Reek Sunday & Other Irish Traditions for the Last Sunday of July

Reek Sunday, the last Sunday in July, is traditionally known for the great pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick, a mountain in County Mayo. Croagh Patrick, or Cruach Phádraig as it is known in Irish, literally means Patrick’s Stack, the site, according to hagiography, was where Saint Patrick fasted for 40 days. For over four thousand years Patrick’s Stack has has attracted pilgrimages, with the site originally hosting pagan gatherings which were gradually to become more Christianised from the time of Saint Patrick. The popular nineteenth century British writer William Thackeray recorded the following details regarding the Croagh Patrick Pilgrimage which he witnessed in 1842;

‘The first station consists of one heap of stones, round which they must walk seven times, casting a stone on the heap each time, and before and after every stone’s throw saying a prayer.

The second station is on the top of the mountain. Here there is a great alter – a shapeless heap of stones. The poor wretches crawl on their knees into this place, say fifteen prayers, and after going around the whole top of the mountain fifteen times, saying fifteen prayers again.

The third station is near the bottom of the mountain at the further side of Westport. It consists of three heaps. The penitents must go several times round these collectively, and several times round each individually, saying a prayer before and after each progress.

The pleasures of the poor people – for after the business on the mountain came the dancing and love-making at its foot – was woefully spoiled by the rain, which rendered dancing on the grass impossible, nor were the tents big enough for that exercise. Indeed, the whole site was as dismal and half-savage a one as I have seen.’

Although the pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick is both traditionally and presently the most popular and infamous custom associated with the last Sunday of July,  other traditions with different names exist throughout the country, some still surviving to this day and observed on the last day of July, where people from near and far gather on mountains, hills and strands in many parts of Ireland to mark the end of summer, and welcomed in the harvest.

Activities to mark the start of harvest have traditionally differed from region to region, in Lahinch in County Clare, for example, the Rev James Kenny, in 1814, recorded that the last Sunday in July was known as Garlic Sunday, and was a patron day, but also included activities participated in  included  the less devotional activities of  horse-racing on the strand, and dancing.  From Ballyliffen in County Donegal, Charles McGlinchey remembered that in his youth, 1860s-1870s, the last Sunday in July was known as Heather-Berry Sunday, and was marked by the younger people who went up into the hills to gather hill-berries and heather-berries, while in Leitrim, the last Sunday of July was known as Garland Sunday, in reference to the custom of the younger people, in parts of the county, adorning the holy wells with Garlands of flowers on that day.

Sources

Duncan, Leland  L. ‘Folklore Gleamings from County Leitrim’ in  Folklore 1893.

Kenny, Rev James.’Union of Kilmanaheen’, in A Statistical Account or Parochial Survey of Ireland, edited by  William Shaw Mason. Dublin, London and Edinburg, 1814.

Mc Glinchey, Charles. The Last of the Name. Edited by Brian Friel. Belfast, 1986.

Thackeray, William Makepeace. The Irish Sketch Book. London. 1842.

Saint Declan’s Day

Mr & Mrs S.C. Hall, 1840; ‘The 24th of July is the patron day of Saint Declan, whom the Roman Calendar states to have flourished prior to the appearances of Patrick. He is said to have landed at Ardmore and to have there preached Christianity where he also, and in one night, built the famous tower and the adjoining church. The grave in which he is supposed to be buried and a singular mass rock on the sea-shore near the church are objects of peculiar veneration. This rock is believed to have floated over from Rome with the vestments of the saint, a bell for this tower and a lighted candle for the celebration of mass.

Though now a miserable village containing no house above the rank of cabin save that of the rector, there was a time when Ardmore was classed among the high places of Ireland. It was anciently an episcopal see erected by St Declan in the infancy of the Irish Church and before the arrival of St Patrick. St Declan, it is said, was a native to Ireland who travelled to Rome and returned to teach his countrymen in the year 402. The ruins of two churches which, from their architecture, must be of the Saint’s era, are in the immediate neighbourhood, and one of them, which had being used for service until very recently, is close to the famous round tower.’

