You'll all know now about the custom of putting a donkey's head under the hearth stone because I've probably mentioned it several times...it was firstly to warn the household of strangers approaching...because of the big ears donkeys have...and also to make the sound of the dancers boots ring out clearly when there was a wake or a celebration...
Donkeys heads were also put under the flag stones in the barns where the wheat was thrashed by hand...it was thought to make the flail work more effectively and it brought luck to those doing the threshing...

Most of the old traditions in rural Ireland have to do with 'the luck'...and many also have to do with warding off the Faerie...as with hanging horse shoes the 'wrong' way up to prevent the Faerie from using them as boats...we've never been much afraid of witches in Ireland...tended to positively encourage them in fact...but the Faeire is a different story altogether and even now in 2013, people who have been brought up on a diet of television and space travel and so on have a healthy and unhidden respect for the Faerie...they freely admit to not going into ringforts for instance, because they are 'afeared of Them'.

I used to be puzzled by how many people I'd invite in through the front door would back away hastily and tell me they'd go round the back...in the end I asked...it's because you can 'break the Faerie Path if you enter a cottage from the back door'...but if you come in through the front then you risk annoying any Faeries who may be coming through at the same time...

Now cats up chimneys are a very ancient tradition for placing luck on a house...not just in Ireland...I've heard stories about people finding cat skeletons in old houses in England as well...in Ireland the first part of the cottage to be built was the chimney and the hearth...the walls came afterwards. To ensure the home would be granted good luck, a cat was put on the little ledge inside the chimney I wrote about the other day...black cats were the most likely to bring the luck. I'm presuming the cat was killed first and became mummified through long exposure to the turf smoke...doubt it would have stayed there of its own accord.

Either the legs of a goat or of a donkey were put in each corner of the main room under the flagstones...then once the cottage was built, the local witch or wisewoman would come along to sprinkle the blood of a freshly killed cockerel in each corner...almost like a house blessing but with seriously Pagan roots...the village priest would be along later to sprinkle his Holy water about so with the combination of the Church and the Pagan, the cottage was deemed to be lucky and safe...

There'd be someone who was familar with the Faerie ways and would know whether you'd built on a Faerie path...it didn't much matter, but it certainly helped to plant an Elder bush by both your front and back door. Those who sneer at the old ways say the Elder was put there to keep the flies away from the house and there was nothing much magical about it at all...

The barns and the out-houses also needed their own measures to ensure the cows gave plentiful milk and the hens laid eggs and the pig grew fat...so again you'd plant Elder bushes by the doorways and nail a horseshoe upside down to every door...on St Bridgets Day, a new Bridgets Cross would be pushed into a gap in the stones in the cows stalls and the henhouse and the pig sty...high up in his case 'cos otherwise he'd have eaten it...

We might shudder to think of sprinkling a cockerals blood or deliberately killing a cat to put in the chimney...I've never found out whether someone supplied dead donkeys or whether you provided your own... it doesn't make a mite of difference putting its head under the hearthstone of course...and yet I remember an experiment to see if it worked while hand threshing...and it appeared to. St Patrick brought Christainity to Ireland long ago but it took hundreds of years for the Irish to let go of the old traditions...sacrifice was an essential part of the Celts life after all when horses and cattle were slaughtered in their hundreds to provide appeasement to the ancient gods...perhaps the effects of collective memory...folklore...tradition, or just doing what the neighbours did...meant that the ritual of the cats and the asses heads lived on until the turn of the twentieth century.

When we move into a new house we'll often recieve gift cards from friends wishing us luck in our new home...we'll have a house warming party perhaps and people will bring wine and food...in Ireland, the priest will come along and do a house blessing...a tradition here in Co Roscommon is to take the newcomers an apple pie...we no longer strangle the local stray cat but we've replaced that tradition with giving gifts of food and wine...we wouldn't ask the local woman versed in herbs, to murder a hen and let it's blood drip in each corner of the living room...but we'll send a pretty card...I doubt anyone would dream of burying a donkeys head under the hearthstone now...but is that only because new houses don't have hearth stones...they have oil fired central heating instead.

We don't need to plant sweet scented lilies around the outdoor privy but many of us will use a scented toilet block...we may no longer thresh the wheat ourselves with flails...but we often choose to bake our own bread with organic flour milled in the traditional way...we'll still hang up a new St Bridgets Cross every year whether we've made it ourselves or bought one from a shop...and I, for one, will carry a small branch of Elder when the flies are troublesome to wave about and send them away...I don't mind living in the path of the Faerie...it's rather comforting to think of them trooping through my sitting room on occasion, they'll no doubt raise their eyebrows and say 'You'll see the one has her nose in a book again'...

We follow traditions because it makes us feel safe and secure...putting the same ornaments on the Christmas tree year out and year in...and so did the Celts when they held their massive sacrifical feasts and the humble Irish cottager when he put a dead cat on the little ledge inside his chimney...