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Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Skull-Swearing: An Interesting Old Irish Habit

I am acutely aware that despite the title of this Blawg I am not properly addressing courts and their miscellany, I did however find this interesting. 
I highly recommend my source for this article: Irish Law and Lawyers in Modern Folk Tradition by Éanna Hickey for a plethora of interesting stories

Oath swearing is pervasive of human culture, and naturally many methods and traditions have sprung up over the tides of history. The most famous method in the West is in the Court room, with a copy of the Bible in the right hand.  The solemnity is nothing short of sacred all in the courtroom are watching intently, a deafening silence overrides all noise. Another well known way of swearing is loudly exclaiming amidst a heated argument "I swear on my mother's life!" which thoroughly emphasises the point of the speaker.
In Ireland's past there have been reports of another way of swearing an oath: Skull-swearing. The iconic symbol of death, the face of the Grim Reaper and warning on bottles containing dangerous chemicals.

How widespread was the use of this melodramatic replacement for a more 'mainstream' item such as the Bible? This theatrical method of swearing seems to have been surprisingly popular. If not to leave an impression on your audience using a skull has one definitive feature: it shows you are being very serious.
Some of these curious tales can be found in Ireland around 200 years ago. 19th Century Ireland conjures many images and half remembered folk-tales, yet one which is well remembered is that Ireland was religious, Ireland was (mostly) Catholic, Ireland was predominately agricultural. One would be tempted to assume that Oath taking would be seen with a particular solemnity, especially with God Almighty watching the local peasants with his omniscient eyes. Yet Ireland presents a remarkably nuanced image of how Oaths were seen around the 18th-19th Century.

In some respects the stereotype appears to be quite true, insofar as the Irish of the 19th Century took their oaths very seriously. This reverence passed into some folk beliefs about perjury. In 'Irish Law and Lawyers in Modern Folk Tradtion'[1] Éanna Hickey reports a few tales which would raise a few eyebrows[2]. At Croagh Patrick there used to be a black bell kept at the summit used for swearing on, and as a travelling francais named de Latocnaye remarked: "no-one will dare perjure himself on it. They...believe that the devil will carry them off immediately if they dare to affirm on it anything that is not true."
Whilst this certainly would seem to fit a pious population, on the opposite there was much reporting of casual lying and perjury, a farmer once remarked "unless you could swear black was white and black was white you mightn't be entering court...unless you were prepared to swear anything to win, you wouldn't win". It very much seems to be a case of getting over that first perjury and the rest seems to come naturally, or perhaps it depended on how superstitious you were.

Perhaps a good example of how popular skulls were as testamentary items can be the name of the town of Cleggan, County Galway owes its name to this habit. Cleggan in as Gaeilge is 'An Cloigeann', literally 'The Skull'. This name derives from a local folk tale that St Ceannanach (of course it was a saint) was decapitated by a pagan chief, who for some reason took it to a holy well to wash it before dying himself. The Skull had a curious side effect on perjurors who dared swear on it; they would forever more see the image of the skull on the reflection of any drink they would have.

This skull-swearing seems to have been popular in County Cavan for a time[3], where there was a skull kept in a niche in an old building in a graveyard which was apparently widely used for Oath-swearing. So popular in fact that when there were to be legal proceedings they would fetch it for use.
One more notable report from Hickey concerns a Mayo man who by rumour was the father of a recently born "natural" daughter of a local girl. This gentleman, sparing no expense on drama, entered a congregation after mass bearing the skull in a handkerchief, unveiled his grisly aid and swore before all on it that he was not the father of the baby. The high drama and solemnity apparently convinced the congregation of his veracity (the new mother's reaction to this isn't quite known).

[1] 1999, Four Courts Press, Dublin
[2] at least the Author raised his
[3] no offence is intended or aimed at the Citizens of County Cavan of today