Féar Gortha: The Irish Hungry Grass

by JoHarrington

Are there Hungry Fields in Ireland waiting to trap unwary walkers? And if so, what ghosts lurk within? True Irish hauntings as recounted to me.

Everyone in Ireland knows about the Féar Gortha. It might be a story, told by a friend of a friend; or they may have encountered it themselves.

The Hungry Grass doesn't just turn up in one place. It's all over the Emerald Isle. Stories spanning decades (perhaps even centuries) tell of them.

It was just one such story-teller who first introduced the ghostly pastures to me. I've since asked many Irish people and they've shared what they know with me. I've put their tales together to share them with you.

A Chance Meeting with a True Irish Bard

This old man didn't need a harp to tell his tales. He had half of the people in the pub buying his beer just to keep him talking.

There's no-one like the Irish for telling ghost stories. Or, for that matter, any tale at all. 

Maybe it's in the soft brogue that leaves the listeners willing to believe anything.  Maybe it's in the haunting landscapes they are describing.

I just know that those with a real gift of the gab can leave a whole room spellbound, until the story is told.

It was in such circumstances that I first heard about the Hungry Fields.  The speaker was an old man, who only kept with the stories as long as his pint glass was full. He had begun just talking to me, but one by one everyone in the pub garden stopped their conversations to listen too.

A crowd of English and Welsh, not one of us had physically been to Connemara, but we were there now.  Young and old, all entranced enough to put down our smartphones and PSPs and pay attention to a true storyteller.

Most tales were told with a twinkle in his eye.  They weren't meant to be believed.  But when he got to this one, something changed in his aspect.  We had chills and the story has remained with me to this day.

That was a couple of decades ago. I've since quietly asked various Irish people about what he told us that night.  The really frightening part is that with the barest bit of prompting, the details have been repeated back to me - from a lady from Cork; a man from Kilkenny; a woman whose father came from Galway; and an English couple now living in Meath. 

They might tell a good story, the Irish, but when the conversation moves to the Féar Gortha, it all feels very real indeed.

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Hungry Fields: Connemara Man's Tale

He called them the hungry fields. I've since heard them more commonly referred to as the Hungry Grass, or by the Gaelic name Féar Gortha.

The old man swore that this had happened to his grandad's brother.  We all smiled. It was quite amazing the breadth of things that had assaulted his family in his stories so far.

He caught our knowing expressions. But instead of meeting them with the usual wink of collusion in willing gullibility, he grew serious.  "No, really. It happened."  He seemed uncomfortable suddenly, in the midst of an English pub, far across the Irish Sea. Whatever the truth, it was certain that he believed this one.

His great-uncle, as a young man, had been out walking after a day at work. He was heading home for his tea, but he was in no great hurry. It was a pleasant late afternoon, settling into the long shadows of encroaching evening.

He was quite alone on that quiet country lane.  All around him the miles stretched out over a peat bog wilderness, ending in distant mountains. Pools of water glistened here and there, growing darker as he approached, reflecting more the soil beneath than the sinking sun above.

Deserted Connemara Croft

Abandoned Cottage on the Famine Relief Road in Killary Harbour, Connemara, Connaught, Ireland

As he had done a hundred times or more, he passed by a deserted village standing well back from the track.

The cottages and crofts were just roofless stumps of walls.  Their occupants were long gone.  The familiar sight nonetheless always unsettled him and he sped up to pass it.

Only, on this occasion, he happened to glance at the overgrown outline of one of the old fields surrounding it.  No-one had ploughed that since the potato crop failed, half a century before.

He didn't know what compelled him to wander over there.  There was no gate, if there had ever been one, but the dry-stone walls had survived well enough.

He entered the field and meandered across it, pushing through tall grasses and unchecked wild flowers.

It had felt peaceful, but then an eerie sensation passed through him.  He wasn't sure why he'd wanted to be in there; but now he really wanted to move on.  He couldn't say what was making him uncomfortable, maybe the memory of tragedy implied by the location. But it was time to go.

He couldn't find the gap where a gate might have been.  Half-laughing at himself, calling himself all manner of fool, he finally applied some reason to the bizarre situation.  The field wasn't so big, nor the grass so tall that he couldn't see over it, but he patently couldn't see the way out.  He would simply follow the wall instead. It had to eventually lead to the gate, didn't it?

The sun slipped behind the horizon and he hadn't come home. It was quite late before his wife raised the alarm, having spent some time getting past her annoyance at a spoiled meal in order to ascertain that he wasn't in any of the local pubs.

