What causes the Hungry Grass?

The Hungry Grass is a patch of land that is cursed or poisoned. The unlucky person treading upon it is struck with extreme hunger. With this hunger comes pain, physical weakness, and a disorientation so great that the person may walk in circles for days unable to find a way to leave the afflicted ground. The cure is to eat a morsel of food before succumbing completely.

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

Some say it pops up where someone has died violently,” says Tony Locke, a modern seanachai (storyteller).

I’ve heard a version where a spot on the side of a road was tainted because a corpse simply fell from a hearse while it was being transported to be buried. There was no particular violence about the death, nor anything special about how the body hit the ground.

But getting more specific, in some stories the corpse must fall mouth downward. “If you step on the the spot the mouth touched, even if t 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 patch of ground covers an unshriven corpse i.e. a person who died without confessing their sins to a priest and receiving absolution.

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In contrast to corpses, some stories blame a fairy curse. Now, mankind also has to answer for this state of affairs: if someone has eaten a meal outside and has not thrown a few crumbs to sate the little people, they will set to work to plant the hunger grass on that spot. 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 the latter, Phelim spins a yarn to his parents (they don’t write ’em like this anymore).
“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.”
Luckily, a passer by gives him a morsel to eat, whilst explaining to young Phelim the reason for his sorrows. “This is the spot the fairies planted their hungry grass.”

 

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, or 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.

Ann O’Regan, paranormal blogger, suggests the victims themselves have become predatory, seeking to drag others into their hell.

Donagh MacDonagh, judge and poet, blames the ground in which the bodies lie, and the grass that is racked with their famine.

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

A childhood tale of the Hungry Grass

Many years ago, a group of children listened spellbound as a storyteller told us how he met a man who walked upon the Hungry Grass.

Of course, we knew already about this dangerous thing. In Irish lore, someone who stumbles into a certain patch of grass is beset by an intense and unquenchable hunger.

This wasn’t as scary to young minds as you might think. We knew that if you stepped quickly out of the afflicted area, the hunger would leave you. Even if the gnawing at your guts had you on your knees, all you had to do was nibble on breadcrumbs or a bit of biscuit fished out of a pocket. And if you didn’t even have such a small morsel, then chewing on your shoelaces would give you the strength to walk until you met a passerby who could help you.
Oh yes, there were scarier things fora child to worry about.

Yet the room hung on every word, as the story-teller recounted how he and his friends were out hill-walking when they caught sight of a man lying on the ground a little away from the main path.

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“Don’t come near me,” the prone man warned them in a faint voice, as they hurried to help him. “It’s the fear ocrach that has me, the hungry grass.”

The friends stopped dead at a safe distance, and searched their backpacks for a crust of a sandwich, but they were near the end of their walk and had eaten every scrap of food they packed that morning.

One of the young men set off at a run down the hill to find the nearest house with the nearest loaf of bread.

“Crawl to us,” the others pleaded, arms stretched out. The man clutched his stomach and writhed in agony. “I haven’t the strength to crawl,” he whispered. “I’m surely done for this world.”

“Untie your shoelaces,” the friends urged him. “Bite down on them until help comes.”

We children nodded. We were fascinated, but not terrified. A bite of a shoelace was all that was needed.

“But do ye know what?” asked the story-teller. “We looked a little closer at the poor man’s feet. He was wearing sandals.”

Our mouths opened. Our hands pressed together. I myself found it hard to breathe.

“So Johnny took off his shoe and threw it. He landed it right by the man’s head. But despite us roaring and shouting at him, the man had grown too weak even to move his hands and reach for the laces.”

“Did he die?” The shocked voice was Declan’s. The rest of us were silent, eyes fixed on the story-teller.

“I took off my coat,” he told us. “I flung it onto the cursed land. My friends did the same, each a little further than the other. Then Johnny and I jumped from coat to coat, one after the other, until we reached the fella. Johnny hoisted him on my back and it was as if the hunger had already made him light as a feather. We jumped back to safe ground, and laid the poor man on the road.”

“Was he dead?” whispered Declan.

“It wasn’t a dead man who sat up and thanked us.”

A room of children sighed with relief, and gazed upon a hero.