The Curious Case of Irish Curses and the Magical Cursing Stone

Irish curses: illustration of Irish cursing stone by William Wakeman, 1875

Updated On: May 04, 2024 by   ConnollyCoveConnollyCove

The island of Ireland has always had its own unique culture. The Emerald Isle is a melting pot of the ideas of the various groups that lived here over many millennia, but our history does share some similarities with the rest of the world.

Curses, for example, are a standard part of many different mythologies, and the mythology of Ireland is no different. However, we do have our unique interpretation of curses. Irish curses have a fascinating history that many people don’t know, and there is a reason for that.

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Irish curses date back to Pagan times.

Irish curses appear in mythology, but not how you would expect. Irish curses don’t constantly thwart a hero’s mission; they do the opposite sometimes. There are even some preserved pagan cursing stones found at Christian holy sites, which, from an outside perspective at least, doesn’t make sense!

This article will explore the oddities of Irish curses and more. So, let’s dive into the haunting and mysterious history of Irish curses and cursing stones. Scroll down to read through the article, or click on one of the highlighted sections below to jump ahead!

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Most Irish curses bring bad fortune.

The Origins of Irish Curses

Curses in Ireland come from the usual mythological roots and include folk magic and charms. Although not always, curses were usually used for nefarious means. The simple good versus evil model was always popular in Irish folk tales.

Folklore contains many famous examples of spells and curses. One popular legend states that a spell on Etain turned her into various animals. Another folk tale tells of King Suibhne, who was cursed by St. Ronan and became a half-bird, half-man creature. The curse placed on the children in the story of the Children of Lir turned them into swans for 900 years.

In folklore, these magic acts qualify as curses because they are malicious, inflict hardship on the victim, and are contingent on extreme circumstances before they can be lifted or, in some cases, are irreversible.

In the myths, every country and every town had its peculiar curses. Curses can be brought upon someone accidentally by falling over a rath or fairy fort or deliberately attracting a curse from an enemy.

Cursing a person involves wishing lousy luck or evil on them or someone they love by invoking a non-human power, and is found in many cultures worldwide. In most cases, a curse involves using a formula (e.g. a prayer or spell – whatever you want to call it!) and an associated prop, ingredient, or personal object associated with the person you want to curse.

illustration of Irish cursing stone by William Wakeman, 1875
Illustration of Irish cursing stone by William Wakeman, 1875

Thus far, Ireland is like any other country in terms of the mythos surrounding curses. However, their Filiocht (poets) bequeathed to them another rich magical strain that contained rules that allowed for just cursing and punished unjust curses.

Irish Cursing Stones

Cursing stones were part of a ‘bullaun‘, believed to mean bowl. A bullaun was a stone with a depression (a shape carved into the stone to create an indent, like a bowl) in its centre, which held water. The bullaun could curse someone, but only if the punishment was just. If not, the person who performed the ritual would receive the curse.

Natural rounded pebbles or boulders, known as cursing stones, were sometimes found in the bullaun. Apart from the similarities we mentioned, each surviving bullaun is relatively unique. Their size, shape, and other features change drastically.

Interestingly, the bullaun was not just associated with detrimental effects; it was believed that rainwater collected in the bullaun had healing properties. Even more interesting, the stone could also be used for a blessing.

Blessings and curses were seen as opposites, so cursing often involved moving the stone in the opposite direction of a blessing.

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Stones were often used to cast Irish curses.

The position of cursing stones in Irish folklore is poorly documented, perhaps due to their evil nature but also because the Celts did not record their history in Ireland. Their history has been pieced together using records from other nations and countries at the time who mentioned them, as well as the artefacts and archaeological sites they left behind.

It was only when Christian monks began recording the history of Ireland that much of the Celtic way of life, such as mythology, was transcribed. The monks attempted to merge the Celtic faith with Christian values.

By then, Celtic life had been merged with Christian ideals, drastically changing their lifestyle, folklore, and culture. Not everything the Celts did fit into Christian values, and so some things have very little information surrounding their existence, as they were intentionally left out of the monks’ records.

