching the collections at Dúchas, many more Irish novena practices pop up. Of the 31 transcript count references, Irish novenas in the collected folklore have connections to graveyards, gaining a spouse, and cures from poultices or holy wells. For comparison ‘candle’ is referenced 5153 times, ‘madonna’ only once, ‘mary’ 7322 times, ‘saint’ 6709 times, ‘ancestor’ 178 times, and ‘the dead’ has a whopping 17,858 transcript count!

Novenas are a bit more badass, being candle-magic par excellence when you need to bring out the big guns. Novenas are done for all kinds of reasons. Anticipation or Preparation novenas are done before and after funerals, to prepare the soul for specific sacraments (marriage, baptism, communion, etc.) and holy/saint/feast days. Petition novenas are when you need big help and Indulgence novenas are done when you want to make penances for sins.

Novenas however are not just about the candle and prayer, but also the offerings you make along with them. Whether it is flowers, food and drink offerings placed or poured out near the saint or madonna statue/prayer card/icon; or a sacrifice like fasting; it is traditionally also accompanied by attending extra weeknight masses, and going to church for the eucharist.

St Cooey’s Well, Portaferry

What is different though in Irish folklore, is that Irish novenas tend to be much more connected to making a pilgrimage to a holy well rather than attending extra masses or going to church. One was done to pass an examination bare foot, and fasting. Handkerchiefs and other items like pins are also sometimes left as votive offerings. This connection between water and fire is a theme that echoes throughout Irish paganism, and is in my opinion one of many differences in Irish catholicism.

According to folklore, in cases where a novena is done and the person does add to it a visit to a church or chapel, it is humourously done with a threat to a saint’s statue as in this case with St. Anthony in Where is Your Father a Mhaicín?

Irish Novenas also have another connection to wells: “paying the rounds”, or “doing the stations” called turas on Mary’s Pattern Day (September 8th) in Ballyheigue, Co. Kerry where the rosary is said three times while circling Our Lady’s well. At St. John’s Well, three rounds are said to be ideal as well. Other sites may have you do nine circumambulations, and upwards of 14 or more stations to do, again all barefooted and sometimes involving crawling on your knees. My bones ache just thinking about all the crawling … but one does what one must in order to have divine beings intercede on your behalf. According to Ray, once the prayers are complete, “Devotees may then drink the water (often in three sips) or dip their fingers in the water and bless themselves by making the sign of the cross, flicking water around their bodies three times in the name of the Trinity, or anointing an ailing portion of the body”.

St. Brigid’s Well, Liscannor

Many might know saints like St. Brendan, St. Patrick, St. Anthony, St. Mac Cairthin, or St. Blaise for when you lose something or need pain relief.

But here are a few marginalised-gender saints: St. Ailbhe, Athracht, Brigid of Kildare, Damnat, Edana, Faber, Gobnait, Ita, Moninne, and St. Samthann, amongst others.

The top three saints in Ireland are Brigid of Kildare, Colmcille/Columba of Iona, and Patrick; who all can be called upon for their various cures.

One though, who isn’t really a saint, and is often in every home in Ireland, probably the most popular in Irish folk tradition (besides Mary Herself of course), that many of us Irish-Canadian-Americans have never heard about, is the Child of Prague.

Inside the home, the Infant Jesus tends to help with wealth by placing a “ha’penny wrapped in brown paper underneath it”; and when a wedding is coming, the statue is brought outside and placed under a henge-bush or buried in the garden. The funny part is that in some cases, the ultimate luck and good weather comes when the statue is accidentally beheaded, but it absolutely must be accidental!

Another Irish folk practice that is a bit more popular than saints statues is the Sacred Heart, something more common in our Irish-and-French-Canadian-American households. (There was one or two at both my grandparents, and great-grandparents houses).

The Sacred Heart is typically one that is a physical framed and signed contract made with Jesus to protect the house(is it just me or does this echo Sidthe contracts? but I digress).

