One for Sorrow, Two For Joy: the Magpie in Irish Folklore

Throughout the spring it is a common sight to see magpies gathering materials for their nests, and one would imagine that this annual ritual has continued in Ireland since long before the coming of Christ. However, there is plenty of evidence that indicates that the magpie is a relatively recent arrival to our island. It was a well-known belief amongst our ancestors going back centuries that the magpie was introduced to Ireland by a storm that brought a flock of magpies over to Wexford from England. There may well be some truth in this belief – as the renowned Belfast born ornithologist Edward Allworthy Armstrong noted the following details in his childhood memoir Birds of the Grey Wind; ‘All our Irish magpies are believed to be descended from a flock of about a dozen birds from England which were blown out of their course by an easterly gale and arrived exhausted on the coast of Wexford about the year 1676. An English settler there, one Robert Leigh, writing in 1684, says that ‘about eight years ago there landed in these parts . . . a parcel of magpies which now breed’.’ Further on Armstrong continues by explaining that within fifty years, or by the 1720s, ‘a statute’, the first of its kind in Ireland, ‘was enacted offering a reward for their [magpies] destruction.’ This statute was, of course, was unsuccessful as evidenced by their widespread distribution of magpies throughout Ireland today, but if we even go back to less than a century ago, and even in the memory of people who are still living, the distribution of this bird species is remembered as far more regional than it is today.

In the Irish language the magpie is referred to by several different names, many of which provide evidence of the bird’s recent arrival to Ireland. Probably the most common Irish name for a magpie is ‘snag breac,’ which can be translated as pied or speckled tree-creeper.  Prior to the arrival of the magpie this name was applied to the great spotted woodpecker which has recently returned to this island after an absence of many centuries; with its original decline coinciding with the arrival of the magpie. The second most common Irish language name for a magpie is Frangach, of course this word was originally used to identify a French person, and later was applied to the rats that made their way to Ireland bringing the Black Death, which spread from the east coast of Ireland as the magpie would go on to do a few centuries later.

Despite the magpie’s relatively recent arrival there is a wealth of Irish folklore relating to these birds which continues to this day to be passed on from one generation to the next. The Irish have a strange mixture of respect and distain for these loud and distinctive birds who now reside in every part of the country. Probably the most widespread belief about magpies is that they steal shiny objects to put in their nests and to attract a mate. In recent decades observational experiments conducted by scientists have proven that magpies do not favour shiny objects over dull objects. However, the magpie’s reputation as a thief is still believed as fact by young and old who can recall the stories that have existed for centuries, and paint the magpie as a lover of shiny objects.

Another belief, which is far more difficult to disprove, is that bad luck will follow a person who fails to salute a magpie. To this day many people throughout Ireland will give a nod, raise their hat, or lift their hand to salute a magpie that they encounter. The situation in which one encounters a magpie as Lady Wilde, the mother of the famous writer Oscar Wilde, noted holds particular significance. She warned that if a magpie ‘comes clattering to your door it is a sign of death’ and that if the magpie comes to your door and faces you ‘is a sure death-sign, and nothing can avert the doom.’ However, Wilde goes on to explain that if two magpies come clattering at your door ‘prosperity will follow.’ This altering change in fortune depending on the number of magpies a person encounters should be familiar to any Irish person from the variants of an old rhyme which have survived in Ireland’s oral tradition to the present day:

‘One for sorrow,

Two for joy,

Three for a girl,

Four for a boy,

Five for silver,

Six for gold,

Seven for a secret that is never told.’

The rhyme itself was first published in 1780, although like many others it is believed to be much older. Irish versions of the rhyme were published in the nineteenth century for instance a variant can be found in Lady Wilde’s Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland:

 ‘One for Sorrow,

Two for Mirth,

Three for Marriage,

Four for a Birth.’

While in his 1909 book English as we Speak it in Ireland, Patrick Weston Joyce recorded this slightly different version in word if not in meaning that was given to him by a Wexford man named Patrick MacCall:

‘One for sorrow; two for a mirth; three for a wedding; four for a birth.’

