The heron in Irish folklore

Grey heron
Grey heron, a common wading bird in Ireland (credit: © Ian Woods from Pexels via Canva.com).

Share On:

This feature explores the interesting folklore surrounding one of Ireland’s largest wading birds: the heron.

The grey heron is one of Ireland’s most distinctive birds. They are regularly observed by the banks of rivers, canals and lakes, in marshes and bogs, and along the coast. It has a tall, slender physique with long neck and legs. Often seen standing motionless and solitary, sometimes on one leg, patiently waiting for prey to snatch with its dagger-like beak. The flight silhouette is also distinctive with the head tucked back against the body and long legs trailing behind.

The heron’s many names

The heron is known by many folk names in Ireland. Among the most common are Siobhán an bportach / Joanie the bog, Síle na bportach / Sheila of the bog, Júní an scrogaill / Joanie of the long neck and Máire fhada / long Mary, as well as Molly of the bog. The names are typically feminine, although the bird is known as Big Andy in some parts of Donegal.

Its official name in modern Irish is “corr réisc” or “corr riasc”. The term “corr” is used for various large wading birds including herons, cranes and storks, while “réisc” / “riasc” means marsh or bog.

Sign up to our newsletter

Below is a list of some of the lesser-known names applied to the heron throughout Ireland and variant spellings/pronunciations:

  • curriasc, críosc, creesk
  • corr iasc (“iasc” means fish), corr iasg, coroisg, coireisg, corr an eisg
  • corr ghrian, curraí grian, corrghréine, gráinne corr iasg
  • corr ghlas (“glas” means grey in this instance), corrghlaise
  • corr mhóna (“móna” means turf/bog), corr monadh, bog-crane
  • corr scréachóg (“scréachóg” means screech), crying crane
  • Nóra na bportach, Nóra na bportaithe
  • Nóra an ragaidh (“ragaidh” possibly means rough)
  • Síle an Ragaidh, Síle raga
  • Cáithí fhada, Cáití fhada, Ceataí fhada, Caitigh fhada
  • Siobhán fhada
  • Júidí fhada, Judy the bog, Judy crane
  • crane fada
    >
Grey herons with chicks.
Nineteenth-century painting of herons with chicks (credit: John Gould; source: New York Public Library Digital Collections, via Picryl, public domain).

In the past, the heron was often confused with the crane and nowadays occasionally children confuse it with the stork. Philip O’Sullivan Beare writing in 1626 stated:

“On this island cranes are frequent. They are the size of a large eagle, the colour of their back is between green and ash coloured, they have a white breast, the tips of their wings are almost black, their neck very long, their beak strong, straight and sharp and very long, and their legs long with four toes”.

It is clear that the writer was actually describing the grey heron and not the crane. Herons differ from cranes and storks in flying with their necks retracted, not outstretched, forming a strange S-shape.

Storks are seldom seen in Ireland except as very rare visitors, while the crane went extinct here around the 17th century (they were a popular pet among the elite). However, sightings have been fairly regular since the species was reintroduced to Britain in the late 20th century and good news came last summer when a pair of crane chicks was born in Ireland for the first time in over 300 years. This is hopefully an indication that the crane is ready to re-colonize the island.

Flying grey heron.
Grey heron in flight (credit: © Michael Finn via BirdWatch Ireland).

Superstitions

It has proven difficult to distinguish herons from cranes in old Irish mythology. So, instead, we’re going to focus on the superstitions and piseoigs surrounding herons that survive down to the present day. These can be found in the Schools Folklore Collection compiled in 1937–39 and available on the Dúchas website.

>>> READ MORE: The cuckoo in Irish folklore

Herons are often considered a bad weather omen. For example, in c.1937, 54-year-old John Stapleton from Gortaniddan, Borrisoleigh, Co. Tipperary, explained that,

“The heron flying against the river [is] a sign of rain and the heron flying with the river [is a sign of] fine weather.”

This is a commonly held belief throughout Ireland although sometimes it is quoted in reverse. The 72-year-old Mrs O’Connell from Killavoy, Co. Cork, further explained that the “heron goes up river to fish down in the flood”. John Cunniffe of Coalpits, Co. Galway and John Mc Cabe of Sheffield, Co. Leitrim, as well as others, maintained that the heron flies about 40 miles inland before a storm.