While the early Celtic Christian church absorbed many of the Pagan beliefs of old Ireland, adapting Irish curses into the Christian ideology was naturally unfavoured. Sacred wells became holy wells quickly enough, just as the myths of Pagan heroes became the miracles of saints. This explains the story of Brigit, the Goddess of the Tuatha de Danann and her resemblance to Saint Brigid.

Many similarities exist between the names of the two deities, including that Saint Brigid’s Day is celebrated on the same day as Imbolc, one of the four ancient Celtic festivals. Brigit was the Goddess of Fire, Light, Fertility, the Hearth, the Forge, and Creativity.

Because she represented dominant positive things, it was tough to get the ancient Irish people to stop worshipping her. So, they turned her into a saint.

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Irish curses were not allowed in the Christian faith, so there is not much-written history about them.

However, the polar opposite of the sacred wells were the bullauns, which contained cursing stones. These were not so palatable to the Christian faith. The notion of uttering curses to damn one’s enemies was in stark contrast to the views of Christianity.

So, the stones were never part of the canon of the Celtic church once the faiths were merged. The Celtic church was the amalgamation of Celtic pagan customs into the Christian faith during medieval Ireland. It returned to the standard Catholic Christian format during the Norman ascendancy over the island.

It was easy to fix this issue; once the stones were removed, the bullaun was harmless and could only serve as a water basin.

It makes sense that instead of trying to change the dominant religion in the country entirely, early Christian missionaries would try to merge suitable existing traditions with their mission. They would only leave out the things that were unacceptable in their faith. Curses fit this criteria, so it does make sense.

What We Know About the Cursing Stones

Only two cursing stones are believed to have survived throughout history and still exist today. The rest have been lost or destroyed, presumably by the Catholic Church. However, there is also evidence that many more exist.

These are lesser known but fit the criteria of a bullaun, so it is hard to decide on one number. Such are the joys of Irish mythology’s ambiguous nature! Whatever the actual number, the unfortunate truth is that most ancient Irish cursing stones were destroyed.

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Irish cursing stones are often found in churches and at holy sites.

The remaining stones are often found at holy sites. It is not unusual for an old stone church to have a carved basin in its wall to hold holy water, which the clergy use to bless themselves as they enter the church.

Most of what we know about cursing in terms of cursing stones comes from folklore and the remnants of ritual traditions. But when you take a step back and look at everything in context, you can see that, in most cases, the curse seems to be about a reverse of positive powers.

This reverse motif occurs everywhere. A spell, for example, is often considered the opposite or the reverse of a prayer. So, once the stones were removed, the former bullaun was only associated with positive blessings.

It is also believed that rituals were involved in the use of bullauns, including fasting before making a curse and leaving offerings. A commonly portrayed ritual when performing a curse is repetitive actions, such as turning the stone anti-clockwise while the curse is cast.

What the Cursing Stones Meant in Ireland

In Ireland, cursing stones are generally associated with early ecclesiastical sites and involve invoking power by an early Christian saint. As part of the early Christian tradition, pilgrims would often go to these sites and recite a prayer while turning the stone clockwise. Or, if they wanted to curse someone, they would turn the stone anti-clockwise (against the sun and other natural processes).

It is more than likely that this process involved worshipping Celtic Gods and Goddesses long before Christianity arrived in Ireland. It would have taken a long time to break any tradition completely, and we already know that many Celtic traditions were adjusted but preserved.

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Before Christianity arrived in Ireland, Irish curses were connected to Pagan and Celtic beliefs.

The cursing stones themselves were simple enough; indeed, several still survive. One or more round stones would rest in the depressions on larger stones. They are of Neolithic origin and are considered a subset of the “cup-marked boulders” found across Europe.

Sometimes known as bullauns (from the bowl-like depressions in which the stones rested), a common Christianisation of the practice was to remove the rocks and use the depressions to hold holy water. It was thought that removing the small stones would remove the nefarious magical ability of the larger stones, rendering them harmless.