Irish sources from the nineteenth century and early twentieth century provide some less remembered and possibly more regional folklore about magpies. As with many birds in Ireland the season of spring, as the nesting period, represents a particularly busy time for magpies, which is reflected in Irish folklore. For example, the 14 February,* is believed by some to be the date when magpies get married, while in an 1881 article from the Folklore Journal GH Kinahan noted that ‘It is considered unlucky to kill a magpie in the spring, as its comrade will kill every chicken. In the west of Ireland they protect the magpies, as they give warning when a fox is a-foot and about the homestead. I have often heard smothered curses from an old crone when I shot a magpie, especially in co. Mayo.’ Such respect for the common magpie may have been regional as growing up in Clonmany, County Donegal, Charles McGlinchey noted that himself and his friends ‘never thought it any harm to rob the nests of magpies or crows for they lifted eggs and young chickens.’

       *This piece of Irish folklore though often associated with magpies in particular is also applied to birds more generally.


Armstrong, Edward Allworthy. Birds of the Grey Wind. Oxford, 1950.

Foster, Jeanne Cooper. Ulster Folklore. Belfast, 1951.

Joyce, Patrick Weston. English as We Speak it in Ireland. Dublin, 1910.

Kinahan, GH. ‘Notes on Irish Folklore’. The Folk-Lore Record 4 (1881), pp. 96-125.

Mac Coitir, Niall. Ireland’s Birds. Cork, 2015.

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

Warner Dick. ‘Magpie or snag breac: what’s in a name,’ Irish Examiner, 28 November 2011.

Wilde, Lady Jane, Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland. London, 1888.

Saint Patrick’s Day Traditions & Customs in Ireland

Saint Patrick’s Day, 17 March, traditionally marks the middle of spring, and is sometimes referred to as the end of winter, with the belief that there is a noticeable improvement in the weather from that date onwards; an old saying attributed to Saint Patrick claimed that the weather would be fine for half of his own feast day and for every day after. Saint Patrick’s Day holds great significance in rural areas of the country, partially due to the perceived improvement in the weather, but also because it is the traditional day for farmers to begin planting their crops, an older counterpart to this tradition linked Saint Patrick’s Day with the separation of farming families and may have encouraged the days connection with the commencement of work in the fields; Charles McGlinchey, from Ballyliffen in Donegal, recalled that in his grandfather’s time, circa 1800, ‘people in different parts of the parish used to take their cattle and pigs to the mountains in the summer months. It was only the women and children went, and Patrick’s Day was the time for setting out. They built huts to live in called bothógs and the remains of these bothógs and some old pig houses can be seen about the hills yet.’

Shamrocks have continued to be the most enduring and popular embalm to wear on Saint Patrick’s Day. Their association with the saint can be found in a well-known legend which tells of how Saint Patrick used the three leaves of the shamrock to explain the holy trinity to the pagan Irish. Shamrocks are traditionally worn by both males and females on Saint Patrick’s Day, with females attaching cloisters of shamrocks to their right shoulder or breast, of the jacket or blouse they happen to be wearing, while for males the three leaf clovers were either worn on their hats or through the button-holes of their shirts and jackets. As an alternative to shamrocks Saint Patrick Crosses were previously worn in honour of the saint. These home-made crosses were traditionally constructed from a variety of materials including paper, card, silk, or satin, and typically were decorated with strips of ribbon and coloured paper. A short description of the construction of Saint Patrick’s Crosses was provided by John O’Hanlon in his 1870 work Irish Folk Lore; ‘usually composed of a card-paper, cut round, and covered with white silk or satin. Stripes of gay and party-coloured silk ribbon are crossed over this underwork, and elegantly fringed or tasselled, according to the wearer’s taste or fancy.’ St. Patrick’s Crosses continued to be worn on the clothing of females and children of both sexes into the early years of the twentieth century.

Despite always falling in Lent Saint Patrick’s Day seems to have been generally perceived as exempt from the fasting restrictions observed during Lentern period, with feasting often greater on Saint Patrick’s Day than on nearly any other day in the year. The Donegal writer Patrick MacGill recalled that when he was a child, at the end of the nineteenth century, Saint Patrick’s Day was one of four days in the year when meat was eaten in his Glenties household. As Saint Patrick’s Day marks the death of Saint Patrick it is hardly surprising that drinking on the day has remained as much of a feature of the day for centuries as it has at Irish wakes up until the present day. A special phrase to denote having a drink on Saint Patrick’s Day is Póta Padraig, translated to Patrick’s Pot, while the tradition of ‘Drowning the Shamrock’, involves the wearer removing the shamrock from the item of clothing, where it has been attached all day, and placing it in the last glass of whiskey, porter or stout at the end of evening. A toast is then made, and with the drink consumed, the shamrock is then thrown over the left shoulder to encourage luck.