Hall’s  Ireland, 1842

Although Mr and Mrs S.C. Hall fail to provide information on the patron at Ardmore, Thomas Crofton Croker lets us know that it was a popular site of pilgrimage in the early decades of the nineteenth century. In his Researches in the South of Ireland, published in 1826 – less than twenty years before the Hall’s account,  Croker comments that on Saint Declan’s Day, ‘vast numbers of the country people flock to Ardmore for the purposes of penance and prayer.’

Saint Swithin’s Day & the Weather

‘The fifteenth of July is St Swithin’s Day, and the belief that if it rains on St Swithin’s Day (Sweeten or Sweeteen as it is called in Munster), the succeeding forty days will also be wet, still prevails.

The folklore history is as follows:- when St Swithin, after being waked, was buried, by his monks, who dearly loved him, thought the simple “house of clay” was not befitting their lord abbot, so they determined to build a costly mausoleum which to their minds would more suitably mark his last resting-place on earth, and also show to the world how him they loved while living was venerated even in death.

But St. Swinton, who during his life detested ostentation or display of any kind, besought his divine Master (as it was afterwards revealed by one of his monks) to prevent such a useless expenditure of time and money which might easily be spent with more advantage in relieving the poor and needy. Accordingly when his monks had completed this beautiful and costly mausoleum they named a day (July 15) on which the mortal remains of the saint were to be publically exhumed and publicly transmitted to the new, as they considered, more befitting abode.

But the prayer of a humble servant of God prevailed, for early on that morning the floodgates of heaven were again, as of old, opened, and one continuous downpour of rain prevailed and thus continued without intermission for the succeeding forty days. The country for miles around was flooded, which gave all parties, St Swithin’s monks included, much concern. Thereupon they all prayed to God to lessen His anger against them, and earnestly besought their holy abbot, Swithin, to intercede for them. It was at this period he appeared to one of his monks and revealing to him how displeasing it was to God thus to spend their time in such a useless display, forbade ever interfering with his remains thereafter. The command was obeyed, and ever since (as a remembrance to St Swithin) when it rains on St Swithin’s Day, the succeeding forty days will be times of anxiety for the agriculturist for ever.’

Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, 1896.

Saint Maelruain’s Feast Day

Weston St. John Joyce, Tallaght, 7 July; ‘St Maelruan’s patron or “pattern”, was every year celebrated here but in the later years the original Saint’s name was lost sight of altogether, and replaced by the corrupted form, “Moll Rooney”, under which title “the pattern” continued to be annually held, until it came to be such a nuisance, owing to drunkenness and debauchery, that it was suppressed in 1874.

The proceedings consisted of making a kind of effigy, supposed to represent the saint, and carrying it about from house to house in procession, headed by a fiddler or piper. The occupants of each house then came out as they were visited and danced to the music after which a collection was made to be spent on drink. Few went to bed that night; many slept in ditches on the way home, and drinking, dancing and fighting went on intermittently until morning.

Another item in the performance in recent times was to visit the grave of an old village piper named Burley O’Toole who had expressed a dying wish to that effect, and to dance and fight around his grave.’

The Neighbourhood of Dublin, 1921.

Photograph Saint Maelruain’s Church, Tallaght. Laurence Collection 1870-1914, National Library of Ireland.

The Dead Month: the Hunger & Thirst of July

For our nineteenth century ancestors July was the month when food was at its scarcest. By the time that July arrived food from the previous harvest had sustained households over most of the previous year, and many families found that their stores of food were much depleted or had disappeared entirely by July. The decline in living standards, present throughout nineteenth century Ireland, would peak during the Famine which would eventually take a million lives and force a further million Irish men and women to emigrate from the land in which they were born. Many of whom would never return to the land of their ancestors. For families who had cattle, running out of stored crops was not as lethal, but for the quarter of the population, that relied on the potato as their sole source of sustenance, July would be to varying degrees a difficult month to get by – even without the devastation of famine.