Some bullauns still retained their stones and their cursing legends, more than likely in more rural areas. However, the majority were used solely as blessing stones from then on or were destroyed entirely.

The Geas in Irish Mythology – Irish Curses

In Irish mythology, the geas were comparable to a curse, prohibition, or taboo. They were sometimes even considered a gift. The geas was usually a spell that prohibited an action to be taken. If the spell were broken, the person it was cast upon would suffer misfortune even if they didn’t know about the geas.

The most exciting thing about the geas is that heroes in Celtic mythology used them to their advantage, essentially creating a prophecy that foretold their death bizarrely and unusually. This idea would be so far-fetched that heroes could fight many battles unscathed, knowing their chances of defeat were nearly impossible.

For example, the Welsh hero Lleu Llaw Gyffes had a geas that stated he would neither die at day or night, on land nor water, indoors or outdoors, making his death nearly impossible.

Tory Island in Co. Donegal

The Incident on Tory Island – An Irish Curse?

From avoiding black cats and walking under ladders to making the cross sign to ward off evil, the Irish have a long history of believing in the power of the supernatural. The people of Tory Island are no exception in the curious case of the sinking of the HMS Wasp ship.

Tory’s history is full of mystical stories, ranging from blessed clay that prevented rodents from living on the island to magic water fonts, secret charms, and enchanted stones. But most people believe the tales to be nothing more than folk legends, told as throwaway comments to explain the inexplicable and amuse the masses quickly.

The Sinking of the HMS Wasp

However, one tragic incident is still rumoured to have been the result of an authentic Irish curse: the sinking of the HMS Wasp.

The HMS Wasp was a Royal Navy gunboat built in 1880. It was mainly used to transport officials to and from the islands for lighthouses, fishery inspections, and other official duties. In 1883, the boat delivered a supply of seed potatoes donated by the Quakers to help the poor in Donegal and on Tory Island, so it had a mixed reputation with the people there. 

On 22 September 1884, three families on the island could no longer afford rent. Their landlord ordered their evictions to set an example for the other tenants. The HMS Wasp would again set sail for Tory Island, but this time, instead of bringing relief to the islanders, the ship was carrying the bailiffs and police to carry out the eviction.

And so it did; the HMS Wasp set sail from Westport, County Mayo, to collect taxes and deliver eviction notices to Inishtrahull Island off Malin Head. It was on course between Tory and the mainland when disaster struck.

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Irish curses are often seen in legends and folk tales.

At around 3:45 AM, the HMS Wasp hit the rocks directly beneath Tory’s lighthouse. The ship sank to the bottom of the ocean in less than half an hour. Out of all the men onboard during the tragedy, only six survived.

What Caused the Ship to Sink?

Exactly what happened on board the HMS Wasp in the early hours of 22 September, as it approached Tory Island, is uncertain. The senior officers were asleep, leaving more junior crewmen to man the boat.

This was probably not the wisest choice for the senior officers, given the poor visibility and the difficulty of their route to the island. However, the ship had sailed this course many times before, and those who survived were cleared of wrongdoing.

It may have been their inexperience that led them to plot a different course from the standard route, sailing between the island and the mainland rather than around the outside of the island. Also, unusually, the ship’s boilers were not in use, leaving it devoid of steam power.

This was not a crippling problem, as the ship was perfectly capable of travelling entirely under sail. But, it left the crew with no ability to perform delicate manoeuvres in the case of an emergency. When the ship collided with the island’s reefs twice, the junior sailors attempted to get to their lifeboats, but there was simply not enough time.

Indeed, stormy conditions must have hindered their journey, right? Well, not really. The weather was reported as clear and breezy. It was only after the tragic incident when people tried to reach the island during the following days, that a storm began.

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Some people believe the work of Irish curses caused the HMS Wasp to sink.

By all accounts, the survivors were well looked after and treated as celebrities after the tragedy. The official court-martial did not blame the sinking on a curse or the crew but did recognise the insufficient experience of the navigating lieutenant.