As Saint Patrick is the primary patron saint of Ireland it is hardly surprising that a large number of traditions and customs are carried out on the 17 of March to venerate and celebrate the saint credited with converting the heathen Irish to Christianity and ridding the county of snakes. In recognition pilgrimages and patrons were once held on Saint Patrick’s Day to sites in nearly every part of the county. In 1923 the antiquarian Thomas J Westropp claimed that the greatest patterns were held on Caher Island and Croagh Patrick, in County Mayo, and at Downpatrick in County Down. The observances associated with Saint Patrick’s Day have increasingly become more concerned with celebrating Irishness than in venerating and celebrating the saint. This change has been gradual with parades, originally civic and in more recent decades carnivalesque, becoming the main feature of Saint Patrick’s Day in Irish towns and cities since the end of the nineteenth century.


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

MacGill, Patrick. Children of the Dead End: the Autobiography of a Navvy. London, 1914.

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

O’Donoghue, John. In Kerry Long Ago. London, 1960

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

Omorethi. ‘Customs Peculiar to Certain Days, Previously Observed in County Kildare.’ Journal of the Co. Kildare Archaeological Society and Surrounding Districts V (1906-1908), 439-454.

Painting ‘Saint Patrick’s Day, 1867’, by Charles Henry Cook.

Illustration of Saint Patrick Cross from the Journal of the Historical and Archaeological Society, 1906-1908.

The Weather of March & Irish Folklore

In Ireland all types of weather including strong winds, heavy rain, sunshine, and even the icy conditions of winter are associated with the month of March. The erratic weather that invariably accompanies March, particularly the earlier half of the month, made a deep impression on the imaginations and lives of previous generations who lived closer to the land and the changing seasons. References to the strong winds of March are well known in Ireland; the Donegal writer Seamus MacManus described the noise produced during particularly heated bargaining at cattle markets of the late eighteen hundreds as resembling the roaring of east and the west winds going through the Barnesmore Gap in the Blue Stack Mountains on the first day of March, while John O’Donoghue, who grew up in County Kerry in the opening years of the twentieth century, noted that the old people in his young days feared the harsh winds of March often associating them like the howl of a banshee as an omen of death.

If dry weather preceded the month of March it was taken as an omen that March would be a wet month that year; as Amhlaoimh Ó Súilleabháin noted in his 1831 diary ‘if the pools aren’t full before March, March itself will fill them.’ From St Patrick’s Day, which in Ireland is traditionally perceived as the middle of spring, it is traditionally believed that the weather improves. An old Irish saying attributed to Saint Patrick claims that the weather would be fine for half of his own feast day and for every day after. As if to prove the point the winter of 1947 popularly known as “the Big Snow” or “White 47” for the icy and blizzardous conditions that continued from late January till March, when the snow finally ceased on Saint Patrick’s Day. 

Despite the promise of more settled weather from Saint Patrick’s Day, unsettled weather was often known to continue into April, with the first three days of that month often referred to as ‘Borrowing Days’, explained by the following legend, ‘an old cow on the 31st March began to curse and swear at March, tossing her tail in the air, and saying to the devil, I pitch you – you are gone and April has come, and now I will have grass. March, however, was too much for her, and he borrowed three days from April, during which time he made such bad weather the old cow died.’


Kinahan, GH. ‘Notes on Irish Folklore’. The Folk-Lore Record 4 (1881),

MacManus, Seamus. The Rocky Road to Dublin. Dublin, 1938.

O’Donoghue, John. In a Quiet Land. London, 1959.

Ó Síocháin, Conchúr. The Man from Cape Clear: The Life of an Islandman. Translated from the Irish by Riobard P Breatnach. Cork and Dublin, 1975.

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

Top painting is titled ‘Wanderer in the Storm’ by Julius Von Leyold, 1835

Lower painting is by Rosa Bonhour, 1822-1899.

