In this article:
- In Ireland, seeing magpies can either be good luck or bad luck depending on how many of them you see at once.
- This superstition is believed to go back to a nursery rhyme that first appeared in literature in 1780.
- Seeing a single magpie is generally considered unlucky, but there are ways that you can reverse this back luck.
Gaelic tradition is full of legends and superstitions that have persisted over time and have greatly influenced the ways that people live their day-to-day lives. Even today, many Irish people hold on to some of these superstitions, believing that the supernatural has the ability to affect the course of their lives.
Some believe that having an itchy nose signifies that you’re going to get into a fight in the near future. Having a robin follow you around means that a loved one is nearby. Giving a significant other a watch as a gift means that you’re going to break up because time is running out.
My personal favorite Irish superstition has to do with magpies.
If you’re walking around Ireland and you see someone that seems to be randomly saluting, it’s probably because they saw a magpie. You might also see people counting birds in a tree.
This is because, depending on the number of magpies you see, you may have either very good or very bad things in your future. While this superstition is dying with the older and more superstitious generations, there are still many people in Ireland that hold the belief that a magpie can determine your future.
The Nursery Rhyme
The superstition about magpies in Ireland seems to trace its origins back to a nursery rhyme first written down in 1780 in Observations on Popular Antiquities by John Brand. In this version, the poem goes:
One for sorrow,
Two for mirth,
Three for a funeral
And four for a birth
As you can see, the number of magpies observed is very important to the interpretation of the omen. In the traditional form of the nursery rhyme, seeing one magpie is traditionally an omen of bad luck, whereas seeing two magpies is an omen of joy and good luck. Seeing three magpies is believed to foretell the death of a loved one and seeing four magpies means that there will be a birth in the family in the near future (which was always seen as a blessing in traditional Irish culture).
Over time, though, the nursery rhyme was expanded to give significance beyond four. In A Collection of Proverbs and Popular Sayings Relating to the Seasons, the Weather, and Agricultural Pursuits by Michael Aislabie Denham, which was written in 1846, the rhyme goes:
One for sorrow,
Two for mirth
Three for a funeral,
Four for birth
Five for heaven
Six for hell
Seven for the devil, his own self
In this version, the poem takes on a more religious significance, incorporating the Christian realms of heaven and hell as well as the devil. Due to the fact that Christianity was so ingrained in Irish culture, it’s not surprising that this nursery rhyme took on a religious significance.
However, the poem took on a different form when it was used as the theme song for Magpie, a popular children’s television show that ran in the United Kingdom from 1968 to 1980. Perhaps the producers thought it better to exclude the religious symbolism and they decided to go with more secular lyrics for their version:
One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret never to be told.
In this version, a single magpie is really the only truly negative omen. Seeing six magpies doesn’t mean that you’re going to hell. Seeing seven magpies doesn’t mean that you’re going to encounter the devil himself, only that there’s a secret that will never be told. Certainly, this seems like a more suitable version for children.
Magpies in Ireland
Interestingly enough, there is no word in the Irish language for magpie. Instead, these birds are commonly referred to as francagh, which translates to “Frenchman.” No one knows exactly why they were given this name.
For most of Ireland’s history, magpies were very scarce, which is partly why they were assigned such superstitious significance. These associations may also come from the fact magpies are very intelligent and notoriously mischievous.
Magpies are, in fact, one of the most intelligent species of birds and one of the most intelligent animals to exist on Earth. Their brain-to-body mass ratio is outmatched only by human beings. They have shown the ability to imitate human speech, work in teams, use tools, and play games with one another.
In fact, magpies will even use homemade tools to portion out food for their young. On top of all that, they have a reputation for stealing things (especially shiny ones). So, if there’s any bird that might be able to predict your future, it’s definitely a magpie.
And, although magpies were historically scarce in Ireland, it would seem their populations have begun to grow extensively within the country. From the mid-19th century until the beginning of World War I, the population of magpies declined heavily due to heavy persecution from game hunters.
However, their numbers have steadily increased since World War II and their population is believed to be larger now than ever. These days, it’s not uncommon to see as many as 20 magpies in a single tree.
Because the nursery rhyme only ever went up to 10 magpies, there’s no way to know what a sighting of 20 magpies signifies. However, the Irish people are certain of one thing: seeing a solo magpie is bad news.
How to Reverse the Bad Luck of a Solo Magpie
In Irish folk tradition, there are a few different ways that you can stop a lone magpie from bringing you bad luck. The first way and most common way is to salute the bird. This is said to cancel out any bad luck it might bring you.
Others say that the salute is unnecessary if the solo magpie looks you in the eye, which shows that the bird respects you and won’t bring you bad luck.
In other versions of the legend, it’s necessary to say something to the bird. Some claim that you have to say, “Hello, Mr. Magpie. How is your wife?” Other people may tell you that you have to tell the magpie the time of the day.
Others combat a single magpie’s bad luck by winking and pretending that they saw two magpies. Some will even flap their arms and pretend that they are, in fact, the second magpie. It kind of sounds like cheating, but whatever works for you.
Whether or not you believe that magpies have to power to bring you good or bad luck, this is a superstition that has existed in Ireland for centuries. And, even if you don’t believe it, there’s no harm in a polite salute or friendly greeting just to be safe.