An Irish Soothsayer to Rival Nostradamus


Old Moore’s Almanac has baffled Irish people with its predictions since 1764, but our desire to know the future was with us long before then. Ireland has a long history of soothsayers; we even had our own Nostradamus in the 1600s.

In ancient times, people who predicted the future were called soothsayers. These important members of society commanded great respect, not just for their foresight but because they understood many things. Back then, few people received a formal education, so the soothsayer’s knowledge was special and powerful. In fact, the word sooth meant truth in Old English – they were trusted speakers of the truth.

Every culture has relied on people with the gift of sight. The Greeks had their oracles, the Vikings had their seers. Famously, Julius Caesar was warned about his impending death by a soothsayer called Spurinna. A month before Caesar’s assassination, the soothsayer saw a bad omen during a sacrifice and told the emperor to beware.

In ancient Ireland, people also placed great store in soothsayers. Indeed, Irish mythology includes many instances of prophecy and forewarning. One of the most famous is the story about Deirdre of the Sorrows, whose pregnant mother was warned that the child in her womb would bring sorrow and war to the country due to her great beauty. Needless to say, it didn’t end well.

It was a druid who uttered the warning about Deirdre, and indeed, the druids were the soothsayers of Celtic Ireland. They were believed to possess supernatural powers which allowed them to communicate with the spirit world. Even their name refers to their role as seers. The word druid derives from the combination of deru (translated as ‘strong’ or ‘oak’) and wid (meaning ‘seeing’ or ‘seer’).

With the coming of Christianity, the  druids lost much of their high social standing. After all,  in the Christian tradition prophets brought messages from God. They did not bring warnings about poor harvests or the dreadful events one woman’s beauty would unleash. But soothsayers in Ireland certainly didn’t die out with the druids. In fact, we even had our own version of Nostradamus in the seventeenth century.

Brian Rua Ó Cearbháin was born in Mayo in 1648. Such was his success as a soothsayer that there is a walking trail around the town of Belmullet in North Mayo in his honour. The trail consists of plaques carved with Brian’s prophecies in Old Irish.

Many of Brian’s prophecies were long-term, but there’s no doubt that he possessed an uncanny gift of sight. One of his predictions claimed that carriages on wheels with smoke and fire will come to Achill and the first and last carriages will carry dead bodies. Brian lived in a time before people had even imagined the coming of trains, so his foresight in making this prediction was impressive.

Even more impressive, however, is the second half of that prediction. Trains didn’t reach Achill until 1895. A few months before the track was opened, 32 people died in a boating accident offshore. Train tracks had already been laid so it was decided to transport the bodies by rail – and so the first carriages did indeed carry dead bodies. Even more creepy is the fact that shortly after the line closed in 1937, ten local men died in a fire in Scotland and a special train was put on to bring their bodies home.

Achill Island in County Mayo

The local priest warned everyone to have nothing to do with Brian, saying he was in league with the devil. In reply, Brian told everyone to take no notice of the priest because he would shortly become a Protestant minister. This, too, came to pass.

Brian wrote his prophecies down but his son burnt them during an argument, so what we know of him was passed on orally from one seanchaí to the next. Fortunately, in 1906 Celtic scholar Michael Timoney recorded and published the story of Brian Rua. It was translated into English as part of the Millennium Project and published as part of the book ‘Traditional Cures and Gifted People‘ by Philomena Cronin.

Here are some more of Brian Rua’s predictions:

  • There will be a big house on every hillock and a bridge on every stream.
  • Paupers will be wearing boots and children will speak English (this was in a time when few people had shoes and almost everyone spoke Irish).
  • A meal road will be built and coaches and cars will travel on it, and news will travel through sticks faster than a hawk would travel from Dublin to Blacksod Bay (it’s thought the meal road was a reference to the Famine practice of paying labourers in food).
  • A halfpenny candle will burn all the money in the country (spoken before the existence of paper money).
  • There will be a road across every bog and the roads will have ribbons of eyes.
  • People will be imprisoned without crime or cause, and it is a wise man that leaves the country
  • Carriages travelling North and South will have iron wheels and the stones on the roads will be talking (signposts).
  • The roads will have fences and the crossings will have gates to keep out trespassers.

Even in death, Brian Rua was cryptic. One day, he called for the priest although he seemed perfectly healthy. The priest’s horse lost a shoe on his way to the house and on his arrival, Brian told the priest where to find it. He then sent the priest to administer last rites to a young girl whom he claimed would die before himself. All of this came to pass – of course – and when the priest returned, Brian announced that he was ready. He was anointed and died.

There’s no doubt that as a soothsayer, Brian could hold his own against the great Nostradamus. But  unlike the Frenchman, our Brian Rua never predicted the end of days. Now that he’s no longer with us, you can check out the next best thing – Old Moore’s predictions for the year ahead.

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