Monthly Archives: October 2020

Beware of Fakelore!

This is an old blog post I have decided to republish for Halloween.

We are getting ready for Hallowe’en here. It is one of my favourite festivals of the year. To our Celtic ancestors, it was Samhain, the end of summer, the Celtic New Year. (Pronounced sow-inn, with the sow part as in female pig, not Sam-hain as in the way Donald Pleasance mangles it in the film.) Because the Celts believed in the importance of liminality, of the edges between realities, they believed that this festival night between one year and the next was somehow outside of ordinary time. It was therefore a gateway which allowed worlds to bleed into each other. On this night alone, the dead were able to return to the places they loved in this world.

I love folklore and tradition. I have no problem with traditions that grow and change (ever tried carving a turnip? – believe me, pumpkins are a lot easier and the result is much better!)

Vampires and monsters are fun, and the Irish have given many such stories to the world. Le Fanu and Stoker virtually created the modern vampire tradition, Le Fanu was a major influence on MR James, the greatest ghost-story writer of all time. Even Frankenstein has a brief incident set on the Irish coast.

However, while we should cherish our folklore, we should avoid fakelore. For example, Cassidy himself claimed that the Hoodoo comes from a distinctively Irish supernatural being called the uath dubh. The only problem is that the uath dubh does not exist in Irish folklore. There is no such thing.

Likewise, people like Bob Curran and Peter Haining and Peter Tremayne are responsible for a lot of sloppy research which makes untenable claims about Irish tradition. There is now a sizeable body of material floating around on the internet about the Irish origins of vampire folklore. But when we examine these claims, we find that there is no evidence for any of the paradigm-changing material.

For example, it is claimed that the villain of a County Derry story, Ábhartach, drank blood when he returned from the dead and that he was a described as a neamh-mharbh and as a dearg-diúlaí. Patrick Weston Joyce tells the story in his book but he doesn’t mention blood-drinking or the spurious Irish terms above.

There is also the claim that a book was displayed in Trinity College when Stoker was there containing references to Irish vampirism. In Brian Earls’s sensible and restrained article in the Dublin Review of Books (, this is stated to have been a copy of Keating’s Foras Feasa ar Éirinn, which has an account of revenants in book one, chapter ten, but the revenants don’t drink blood and are referred to as ‘the dead’ (na mairbh) or ‘bodies’ (coirp). Other accounts claim that the book gives an account of the legend of Ábhartach (which it doesn’t) or that it uses words like neamh-mharbh and dearg-diúlaí (which it doesn’t). The most bizarre version is in an article in Ireland of the Welcomes: “Owen Harding says there was a manuscript published about this legend from an anonymous writer. It was entitled The Abhartach, Dreach-Fhoula. This document was exhibited up till 1868 in none other than Trinity College which Stoker attended. So is it likely that Stoker used this story to base his novel on? Harding believes it is.”

Another weird piece of fakelore is the Dearg-Due, or Dearg-Dul, or Derrick-Dally, or Dearg-Diúlaí (sic). According to some sources, this is an ancient Irish vampire. However, the evidence for any of this is very, very weak. The earliest reference I can find to a dearg-dul is a 1928 book on vampires, Vampires, Their Kith and Kin (later republished as The Vampire in Europe) by a bizarre character called Montague Summers. He certainly mentions the dearg-dul. He says, simply, “In Ancient Ireland the Vampire was known simply as dearg-dul, “red blood sucker”, and his ravages were universally feared.” Another account of this creature is said (by Haining and Tremayne) to be found in the Irish Monthly Review of 1874, but none of those who quote this source has ever actually found the reference or provided any account of what the article says, or even if it exists. It seems to me that this is probably derived from the Irish deargadaol (Devil’s coach-horse), originally known as a darbdael or darb-dóel. In the former spelling, it occurs as early as the Book of Ballymote of 1391. The deargadaol is not red and is not a vampire. In fact, it is black. The word is formed from the two words doirb (a water beetle) and daol (a beetle), and this was later corrupted to Dearg-Daol or Deargadaol. Pádraig Pearse wrote a short story (published in 1916) called An Dearg-Daol, which concerns a woman who has been cursed from the pulpit by a priest for some unknown sin, and who is known as the Dearg-Daol because it is one of the three cursed creatures (the other two are the viper and the wren, presumably because of its propensity for marine pollution ….) I suspect that dearg-due arose from poor handwriting – many people write an l like an e and they are easy to confuse. It also seems to me that forms like Dearg-Diúlaí are attempts to explain this word by people with little or no Irish. They are very improbable. Dearg doesn’t mean blood, and why wouldn’t it be dearg-dhiúlaí (jarrig-yoolee) anyway?

