Origins Of The Hungry Grass

The Hungry Grass is a cursed patch of land. The unfortunate person who walks across it is struck with extreme hunger.

The hunger is accompanied by stomach pains and a sudden wave of physical weakness. Moreover, victims become so disorientated that they can walk around in circles for days. This keeps them tied to the cursed ground.

Thankfully, there is a cure although it may not be immediately available. If the afflicted eat the tiniest piece of food, this gives a burst of strength to break free and walk out of the area.

However, if there is no food to hand, victims waste away to the point of death.

Is The Hungry Grass Caused By Death?

In the stories told about the Hungry Grass, the causes range from the rather general to the very specific.

Some tales say that the cause is a violent event where the victim has been left to die in a remote and lonely spot.

But other tales don’t include violence.

For example, one story describes a corpse falling from a hearse while it was being transported to be buried.  In those days, a hearse would be a horse and cart.

The spot on the side of the road where the corpse lay became permanently cursed as Hungry Grass.

There was nothing special in the way the body hit the ground in that story. But with other accounts, the positioning is very specific.

In some stories, the corpse must fall mouth downward.

“If you step on the spot the mouth touched, even if it were a thousand years before, you will be stricken by Hungry Grass.”

The Event and its Terrors: Ireland, Famine, Modernity. Stuart McLean

Keeping with corpses, myth mixes with Christian lore in the versions where the body on the patch of ground is an unshriven corpse.

“Unshriven” refers to a person who died without confessing their sins to a priest and receiving absolution.

When Fairies Are The Cause

In contrast to corpses, some stories blame a fairy curse.

Now, mankind also has to answer for this state of affairs. The usual problem is that someone is eating their meal outside on a journey.

Perhaps they are walking to work and devouring a delicious hunk of bread filled with ham and cheese.

But this thoughtless individual doesn’t throw a few crumbs to the side of the path to feed the local fairies.

Although the little people don’t always hanker after human food, they can get very annoyed at this lack of respect.

So, they gather together to plant the hunger grass on the spot they feel a morsel of food should have been dropped for them.

William Carleton, the 19th century writer, told several tales with fairies as the source.

“The Hungry Grass” was one such tale, and “Phelim O’Tooles Courtship” another.

In Phelim’s story, he’s explaining to his parents why he’s late home and feeling famished. I’ll quote Carleton below. It should be readable to those who aren’t Irish – but “waker” is “weaker” and “dhraps” is “drops”.

“As I was crassin’ Dunroe Hill, I thramped on hungry grass.

First, I didn’t know what kem over me, I got so wake; an’ every step I wint, ’twas waker an’ waker I was growin’ till at long last, down I dhraps, an’ couldn’t move hand or fut.”

Thankfully, Phelim was saved by a quick-witted passer by who knew exactly what to do.

The good Samaritan pushed a morsel of food into Phelim’s mouth and helped him walk away from the cursed patch.

The wise traveller explained the situation to the bemused young Phelim.

 “This is the spot the fairies planted their hungry grass.”

The Great Famine As The Historic Origin

 Perhaps the most common cause for Hungry Grass is based on the Great Famine, a time of mass disease and starvation throughout Ireland.

Corpses lay unburied for days for want of enough coffins. Some were covered in sackcloth in the shallowest of graves by survivors too weak to do more than scrape the earth.

In the tales I heard in childhood, the grass that grew to cover these pitiful bodies was somehow infused with their ravenous hunger.

Donagh MacDonagh, judge and poet, describes how these awful circumstances brought about a cursed patch of land.

Little the earth reclaimed from that poor body

And yet remembering him the place has grown

Bewitched and the thin grass he nourishes

Racks with his famine, sucks marrow from the bone.

excerpt from The Hungry Grass, Donagh MacDonagh