The First Sunday of Lent – Chalk Sunday

The first Sunday of Lent was once widely known as Chalk Sunday from the Irish tradition of marking the clothes of unmarried persons at the chapel gate as they made their way to or from Mass on the first Sunday of Lent. With Shrovetide past anyone who had failed to marry by Shrove Tuesday were expected to remain single for another year and therefore seen as fair game for a chalking. Traditionally marriage in Ireland elevated a person’s status, as Kevin Danaher noted in The Year in Ireland, “An unmarried man of fifty was still a ‘boy’ while his married nephew of twenty-five was a man; the young wife of twenty had the full status of a matron while the spinster of forty-five was practically nobody.’

Many nineteenth century accounts of Chalk Sunday depict gangs of jovial adolescents, both male and female, chasing unmarried members of the congregation as they entered or left chapel, marking their Sunday best clothes with multiple chalk-drawn lines or x’s. An article in an 1859 issue of the Illustrated London News outlined the difficulty that bachelors of Kilkenny had in escaping home from Mass without having their clothes covered with chalk by gangs of young girls, ‘for if he escapes one party he is certain of being caught by another; until, at last he is striped all over in such a style of variegation as might excite the envy of a harlequin. Dexterity was also used on Chalk Sunday the clothes by slyly smudging the Sunday costumes of their unaware victims by placing a generously chalk-dusted hand on their clothing in a manner that appeared natural and friendly to their unmarried target – who could wear the mark unbeknownst for the remainder of the day. A much more formal version of the tradition was described in an article that appeared in the Journal of the Cork Archaeological and Historical Society, 1895, were anyone who remained unmarried ‘had to run the gauntlet between a double row of persons standing at either side of the chapel gate on this Sunday, and each individual of which was armed with a lump of chalk, for the purpose of “chalking” or marking the clothes (coat or shawl or mantle, as the sex might be) of the delinquent.’


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

Haddon, A.C. ‘A Batch of Irish Folklore’ Folklore 4, no. 3 (1893), 349-364.

Joyce, Patrick Weston. English As We Speak it in Ireland. Dublin, 1910.

Kinahan, GH. ‘Notes on Irish Folklore’. The Folk-Lore Record 4 (1881), pp. 96-125.

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

Moutray Read DH. ‘Some Characteristics of Irish Folklore.’ Folklore 27, no.3 (1916), pp. 250-278.

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

Illustrated London News, 19 March 1859.

Illustration ‘Chalk Sunday in Kilkenny’ from the Illustrated London News, 19 March 1859.

Shrove Tuesday as Skellig Night

In the south of Ireland up until the early years of the twentieth century Shrove Tuesday was popularly known as “Skellig Night” and named after a belief that Lent began a week later on the Skellig Rocks, a set of islands which lie off the west-coast of Kerry. Those who were thought to be eligible to marry, but had failed to do so during Shrovetide, were mockingly encouraged to go to the Skelligs on Shrove Tuesday night where there was still a chance to be wedded before Lent.* Skellig Lists were drawn up, written by local poets in doggerel verse, these lists were less concerned with naming courting couples, but were often used to link names of persons from the community who were considered the least likely to marry each other; so that old were matched with young, rich with poor, and foes with each other. The Skellig Lists were widely distributed within the community, and sold in large quantities, while also appearing in newspapers, on lampposts, on church doors and the fronts of other public buildings, where they were recited before large crowds of spectators, embarrassingly the crowd would often include those whose names appeared on these lists. The following example of a Skellig List was provided by Patrick Weston Joyce, who recalled hearing this list ‘sung to a spirited air’ during his youth in the 1830s in the townland of Glenosheen in County Limerick:

“As young Rory and Moreen were talking,

How Shrove Tuesday was just drawing near;

For the tenth time he asked her to marry;

But she says ‘time enough till next year.’

Then ochone I’m going to the Skellig:

O Moreen, what will I do?

’Tis the woeful road to travel;

 And how lonesome I’ll be without you!