Another problem is the absurd claim that Dracula derives from various ‘Irish’ phrases like Droch-fhoula or Droch-fhola or Dreach-fhola. Droch-fhoula obviously isn’t Irish, because there is no ‘ou’ in Irish orthography. Drochfhola is Irish for ‘of bad blood’ but words in the genitive can’t stand on their own in Irish, so it doesn’t really make sense. The Dreach-fhola is another strange one. Dreach is a masculine noun so it should be Dreach Fola (It is I, Count Draffola??!!) However, this is supposed to be from a lecture delivered by a man called Ó Súilleabháin, the head of the Irish Folklore Commission, who supposedly mentioned a castle called Dún Dreach-Fhola in Magillicuddy’s Reeks inhabited by blood-drinking fairies. But there is no written record of this, not in his writings or anyone else’s. And there is no doubt about the link between Dracula and Transylvania in Bram Stoker’s book.

Please note here that I am not criticising ordinary bloggers or commentators who have repeated these claims in good faith (though I do think people like Bob Curran, Peter Haining and Peter Tremayne deserve to be criticised). There is a difference between Cassidy’s supporters and these people. Cassidy’s supporters are championing a hoax which arose because of one man’s arrogance and dishonesty. It was discredited as soon as it came out, and those who support Cassidy have chosen to ignore the facts because of egoism and stupidity. The mess we find in relation to vampirism and Irish folklore comes from lots of different sources. Arguably nobody has deliberately lied about this stuff (with the possible exception of Owen Harding and Bob Curran.) These errors have arisen largely as a result of bad referencing, bad research, bad copying, accuracy slip and certainty creep, extreme gullibility, Chinese whispers and even bad handwriting.

More on the Tally Stick

A while back, I wrote a short piece in answer to Maureen Hurley. At the end of that article, I said that I would try to write a piece on the bata scóir, so here it is.

What was the bata scóir? Well, the word bata means stick in Irish, while the word scór is a borrowing of the English word score. It means a score or notch and comes ultimately from the Old Norse skor, meaning a notch or (because of its use in tallying) a count of twenty. In other words, it means a tally stick, a device used for counting or tallying. Usually, this was a small wooden block of various forms, which was usually able to be marked with notches indicating various values and then split lengthwise so that the two parts would tally. (Also, you could place the two parts together temporarily to mark new notches on it.)

In Ireland, historically, the bata scóir has had several meanings or uses. It was principally used in the nineteenth century as a kind of time card, used by labourers to prove how many hours they had worked. For example, an tAthair Peadar in his book of 1915, Mo Sgéal Féin, says this about the bata scóir used by labourers and farmers:

Bhíodh an bata scóir acu, agus choimeádaidís araon an cúntas ar an mbata scóir.
Is amhlaidh a bhíodh an bata scóir ‘n-a dhá leath ar a fhaid, agus leath acu ag an bhfear oibre agus an leath eile acu ag an bhfeirmeóir. Nuair a bhíodh an cúntas acu
le cur síos, do thagaidís i bhfochair a chéile agus a leath féin de’n bhata ag gach duine acu. Ansan, cuir i gcás go mbéadh chúig lá oibre déanta ag an bhfear oibre, do shínfidís an dá leath-bhata suas le n-a chéile, agus do ghearfadh duine acu chúig scóir le sgiain ar an dá leath-bhata, scór, nó fáibre, i n-aghaidh gach lae oibre d’ár deineadh. Do gearfaí na fáibrí i dtreó go luighfeadh an sgian ar an dá leath-bhata i n-aonfheacht, agus go mbéadh gach fáibre geartha isteach ionta araon. Ansan do choimeádfadh gach aoinne a leath féin de’n bhata scóir, agus níor bh’fhéidir d’aoinne
acu éagcóir a dhéanamh ar an nduine eile, mar níor bh’ fhéidir scór do ghearadh amach ‘ná scór do chur isteach gan an dá leath-bhata do shíneadh le chéile airís, agus nuair a sínfí le chéile iad do chaithfeadh na fáibrí teacht isteach le n-a chéile cruinn, fé mar a gearadh iad ar dtúis.

They used to have the tally-stick, and they would both keep the account on the tally stick. It so happened that the tally-stick used to be split lengthwise into two halves, one half kept by the workman and the other half by the farmer. When they had to record the account, they would come together, each of them with his own half of the stick. Then, suppose the workman had done five days of work, they would lay the two half-sticks up against each other, and one of them would cut five scores with a knife on the two half sticks, a score, or a groove, for every day of work that was done. The grooves would be cut so that the knife would lie on both of the half-sticks together, and so that each groove would be cut into both of them. Then each one would keep his own half of the tally-stick, and neither of them could cheat the other one, because it was not possible to cut a groove out or to put a score in without laying the two half-sticks together again, and when they were laid together the grooves had to match each other accurately, just as they had originally been cut.

