A most extraordinary account of the Black Art, as instanced in the custom known as "burying the sheaf" comes from co. Louth. The narrator states that details are difficult to obtain, at which we are not surprised, but from what he has published the custom appears to be not only exceedingly malignant, but horribly blasphemous. The person working the charm first goes to the chapel, and says certain words with his (or her) back to the altar ; then he takes a sheaf of wheat, which he fashions like the human body, sticking pins in the joints of the stems, and (according to one account) shaping a heart of plaited straw. This sheaf he buries, in the name of the Devil, near the house of his enemy, who he believes will gradually pine away as the sheaf decays, dying when it finally decomposes. If the operator of the charm wishes his enemy to die quickly he buries the sheaf in wet ground where it will soon decay ; but if on the other hand he desires his victim to linger in pain he chooses a dry spot where decomposition will be slow. Our informant states that a case in which one woman tried to kill another by this means was brought to light in the police court at Ardee a couple of years before he wrote the above account (i.e. before 1895).1
1 Journal of Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, xxv. (consec. ser.), p. 84.
Though the Statutes against witchcraft in England and Scotland were repealed (the latter very much against the will of the clergy), it is said that that passed by the Irish Parliament was not similarly treated, and consequently is, theoretically, still in force. Be that as it may, it will probably be news to our readers to learn that witchcraft is still officially recognised in Ireland as an offence against the law. In the Commission of the Peace the newly-appointed magistrate is empowered to take cognisance of, amongst other crimes, " Witchcraft, In-chantment, Sorcery, Magic Arts," a curious relic of bygone times to find in the twentieth century, though it is more than unlikely that any Bench in Ireland will ever have to adjudicate in such a case.
1 Folklore, vi. 302.
In the foregoing pages we have endeavoured to trace the progress of witchcraft in Ireland from its first appearance to the present day, and as well have introduced some subjects which bear indirectly on the question. From the all too few examples to be obtained we have noted its gradual rise to the zenith (which is represented by the period 1661-1690), and from thence its downward progress to the strange beliefs of the day, which in some respects are the degenerate descendants of the witchcraft-conception, in others represent ideas older than civilisation. We may pay the tribute of a tearful smile to the ashes of witchcraft, and express our opinion of the present-day beliefs of the simple country-folk by a pitying smile, feeling all the time how much more enlightened we are than those who believed, or still believe, in such absurdities ! But the mind of man is built in water-tight compartments. What better embodies the spirit of the young twentieth century than a powerful motor car, fully equipped with the most up-to-date appliances for increasing speed or lessening vibration ; in its tuneful hum as it travels at forty-five miles an hour without an effort, we hear the triumph-song of mind over matter. The owner certainly does not believe in witchcraft or pishogues (or perhaps in anything save himself!), yet he fastens on the radiator a " Teddy Bear " or some such thing by way of a mascot. Ask him why he does it—he cannot tell, except that others do the same, while all the time at the back of his mind there exists almost unconsciously the belief that such a thing will help to keep him from the troubles and annoyances that beset the path of the motorist. The connection between cause and effect is unknown to him ; he cannot tell you why a Teddy Bear will keep the engine from overheating or prevent punctures—and in this respect he is for the moment on exactly the same intellectual level as, let us say, his brother-man of New Zealand, who carries a baked yam with him at night to scare away ghosts.
The truth of the matter is that we all have a vein of superstition in us, which makes its appearance at some period in our lives under one form or another. A. will laugh to scorn B.'s belief in witches or ghosts, while he himself would not undertake a piece of business on a Friday for all the wealth of Cræsus ; while C, who laughs at both, will offer his hand to the palmist in full assurance of faith. Each of us dwells in his own particular glass house, and so cannot afford to hurl missiles at his neighbours ; milk-magic or motor-mascots, pishogues or palmistry, the method of manifestation is of little account in comparison with the underlying superstition. The latter is an unfortunate trait that has been handed down to us from the infancy of the race ; we have managed to get rid of such physical features as tails or third eyes, whose day of usefulness has passed ; we no longer masticate our meat raw, or chip the rugged flint into the semblance of a knife, but we still acknowledge our descent by giving expression to the strange beliefs that lie in some remote lumber-room at the back of the brain.
But it may be objected that belief in witches, ghosts, fairies, charms, evil-eye, etc. etc, need not be put down as unreasoning superstition, pure and simple, that in fact the trend of modern thought is to show us that there are more things in heaven and earth than were formerly dreamt of. We grant that man is a very complex machine, a microcosm peopled with possibilities of which we can understand but little. We know that mind acts on mind to an extraordinary degree, and that the imagination can affect the body to an extent not yet fully realised, and indeed has often carried men far beyond the bounds of common-sense; and so we consider that many of the elements of the above beliefs can in a general way be explained along these lines. Nevertheless that does not do away with the element of superstition and, we may add, oftentimes of deliberately-planned evil that underlies. There is no need to resurrect the old dilemma, whether God or the Devil was the principal agent concerned ; we have no desire to preach to our readers, but we feel that every thinking man will be fully prepared to admit that such beliefs and practices are inimical to the development of true spiritual life, in that they tend to obscure the ever-present Deity and bring into prominence primitive feelings and emotions which are better left to fall into a state of atrophy. In addition they cripple the growth of national life, as they make the individual the fearful slave of the unknown, and consequently prevent the development of an independent spirit in him without which a nation is only such in name. The dead past utters warnings to the heirs of all the ages. It tells us already we have partially entered into a glorious heritage, which may perhaps be as nothing in respect of what will ultimately fall to the lot of the human race, and it bids us give our upward-soaring spirits freedom, and not fetter them with the gross beliefs of yore that should long ere this have been relegated to limbo.