Halloween Special: Shaving the Dead in Irish Folklore

Shaving the dead in Irish folklore

The Irish Folklore Collection archive in University College Dublin contains a massive volume of documents, sound-recordings and other material collected under the auspices of the Irish Folklore Commission and other bodies since the 1920s. Two of the main elements of the archive are the Schools Folklore, compiled by schoolchildren in the 1930s, and the Main Collection, the work of folklorists working in communities throughout the state. These volumes are in the process of being digitised and transcribed – all of the examples here are from the Schools Collection at www.duchas.ie.

The archive incorporates a huge volume of material on folk medicine, magical cures, care for the dying, and the laying out, waking and burial of the dead. The work of laying out was rarely done by family members. Neighbours or local specialists, usually women, would wash and shroud the remains, and might also be involved in preparing the house for the wake. Great care was taken with the water used to wash the dead. Many accounts suggested it should be disposed of carefully, usually beneath a bush, in a corner, or somewhere where people didn’t normally walk, as it might cause the ground it touched to grow ‘fear gorta’, hungry grass, that would make passers-by feel faint or shaky, or create a ‘stray sod’ that would cause anyone walking over to become lost (‘go astray’). The things used during this time also needed to be treated carefully. Dying people were often placed on a woven straw mat, which would be burned or otherwise disposed of. The soap and towels used might be burned, buried, or placed in the fork of a tree.

Strictly-observed customs also surrounded the shaving of the dead and the things of shaving. In some areas it seems that all dead men were shaved, while elsewhere only those who had been clean-shaven during life were shaved after death. For example,in Carne, Co. Wexfordin the 1930s‘If a man was wearing a moustache or side whiskers it was shaved off’,[1]and in Sraheen, Co Mayo, it was even said ‘that if a man is not shaved before he is buried he will not go to heaven’.[2]  However, in Kilcommon, Co. Tipperary,‘A man who shaved during life is shaved, while those who wore beards are left there just as in life.’[3]The job of shaving the dead seems usually to have been done by a man, even if women did the washing. Most accounts mentioning shaving the dead agree that the razor used should be given to the man who did the job, though in some places, like Shancurry, Co. Leitrim, it was buried‘no matter how good it is’:[4]some add the detail that no payment should be asked for this work. Shaving a dead person seems to have been considered a tricky matter (cuts and nicks would doubtless displease the relatives). It might be said of a person who was good at sharpening tools that ‘He could put an edge on a scythe that would shave a corpse’.[5]

The association of men with shaving the dead is also evidenced in stories concerning encounters between mortals and the ‘Good People’ – the fairies – whose reputation for malevolence and caprice made them widely feared well into the twentieth century. While women might be detained by the fairies to act as midwives or nurses, men were more likely to be roped in to play games or music or, on occasion, to carry corpses or shave the dead – the latter is perhaps understandable in light of the Good People’s alleged aversion to iron. From Shrule, Co. Galway, comes the story of Pat Doherty:

There was once a man coming home from a wake. He had to cross a hill and on the top of the hill there was a little house. When he was near the house he heard a voice saying “Pat Doherty will shave the dead man”. Out ran the fairies from the house and brought him in. Then he shaved the dead man and the fairies gave him tea. When he was going home the fairies struck a weed and it turned into a horse. He got up on the horse and went home. He was putting in the horse into the stable and he disappeared. Then he went in and went to bed.[6]

One Mayo tale told of a man inveigled into both shaving a corpse for some supernatural women and carrying his coffin. Tom Coffey ‘was put astray’ on his way home one night and, exhausted, sought shelter in a house. An old man there died just after Tom arrived, and the two women attending him told Tom ‘he would have to shave him and he said that he never shaved a man in his life. They said that he would have to shave him.’ The women then obliged Tom to make a coffin. ‘They got a rope then and put it around the coffin. They told Tom that he would have to carry it and he [said he] would not be able. They said that he would. They put it on his back. He carried it all night until cock-crow. They told him to leave down the coffin and he did. The two women and the coffin disappeared.’[7]

Image from J. Jacobs, Celtic Folk and Fairy Tales

Another theme of which there are a few examples in the folklore archive concerns the man who braves a haunted house, only to meet a ghostly or otherworldly barber[8]or to be pressed into service as a barber himself. Seamus de Brun of Croom, Co Limerick told the story of a courageous tramp.

There was this great house, and nobody could stay there, because it was haunted. There was a notice on the gate stating that the person that would stay there three nights would get a thousand pounds.

There was a tramp walking the road and he saw the notice on the gate and read it. He went and told the owner that he would stay there. The first night the owner of the house gave him a bottle of whiskey. When he went in, he put down a big fire and sat down on a chair. At twelve o’clock a man dressed in black stood above on the stairs. The tramp said, what are you doing there, but he got no reply. He held on saying that until he fell asleep.

