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Superstitions from the archives

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My name is Claire Brown and I work for National Museums NI as a first-person interpreter at the Ulster Folk Museum in Cultra. Having recently embarked on a Masters degree within the Irish Studies Institute at Queen’s University, I am currently undertaking a student placement in the Folk Museum’s archives.

The archives contain a collection of handwritten notebooks which were compiled by individuals and organisations in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The purpose of them was to record, by county and locality, all manner of things including domestic life, schooling, local characters, customs, folklore, trade and agricultural practices.

As part of my placement, I have been transcribing points of interest in the notebooks. The following extract relates to superstitions and comes from one of the notebooks from County Down (reference no. V-16-10). Superstitions, often passed from one generation to the next, are a big part of who we are in Ireland. How many are you familiar with?

Cat – A good omen should a black cat cross your path.

Image: Miss McKinney, Miss Edith McGaw and black cat. HOYFM.DUNDEE.286 © National Museums Northern Ireland.
Miss McKinney, Miss Edith McGaw and black cat. HOYFM.DUNDEE.286 © National Museums Northern Ireland.

Magpie – this belief is still extant amongst some of the young people. They will quote the old rhyme:

1 – for sorrow, 2 – for joy, 3 – for a girl, 4 – for a boy…

'One chap from County Antrim who served with me during WW2 would not rest if he chanced to see one magpie and would go so far as to desert his path, chasing across the countryside in order to find another bird.'

Third generation – the belief that a failure will always turn up in the third generation.

Cradle – a first born child should never be rocked in a new cradle. Rather than do this the old folk would prefer to rock the child in a potato basket.

Picture falling – this occurrence is believed to herald a death in the family. This was illustrated some years ago by an old man who was working as a barman watched this happen in the bar where he worked – and remarked upon it. He himself was buried a fortnight later.

Kitchen floor – you should never sweep the dust of the kitchen floor out the front door – or all your luck will go also.

Hawthorn bloom – must never be taken indoors – very bad luck.

Horseshoe – not so common nowadays. When placing the shoe, the points of the shoe were always placed upwards to keep in the luck.

Image: Two blacksmiths standing outside the horseshoe shaped entrance to their forge, 1925. HOYFM.BT.1251 © National Museums Northern Ireland.
Two blacksmiths standing outside the horseshoe shaped entrance to their forge, 1925. HOYFM.BT.1251 © National Museums Northern Ireland.

Salt – if you spill salt, the only way to ward off bad luck was to throw a pinch over your left shoulder.

Image: Salt mines, Carrickfergus. BELUM.Y15630 © National Museums Northern Ireland.
Salt mines, Carrickfergus. BELUM.Y15630 © National Museums Northern Ireland.

Bird – should a bird fly into and around your house, sure sign of death.

Entering a house – when entering a friend’s house, you should remember to depart through the same door. This is still a strong belief in some families.

Hat, cap, or shoes – regarded as very bad luck to place a hat, cap, or shoes on a table in the kitchen.

Image: An old farmhouse kitchen. BELUM.Yt2805 © National Museums Northern Ireland.
An old farmhouse kitchen. BELUM.Yt2805 © National Museums Northern Ireland.

Whistling – considered bad to whistle in the house or on the way to or from church.

Grave – should never open a grave on New Year’s Day.

Image: Kilclief from graveyard. BELUM.Y.W.05.90.18 © National Museums Northern Ireland.
Kilclief from graveyard. BELUM.Y.W.05.90.18 © National Museums Northern Ireland.

Lights – three lights burning in one room is a sign of sudden death. You will find this today amongst many younger people when lighting cigarettes; they will touch two with the match and then strike a fresh match to light the third cigarette.

Red head – well known, the story is told around Kilclief that a well to do farmer by the name of Denvir, when on the road to Downpatrick, if he noticed a girl with red hair on the road ahead, would shout at her “go in to hell auta that till I get past”.

Evil eye – blinking as it was sometimes called was a power attributed to many men and women. Many it is also said had this power without being aware of it. An old man near Kilclief, County Down, reputed to have this power, visited a neighbour’s farm, the place having being purchased recently. Subsequent upon his visit the cattle on the farm began to take ill and die. So distracted was the farmer that he went to the old man and asked him to wish him luck on his cattle and farm. This being done the animals almost immediately began to recover.

Washing tub – if two people willed to wash in the same water the second one should spit in the tub. 

Image: A woman washing clothes by hand using a wash board in a wooden tub, 1941. HOYFM.BT.1201 © National Museums Northern Ireland.
A woman washing clothes by hand using a wash board in a wooden tub, 1941. HOYFM.BT.1201 © National Museums Northern Ireland.

Playing cards – should never be kept in the house after playing. Should be put outside – windowsill.

Tuesday – unlucky to sell stock on this day.