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.
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.
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.