Walkers in Connemara

Walkers in Mist on Diamond Hill in Connemara National Park, Connemara, Ireland

His brothers, cousins and friends formed a search party, checking all over town.

The Connemara man's grandad was amongst those who retraced the route back to his place of work. 

By now it was nearly midnight and the empty bog was pitch black, with no moon to speak of to guide them. They called his name and listened intently.  No response was heard. Yet a group of them carried on hunting all night, warily traipsing the bog, calling, listening, hearing nothing.

It was morning before he was found, still walking around and around the field. 

One of his work-mates and two of his brothers stood outside the perimeter calling his name. He appeared blank, unhearing, but with an expression of utter desperation and exhaustion. He did not look up, nor even acknowledge that they were there.

Finally his eldest brother grabbed him by the arm, as he staggered by the gap in the wall.  He looked at them with haunted eyes and gabbled words about hunger.  So much hunger.  He was famished.  Then he collapsed.

He was carried home and nursed by his worried wife. He appeared aged and frail, shocked to the core. His weariness far out-stripped that expected of any healthy man in the prime of his life, even one who'd been walking all night. 

And he was so hungry, always hungry, in a way which no food could abate. He never recovered and died within the week. 

We asked his great-nephew what the cause had been, but the Connemara man just shrugged and said, "Something like general debility."  Then he shivered and reached for his pint. It was a story that he'd been told by his grandfather and he believed it. 

Right then, in that place and time, looking at his expression, so did we.

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A Short Cut Across a Galway Féar Gortha

I heard this story second-hand, as a friend was told it by her Galway father.

All of the locals knew about the cursed area south of the town, but it wasn't something that was told to the tourists.

One night an English man was out walking alone. He must have seen the lights in the distance and thought that a trek across the bog would be a nice short cut.

He was spotted by a passing police car, arms limp and panting, his eyes wild with despair. He was staggering around and around the enclosure. 

It wasn't a big field either, barely a paddock. The wall was tumbledown enough that he could have stepped over it at any point.  But he didn't, because he couldn't.

The officers pulled up and climbed out of their car.  They waited alongside one of the walls, fully aware of the legend, but mindful of more prosaic explanations too. Drink, drugs, some kind of exercise or meditation, mental illness, they had a bigger check-list than most.

The smallness of the field also gave them plenty of chances to observe him as he passed by.  He didn't look at them. He wouldn't answer their questions.  He was wheezing, terrified and in tears.

Eventually, he was pulled free right over the wall (which wasn't even a foot high there), where he fainted clean away.

The English tourist was taken to the hospital, where he was admitted. That's where we lose track of the story, as it was told by the policemen in the pub, and my friend's father heard it.

Real Hauntings in Ireland

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The Hungry Grass in County Cork

We had been discussing work matters, when I asked my Irish colleague a question. I thought she'd laugh and chide me for listening to blokes in pubs.

"They're not called the Hungry Fields," The lady from Cork told me, "It's the Hungry Grass, if we're going straight from the Gaelic."  She nodded grimly, as she moved about her kitchen making us both a nice cup of tea. "But sure, it's real enough."

I could have expected some tall tales from a man in a pub, telling stories for beer, but not from her. As practical and down-to-earth a woman as I'd ever met, she never struck me as the sort to countenance anything beyond the here and now.

"I heard about it a lot, when I was growing up."  Sugar was ladled into bone china cups. "There was one not far from me."

I was intrigued. "Did you go there?"

"No."  She laughed like that was an absurd idea. I thought she was going to say that she hadn't believed it enough to check the field out. But no.  "My mother would have tanned my behind for even thinking about it. Lots of people got trapped up there. Just walking around, until they collapsed and died of exhaustion." 

She hadn't known any of them personally though, nor could she recall any specific stories. 

I wondered if there had been something else dangerous in that field - a pool or a sudden drop - which rendered the Hungry Grass a cautionary tale to keep children away.  She shook her head. "It was a perfectly ordinary field."

"What happens to them?"  I asked.  "What makes people get stuck in the field?"

She seemed surprised. "Didn't you know?  It's the famine dead. They're still there digging for food. Poor things."

Sitting There Saying Nothing by Tomás Ó Cárthaigh

A poem telling of a sighting of three Irish famine ghosts.
It was one of the darkest periods of the Victorian era. Even in the modern day, the population of Ireland has not yet recovered.
Between 1845-1851, nine million Irish people starved. At the same time, food was being shipped out of the country into England. It was enough to have fed eighteen million people.

Buy Vampire Universe to read more of his theories

Is the Hungry Grass Vampiric?

One writer certainly thinks so...

