In ancient Ireland there were patches of grass called ‘Hungry Grass’ that leapt off the ground to swallow you whole, digest you down and spit you out like a …
Actually, er … No, wait .. Hang on.
Hungry Grass was actually a patch of grass that was completely indistinguishable from other sections of grass but if you stood on it you were immediately overtaken by a great hunger or weariness.
And, there was A GENUINE RISK you might swoon to your death.
There you go. That’s much more credible.
As you can see, there’s a fair amount of fantasy spinning out there on the internet with respect to ‘Hungry Grass.’ Read through some of the blogs on the ‘Celternet’ and you’ll discover some fascinating hypotheses (for example, that “Hungry Grass” was caused by fairies [the Little People!] or leprechaun spirits [Dun-dun-dun!]. Or green Aliens).
The Wikipedia entries on ‘hungry grass’ and ‘féar gorta’ are pretty bad and use some very nefarious links as ‘references’. Another site I’ve come across, describes with great -if incorrect – cultural authority that Hungry Hill (a mountain in Beara, West Cork, get its name from the belief of local peasants that “many patches of Féar Gortha grew on it.” To anyone from Beara, this is, of course, not only remarkably annoying, but a bit insulting.
[Note: The Irish – and real – name of the mountain is Cnoc Daod and is more likely related to the changeable weather around the summit].
The problem of course, is that most of the Celternet bloggers usually copy verbatim from discredited sources such as books by 18th and 19th century authors like William Carleton (a writer in the vein of W.B. Yeats who wrote somewhat disparagingly about jolly Irish peasants and their foolish cultural beliefs). The internet, being what it is of course, means that these errors are continuously being reproduced.
Today, given the impressive amount of grass in Ireland, the whole concept of ‘hungry grass’ could be a bit alarming if people believed in it. One or two hundred years ago, when scientific reasoning wasn’t particularly widespread however, it was probably a fair attempt at rationalising the unexplained deaths or episodes of fainting that would occur from time to time. The psychological impact of An Gorta Mór (the Great Famine), would also have remained very strong in the minds of those people living after the 1850s. This is why, in most variations of the ‘hungry grass’ folklore, the effects are attributed to a person stepping on the grave or burial plot of a victim from An Gorta Mór. It’s also why (probably) the Irish term is ‘féar gorta’ which may be more accurately translated as ‘famine grass’ rather than ‘hungry grass’.
Although the superstition of ‘hungry grass’ is pretty much outdated nowadays, it’s still quite a curious concept that seems very specific to Ireland and has a lot of narrative appeal. I used the concept myself as a minor plot device in one of my books some years ago where the protagonist has the supernatural power of being able to detect where dead people are buried. In that book, the protagonist is an archaeologist/historian and his success at finding ancient historical sites and bodies is very much based on that ability.
In hindsight, I suppose I’d probably have been better off making the character a mortician or a police pathologist although, to be honest, that wasn’t really my area of interest.
It does beg the question however – how cool would it be to have a television series about an Irish pathologist?
Investigating the death of people killed by Hungry Grass!!