As the evening wore on more boisterous activities were resorted to, with many symbolically being encouraged to make a trip to the Skelligs. The late nineteenth century American folklorist Jerimiah Curtain noted that in the village of Cahirciveen, County Kerry, the ‘boys and girls from eight to fifteen years of age were out with ropes to lasso any girl of marriageable age whom they could find. If they caught one, they tried to drag her to the river and throw her in, because the time had expired and she was not married.’ While an article from a 1916 issue of the Folklore Journal explained that previously Macroom, County Cork, it was the men who were targeted by bands of youths for their failure to marry before lent; ‘the party holding a rope, would watch for his approach, and then divide and half would go one way, the rest on the other side round their victim, to wind him in the rope. Meanwhile a song would be improvised, to the effect that “Paddy Leary is an old man and ought to be married,” setting forward the merits and demerits of the accused, his worldly possessions, and the reasons why he ought to marry. This in rough rhyme would be chanted, and the doggerel sent round to the neighbours that they might sing and laugh him into matrimony.’

Going to the Skelligs seems to have been literal as well as symbolic, according to an 1895 article in the Journal of the Cork Historical & Archaeological Society, it was claimed that previously those who had failed to marry, male and female, were forced to walk barefoot on Skellig Rocks on Shrove Tuesday night, and that additionally they were expected to gather amounts of bogwood in proportion to the number of Shrovetides they had let pass without marrying. While the Reverend Patterson, the chaplain of her Majesties Forces in Cork in 1889 mentioned that the priest in the parish which includes the Skelligs, reportedly used to marry couples on the Great Skellig during Lent, Patterson maintains word of these wedding spread throughout Munster and gave the Skellig Islands their reputation as a place where couples could be joined in holy matrimony after Shrove Tuesday.

             *Shrove Tuesday was at one time the most popular day of the year for weddings in Ireland. As the Catholic Church previously forbid weddings to take place during Lent and Easter those who failed to get married by Shrove Tuesday were forced to wait till Low Sunday; the Sunday after Easter. Often if one had not married by Shrove Tuesday a year could lapse before an opportunity presented itself again; responsibilities to the land with tilling and harvest work prevented many from marrying from late spring until winter, while Advent and Christmas were also times when marriage was forbidden, leaving Shrovetide as the best opportunity for many to marry.


Curtin, Jeremiah. Memoirs of Jeremiah Curtin. Edited by Joseph Schafer. Wisconsin, 1941.

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

Joyce, Patrick Weston. English as We Speak it in Ireland. Dublin, 1910.

Kinahan, GH. ‘Notes on Irish Folklore’. The Folk-Lore Record 4 (1881), pp. 96-125.

Mac Lir, Mananaan. ‘The Folklore of Months’. Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, 1895.

Moutray Read DH. ‘Some Characteristics of Irish Folklore.’ Folklore 27, no.3 (1916), pp. 250-278.

Patterson, Rev P.S, Chaplain to Her Majesty’s Forces in Cork, Notes & Queries, 1889.

Painting titled ‘Skellig Night on South Mall,’ by James Beale, 1845. Available to view at Crawford Art Gallery, Cork

The Lucky Tosser: Shrove Tuesday, Pancakes & Marriage Predictions

James Mooney, 1889; ‘In the evening, the young folks – and the old ones as well – gather round the turf fire to learn by “tossing a pancake,” what is to be the of their future marriage ventures. A crock of butter having been prepared a part is poured out on the pan to form the first cake, which is consigned to the care of the oldest unmarried daughter.

At the proper time she turns the cake with a dexterous toss up the chimney, and if it comes down smoothly on the other side in the pan, she can have her choice of a husband whenever she likes, if, on the other hand, it falls into the ashes or comes down with a corner doubled over, she cannot marry for at least a year. This is also regarded as an omen of ill-fortune with an accepted lover, and is so strong in the feeling that engagements have been broken off for no other reason.

The lucky tosser of the first cake at once shares it with the other girls. On eating it there is generally found in one slice the mother’s wedding ring and in another a piece of furze, both having been put in the batter before baking. Whoever gets the ring will be most happy in her future choice, while the other will remain unmarried.’


Mooney, James. ‘Holiday Customs of Ireland’, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Held at Philadelphia, for Promoting Useful Knowledge, Vol. 26 Number 190. 1889.

Illustration ‘Tossing Pancakes on Shrove Tuesday’ by Daniel Maclise, 1806-1870.