The heron is also said to screech to warn of impending bad weather. The names “corr scréachóg” and “crying crane” relate to their distinctive loud harsh squawking, often given in flight.

Sign up to our newsletter

The heron was deemed a harbinger of bad luck in some places. Mrs Doherty of Cloonmaul, Co. Roscommon, recounted that when a heron “flies over a house it is the sign of a person’s death in that house”.  This superstition was also recorded in Louth.

An account from a school in Clooneen, Co. Longford, recalled that George Coyle from Cullinmore noticed that his cows were not producing much milk because a heron was feeding from them. He placed a crooked sixpence in his gun and shot the bird. “He soon fell sick & got into bad health & soon died.”

Cures

We learn from the c.1937 Schools’ Folklore Collection that herons were traditionally exploited for medicinal purposes. For instance, Mary Frances Hurley of Ballincurry, Co. Galway, suggested that “Heron’s vomit which is to be found along the banks of rivers” could cure a burn. Heron vomit/spit was also used as a poultice in other parts of Galway, Roscommon and Sligo. As well as parents regurgitating food for their young chicks, herons will sometimes regurgitate indigestible parts of prey, such as hair and bones, in the form of a pellet.

Irish heron.
Grey heron (credit: © Shay Connolly via BirdWatch Ireland).

There are numerous accounts of heron oil being used to treat rheumatoid arthritis and backache – and less commonly warts – throughout Ireland. This custom was recorded in the folklore collection from Anglesboro school, Co. Limerick and may have been passed down by a noted 19th-century “herb doctor” named Patrick O’Dwyer, who lived in Fahanasoodry, a few kilometres from the school.

There were numerous theories on how best to extract the heron oil, though boiling the flesh until it turned to jelly was the most common. An account from Mianaigh school (Moyny Lower) in Co. Cork explained:

“Rheumatism was cured by boiling a heron for a week and rubbing the jelly to the affected part.”

But Michael O’Meara, aged 65 from Urra, Co. Tipperary, proposed a different method:

“Hang the bird upside-down and put a pot under it. The oil flows out of its beak [and] is a cure for rheumatism.”

Another theory, deriving from a school in Rathregan, Co. Meath, recommended that after killing the heron, it should be buried in “a manure heap with his beak in a bottle to catch the oil”. Similarly, 72-year-old Rob Corregan from Ballysaggart, Co. Donegal, recommended burying the dead heron “all except the head which was above the surface. A little can was attached to the bill of the bird and it was said that as the bird decayed all the oil in it dripped out through its bill”.

Some found other uses for the heron oil. Gortroe school, in Co. Cork, quoted from a manuscript dating to 1741 which recommended that dipping fishing bait into the oil would entice trout. In some parts heron oil is still used for this purpose and it is believed that a peculiar odour emanates from the bird which attracts fish. In Leitrim the oil was used to lubricate machinery.

Heron on Irish postage stamp.
Grey heron / corr réisc on Éire postage stamp.

Current status

While the traditions and customs involving the heron are interesting to learn about, of course these beautiful birds should not be interfered with in any way. All of Ireland’s wild birds are protected by law under the Wildlife Acts. Nowadays herons are a widespread resident, populating wetlands and their numbers thankfully remain fairly stable. They continue to be monitored by the Irish Wetland Bird Survey.

Subscribe to the Irish Heritage News newsletter and follow us on FacebookTwitter and Instagram for all the latest heritage stories.

READ NOW

The cuckoo in Irish folklore

Mourning and warning: tracing the banshee in Mayo lore

How Our Lady’s Bed on Church Island protected expectant mothers

Fionn Folklore: new oral heritage site showcases the Fianna’s lesser-known tales

The “Lady of the Lake”: Beezie and her island

Killinaboy’s disappearing and re-appearing tau cross

Share This Article

Facebook
Twitter
WhatsApp
Pinterest

Related Articles

One Response

  1. Got a beautiful picture of a blue Heron today standing on a creek bank in Wayne Pa. USA. Was only about 20 ft. From him, and he just stood still as a statue in profile and let me photograph him. What a ham!

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

History

Archaeology

LEGAL DISCLAIMER
Irish Heritage News is a participant in Amazon Associates – Amazon’s affiliate marketing program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon. As an Amazon Associate, we earn from qualifying purchases.

Genealogy

Folklore

Breaking News

Join Our Newsletter

Recent