These tough conditions gave July many alternative names including, most generally, ‘The Hungry Month’, ‘The Blue Month’ and ‘Staggering July.’ Other names for July appear to have been more regional; Amhlaoibh Ó Súilleabháin, who was living near Callan in the County of Kilkenny in the early decades of the nineteenth century, recorded in his diary that July was known as Buímhís ‘The yellow month’ in reference to both the colour of fields and the faces of the poor during this month. While in the latter half of the nineteenth century Charles McGlinchey recalled that the heat alone was reason enough to give the first half of July and the second half of August the dark nickname Mí Mharbh “The Dead Month” in reference to the stifling heat that accompanied this sultry season.

If July was a month for hunger and stifling heat it was, at least in eastern Donegal, also a month for thirst; as the opening days of July provided the people of the Inishowen peninsula with a unique opportunity to produce poitín – a strong alcoholic drink made from cereals or potatoes, unnoticed by the local authorities. As the distilling of poitín illegal it was often traditionally made on away on islands or in difficult to reach areas to approach. But distance was not the only consideration in the minds of these distillers; the great plumes of smoke that were released while distilling their ‘Uisce Beatha,‘ literally water of life, made their task to carryout their secular vocations. There was a man named Dolty MacGarvey who lived in the small village of Glen in the early 1870s who explained to  William Le Fanu the seasonal strategy that local poitín distillers used to avoid detection form the British authorities; ‘we always dry the malt in the beginning of July, when all the police are taken off to Derry to put down the riots there ; so we can do it safely then. God is good, sir ; God is good.’ 

Sources

Danaher, Kevin. The Year in Ireland. Dublin 1972.

Evans, E. Estyn. Irish Folk Ways. London, 1957.

Le Fanu, William Richard. Seventy Years of Life in Ireland, 1893

Mc Glinchey, Charles. The Last of the Name. Edited by Brian Friel. Belfast, 1986.

Ó Súilleabháin, Amhlaoibh. The Diary of an Irish Countryman 1827 – 1835. Translated from the Irish by Tomás de Bhaldraithe. Cork/Dublin 1970/1979.

Saint John’s Day, Toberona & the Gift of the Gab

Saint John’s Well, Toberona

John Swift, Toberona, just outside Dundalk, County Louth; ‘Up to the early part of the nineteenth century a pattern or fair annually celebrated St John’s Day, 24th June, when well known bards and other artists from Louth and the surrounding counties would gather in the vicinity of Toberona bridge, to show their talents. It is recorded that over-indulgence in alcohol and rowdying brought an end to these patterns…..

But legend had it Toberona did not require either brewed or distilled liquor to engender anything like transports of inebriation. Toberona had its well of spring water, named after Saint John, and those quaffing of its draughts, if endowed to even the slightest extent with poetic or rhetorical talent, would be inspired to speech worthy of the most gifted orator or author. They had a saying in the Temple tavern (in Dundalk): Tell it in Toberona.’

Told in Toberona, 2008

John Swift 1896-1990 was born and spent his youth in Dundalk, County Louth, before moving to Dublin in 1912.

Photograph by my dad John P Swift.

The Bonfire on Saint John’s Eve

Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna, circa 1815, County Offaly; ‘It is the custom at sunset on that evening to kindle numerous immense fires throughout the country, built like our (English) bonfires, to a great height, the pile being composed of turf, bog-wood, and such other combustibles as they can gather.

The turf yields a steady, substantial body of fire, the bog-wood a most brilliant flame; and the effect of these great beacons blazing on every hill, sending up volumes of smoke from every point of the horizon is very remarkable.

Ours was a magnificent one being provided by the landlord as a compliment to his people, and was built on the lawn, as close beside the house as safety would admit. Early in the evening the peasants began to assemble, all habited in their best array, glowing with health, every countenance full of that sparkling animation and excess of enjoyment that characterize the enthusiastic people of the land. I had never seen anything resembling it, and was exceedingly delighted with their handsome, intelligent, merry faces; the bold bearing of the men, and the playful, but really modest deportment of the maidens; and the vivacity of the aged people, and wild glee of the children.