Shrovetide: the season of weddings & marriages

Up until a couple of generations ago Shrovetide, which begins after Old Christmas, 6 January, and continues until Shrove Tuesday – 21 February in 2023, was the traditional time for marriages in Ireland. In those days the responsibilities of farm-work prevented many from marrying during the spring or the harvest seasons. While Advent and Lent, which fall respectively directly before and after Shrovetide, were both periods of devotional abstinence when the Catholic Church forbid the laity from taking vows of holy matrimony. Aside from the above-mentioned restrictions many people thought that it was unlucky to marry at any other time of the year, with some months even having sayings that discouraged marriage, an example of which is ‘marry in May rue the day.’ So strong was the belief of ill-fortune would accompany a marriage at any time of year outside Shrovetide that, according to an account from the late nineteenth century,* the people on Tory Island would get half-married; if the seas were too wild or rough to bring the priest across during Shrovetide, he would perform a half-marrying ceremony from the mainland with the islanders standing opposite to him on the east shore of Tory Island, and once the storm abated he would go ‘to the island and did whatever more was necessary to render the marriages valid in the eye of the law and of the Church.’

In some areas the Shrovetide season would be regularly punctuated with weddings. For example, in The Islandman, the first of the Great Blasket autobiographies, Tómas Ó Crohan noted that ‘Some years the whole island gets married, and for seven years after that, there won’t be a single wedding.’ Ó Crohan continues ‘I refer to this year (1878) of which I’m talking – for not a single boy or girl was unmarried by the time Shrove was over.’  Ó Crohan’s account of Shrovetide traditions is unusual in that it is one of the few accounts that I’ve come across that seems to smuggest marriages were performed throughout the Shrovetide season rather than on the last day of Shrovetide – Shrove Tuesday.

For some Shrovetide seems to have been treated and considered as a period for marriage preparation rather than for weddings; Timothy Buckley remarked in The Tailor and Antsy that during Shrovetide ‘there would be ‘matches’ and talk of ‘matches’, while The man from Cape Clear Conchúr Ó Síocháin made the following statement; ‘As you know there is a season for everything, and Shrovetide is the time for matches.’ The lengthy negotiations of match-making may have encouraged people, if not the Church, that Shrovetide was a time for bargaining, and that Shrove Tuesday, as it is the end of the season, is the best time to marry.  Another probable factor for clusters of marriages falling on Shrove Tuesday was its position as a feast day which falls directly before the fast of Lent. Feasting was usual on Shrove Tuesday in our ancestors’ times, with the tradition of eating pancakes a survival of the feasting that was formerly undertaken to clear the larder in preparation for the Lenten fast, while special treats including meat, which was only eaten by many people three days a year, often features in older accounts of feasting on Shrove Tuesday .

Shrovetide was a particularly difficult time to be wilfully single, as marriage, in the past, gave a person significantly more status than it does today. Terms like boy or lad could be applied to any male who failed to get married, and unmarried females were often referred to as spinsters at any age past 21. Whereas a married individual regardless of age was often considered and treated as an adult. Marriage did provide opportunities, and doweries from the bride’s family often trumped love in those days. However, financial stability was seldom the only factor in choosing to marry. As I have outlined in previous posts on Skellig Night and Chalk Sunday, social pressure and the threat of being humiliated seems to have played a significant part in encouraging marital unions. I’ll leave you with the following example of a scalding the famous Irish playwright John Millington Synge, who couldn’t have finished his twenties and was probably far away from turning thirty, received from a group of local women on Inishmann; ‘The women were over-excited, and when I tried to talk to them they crowded round me and began jeering and shrieking at me because I am not married. A dozen screamed at a time, and so rapidly that I could not understand all they were saying, yet I was able to make out that they were taking advantage of the absence of their husbands to give me the full volume of their contempt.’


Cross, Eric, The Tailor and Ansty. Cork 1942.

Kennedy, Patrick. Banks of the Boro. Dublin, 1867.

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

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

Ó Crohan, Tomás. The Islandman. Translated by Robin Flower. Dublin, 1929; 1937.

Ó Síocháin, Conchúr. The Man from Cape Clear: The Life of an Islandman. Translated from the Irish by Riobard P Breatnach. Cork and Dublin, 1975.

Synge, J. M. The Aran Islands. London, 1907.

Illustration by Harry Clarke, 1924.