'... the Féar Gortagh ("hungry grass") is an old Irish legend about a predatory force that is vegetable rather than animal. It is a patch of grass where someone has died violently, and the taint of unnatural death somehow imbues the grass with a pernicious quality that curses anyone who walks upon it with a hunger so insatiable that the person will literally eat himself to death. The legend is very old but during the great nineteenth-century famine of Ireland it was revived and embellished.'

Jonathan Maberry, Vampire Universe, p119.

What do you think is behind the Féar Gortha?

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Irish Famine Ghosts in County Mayo

One couple had a terrifying encounter miles from anywhere, in the middle of Ireland's vast peat bog. Did they narrowly avoid the Hungry Grass?

A well-known Wiccan high priestess lives in County Meath now, but she used to live in Mayo.

She confirmed to me that the hungry ghosts are heard about in stories told in her present location. But it was back in Mayo, where she'd encountered them herself.

The main roads into Western Ireland all pass through seemingly endless miles of bog land. It can be stunningly beautiful, but not so much late at night, when all you want is to be home.

The priestess and her late husband were driving through it, chatting about their day to stave off boredom and to keep themselves awake. It didn't help that the weather was against them. Driving conditions were hazardous enough without that extreme concentration.

Suddenly her husband glimpsed a woman standing at the side of the road. It had been a mere flash, unseen until they were actually passing her.

This was the middle of nowhere, in the early hours of the morning, with rain lashing down. He second guessed his own sight, twisting for a double-take. There was no sign of her in the rear view mirror. Nevertheless, they had to reverse to check.  She wasn't there.

By now, their sensibilities tingled with a feeling that they weren't alone. It wasn't a nice sensation. The atmosphere felt laden with desperation and despair. Debating pareidolia versus an actual ghost sighting, this feeling gave credence to the latter. What was to happen next confirmed it all. 

"They were everywhere!"  The priestess told me, several years later. "In families, alone, some of them not even able to hold their form. They were all around the car!"

Her husband had battled the instinct to close his eyes, as he had to keep on driving.  Going around them was not an option, so they drove on through. 

But this was no hit and run massacre. The people they were seeing had been dead a long time. Starved and trudging, these were the famine victims forced to leave their homes. They hadn't made it past this narrow country lane over a hundred and fifty years before.

The experience shook the couple, but somehow it seemed worse when they'd finally passed through. Now the darkness seemed watchful, menacing and with the threat that something terrible could step out at any time.

It was a very long journey back to their Mayo home. 

The Famine Memorial in Dublin, Ireland

Dublin's Famine Memorial Memorializes the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840's

The Ghost of a Famine Victim in Ireland?

Two trainee priests believed in the Holy Ghost and no other, until they met an old lady on the road.

Image: Famine Era Old LadyThis article prompted Wizzley Author Frank Beswick to share an anecdote of his own about a possible famine era haunting in Ireland.  The original telling is in the comments below, but I've reproduced it here too.

The encounter was recounted by two of his friends, who were both studying to enter Catholic priesthood.

As Frank describes them:  'John was a tough-minded no-nonsense sort of guy who dismissed ghosts until that day. The other, Mike, was a quieter, more intellectual Dublin lad.'

And here is the story, as it was told to Frank:

'I have not seen figures by the road, but your Wiccan priestess saw something that replicates the experience of an old colleague of mine (with whom I am now out of touch).

He and a very tough minded friend were driving late at night through a famine area, a land deserted at the famine and never properly re-inhabited.

In the light they saw an old woman in traditional dress crossing in front of their car, so they stopped and went to see if they could ask for a drink, but there was no one in the field that they entered, no cottages and no sign of the woman. The pair of them were spooked.'

More True Ghost Stories on Wizzley

Since before Titanic sank, on April 15th 1912, there have been strange stories connected with it. Prepare for a voyage into the unknown.
On April 16th 1746, the last pitched battle on British land took place on Drummossie Moor. Up to 2000 Jacobites lay dead, or injured and dying, in the heather. It was never over.
For nearly 1000 years people have lived in the Tower of London. Many were tortured and killed there. Things like that leave their mark.
Gigantic white dogs, screeching hags taking to the air, rogue candles lighting the darkness and owls outside your window, all part of dying if you're Welsh.
Updated: 09/12/2014, JoHarrington
 
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What do you think about it all?


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frankbeswick on 07/25/2015

Another point. Ireland is either in your soul, or you run from it, and some folk cannot get to the ferry fast enough. If it is in your soul, as it is in mine, you may hate the fact or celebrate it. The choice is yours. Veronica and I accept our Irish heritage and run with it. Let's face it. Ireland is our spiritual home.

