Monthly Archives: August 2014

Second Symposium on Charms and Magic in Medieval and Modern Ireland

On 6th – 7th June, we hosted the second Symposium on Charms and Magic in Medieval and Modern Ireland here in NUI Maynooth (or Maynooth University, as we will be known from 1st September!). The event began on the Friday evening and continued all day on Saturday and was very well attended. Thanks to everyone who came along.

The Friday evening was meant as an opening event, but also to celebrate another special occasion (on which more in the next paragraph). The keynote speaker was Professor John Carey (University College Cork) who spoke on “The spells of blacksmiths and related matters”. Starting from the well-known references to “spells of smiths”, Carey wove a tight web of arguments about the metaphysical and magical powers of smiths in early Irish and preceding Indo-European societies. In particular he argued that guilds of specialist craftsmen like smiths may have served as channels to preserve and maintain pre-Christian concepts and aspects of mythology into the Christian period, in the form of special “esoteric” knowledge (in the truest sense of the word) within these groups. It is only very rarely that glimpses of this knowledge made it into the written record. The references to “spells of smiths” may be faint traces.

John Carey

Professor John Carey (UCC)

After this, Barbara McCormack, the special collection librarian of NUIM, gave a short talk about the Russell Library (where our manuscripts and rare books are held), and especially about the Irish manuscript collections in Maynooth. This served as a natural transition to the second lecture of the evening, by Professor Aoibheann Nic Dhonnchadha (Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies), who spoke about Maynooth MS C 110. This manuscript celebrated a special anniversary on 15th May – 600 years ago on that day the principal scribe Eoin Ó Callanáin recorded the completion of his Irish translation of the Latin Speculum Medicinae of Arnaldus de Villanova. Nic Dhonnchadha is a notable expert on Early Modern Irish medical writing, and she talked about the background to this translation.

Lappin NicDhonnchadha

Professor Anthony Lappin (Spanish, NUIM) and Professor Aoibheann Nic Dhonnchadha (DIAS)

After the talks we had a reception in the architecturally magnificent Russell Library where MS C 110 was on display. At this occasion, Jacqueline Borsje launched her latest book (edited together with Ann Dooley, Séamus Mac Mathúna and Gregory Toner), Celtic Cosmology. Perspectives from Ireland and Scotland (Brepols 2014).

Borsje Stifter Carey

Dr Jacqueline Borsje (Amsterdam/Ulster), Professor David Stifter (NUIM) and Professor John Carey (UCC) at the launch of Celtic Cosmology

The main symposium on Saturday started with a paper by Neil Buttimer (Modern Irish, UCC) about “Cures and charms in the post-classical period”. This was a survey of the types of texts of a “magical” content (in the widest sense) from manuscripts of the 18th and 19th centuries, and about their functions.

Brian Ó Catháin (Modern Irish, NUIM), “Four Irish-language charms collected in Aran in 1895” spoke about the historical and academic background to the 4 charms collected by the German philologist Franz Nikolaus Finck in 1895 on Aran.

Bairbre Ni Fhloinn (Folklore, UCD) made interesting remarks about the use and position of charms today, which are not so called, but are rather referred to as “the cure”. She argued in “Charms on call: some comments on “the cure” in Ireland today and in the recent past” that the use of and belief in this type of folk medicine is still as widespread as before, and that it now adapts to modern media, especially blood-staunching charms which are today very frequently applied via the phone by persons who have “the cure”.

Peter McGuire is a lecturer in the Folklore Dept. in UCD, but his main occupation is as a freelance journalist for the Irish Times. Last October he wrote an article about the modern belief in folk medicine. In his contribution “Magical cures in modern Ireland” he spoke about how he wrote the article, how he got information, and what unusually negative reactions he got from some readers after it had been published.

Barbara Hillers (Folklore, UCD), “European charms in Irish folk tradition” stressed that the greater part of charms that are in use today or that are documented in the Archive of the Folklore Commission actually have parallels all over Europe, and that very often one is able to trace how it entered Ireland and the Gaelic world. In particular she mentioned the famour bone-to-bone charm whose distribution in Ireland and Scotland betrays it to be a Viking import.

Eoin Grogan (School of Celtic Studies, NUIM), “Broken bones – thwarted  magic?” presented the case of rare cremation burials from Iron Age Ireland and argued that since these were apparently deliberate un-Christian types of burials, there may have been some magic significance behind them.

Jacqueline Borsje (University of Amsterdam, University of Ulster) discussed a particularly difficult charm, first published by R. Best in Ériu 16, and argued that it contained “Medieval Irish impotence magic”. She compared elements of this charm with parallels as far away as Coptic Egypt.

Carey Borsje

Professor Carey and Dr Borsje in the Russell Library

Ilona Tuomi (Early and Medieval Irish, UCC), “900 years of the Caput Christi Charm: scribal strategies and textual transmission” compared the 4 different version of the Caput Christi charm, transmitted in MSS spanning 900 years, and developed a theory of the contextual meanings of each of the 4 versions, based on text-internal clues. She argued that whereas in the earliest versions we are looking at texts that may have been orally transmitted and that were most probably actually used as charms, the later versions rather serve antiquarian interests.

David Stifter (School of Celtic Studies, NUIM) was the last speaker. “Coming full circle? c or o in the second Stowe Missal charm” took its starting point in observations that Dennis King published several years ago on his blog. Dennis had suggested to read twice “mo” in the second Stowe Missal spell (which is aginst a thorn). Whereas the second “mo” had been accepted by Jacqueline Borsje in a recent article in the Festschrift for Jan Erik Rekdal, she had upheld the reading of the very first word of the charm as “macc”, and she had furthermore developed an interpretation of the entire charm out of the significance of the “son”. David Stifter went beyond the palaeography and argued that grammatically and idiomatically, the received “macc saele” “son of spittle = salve” makes no sense at all, and that moreover the alleged abbreviation “mc” for “macc” has no parallel anywhere in the contemporary Old Irish corpus. It is inevitable to read “mo saele”, as Dennis had suggested in 2009.

Hayden Herbert


Students Camilla

Top: Dr Deborah Hayden (DIAS) and Professor Máire Herbert (UCC); middle: NUIM undergraduate Brendan Doherty; bottom: NUIM students at the launch of Celtic Cosmology

With thanks to Professor Stifter for the summary of papers from which this blog post is adapted and to Barbara McCormack of the Russell Library for supplying the photographs.