Next morning the owner unlocked the door and left out the tramp. Next night the owner gave him another bottle of whiskey. At about twelve o’clock, four men [came in] and a coffin on their shoulders. They set down the coffin and departed, and a corpse stood up from the coffin and asked him if he would shave him. He said he would, but he had no razor. The man in the coffin said that [it] was all right, as he himself had one. The tramp set to work and shaved him. Thanking him the corpse said that he had been coming here a long time, but had met no man with courage enough to shave him. The corpse told him where there were three crocks of gold and told him keep two for himself, and give one to the owner of the house. Next morning he done as he was told and got the thousand pounds. He was a rich man afterwards.[9]

Clearly prohibitions against payments for shaving the dead did not apply in the case of walking corpses.

Dr Clodagh Tait, Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick





[5]The Irish Press, 2 June 1979, p.7.





Unpacking the ‘eccentric’ in popular memory: Local characters of old Cardiff.

Disclaimer!: This is not a fully-formed argument, just some thoughts about the ‘eccentric’ in reminiscences of childhood and popular memory. I’d be interested in hearing what others think.

I’ve been reading the ‘Cardiff Borough Records’ – a magisterial five-volume set of miscellany relating to Cardiff from Norman times through until the early twentieth century. It is fascinating. There is everything from court cases to inquests, slander suits to land rents and tithes. For a good Cardiff boy like myself, I find the references to land parcels very interesting in, say, the fourteenth century, which still have echoes in areas and street names to this day. There are, for example, several references to the ‘Weddle’ or “Weddal fields”. Wedal Road is now a busy conduit not far from the University of Wales hospital. But I digress…

One section that stands out for me is the ‘Reminiscences of Old Cardiff’, which contains a brief but fantastic list of ‘eccentric old characters of Cardiff’. These include ‘Pegg the Wash’, an apparently feisty and pugnacious old washerwoman, whose habit was to chase children away from her house with a stick, perhaps peppering her imprecations with a good Welsh oath or two.

“Dammy Sammy” was an apparently well-known schoolmaster, whose sobriquet relates to his colourful choice of language in front of his young charges. A dwarf sweet-seller, known as ‘cough candy’ took advantage of his appearance and, in fact, seems to have augmented it by using his top hat as an advertising hoarding, pasting shop adverts and flyers onto it. The list goes on, but also noteworthy is ‘Hairy Mick’, the lamplighter!

What, though, stands out about these reminiscences? For me, it is the fact that all of these figures involve, or have relevance, for children. They were clearly denizens of a childish world – larger-than-life characters who left an indelible mark on the memory.

Memory, and reminiscence, is an odd thing, especially in terms of using and interpreting these characters in context of, say, social conditions.  How can we separate the ‘truth’ (if such a thing exists) from misty-eyed, if not evocative, depictions of ‘characters’. It is an interesting question. History is full of ‘characters’. If we think of history taught in schools, it is most often done in terms of a cast of individuals (Henry VIII, Hitler et al) and set-piece historical events.

And yet there is a remarkable constant throughout history and human nature, in our ability to identify and remember people who, for one reason or another, were somehow different. I can illustrate this from my own memory. When I was little, there was an unfortunate character who frequented a main street nearby, and who would suddenly leap out and shout at the traffic, sometimes even accompanied by violent gestures and karate actions. A certain mythology built up around him; it was popularly supposed that his wife and children were killed in an accident, thus affecting his mind and causing his behaviour. Whilst it’s certainly possible, it is interesting that no hard evidence really exists; people simply ‘know’.

In his excellent study of the history of folklore in London, Steve Roud makes this important point relating to the endurance of certain types of popular myths – things that are still ongoing today. Aside from more obvious ones such as empty properties gaining a reputation for being haunted, or patches of waste land being attributed to plague pits, he also notes the spread of often baseless rumours, which are then taken as truth. One such is the belief that a certain portion of land or building can never be developed as it was, at some stage, ‘given to the people’. There is one of these on my doorstep; the Caerphilly Miner’s Hospital has long been said by locals to be the property of the people of Caerphilly. Unfortunately, this hasn’t stopped it from recent closure…and redevelopment! A mythology of the individual, perhaps especially when that individual is located within the context of childhood memory,  fits well into this type of folklore.

How could we interpret characters like ‘Dammy Sammy’? As a medical historian, I am loath to engage in ‘retro-diagnosis’ since it’s obviously possible that he just had a foul mouth! But it’s also plausible that a pathological condition, say Tourette’s syndrome, certainly unknown and undiagnosed at the time, might explain spontaneous expletives. If so, a historian of nineteenth-century attitudes towards such conditions might find a useful case study. In a sense, it is not the character himself, but the reason why (s)he stood out that renders them interesting.

Let’s speculate further. Was ‘Peg the Washerwoman’ simply a bad-tempered old woman? Highly likely. But dementia, or perhaps an underlying psychological or sociopathic condition might explain a fear of strangers and a desire to drive them away. Historians of witchcraft have long highlighted the fact that ‘difference’ was often a crucial deciding factor in suspicions of witchcraft. Old women, especially those at the margins of society, were vulnerable.