A vital point: Connemara is geologically complex. There is none of the limestone that there is in the Burren, but it is old, hard rock from the pre-Cambrian period, that's why it is so rough and difficult to handle.

frankbeswick on 07/25/2015

Ancestors from Galway! That's a surprise,my father's grandmothers were from Galway as well, and one was from Connemara, which accounts for her poteen brewing, but as she has been dead many years, the authorities cannot touch her! I take alcohol, would you believe it, and I am quite proud of the old girl for her brewing exploits. My great grandfather, who was from Limerick, claimed to have heard the Banshee, but as it cannot cross water I suspect that either he was drunk or it was a baying hound.

As for ghosts, pookas, banshees, my great grandfather, John Manning, claimed to have heard the banshee, but as it cannot cross water I think him drunk at the time. But there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in conventional philosophy. Be aware that the conventional world view is entirely wrong and misguided. As someone who has encountered strange things, I am quite open minded.

Veronica on 07/25/2015

Both of my dad's grandmothers were from Galway, indeed one was from Connemara itself. They were full of tales of bean-si (banshee ) pookas, sidheags ( she-ogs ). When I visited Galway last summer there was plenty talk of Irish ghosts, fairies and spirits. Connemara was also a main area of illegal poteen brewing.

Galway especially Connemara is boggy, misty, foreboding, majestic and having visited, it's easy to see how these myths arise. The natural stone is a unique form of limestone and Galway possesses a very ethereal limestone pavement, The Burren. I do believe that large masses of natural stone have their own electricity which can replay or throw up images of past great emotion. I also believe in inherited memory. Galway is ripe for this type of thing historically and geographically.

On a personal level, with all respect to everyone's beliefs, I do not believe in any form of bain-si, sidheags, pookas, ghosts or anything. I believe it would be possible to lose one's way on those moors in West Connemara. They are terrifying. I am nearly 60% Irish. I have worked in Tudor manors, Victorian museums etc and I have never experienced anything at all, in England or Ireland. I do believe respectfully that those who tell these stories do so in all sincerity.

JoHarrington on 10/14/2013

Everyone who's told me their story first hand seemed very genuine about it.

jptanabe on 10/14/2013

A great tale. And no doubt some truth to it all!

JoHarrington on 10/12/2013

Thank you very much, Frank. I've now added it to the end. Please let me know if you want anything there changing.

I'll have to look out for the book. Thanks!

frankbeswick on 10/12/2013

I do not mind that you add it to the article. There were two of the witnesses, both students for the Catholic priesthood. One, John, was a tough-minded no-nonsense sort of guy who dismissed ghosts until that day. The other,Mike, was a quieter, more intellectual Dublin lad.

My blood, as you know, is half Irish, and all of the Irish half is West.

I have a book: Connemara: legend and Landscape, by Hugh McIlveen. I got it at the Manchester Irish festival, but it might be available on Amazon. It is worth buying. There are good pictures in it.

JoHarrington on 10/12/2013

I've never been to the west of Ireland, but it's most definitely on my bucket list. I'm 98% certain that I have genealogy in Antrim; and there's a possibility of Galway too, though the latter is much more tenuous.

Connemara sounds amazing. You're making me want to go there right now.

And wow! Re: Your story about your friend. Do you mind if I add that to the main article?

frankbeswick on 10/12/2013

Connemara is something special, a strange, ancient land of rock,bog and lake that stands out from the distance as a majestic view. I have some ancestors from there, but no living relatives. Those who have lived in the West of Ireland, as I did for a year, either fall for her enchantments and yearn to return, or they flee to an urban existence elsewhere and have no desire to return, except for the occasional visit to relatives. I think that you can infer the category to which I belong.

I had not heard of the Fear Gortha, but I have wandered across some rough territory in Erin, and it is easy to become disorientated in mist. However, I am aware that places retain memories of events that happened there, and much that was unhappy happened in some parts of Ireland.

I have not seen figures by the road, but your wiccan priestess saw something that replicates the experience of an old colleague of mine [with whom I am now out of touch.] He and a very tough minded friend were driving late at night through a famine area, a land deserted at the famine and never properly reinhabited. In the light they saw an old woman in traditional dress crossing in front of their car, so they stopped and went to see if they could ask for a drink, but there was no one in the field that they entered, no cottages and no sign of the woman. The pair of them were spooked.

JoHarrington on 06/08/2012

I've never had the pleasure of going up there, but I'd love to. Connemara and Galway are two of the areas of Ireland on my To Visit list.


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