The story goes that the ancient cursing stones were used to cast a curse upon the HMS Wasp to prevent it from coming to evict the Tory Islanders. A local priest is said to have been disgusted by these Pagan claims of curses, became enraged, and taken the stones and thrown them over the cliff into the sea.

While the priest removed the stones from the bullaun to ensure any further speculation of supernatural curses in the future would be impossible, this could have easily fuelled the rumours of a curse sinking the HMS Wasp. People who want to believe in the Irish curse could have seen removing the stones as confirmation that they did have some power.

In truth, this story has become a myth in and of itself. While the ship did sink, the stories relating to before and after the event vary drastically from person to person. Some claimed to see an old woman turning the stones, while others swore the bullaun was not destroyed entirely but was hidden on the island.

Tory Island is certainly no exception to the Irish rule of magic stones. As small as this island is, it boasts two magical stones: the Cloch na Mallacht, the cursing stone mentioned in the story, and the Leac na Leannán, a wishing stone. 

Pictured is Foreigner's Graveyard in Tory Island, Co. Donegal, where 8 of the crewmen were buried
Foreigner’s Graveyard is Pictured in Tory Island, Co. Donegal, where 8 crewmen were buried.

The Wishing Stone sits on the island at the top of Balor’s Fort. It is located on a cliff 100m above the Atlantic Ocean. A wish was allegedly granted to anyone who could throw three stones onto its crest. 

The Cursing Stone was located at the island’s west end but is now missing. As we have established, someone has either taken or destroyed the stone.

The Positive Magic of Other Irish Stones

Stones in Ireland have long held a mystique, as we have now discovered. Myths surrounding the supernatural power of Irish rocks are not always related to curses. One reason for Ireland’s strong belief in stone magic could be attributed to the Celts and their religious devotion to rocks and the natural world.

Ireland boasts the most significant collections of wishing and cursing stones worldwide. 

A brief mention of New Grange:

Standing stones, court cairns, portal dolmens, and passage tombs such as New Grange were all created thousands of years ago during the Irish Stone Age, long before the Celts arrived in Ireland. The relationship between New Grange and the sun is fascinating: the inner tomb of New Grange only lights up during the Winter solstice, illuminating the room inside.

While New Grange is not magic, it is an extraordinary archaeological, engineering, astronomical, and mathematical feat. In our article ‘Irish Art History: Amazing Pre-Christian and Celtic Art,’ we explore the significance of New Grange and other stone art/architecture.

The Magic of the Blarney Stone:

The famous Blarney Stone near Cork, Ireland, is a perfect example of a magic stone that has more benevolent roots in mythology.

Would you climb the narrow stairs of the castle to kiss the Blarney Stone?

The Blarney Stone’s origin is linked to Clíodhna, the Celtic Goddess of the Banshees. Banshees were a lone fairy in Irish myth associated with impending death. Cormac Laidir MacCarthy, who built Blarney Castle, found himself in a lawsuit. He pleaded with the goddess for help, and Clíodhna told him to kiss the first stone he saw on his way to court.

Cormac did this, spoke his case eloquently, and won. This is just one of many versions of the legend. They all vary greatly but share the same sentiment: the stone allowed the person to speak charmingly and almost deceptively without causing any offence.

Other versions include Cormac convincing the Queen of England to let him keep his land and the story that Robert the Bruce gifted the stone to the King. The term ‘blarney‘ means beguiling but misleading talk, and so each case involves using the stone to deceptively get your way and overcome seemingly impossible tasks with your words alone.

The legend says that those who kiss the rock will be granted the gift of the gab. Many visitors to Blarney Castle risk bending backwards to reach the stone with their lips, hoping to receive the Irish blessing.

The gift is something everyone would enjoy, so it is no wonder that politicians, singers and even celebrities have visited the Blarney Stone!

