What can an 80-year-old trove of folklore tell us about how the world sees women?

Illustration: Mary Evans

These are not accurate histories of women’s lives, but they are emotional histories of how the world feels about women, says Caroline O’Donoghue

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By Caroline O'Donoghue on

Earlier this year, a small Irish story came and went with very little fanfare and even less news coverage.

(These are just the kind of anonymous beginnings, you’ll find, at the root of most great legends.)

In the 1930s, the schoolchildren of Ireland were given a nationwide assignment: to ask the oldest person they could find to tell them the oldest stories they knew. These were people who could remember Ireland before the Civil War or the War of Independence, before those extraordinarily violent years knocked the fairies and the banshee out of national conversation. These stories were recorded and named the Schools’ Manuscripts Collection. This year, they were uncovered and then painstakingly digitised by the National Folklore Collection. The result? We now have one of the largest collections of witches (140 accounts), hare-hags (41), banshees (367) and mermaids (311).

In other words, these archives are crammed with women. Bad, sexy, brilliant, death-defying, animal-bewitching, hare-transforming, man-devouring women.

In Killabough, we meet Dolly Gillieland, a woman who lives alone with only a couple of goats for company, and yet still manages to bring more butter to market than anyone else. “This old woman was supposed to be a witch,” writes a young Lucy McGeough, transcribing from the then-67-year-old Patrick Sherry. “And she could turn herself into a hare. Every year, the hunts would be out and they would have no trouble in rising her, but she was very swift and they could never take a wheel out of her.”

What did the people of Killabough do with a woman like Dolly? They shot her. Her body transforms back to its natural state and then she is just an old woman, bleeding. The story does not say what happens next, but you can read between the lines. A woman lives alone on a hillside and, instead of starving desperately and living off the pity of her community, she thrives. She lives. She profits. And, sooner or later, she attracts gossip.

“In folklore, women are something to be feared, and eyed with suspicion,” says Dee Dee Chainey, a writer, folklore curator and founder of the Twitter account and hashtag Folklore Thursday. “Especially once they are no longer youthful brides, useful for bearing children. They are able to transgress boundaries that many men can’t. Like death, it seems that such old women should only be allowed to linger at the outskirts of society, as social pariahs.”

Most of the accounts are told in a factual tone – there are no asides attempting to explain this magic, no qualifiers, no “supposedly”s, or “apparently”s. In some cases, it’s the straightforward, blasé tone that makes the entry seem more real and therefore infinitely more chilling.

“She is to be seen when two people in one village are dead,” begins another account on banshees, the lone hag whose cries can kill. “When she is heard, the people put their backs to the doors till the noise is gone away.”

“The banshee is a bad omen,” says Chainey. “It’s unsurprising that the banshee developed what we think of the tradition of keening – women who would weep and wail professionally after a death – especially to anyone that has heard the wind whistling over the fields and hills on a dark night – it’s an unholy, eerie sound! There has always been a link between women and death, though – women bring life into the world by giving birth and as midwives, and are also the ones who used to tend to bodies after death by washing and preparing them for burial. Some people suggest that this is a sort of power that only women wield, viewed with suspicion and fear, as there is a lot of knowledge that goes with those practices that many men wouldn’t be party to.”

Fear, sex, life, death, magic, men, women – it’s all between the lines of these stories. Are they true? No. Are they real? You bet your arse

Suspicion of older women is nothing new and anyone who lived through 2016 US election will remember how crushingly easy it is to demonise an older woman's every action until she is nothing more than a canvas on to which we can project our collective unease. Starting a witch-hunt is a form of witchcraft in itself – the magic is in the misdirection. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain – keep your eyes on the ageing woman with private habits and even more private income. It’s probably why the greatest number of witchcraft accusations happened during the English Civil War.

“There is indeed a correlation between the social and political unrest and the renewed fear of witches,” says Willow Winsham, also a founder at Folklore Thursday and an author in her own right. “It was a highly charged time and it was vital to know on which side someone stood – suspicion, paranoia and the need to root out traitors was translated into a literal witch-hunt across East Anglia.”

The essence of folklore is that it is unreliable and, if you’re going to study it, you have to really lean into that. There probably weren’t any hare-hags, witches or banshees. These are not accurate histories of women’s lives, but they are emotional histories of how the world feels about women. Fear, sex, life, death, magic, men, women – it’s all between the lines of these stories. Are they true? No. Are they real? You bet your arse.


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Illustration: Mary Evans
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