A few months ago I promised fellow blogger Traci Cavanaugh York a blog post for her #WitchBlogWed hash tag on Twitter. I had an idea in mind. There is a short road called Witches Lane that runs from a housing estate on the edge of Waterford City behind some industrial units before coming out on the main Cork road heading west. It’s a nondescript sort of road, strewn with rubbish and prone to floods. Despite it running through a built up area the tangled trees and bushes that line it, especially at its lowest point, give it a rural as well as creepy feel even in day light. Due to the existence of a book by the Rev. Canon Power, The Place Names of the Decies (1907), exhaustively detailing all the place names of the county, I knew that I would find the history of this road and would write a fantabulous blog post in five minutes flat.
I came up with absolutely nothing. I scanned the Reverend. I Googled. I ordered another book from the library on the street names of Waterford. Every street was named and all of them had a history… except Witches Lane. I wondered if there was a curse on anyone who tried to write about it. Then I thought..
‘Well, bring it on!’
If I could not find a history I at least could come up with a hippopotamus (just checking you are still paying attention) …hypothesis.
I started with Canon Powers’ book. The Place Names of the Decies (Decies being the old name for a large part of what is now Waterford County) which was first published in 1907 with a second edition in 1952. The book catalogues everything and its’ mother within a fifty mile radius:towns, fields, houses, places where houses used to be and where they might be yet, rocks, bushes, and holes~every hole from a mouse hole up. If I was reading the names correctly there was lot of drowning in holes back in the day so I was briefly hopeful for at least one Witches Hole~what better way to dispatch a witch in a soggy country?~but it seems drowning was an equal right in old Ireland. There are Pigs’ Holes, Sheep Holes, Cows’ Holes, Horses Holes’, Serpents Holes’ and even a Garrett’s Drowning Hole, that in the Parish of Lismore, (Power, 1952, p.21). Bye, bye Garrett. Or maybe Garrett was a sadist. Holes were used for other things too…
‘It was into the Goolgower bog-hole, or pond, that the head of Crotty, the outlaw, was finally cast some time subsequent to his execution in Waterford (1741-2). Area, 93 acres (Power, 1952).’
That’s on the Tramore Road if anyone wants to go looking…
But no witches. At least the Rev. Power is quite entertaining. He lists the Cliff of the Cow (if it wasn’t a hole it would be a cliff that would get you) surmising that perhaps a cow fell over it and follows it with the nearby Pigs’ Cliff, writing that it came from ‘probably from some too enterprising pigs which met the hypothetic fate of the cow in the last.‘(Power, 1952, p.44). I spotted a Homestead of the Neighing Horses (there was likely a stud in the area) and a number of bare fields referred to as ‘Bottomy’, a sarcastic reference to Botany Bay and penal servitude (p.94). There is also a Hill of the Mange (Cnoc na Carraí p.70)* which is neck and neck with the Bog of the Clown (Móin an tSraoille p.162)** as personal favourite. Yet I was no closer to an understanding of where Witches Lane came from for, while these days a clown may be equal (at the very least) with the witch in the scary stakes, back in those days a clown was merely an untidy person, according to the good Canon, and an untidy person is not necessarily a witch even if some witches are untidy. So while there were plenty of places that had spooky goings on in them-I spotted a Field of the Wrangling, (a place where the dead play at night), more than one Murder Field, Fairy Fields and a Round Green Field of the Dead Bodies- there were no witches. It seems to me that whereas in other countries witchery was a specific niche, in Ireland it pervaded everything, which is perhaps why, though we still had some witch burnings~see Dame Alice Kyteler of Kilkenny (Williams,1994)~it was harder to separate out the witches from the rest of the populace. Everyone had one foot in the other world. The other was in a drowning hole most likely.
I did not give up though. Reading Canon Power gave me the idea of looking up the gaelic word for witch. It is often said that a nation loses a lot when it loses its language and though, like many who were force-fed gaelic in school, I don’t believe in reviving past practices for the sake of it, I have often found that the Irish language is far more expressive than English. I had noticed that cill or cillín means church and came to mean graveyard too. The area that Witches Lane passes through, Ballinaneesagh (or Baile Na nDéiseach meaning Town of the Decies, probably referring to a Waterford family living in a foreign enclave in the area (Power, 1952, p.) is home to one of the city’s bigger graveyards so maybe cill was close to the gaelic word for witch? To walk down Witches Lane at night, clouds scudding across the moon rising above Misty Rock (Carraig Cheach), owls gliding over nearby Kilbarry (Cill Bharra) Marsh hooting like banshees while the dead slumbered nearby may have been enough to induce more than one witch sighting. It turns out the word cill is close but maybe not close enough. But in the end the word itself speaks volumes.