The Traditions & Beliefs of Candlemas Day in Ireland

“If Candlemas Day be dry and fair,

The half the winters to come and mair;

If Candlemas day be wet and foul,

The half a winter’s gane at yule”

Candlemas Day, observed on the second of February each year, is a Christian festival that marks the presentation of Jesus at the Temple and the purification of the Virgin Mary. In Ireland, Candlemas Day is the first of three annual Lady Days dedicated to the Virgin Mary, which also include the Feast of the Annunciation, 25 March, and the Feast of the Assumption, 15 August. As the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary the second of February is one of the Christian Churches oldest feasts stretching back to the fourth century AD, when it began to become a substitute for a number of pagan spring festivals that it would eventually displace. In Ireland the succession of Candlemas Day from Saint Bridget’s Feast Day, first of February, is so immediate that many of the traditions of these two feast days have become confused or intertwined. The following Irish legend explaining the close association of the two days was provided in an article that appeared in the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society in 1895. The article explained that the Virgin Mary gave Saint Bridget her feast day on the first of February as an expression of her gratitude to the Irish Saint for distracting crowds of onlookers in Jerusalem by wearing a headdress adorned with lit candles, and in so doing enabling the Virgin Mary to go unnoticed with the infant Jesus to the Temple.

Traditionally Candlemas is a day for devotion and prayer. On this day people brought candles to their local places of worship. In return for the candles bequenthed to the church a blessed candle would be handed back to each member of the congregation. These candles would be put to use during sacraments that occurred in family homes. Visits to graveyards were also popular on this day, with families and friends attending to the graves of their departed loved ones. In the late nineteenth century Lady Jane Wilde provided the following account of how the dead were honoured by their loved ones on Candlemas Day: ‘people make a cake of yellow clay taken from a churchyard, then stick twelve bits of candle in it, and recite their prayers, kneeling round, until all the lights have burned down. A name is given to each light, and the first that goes out betokens death to the person whose name it bears, before the year is out.’

As Candlemas Day occurs at the beginning of spring it is hardly surprising that many of the day’s traditions are concerned with the lengthening of days and forecasting weather. Traditionally on, or from, Candlemas Day the stretch in the evenings was believed to be great enough for people to restrict their activities to daylight hours, and to dispense with artificial light. An old popular saying in Ireland advised that “On Candlemas Day throw the candle and candle stick away.” The weather on this day was also thought to be significant; many hoped that Candlemas would bring bad weather as it was widely believed that the weather for the remainder of February would be the opposite to the weather that accompanied Candlemas Day. A County Galway account from the Schools’ Collection noted that on the second of February a shepherd ‘would sooner see the wolf come into his flock, than see the sun shine through the window,’ while a popular saying maintained that “If Candlemas is bright and clear there will be two winters in one year.”


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

Frazer, W. ‘On Rude Crosses Made from Twigs with interlaced Straw or Rushes. Used in Some Country Districts.’ The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Fifth Series, Vol. 2, no. 2 (Jul., 1892), pp. 185-186.

Mac Lir, Mananaan. ‘The Folklore of Months’. Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, 1895.

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

Wilde, Lady Jane, Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland. London, 1888.

Wilde, Lady Jane, Ancient Cures, Charms and Usages in Ireland. London, 1890.

The Schools’ Collection

Illustration is from the Dublin Penny Journal, 1845.

Saint Bridget’s Eve & the Brideóg Procession

John O’Hanlon (Lageniensis); ‘In parts of Ireland – especially throughout the dioceses of Kildare and Leighlin – it was customary with the young people to assemble on the eve of St. Bridget’s festival, observed the first day of February, and to carry with them what had been denominated a Bride-oge, which means in English, The Virgin Brigid.

This was formed of a churn-dash, covered with stuff of materials, to fashion it, as near as possible, like a female figure. These materials were usually covered with white calico. A dress of some village belle covered the whole, with an elegant bonnet and fashionable cap surmounting the figure’s head. The Brideoge’s face, however, was round, and perfectly featureless. Frills, tuckers, necklace, and a handsome sash usually decorated this grotesque figure.

A piper and fiddler marched before, playing lively and popular airs; and especially when the crowd of accompanying idlers stopped at each door, in country places and villages, the Bride-oge always obtained an entrance for its bearer. Young children were often greatly frightened at the unexpected arrival of this unclouth visitant. A lad and lass were told off, footing it merrily to a jig or reel, and, after its conclusion, the director of such proceedings, – his hat decorated with boughs and ribbons – went round with a purse to collect offerings for the Bride-og. These were seldom or ever refused, and they were usually in keeping with the means of liberality of the householder.

