Horse Skulls in Irish Houses
In 1938 the Irish Folklore Commission sent out the following inquiry to contacts throughout Ireland.
“Do any traditions exist locally (or are tales told in which the idea occurs) about the burying of the heads of animals or other objects in certain places (castles, houses, bridges, etc.) ? If so, please state what these traditions are, even if the information is scanty or incomplete.”
About half of the thirty-one replies received confirmed they had information about such traditions. They didn’t seem to be confined to any specific areas of the country, and they were distributed widely enough that it seems reasonable to believe that it may have occurred even in counties in which the correspondents provided a negative response.
In County Kerry a contact replied:
“The fathers of two of the children in my school told them that it was customary in olden times when step-dancing was very common in every home to have at least one large level flagstone in front of the fire on which the dancing was done (the remainder of the floor was mud). Under this flag it was usual to place the skull of a horse to make the dancing sound better. From an ex-teacher, John C. Dineen, Rathmore, I got the same reply. Mr. Dineen is about 85 years old. About four or five other children were told by their parents that it was usual to put a sovereign or a half-sovereign under the foundation-stone when a house was being built. Others said that they saw silver being used on such occasions. One of the teachers in this school put medals under the foundation of her house when it was built. Previous to that she saw silver used.”
In County Clare someone reported
“It was a custom of the old people (and I suppose it is lingering yet in some places) to bury the head or skull of a horse under the floor of their houses when building them. The usual place to bury it was under the flag before the fireplace, but it was buried in other places inside the house as well. An old pot of large size was sometimes buried as well. Also some copper coins were sometimes placed in the head when burying it. But I don’t know that there was superstition behind the burying of the head in the floor. There may be in the beginning, but all my life I used hear the old people say that it was put there for the purpose of giving a fine hearty echo (macalla) to the house when people would be talking or walking inside the house. But, particularly, they put the head (with the coppers) in the floor so that their dancing would sound better, for the old people were all for sport.”
“Long ago people had a custom, when flooring with wood a barn or a room in a house, of putting one or two horses’ skulls under the floor to give it an echo. They did this in rooms where oats or corn would be threshed so that the blows of the flails would echo loudly and sweetly. Horse-skulls were buried under dwelling house floors to increase the volume of any music relayed in the house. Similarly, horse-skulls were placed under castle walls to produce an echo ; also under bridges. One man told me that the skull was put under the flagstone of the fire, for that was where reels, jigs, and hornpipes were danced. The tap of the feet sounded very clearly then, and both dancer and onlookers were pleased. I have been told that horse’s skulls have recently been found under the floors of old houses which were dug up.”
In County Wexford:
“Long ago heads of animals used to be buried in the churches. They would be placed under the altar. The reason of this was to help the preacher to be heard all over the church. In some churches up to twenty of these heads were buried together.”
There were a few other explanations. Again in County Kerry a source said
“In olden times and to the present day a farmer who was unlucky with his cattle would cut the head off an animal of his which had died and bury it in a lios or under a bridge so that the disease would be taken by the stock of the first person who passed by. The stream would take the disease away with it too.”
And a couple sources implied it was done for luck or that “The head was buried facing the door. It was supposed to keep away ill-luck and evil spirit.”
But his thought that the skull(s) would somehow effect the the acoustics of the the room seem to have been one of the most common “modern” explanations. One article I found discussing the topic claimed that “an old three-legged cooking pot could be suspended within the floor cavity for a similar effect.” Another source seems to have imply the echo effect maybe also provide some security: “There is a dwelling-house in Lambstown, a thatched one, and when that house was built about one hundred and fifty years ago a horse’s head was placed under it. If a person was walking by that house in the night-time the sound of his footsteps would be heard all over the house.”
It would surprise me if there weren’t other, earlier beliefs that inspired this tradition. But again, this belief in an echo or acoustic effect seems to have evidenced throughout Ireland, and even in occasionally other parts of the United Kingdom and Scandinavia.