The fire being kindled, a splendid blaze shot up, and for a while they stood contemplating it, with faces strangely disfigured by the peculiar light first emitted when bogwood is thrown on: after a short pause, the ground was cleared in front of an old blind piper, the very beau ideal of energy, drollery, and shrewdness, who seated on a low chair, with a well-plenished jug within his reach, screwed his pipes to the liveliest times and endless jig began.

An Irish jig is interminable, so long as the party holds together; for when one of the dancers becomes fatigued, a fresh individual is ready to step into the vacated place quick as thought; so the other does not pause, until in liked manner obliged to give place to a successor. They continue footing it, and setting to one another, occasionally moving in a figure, and changing place with extraordinary rapidity, spirit and grace. Few indeed, among even the very lowest of the most improvised class, have grown into youth without obtaining some lessons in this accomplishment from the traveling dancing-masters of their district; and certainly in the way they use it, many would be disposed to grant a dispensation to the young peasant which they would withhold from the young peer.

But something was to follow that puzzled me not a little: when the fire had burned for some hours, and got low, an indispensable part of the ceremony commenced. Every one present of the peasantry passed through it, and several children were thrown across the sparkling embers; while a wooden frame of some eight feet long, with a horse’s head fixed to one end, and a large white sheet thrown over it, concealing the wood and the man on whose head it was carried, made its appearance. This was greeted with loud shouts as the “white horse;” and having been safely carried by the skill of the bearer several times through the fire with a bold leap, it pursued the people, who ran screaming and laughing in every direction. I asked what the horse was meant for, and was told it represented all cattle. While I looked upon the now wildly-excited people with their children, and, in a figure, all their cattle, passing again and again through the fire.’

Personal Recollections, 1841

Midsummer’s Eve in Ireland

A hundred years ago, and for many centuries before, Midsummer’s Eve was observed and celebrated throughout Ireland on the 23 June, that is, on Saint John’s Eve.

The bonfire was central to the activities of Midsummer’s Eve, and those who witnessed the flames more than a lifetime ago noted that the landscape was filled with hundreds of bonfires, creating a beautiful aspect by illuminating the country as far as the eye could see. These fires were lit on elevated sites including mountain tops and hills, but also in fields, at crossroads and on the streets and in squares of towns and villages throughout the country. In Dublin bonfires were outlawed by the Lord Mayor in the 1700’s, and as a substitute, the towns’ people attached candles to trees and bushes to maintain the tradition in some form. Gradually, during the nineteenth century, coercion bills were brought in an attempt to eliminate bonfires from many towns and villages across Ireland, but these bills, while having limited in their success, failed to end the popular tradition of lighting bonfires on Saint John’s Eve. While the tradition of lighting bonfires on Saint John’s Eve has declined substantially over the past century the tradition is still observed in certain parts of the country up to the present day.

Bonfires in previous centuries were fed on materials that were readily available and  easily obtained; in some areas straw, reeds and wood were collected throughout the whole six months leading up to Midsummer’s Eve, while in other areas the bonfire was principally made of turf, with every inhabitant of the village donating their own share to feed the bonfire.  Well into the last century the ancient Irish tradition of burning animal bones continued, some believe in imitation of ancient sacrifices, in certain parts of Munster and Connaught, the addition of which created crackling noises, bright stray sparks, while, at the same time, providing the origin of their very name “bone-fire”, now generally spelled and often pronounced as bonfire.

The Midsummer’s bonfire are traditionally thought to increase fertility and produce luck, while passing through the flames of the fire was also thought to  provide protection from both the fairies and the evil eye. Many accounts relate how cattle were driven through the flames between two persons who each held lighted sheaf of straw or reeds, known as a “cleer”. Members of the household also jumped through the fire, as did lovers who held hands in the hope of encouraging their own fertility.  In County Cavan, a century ago, it was still believed that if you ate your supper by the fire on Midsummer’s Eve you would be protected from hunger throughout the coming year, while farmers often spread a sod of turf, coal, ashes, or even holy water on their crops as a method of protection from diseases including blight on Midsummer Eve.