Sacred Heart of Jesus — the “sexy version” in grandma’s house

So, it would seem that there is a clear difference in Irish Catholic Folk Magic with regard to the saints. It would seem like it is more of a practice to pray to them when needed, and visit their sacred wells and sites rather than have statues of them in the house. I could be wrong, but it would seem that you’re much less likely to find St. Lorenzo in an Irish kitchen near some hanging garlic or red peppers than you would in an Italian or Spanish catholic household. The well tradition also doesn’t seem to be of as big an importance in Italian or Spanish folk magic as it does in Irish folk magic. (The only mention of sacred saint wells I could find was in Orvieto, Italy, the Pozzo di San Patrizio: the Well of Saint Patrick; and Pozzo sacro di Santa Cristina, in Sardinia.)

No. In Ireland, it would seem that wearing saint medallions and saying prayers and actual visits to Irish saint sites on their days is much more the thing to-do. All Saints Day in November as well would be a big day thing, along with Pattern Day in September both seem to be borrowings from older Lunasa and Samhain practices. A great way to visit saint sacred sites if you don’t live in Ireland would be to do a virtual tour of the sites and use Lora O’Brien’s technique of Journeying to a Sacred Site.

Lastly, the ancestors. “Death Customs in Rural Ireland: Traditional Funerary Rites in the Irish Midlands” (2009) by Roscommon native Anne Ridge details many of the Irish folk practices surrounding the beloved dead. I have yet to read it entirely, it is next up on the list after JP Mallory’s (2016) “Irish Dreamtime”, and Eddie Lenihan’s (2003) “Meeting the Other Crowd”, but it definitely comes well recommended.

Two very Irish things that are well known about are the Irish D*mb Supper done at Samhain or All Souls Day, and of course merry Irish Wake customs; which have been written about at length. Lesser known would be the customs of keening women or mná caointe, which like the tradition of the May Bush are having a decolonialist revitalisation.

Ancestral veneration in Irish folk magic goes hand-in-hand with candle-magic. Often on the evening before Samhain, visits to the cemetery take place and graves are to be cleaned where prayers are said on behalf of those passed and a candle lit (again with the fire and water). Once home, another candle is lit with a bowl of water and more prayers said; either in the room the friend or family member passed away in, or a single candle placed in the window that faces the cemetery to act as a beacon for them to visit and take part in the food and drink left out.

During the rest of the year, prayers are said on their behalf and like we said earlier, a novena would be burned nine days before the funeral and after; before though candles would surround the washed and shrouded body for three nights. Tobacco clay pipes would also be smoked by all the men in attendance and the pipe left on the chest of the dearly departed, with mirrors covered or turned around.

Once the loved one is buried, traditions vary as to grieving periods and when to begin ancestor veneration. Many do the novena after the funeral to pray for the departed. And often is can be done with a rosary or saint medallion; especially the saint the departed confirmed with. A picture may be used, flowers, and a favourite food or beverage offered, and again a votive lit while you are praying to the saint to intercede on the behalf of your loved one.

Others then begin adding to their collective genealogy research as a form of devotional work and family-tree healing. I’ve written a little bit more about this here.

My Ancestor Altar 2020. Image description: framed family photos with heirloom items and an offering of black coffee and candy. A tealight candle is centered held within a purple wampum clam shell.

So. This about sums it up. I hope this was helpful and that you will click on the resources provided. I know writing this helped me flesh out Irish folk tradition a bit more, and especially in how it compares with other folk customs. Sometimes that’s all we need. Some time and conversation.

What are some Irish folk magic practices in your family or region? Have you experienced any of the customs shared above? Are there others you would have us mention in the future?

Go raibh maith agat to everyone who helped contribute to this article, especially Orlagh Costello and others at the Irish Pagan School who dedicate their lives to these sacred and varied practices.


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Anthropologist. Abolitionist. Cultural Critic.