St. Patrick’s Day is here, and thoughts run to all things Irish. Other aspects of Celtic tradition have crossed the Atlantic as well and thrived remarkably on the Niagara Frontier. This seems the occasion to summarize the local supernatural connection.
First of all, who were/are the Celts? “Most Northwest Europeans” is the simple answer. Most of pre-Roman Europe was populated by cultures who displayed signs of a shared Celtic identity. Though today seven nations tend to consider themselves Celtic, including the Welsh and French, the stereotypical Celts for most of us are the Irish and the Scottish.
In the U.S. the Irish are very visible, especially at this time of year. Canada has a stronger connection to the Scottish, the so-called Caledonians (from the Roman name for England north of Hadrian’s Wall). This has something to do with that little dustup called the American Revolution, after which most of America’s Loyalists (king-supporters) went north of the border. Stuck on the same island as the Brits, the Scots had no choice but to stick with the Empire and hence the Commonwealth, thus Canada has more Scots.
Classic Irish and Scottish storytelling is among the liveliest in the world. It created a wondrous landscape of supernatural beings and customs whose survival to the present day would surprise you, specially on the Niagara.
Those elusive, spontaneous apparitions we call ghosts are reported in all cultures. This is the most common supernatural subject in contemporary America. On the Niagara, I don’t see much of a difference in the way the ghosts of recognizably Celtic people appear to eyewitnesses. Celtic ghosts are simply more common, especially those of famous ones. In fact, one of the best ways to get yourself reported as a ghost after your life is to have been a famous Irish-American during it, at least in Buffalo. It worked for three prominent Old First Ward Irish-Americans – entrepreneur Michael Shea, racketeer William “Fingy” Connors, and boxer Jimmy Slattery.
Some of the still-roaring ghosts on the other side of the Niagara were Irish-Americans, Scots, or Scottish-Canadians involved in the War of 1812. I’ve heard ghost-reports of Scot William Drummond and American-Irish Patrick McDonough at Fort Erie related to the Siege in the summer of 1814.
The more peaceful tradition of what I call “the after-life goodbye” – manifested sometimes as an apparition and sometimes as a sound or sign identified with the departed – is still a strong one. Many Irish-Americans still expect some sort of signal, particularly when the lost one has been a powerful figure in many lives, like a grandparent or an old and revered aunt or uncle.
The historic Celts were stereotyped as the best runners in Europe and also the possessors of “the Second Sight,” which is the ability to see beings of the other world and future events in this one. In my research for a book on the War of 1812 I came across a few anecdotes of Niagara combatants accurately forecasting their deaths before battles. They were almost exclusively Native Americans or Celts. Before the same battle at Fort Erie the two Scots William Drummond and Hercules Scott were reported to have sensed that it was all over. One wrote a note to his family and sent his sword and some personal items with it. The other hung out partying most of the night and took a nap under an awning that protected cannon.
Witchcraft of a sort has existed in all world societies, not least among the Irish and Scottish. (Scottish witches were considered the worst in the British Isles. Just ask MacBeth.) The Celtic-American witch-stories I have from the Niagara date from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Buffalo’s West Side once hosted an enchanter who worked through the gift of a flower presented to children, hoping it might find its way into a home and start to blight the family. The East Side held a curser whose attacks manifested as animal effigies that formed in the feathers of the target’s pillow. I have heard of both customs in Buffalo’s other ethnic enclaves of the day, including the Germans and the Polish. It seems that the cultures were mingling occult knowledge at the time and that a generic form of upstate urban magic may have developed.
A more classic and distinctly Celtic style of cursing comes from the Southern Tier, which had a substantial mid-19th century influx of Irish immigrants. Ellicottville’s Witch Hollow gets its name for being the stomping grounds of an obscure old gal who could curse people’s crops and cattle. Surely, the neighbors said, the quantity and quality of the milk and butter she brought to market were way beyond what her farm should have produced, precisely at the periods of her neighbors’ blight. This was one of the oldest tactics of the Celtic witch in the British Isles – magically sapping “the sweet” out of other items for her own good. The Fairies could do that, too.
The Erie Canal in the early 1820s brought with it a wave of Irish immigrants to the Niagara along with legends of supernatural beings you wouldn’t expect to take root in industrialized North America. A Tuscarora elder told a story about an Irish Canal crew being completely spooked by the discovery of tiny human skeletons and mini-artifacts near Syracuse.
I’ve heard of a handful of other Celtic-American fairy stories in Western New York, but most are sketchy like the typical ghost-report. They are sightings, not stories. One of the best comes from the canal region northeast of Rochester in the late 1800s. An off-the-boat Irishman happened to meet a handful of the wee folk late at night on his way home from a canalside pub. The experience with the American fairies made a such a mark on him that he headed back to Ireland. The story was found in a family journal from Greece, NY.
A few areas in Western New York got the reputation of hosting Celtic-style fairies. One Monroe County tract near Victor held a green-glowing bog about which such a body of folklore gathered that it was even known as “the fairy farm.” My best guess is that the site today is under the I-90 about where it crosses Log Cabin Road. The Irish American family who owned it always suspected that their specially-abled, likely Downs, daughter was a changeling, a defective fairy substitute left in place of their own stolen child.
The banshee is apparently one of the fairy-folk with an appointed mission. The banshee keens – cries loudly – on the night before an important member of one of the old clans is due to die. (Traditions vary on the qualifications to get banshee-keened.) The name “banshee” is an Anglicization of the Celtic words for “woman” and “hill.” Since the fairies were supposed to live in the monumental burial mounds of the Celtic world and another word for them was “shee,” banshee clearly means “fairy woman.”
By now the Irish and Scottish have spread all over the world, and I’ve heard fairly recent banshee reports from South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia. The banshee was supposed to have wailed at Lord Mountbatten’s castle on the night in 1979 that he was blown up on his boat by the IRA. I’ve heard one banshee tale from a Western New York family, though the sons of the soon-to-be-late gentleman heard the sound of the wailing-groaning in far parts of the country – Alaska and Colorado.
Celtic lore features echelons of other fairy-beings who do not live in communes subject to kings and queens. These are the solitary ones, and they are also less likely to be insightful. Most of them are dim bulbs, in fact. (Think of Harry Potter’s Dobby.) They, too, are represented in local Irish-American lore. One of the standouts is the hobgoblin of “the Black Hole” – the pit of solitary confinement – at Fort Niagara. The classic story about this impish critter appears in an 1839 book about the Fort. After “paying tribute too freely to Bacchus” (the wine god) a besotted Irish-American piper named John Carroll got lippy with the Fort’s commander in 1804 and got thrown into the Hole to sober up. In the wee hours, his piteous wailing drew the guards. He believed he had seen the goblin. The guards brought him a light, paper, and pen so he could write the song the blastie inspired in him. The song itself, “Carroll’s Thoughts on Eternity,” was lost but rediscovered within the last few years and played at a recent Fort celebration.
It’s the weekend of St. Patrick, and many of you may be paying tribute to Bacchus as well. I advise you to be courteous to all beings you meet, natural or supernatural, on your forays.