Blarney Castle: Home of the Blarney stone

Irish Curses, as Told By the Filiocht

The greatest insight into cursing rituals in Ancient Ireland comes from the Druidic class, the Fili (poets), who were honoured for their powers of foresight, eloquence, mastery, and knowledge of poetic forms and styles.

They were the keepers of knowledge for Kings and understood the magical power of words best. The druids used words to create magic. They were also known to have powerful words in a more metaphorical sense, as their opinions were closely listened to. They could easily make or break a person’s reputation.

The Rise of Piseogs – Unique Irish Curses

As we have covered, Irish curses would only come true if the punishment was just and fair. However, there were also charms and spells called ‘Piseogs‘, which anyone with ill-intent, malicious notions, or even pure jealousy could enact on a neighbour without any reason.

These curses were akin to modern superstitions, such as gaining lousy luck from walking under a ladder or breaking a mirror.

The existence of piseogs was a widespread belief in rural areas of Ireland in the past. It made people quite paranoid as luck was seen as something that could be taken away from someone for malevolent reasons rather than a random chance of misfortune.

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Piseogs are unique Irish curses that can be cast for any reason.

Efforts to prevent piseogs involved using holy water, blessing each other, and other Christian methods. People also believed that the charm sometimes involved a ritual burying of a simple everyday object used to symbolise something more significant. If a person could dig up the object, it would break the piseog cast upon them.

There were different types of piseogs, ranging from “low” curses (i.e. elemental folk magic) or general bad luck to “high” curses, potent spells arranged for a crucial specific purpose that could ruin a person’s wealth, livestock or health.

Consequently, many anti-curses and charms were used to prevent yourself from misfortune. Many Charmers and local practitioners in rural areas are believed to have made a steady income at one point by charging money to remove curses and jinxes.

The likelihood was that if an animal was badly cursed or a human was less severely cursed, the local wise man or woman would be your first port of call. Alternatively, very severe, life-threatening curses would be referred to the local priest.

Of course, some myths claim that wise men or women often placed less-than-life-threatening curses.

Irish Curses | An interview from 1987 with people who refuse to walk under a ladder.

A list of the actual superstitions or piseogs in Ireland could fill an article themselves, but here are a few you may have heard of as some Irish people still perform countermeasures against Irish curses today:

  • An itchy nose signifies that you will get into a fight. The only way to prevent a real battle was to have a mock fight (mimicking a light punch on a friend).
  • A solo magpie brings sorrow – Waving at the magpie will ward off the bad luck.
  • Disturbing a fairy tree will bring bad luck – Many farmers will leave fairy trees in their fields.
  • If a visitor enters the home when someone is churning butter, they should churn once to show that they wish good fortune to the family.
  • An itchy hand signifies money is coming your way!
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Many people still believe in Irish curses today.

Irish Curses are a Fascinating Part of Folklore

Ultimately, the Irish are and will always be renowned for their unrivalled capacity to spin a tale and tell a fascinating story. Our history is full of dark, mysterious legends and tall tales, as well as hopeful and heroic myths that focus on all that is good.

Irish mythology and folklore are full of magic, curses, and problems to be explored. Still, Irish curses are also deeply rooted in a past of optimistic opportunities and festivities celebrated by people who wanted to see the light in the dark times.

One of the most exciting things about Irish curses is that they were seen as the opposite of a blessing instead of something completely different. Objects like the bullaun were not inherently evil; it was up to people to decide how to use them.

That said, the Irish aren’t willing to take any chances regarding luck, so you will still see a few people wave at a lone magpie or avoid disturbing a fairy tree to prevent falling victim to Irish curses. The fact that Irish mythos are so ambiguous leaves much room for magic and curses to explain the otherwise unknown gaps in stories.

Have you ever heard any fascinating stories involving Irish curses? We would love to read about them in the comments below!

Other Worthy Reads:

Get to Know Some of the Most Famous Irish Proverbs| Digging into the Secrets of Irish Pookas| Dive into the Finest Legends and Tales of the Irish Mythology| Legendary Castles in Ireland: The Truth Behind the Irish Urban Legends|

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