However, many Irish people will be aware of a more sinister meaning to the phrase bata scóir, as a device used to punish Irish-speaking children for using their native language in school. This was particularly associated with the National School system which was brought in in 1831 but the custom seems to have been used to force children to learn English before then in the hedge schools (scoileanna scairte or scoltacha scairte), unofficial local schools run in barns or outdoors by a teacher paid directly by the parents.

This practice was used in many countries where an indigenous language was supplanted by a more powerful language like English or French. The best-known example was probably the famous Welsh Not. This was a badge that was hung on the neck of a child who was heard speaking Welsh. When another child was heard speaking the language, the Welsh Not was transferred to them and so on. At the end of the day the child wearing the Welsh Not was punished. Many years ago, I was told that this was also the pattern in Donegal.

However, most accounts of the bata scóir in Ireland tend to emphasise the scoring or notching aspect. For example, a child called Pádraig Ó Cuirrín from Waterford gave the following account (collected from his father) in the collection of folklore called Bailiúchan na Scol in the 1930s (my translation):

When my grandfather was going to school he used to speak Irish and a Bata Scóir was placed around his neck. He spoke ten words of Irish and ten notches were put in the stick for every word and then he was put outside the door. When he went home, his father gave him a blow for every notch that was in the stick.

Another account is in an Irish translation of an essay by William Smith O’Brien (written in 1893 but translated in 1905):

Ba mhinic, le deich mbliadhna is dachad do labhradh go trom ar lucht cnáide leanbh Gaedhealach scoile nuair a bheirtí ortha ag labhairt na teangan do thugadar leó ó lacht chíche a máthar, agus níl amhras ná gur bh’aithiseach an bheart í. Ní hé an cipín scóir do cuireadh ar chrochadh fé bhrághaid leanbh labhartha na Gaedhilge, mar tharcuisne ar a dteangain, fé ndeara dhi bheith ar gcúl, acht teicheadh na ndaoine thar sáile.

People have frequently spoken critically for the last fifty years about those tormenters of Irish-speaking school children when they were caught speaking the language they were given from their mother’s milk, and there is no doubt that this was a shameful act. It was not the tally-stick which was hung around the neck of children who spoke Irish to scorn the language which was the reason for its decline but the emigration of people overseas.

(The original version is: Bitter things have been said of those who in the last fifty years were used to chide Irish school children caught lapsing into their own mother-tongue; and no doubt it was a sorry spectacle. But it was emigration, not the ferule of the old pedants, that drove the Irish language out of fashion.)

An article called The Hedge Schools of County Limerick by Tony Lyons states that the bata scóir did not originate in the National School system but in the earlier hedge schools. In some places, according to Lyons, the individual schoolmasters were favourable to the Irish language but in others, they used bataí scóir or ‘tally sticks’ to discourage pupils from speaking the language. These were sometimes called by other names. In Kerry it was known as a cingulum or singulum.

Sir William Wilde in 1853 mentioned seeing a man hearing his child speaking Irish and marking a tally around his neck (called a scoreen or scóirín) so that he could be punished.

All this is very interesting but very contradictory. Anybody examining this and other evidence will quickly realise that there is a very clear difference between the standard nationalist polemic about the bata scóir and the reality.

The polemic has it that the English came into Ireland and as part of a concerted campaign of cultural genocide, they imposed compulsory education in English and cruelly punished any children who spoke their own native language, regardless of their parents’ wishes, by hanging a badge of shame around their necks called a tally or a bata scóir and beating them accordingly.

How do the facts differ from the polemic version?

1. The use of the tally stick began in the hedge schools, which were nothing to do with the English.

2. The tallies were certainly used in the National Schools but the National Schools were not compulsory, Compulsory education was not brought in in Ireland until 1893, sixty years after the National Schools. Many schools in Ireland had begun teaching Irish by this time.

3. The idea that the very word bata scóir struck shame and anger into the hearts of Irish speakers throughout the nineteenth century is false. The main use of the term was for a kind of device for counting the hours or days worked by a labourer.

4. Not only did parents not have to send their children to a National School, they were often part of the system of punishment, carrying out the beatings. In some cases, it is stated that the tally was used to prevent children speaking Irish outside school, not inside it. The painful truth is that Irish-speaking parents bowed to strong cultural and economic pressures (many derived from the English – they aren’t blameless in this) in trying to prevent their own children from speaking Irish. They did this because they feared that their children would end up starving in Boston or Birmingham because they couldn’t get a job in an English-speaking environment.

5. We have no idea what the original bata scóir would have looked like and as far as I know, there are no examples of a bata scóir in existence. Pictures purporting to be bataí scóir on the internet are fakes, tally sticks with a different purpose from Germany or Canada.