We may also expect to find traces of strange doings with respect to the produce of cows, viz. milk and butter. Various tales are related to the following effect. A herdsman having wounded a hare, which he has discovered sucking one of the cows under his charge, tracks it to a solitary cabin, where he finds an old woman, smeared with blood and gasping for breath, extended almost lifeless on the floor. Similar stories are to be found in England, and helped to make up the witch-element there, though it may be noted that as early as the twelfth century we are informed by Giraldus Cam-brensis that certain old hags in Ireland had the power of turning themselves into hares and in that shape sucking cows. The preservation of hares for coursing, which is being taken up in parts of this country, will probably deal the death-blow to this particular superstition. With regard to the stealing of butter many tales are told, of which the following may be taken as an illustration. A priest was walking in his field early one summer's morning when he came upon an old woman gathering the dew from the long grass, and saying, " Come all to me ! " The priest absent-mindedly muttered, " And half to me ! " Next morning he discovered in his dairy three times as much butter as he ought to have, while his neighbours complained that they had none at all. On searching the old beldame's house three large tubs of freshly-churned butter were discovered, which, as her entire flocks and herds consisted of a solitary he-goat, left little doubt of her evil-doing !1
The witch of history is now a thing of the past. No longer does she career on a broomstick to the nocturnal Sabbath, no longer does she sell her soul to the Devil and receive from him in return many signal tokens of his favour, amongst which was generally the gift of a familiar spirit to do her behests. No longer does the judge sentence, no longer does the savage rabble howl execrations at the old witch come to her doom. The witch of history is gone, and can never be rehabilitated—would that superstition had died with her. For in Ireland, as probably in every part of the civilised world, many things are believed in and practised which seem repugnant to religion and common-sense. Scattered throughout the length and breadth of the land there are to be found persons whom the country-folk credit with the power of performing various extraordinary actions. From what source they derive this power is not at all clear—probably neither they themselves nor their devotees have ever set themselves the task of unravelling that psychological problem. Such persons would be extremely insulted if they were termed wizards or witches, and indeed they only represent white witchcraft in a degenerate and colourless stage. Their entire time is not occupied with such work, nor, in the majority of cases, do they take payment for their services; they are ready to practise their art when occasion arises, but apart from such moments they pursue the ordinary avocations of rural life. The gift has come to them either as an accident of birth, or else the especial recipe or charm has descended from father to son, or has been bequeathed to them by the former owner; as a rule such is used for the benefit of their friends.
An acquaintance told the writer some marvellous tales of a man who had the power of stopping bleeding, though the ailing person might be many miles off at the time ; he promised to leave the full modus operandi to the writer's informant, but the latter was unable to go and see him during his last moments, and so lost the charm, and as well deprived the writer of the pleasure of satisfying himself as to the efficacy of its working—for in the interests of Science he was fully prepared to cut his finger (slightly) and let the blood flow !
The same informant told the writer of a most respectable woman who had the power of healing sores. Her method is as follows. She thrusts two sally-twigs in the fire until they become red-hot. She then takes one, and makes circles round the sore (without touching the flesh), all the while repeating a charm, of which the informant, who underwent the process, could not catch the words. When the twig becomes cool, she thrusts it back into the fire, takes out the other, and does as above. The whole process is repeated about ten or twelve times, but not more than two twigs are made use of. She also puts her patients on a certain diet, and this, together with the general air of mystery, no doubt helps to produce the desired results.
Instances also occur in Ireland of persons employing unhallowed means for the purpose of bringing sickness and even death on some one who has fallen foul of them, or else they act on behalf of those whose willingness is circumscribed by their power-lessness. From the Aran Islands a story comes of the power of an old woman to transfer disease from the afflicted individual to another, with the result that the first recovered, while the newly-stricken person died ; the passage reads more like the doings of savages in Polynesia or Central Africa than of Christians in Ireland. In 1892 a man stated that a friend of his was sick of an incurable disease, and having been given over by the doctor, sought, after a struggle with his conscience, the services of a cailleach who had the power to transfer mortal sickness from the patient to some healthy object who would sicken and die as an unconscious substitute. When fully empowered by her patient, whose honest intention to profit by the unholy remedy was indispensable to its successful working, the cailleach would go out into some field close by a public road, and setting herself on her knees she would pluck an herb from the ground, looking out on the road as she did so. The first passer-by her baleful glance lighted upon would take the sick man's disease and die of it in twenty-four hours, the patient mending as the victim sickened and died.1