The point is that we sometimes need to look beyond the simple description or reminiscence and try and unpack the social context of the ‘other’ in society. That the names of these characters – and their apparent ‘eccentricities’ – have survived or achieved notoriety, whilst many others have not, tells us something of how difference was perceived in past societies.

Medical practice in early modern Wales – revision time!

I started researching Welsh medical history properly in 2004. At that point, there wasn’t really a big historiography on the early modern period for Wales…in fact there was essentially only one book. Over the years, I’ve been busy putting that to rights, and have so far published my own book, three academic articles, four book chapters and a range of other stuff. The obvious problem is that if anyone else chooses to start looking at this topic, my research is first in the firing line. But, that’s another day’s worry.

When I started working on the book, I decided to leave the issue of medical practice to one side. Physick and the Family is broadly about the experience of sickness in the early modern period. It looks at things like how people viewed sickness and how they conceptualised and described it. It looks at how well prepared people were to cope with a patient in their own homes, and also the ways in which friends, neighbours and the wider community coped with having a sick person in their midst. Except for when they became part of this sickness experience, doctors were not part of the remit. But they are now.

There has been a long-held view that Welsh doctors of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were part of a practice that was stagnating, backward-looking and pretty much tied to its ancient past. There are certainly reasons to support this view. Unlike England, Ireland and Scotland, Wales had no institutions in which practitioners could focus or gather. It had no universities or colleges of medicine and, as such, there was no formal medical training available. There were no hospitals aside, perhaps, from the odd lying-in room or lazar house.

Until the late seventeenth century, Welsh doctors were relatively reluctant to purse a licence, which they were at least nominally supposed to have, although the lack of policing and distance from London meant that this wasn’t so important in the Principality. Those wishing for a career as a professional physician, though, generally left Wales to train in Oxford or London, and then generally didn’t bother to return. The net result of this has been a view of Welsh practice as a vacuum of orthodox medicine, which was filled by cunning folk (in Welsh the ‘dyn hysbys’ – cunning man), and various other ‘irregular’ practitioners.

The problem with this view is that it simply isn’t accurate. It suggests firstly that there was a lack of practitioners in Wales, which isn’t the case. Secondly, the terminology itself carries baggage. When we talk in terms of ‘irregular’ and ‘unorthodox’ it automatically suggests unskilled. This too is inaccurate since much of the evidence I have looked at over the years suggests that Welsh doctors often went to extraordinary lengths to keep up with wider developments in medicine.

Books, for example, were one way that doctors could keep themselves informed, and there is evidence that Welsh practitioners sometimes purchased even esoteric Latin texts in order to access the latest thinking. The first Welsh-language medical book wasn’t even published until 1736, so they were in effect forced to engage with medical literature in English or Latin.

Secondly, it is interesting to note that Welsh practitioners, alongside their English counterparts, often adopted the title ‘Doctor’ even though they had no degree or licence. In Wales this is interesting because it is an English term; there were Welsh equivalents like “Meddyg” and “Physigwr”, but “Dr” was the preferred term. Although we can’t read too much into this, it might suggest that such practitioners wanted to feel part of a wider medical fraternity or profession.

Thirdly, all evidence points to the practice of medicine being identical in form and function to that in England and across Europe. As has long been demonstrated elsewhere, orthodox practitioners did little different in material terms to the cunning man. Whilst ‘magical’ practitioners might dress up their remedies with symbolism and esoteric language, the basic form and function was the same.

This is not to say that folklore itself was unimportant – far from it. There was an extremely lively oral tradition of medical knowledge in the Welsh language, and strong beliefs in the power of cunning folk. Wales, it must be remembered, was a largely rural country, and one of marked geographical contrasts. There were areas of agricultural lowlands, but also upland, mountainous regions, where travel was difficult. In many ways it was the perfect breeding ground for legends and magic to prosper.

But Wales shouldn’t be viewed as being cut off. It was connected in so many ways to the broader world. Shops, even in tiny villages, for example, sold a range of medical goods, imported often through large English towns such as Bristol, Chester and London, but sometimes directly through the coastal trade. People crossed the borders to visit English towns, again especially Bristol and along the marches, and Welsh accents would have been familiar in these towns. Welsh apothecaries had accounts with London suppliers, and imported proprietary medicines, meaning that Welsh people would have been familiar with popular potions like Daffy’s Elixir. They also bought newspapers and almanacks, so would have known about the lively medical marketplace developing in the seventeenth century.

Overall, Welsh medical practice is due an upgrade – if not a complete revision, and I’m ready to take on the task. I’m going to start on a new project shortly, assessing both the numbers and quality of Welsh medical practice. I have a theory that, like so many other parts of Welsh medical history, there is a lot more to discover, and some deeply-held myths to challenge.