When I was young, we had a great big window in our bedroom, and we loved nothing better than gazing out at the stars and, in particular, the full moon as it filled the night sky with its silvery light.

My mother had different ideas and, unknown to her, we secretly opened the curtains to reveal the nocturnal vista. When we were caught, she would swoop in and dramatically draw the curtains declaring with great emphasis “let moon mind itself”. This was a phrase that she inherited from her grandmother, Minnie Hawe, who hailed from Curraghgalla, near Glanworth in Co Cork.

Such fear was a vestige of the respect and great store that people placed in the moon and its cycle. She knew that it was unlucky to look at the full moon through glass and, worse again, to fall asleep under the light of a full moon.

New Year moon

The first cycle of the moon in a new year held great significance for people long ago. The dark outline of the new moon took three days to become visible and it was said that the birds were first to see the new moon, the fish on the second day and everyone on the third day. As my mother knew all too well, catching your first glimpse of the new moon through a window resulted in bad luck for the rest of the cycle of that moon.

However, it was considered very lucky to catch your first glance of the sickle of the new moon if you were outside in the open air, but you had to look at it over your right shoulder. Your heart’s desire was sure to follow. Many would make the sign of the cross, while others sank to their knees and recited a short refrain, “I see the moon and the moon sees me. God bless the moon and God bless me. Grace in the kitchen and grace in the hall. And the grace of God be about us all.”

Such was the power of the new moon; it was believed to be a sure cure for toothache. One had to go out underneath the moon remaining totally silent, not speaking with anyone, and say three Hail Marys to affect the desired relief.

The new moon of the new year was a great way to predict one’s future love. Young girls would bring out a mirror and reflect the moon onto the still waters of a well or a pond. The number of moons seen – one, two or three or more – corresponding to the number of years before they would be married. Others would kneel before the new moon, pick up three morsels of clay from the ground, place it in their stocking and recite the charm: “New moon, true moon, new moon so bright, show me my true love tonight.”

They would bring home the stocking and place it under their pillow, sleeping on their right ear and it was certain that they would dream of their future lover.

Basket makers were particularly conscious of the moon and would always cut the willow of the well-managed, coppiced, sally gardens when the moon was dark. The best time for this was November when the leaves had fallen and with the black moon, the sap had ceased to flow. This time was known as Doras na Slat (the door or time of the sally rods), the time for the strongest most robust willow.

The appearance of the new moon was most auspicious, capable of bringing increased and good fortune. When seeing the new moon, people would turn whatever clothing they had on, inside out. An overcoat, an old apron, a tattered waistcoat, or a shawl would be turned with the idea that a new garment would come their way.

Equally, any money that was in one’s pocket, particularly silver coins, were carefully thumbed and turned over, exposing the coin to the full effect of the moon, bestowing increase and money for the rest of the year. As the moon waxed, it was considered a good time to have one’s haircut, believing that it would grow stronger as the moon increased. The same was applied to a piece of meat, either bacon or corned beef, boiling in a pot, that they would not shrink in the cooking when the moon was increasing.

A full moon

The full moon was the absolute opposite to the new moon. The full moon meant infertility. It was considered very bad to scatter any seed when the moon was full, and cabbage and turnips sown at that time were sure to go wild and yield badly. If eggs were put under a broody hen to hatch and the moon was full, then it was thought they would all be cocks and be of no use at all.

There was a very strong belief that sleeping under a full moon or waking up with moonlight shining directly onto one’s face was the cause of a temporary insanity, and the person was said to have gone le gealaigh (with the moon). This idea of lunacy or being moonstruck only lasted as long as the moon was full and as it waned, the effect was thought to decrease. The waning moon was the time to get rid of bodily imperfections such as boils, corns, warts and pimples and any poulticing or lancing took place as the moon decreased back to darkness.

The shape of the moon was an indication of weather: in its sickle shape and on its back – a ‘she-moon’ – with the two horns pointing upwards, was a sign of rain, while if it was straight sitting up on its side, it was taken that the weather would be good. If there was a ring around the full moon or súil circe ré (the moon of the hen’s eye) then the weather would be bad, while a red tinge in the moon spoke of a warm sunny day ahead.

As we observe the first cycle of the moon in the year, we might take a little more notice of this great wonder that played such a pivotal part in how people lived their lives in Ireland in the past and perhaps echo one of the traditional moon maxims: “Safe it has found us, safe may it leave us.” CL

Shane Lehane is a folklorist who works in UCC and Cork College of FET, Tramore Road Campus. Contact: shane.lehane@csn.ie

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