Games and amusements were performed by many who attended, caps were often grabbed from unsuspecting heads and thrown or, at least, pretended to be thrown in the flames by the more boisterous members of the community. Spectators at the bonfires also fashioned bundles of reeds or straw which, when lit, were waved through the air, and in some places including Belmullet in County Mayo sods of lighted turf were thrown to the sky in the belief that the air would be purified through the motion of these smouldering sods. Additionally, a lighted piece of turf or a coal was often taken from the bonfire and carried home to relight the hearth in the household, which according to many accounts, was annually quenched on Midsummer’s Eve.*

*It is worth mentioning that quenching the fire on Midsummer’s Eve  was only observed in some localities, as there was a strong tradition in many parts of Ireland of keeping the hearth fire burning continuously for years, or even decades, on end.

Sources

Mac Lir, Mananaan. ‘The Folklore of Months’. Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, Second series II (1896), 157, 316, 365.

Mahon, Rev. Michael P. Ireland’s Fairy Lore, Boston, 1919.

Mason, William Shaw. A Statistical Account or Parochial Survey of Ireland. Dublin, London and Edinburg, 1814-19.

O’Hanlon, Rev. John (Lageniensis). Irish Folk Lore: Traditions and Superstitions of the Country; with Humorous Tales. London, 1870.

Ó Súilleabháin, Amhlaoibh. The Diary of an Irish Countryman 1827 – 1835. Translated from the Irish by Tomás de Bhaldraithe. Cork/Dublin 1970/1979.

Piers, Sir Henry, A Chorographical Description of the County of West-Meath,  A.D. 1682

Synge, J. M. In Connemara. Dublin, 1979.

Warburton, John & others. History of the City of Dublin. Dublin, 1818.

Various articles from the Folklore Journal 1881 – 1916

The Feast Day of Saint Columbcille

F.L. Molloy, Parish of Clonmany, 1814; ‘The titular saint, or as some express it, the guardian, of this parish, is Columbkill. The 9th of June is his festival day, and is observed most ceremoniously by the old people in the parish: on that day they circumambulate certain places, repeating certain prayers, deified, as it were, for him.

They formerly drove down their cattle to the beach, on that day, and swam them in that part of the sea, into which runs the water of St Columb’s well, which is thereby made holy-water; but this custom, of late, has not been practised.

There is also a traditional story told here, that the earth of a little hillhock (tempo desh,) on the right of the road leading from the chapel to the church, formerly expelled all mice and rats, until the earth of it was vended, when its expelling powers ceased; still, however, they carry all their dead around it, as being an ancient custom.

There is a circular flat stone in the centre of the church-yard, about fourteen inches in diameter, on which are two round hollow places, which they say are prints of Saint Columb’s knees. On that day mass used to be celebrated, but of late, I believe, it has being discontinued.’

A Statistical Account or a Parochial Survey of Ireland –  William Shaw Mason.

Saint Kevin’s Day & the Patron at Glendalough

Samuel Carter & Anna Maria Hall; ‘The city of Glendalough a name which signifies the ‘glen of the two lakes’, owes its origins to Saint Kevin, by whom the abbey was founded in the sixth century, and where he is believed to have died, AD 619, the anniversary of which is still commemorated by the peasantry who, until very recently (the peasantry), honoured the memory of the patron saint by assembling in the churchyard to drink and fight, but this custom was put to an end by the parish priest who, a few days before one of our visits, had actually turned the whiskey into a stream, gathered the shillelaghs into a large bonfire and made wrathful and brutal men, who had been enemies for centuries, embrace each other in peace and goodwill over Kevin’s grave.’

Hall’s Ireland, 1842

The more disreputable activities described above did not cease before 1842, as the Hall’s maintain, but continued until at least 1862, when Cardinal Paul Cullen suppressed the pilgrimage.

Painting is ‘The Patron Festival of Saint Kevin and the Seven Churches,’ by Joseph Peacock, 1813.