Of all the wonders and terrors in Irish folklore there are few quite so terrifying as the Sluagh. Tales were told of their wild hunt long before the coming of Christianity to Ireland, and even today old folk in the countryside will keep the windows on the west side of the house fastened tight at all times, but most especially during wakes or if someone in the house was unwell, for fear of the Sluagh coming to pay a midnight visit on their humble homes.
Wicked or saintly, kind or cruel, the Sluagh play no favourites, they'll take the souls of all that cross their path, although some say they have a particular taste for the living spirits of those who have found true love. The ancients used to think they were faerie gone terribly wrong, warped and twisted, without fear, reason or mercy. When the light came to Ireland they became the souls of lost sinners seeking to drag the unfaithful down to hell with them, but the result was the same.
The host of the unforgiven dead roam the earth on Samhain, Halloween, and it is for this reason that all fires were forbidden on that night in times gone by, so as not to attract their attention. Even death itself was no release for the souls they captured joined them on their hunt, spiralling throughout the lands of Ireland and further abroad on that darkest of nights.
Said one monk in times of yore, "The spirits fly about in great clouds, up and down the face of the world like the starlings, and come back to the scenes of their earthly transgressions. No soul of them is without the clouds of earth, dimming the brightness of the works of earth. In bad nights, the Sluagh shelter themselves behind little russet docken stems and little yellow ragwort stalks. They fight battles in the air as men do on the earth."
If denied their rightful - as they see it - feast, they don't balk at the slaughter of cattle, cats, dogs, and sheep with their poison darts. It is said that the Sluagh "commanded men to follow them, and men obeyed, having no alternative. It was these men of earth who slew and maimed at the bidding of their spirit-masters, who in return ill-treated them in a most pitiless manner. They would be rolling and dragging and trouncing them in mud and mire and pools."
In the form of a vast flock of black ravens twined about with undulating shadows they came, the echoes of their wings being found in stories of ill-omened birds heralding bad times ahead. The truly broken hearted might be attacked, or the foolish or unlucky might call them upon themselves by uttering the name Sluagh nine times over and over, pronounced sloo-ah for fear you might say it yourself, perhaps in a fit of sneezing. Upon closer inspection the great birds look more like wretched thin shades of their previous selves, with gnarled talons like the blackthorn's boughs for hands and feet, and wings of dusky smoke.
And once they have your scent let me tell you - you're in trouble then! If the pitiable mortal that has drawn their eye can bestir themselves it would be well to get indoors, with all locked and fastened, until the beating of dark wings fades with the light of dawn. Chroniclers of old also wisely advised avoiding places of loneliness such as dark forests and empty streets, lest a passing hunt might take a fancy to you! There is one other way to avoid joining them for all eternity, although most dreadful it is, and that's to give them another in your stead.
They say a woman was eaten alive by the Sluagh in Roscommon, on the map. If you'd like to visit you can find a good list of hotels, B&Bs and other accommodation here. While you're enjoying this site you might also enjoy a little Celtic and Irish music to set the mood, or just the one or two songs if you're not interested in the whole albums. Don't forget you can get some very nice Irish jewelry for yourself or someone else as well, or for the craftier maybe make your own!
There's much to be said for this book of Irish fairies here, go and buy it.