The gaelic word for witch is cailleach. Even the most reluctant student among you will remember that caill is the root of the verb to lose. So cailleach could translate as the lost which does indeed evoke the ghosts that might float between this world and the next. Caill itself derives from the old words for destroy, strike, defect, limp or cut. (https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/caill). But cailleach has a number of meanings. According to the National Museum of Ireland it is…
…a special object woven from the last standing sheaf in a field. It was made to mark/celebrate the gathering of the harvest….This is the name given to an animal that would make a dash to the neighbour’s field. This animal was believed to be the ‘hag’ that was stealing the profit from the land. …In general it was believed that the ‘Cailleach’ like a corn dolly celebrated retrieving your harvest and the grain from this was sown in the New Year.
Here on the edge of the sea a recent festival revived the practice of making a superlife-sized corn dolly, or cailleach, also called Molly, from willow and casting her into the sea. If she washes in onto the back strand it is good news for next years’ season, but if she washes back on the main beach-not so much. This tradition only dates from the early 1900s and most likely has its roots in commercialism but it is obviously derived from older traditions with the cailleach as a source of both fecundity and dearth (Surf & Sea Festival, 2013).
But most interestingly cailleach in the form of a person encompasses more than just your average hag in a pointy hat. Cailleach describes women (every kind), men(cowardly ones), animals (tapeworms, birds cormorants and owls), fish (dogfish), flowers (corn-poppy) and insects (bees and woodlice). Here are some of the women cailleach was used for as listed by Foras..
Old woman, hag, wise-woman, fortune-teller, sorceress, charm-worker, old woman in the chimney-corner, sit-by-the-fire, cinderella, witch, midwife, precocious girl, pert, lying, hussy…
…and it is at this point that I remember that caílín (colleen to those of you abroad) is the gaelic for ‘girl’. It supposedly comes from the word caile or ‘maid’ but how close is that to caill?As noted earlier, it seems we are all witches…
This is close to what historians have been saying for a while. The witch was not so much a magical or evil person as merely a woman who was strong enough to live outside the dominant social structures, a strength which intimidated the powers that be, the patriarchy. She was the one people went to for cures, for help with giving birth, for advice, for healing like the cailleach who protected the harvest or the well being of the community. For her pains, the witch became the scapegoat or the safety valve for the community, a cypher to project fear onto. Even in her destruction she provided an outlet for others.
It is tempting to think that the reason that the history of Witches Lane has been erased or neglected is as a result of that fear, that the Reverend Canon Power, a good man no doubt and learned, as a member of the patriarchy instinctively passed over this narrow, dark, untidy (but not clown-like) road that may once have been the lane up which people crept under cover of darkness, looking for the help they could not find elsewhere.
Or maybe not. Maybe there is no history, maybe the name evolved more recently. Maybe it was always being confused with a nearby road…Which Lane anyone?… or maybe it was called that to keep children and young adults from wandering off from the more well-lit thoroughfares. For who knows what is skulking down there in the dark…
If anyone does know anything of the history of Witches Lane, I would love to hear from you in the comments below or through the contact form on the About page.
* North of Dungarvan in the parish of Kilgobinet
**In the townland of Clogheenafishoge in Tubrid, a parish in the barony of Iffa and Offa about four miles from Cahir.
References & Further Reading
Foras Na Gaelige, (2013), New English-Irish Dictionary, [online], available at http://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/cailleach, [accessed 19/09/2017].
Lahert, R., (1986), A Glossary of Old Waterford Street Names, in The Old Waterford Society magazine-Decies, Autumn 1986,[online], available at http://snap.waterfordcoco.ie/collections/ejournals/100748/100748-3.pdf [accessed 19/09/207].
National Museum of Ireland, (2017), Autumn, [online], available at http://www.museum.ie/Country-Life/Exhibitions/Current-Exhibitions/Life-in-the-Community/Autumn [accessed 19/09/2017].
Power, D., (1993), The Street Where You Live : Waterford Placenames:Their Origin and Meaning, Scoláire Bocht Pub.
Power, Rev. P., (1952), Place Names of the Decies, 2nd Ed., Cork:Cork University Press, , [online], available at, http://snap.waterfordcoco.ie/collections/ebooks/106325/106325.pdf [accessed 19/09/2017].
Surf and Sea Festival, (2013), The Story of Seaweed Molly, [online], availale at, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nhjOQU2LGo8 [accessed 20/09/2017].
Waterford & South East of Ireland Archaeological Society (1907), Waterford & South East of Ireland Archaeological Society Journal, Vol.X, Waterford:Harvey, [online], available at http://snap.waterfordcoco.ie/collections/ejournals/100161/100161.pdf [accessed 19/09/2017].
Williams, B.,, (1994), The Sorcery Trial of Alice Kyteler in History Ireland, Autumn 1994, Issue 4, Vol. 2, [online], available at http://www.historyireland.com/medieval-history-pre-1500/the-sorcery-trial-of-alice-kyteler-by-bernadette-williams/ [accessed 19/09/2017].