This folklore account details some of the superstitions surrounding death in early 20th century Ireland. It is based on information supplied by William Hayden and Mary Birmingham who lived in Cloonlyon, near Charlestown, Co. Mayo in 1938.
‘When a person dies in a house the clock is stopped.
Whoever shaves the corpse keeps the razor.
The straw on which the corpse is washed is put under the nearest tree.
No ashes put out (from the fire).
The funeral travels the longest way to the chapel or graveyard.
A gap in a funeral (cortege) is a sign of another death in the village.
If a person sees a rainbow resting on a village it is the sign of a death in the village where the rainbow rests.
When a frog comes in a door it as a sign of death in the house.
If crying is heard around a house at night it is a sign of a death in the village.
When a crowd of crows is seen on a church roof it is a sign of a funeral.
When a wisp is caught onto a hen’s tail it is a sign of death in the family.
When a number of rats are seen in the house one of the family is going to die.
If there is a person sick in the house and the dog cries at night that person is going to die soon.
When a priest is anointing a person if the wool and cotton (used for anointing) goes up a blaze (after being thrown in the fire?) it is a sure sign that the person will live.’
This ‘Death-Lore’ forms part of the Schools’ Folklore Collection, a large and important corpus of material, whose compilation occurred between 1937 and 1938. This far-sighted scheme, run by the Irish Folklore Commission, saw over 100,000 schoolchildren collecting local folklore from their parents, grandparents and older members of the community.
Funeral procession from Church to graveside, following Arranmore boating tragedy (National Library of Ireland)