Proceeds thus collected were expended on Bridget’s day, in getting up a rustic ball, where tea, cakes, and punch, were in requisition as refreshments. A dance and plays were also organized as part of the evening’s amusements. This festive celebration was probably derived from carrying St. Bridget’s shrine in procession, at some remote period. The later travesty, and disorders accompanying it, induced many of the Catholic clergy to discourage such odd practices, and we believe that at present they are almost entirely obsolete.’

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

* Caution should be taken when it is stated that a custom has become, or is becoming obsolete, accounts are often based on personal experience, and customs often decline only to be revived again.

The Brideoge tradition, described above, continued to be practiced widely throughout Ireland well into the twentieth-century by both adults and children of both sexes. Despite a significant decline in the tradition in the latter half of the twentieth the tradition is still observed in some areas of Ireland today.

Illustration is by

The Feast of Saint Brigid: Brigid Crosses

The creation of Saint Brigid Crosses is traditionally a highly ritualistic endeavour; even the gathering of rushes to make the crosses has a number of particular features, for example, tradition maintained that the rushes should be pulled from the ground and never cut with a knife; the crosses should be weaved from left to right- in line with the sun. As with the gathering the presentation of the material for constructing the crosses also involved a certain amount of ceremony; traditionally, when the rushes are brought into the dwelling the bearer requests permission for Saint Bridget to enter. The eldest daughter is generally selected to represent Saint Bridget, however, there are many instances where either the woman or the man of the house fulfilled this role. In his 1915 autobiography Children of the Dead End, Patrick MacGill from the Glenties, County Donegal, recalled that during his childhood on Saint Bridget’s Eve his father stood on the threshold of their home, while calling out “Saint Bride sends her blessing to all within. Give her welcome.” To which his mother would reply, “Welcome she is,” once these words were uttered his father ‘would loosen the shoulder-knot and throw his burden on the floor.’ It was customary for the whole family to participate in the creation of these crosses, which were made on Saint Bridget’s Eve or on Saint Bridget’s day itself. Formerly, it was not usual for a household to create multiple crosses which would be dispersed around the house in a variety of locations including above the hearth, over doorways and beds, and on the shelves of dressers, while the three-legged cross was reserved for the byre. Many surviving accounts record the convivial rivalry between members of families, with competitions between the young and old, to make the best cross. The crosses themselves are supposed to act as a type of charm and are believed to provide the inhabitants of the household with protection against a number of dangers including fire, the evil eye, the fairies, and more generally, against bad luck during the coming year.

The Irish custom of constructing Brigid’s Crosses at the Feast of Saint Brigid has survived into our own times, and many will recall making these crosses in their family homes, or in school during their youth. Traditionally these crosses are made to celebrate the beginning of spring or to honour of Saint Brigid. Like many Irish traditions a blend of Christian and pagan beliefs have influenced the celebrations and observances that continue to accompany and welcome the Feast. The making of the crosses is traditionally done just before or just after Bridget’s supper – the main meal of Saint Bridget’s Day, or on the eve. Where the custom existed of making the crosses before supper the crosses were often employed as placemats, off which the family would eat their supper. In her 1913 book Ulster Folklore, Elizabeth Andrews noted that in Tobermore in County Derry pancakes were the favoured food, while sowans and flummery were the typical supper in previous times’, while an article by John C. O’Sullivan titled ‘St. Brigid’s Crosses’ quoted a correspondent from Conty Mayo who told the Irish Folklore Commission that ‘supper on Brighid’s Eve was usually tea and boxty in olden times, or perhaps oaten or rye bread.’ They continued by stating that ‘Latterly wheaten flour was used for bread.’ The John C. O’Sullivan, who wrote the article recalled the integral position of butter for the supper, noting that ‘the woman of the house for about a week or ten days before Bridget’s, was as they called it, ‘gathering a drop’, that is collecting milk for a churning on the eve of St. Bridget. Generally, milk was scarce at this season, but the housewife, if at all possible, put some by for a bit of butter for this particular night, as the feast was considered to be a poor one if butter was absent from the supper table.’

The making Brigid’s Crosses on Saint Brigid’s Eve or Saint Brigid’s Day seems to have been observed in most parts of Ireland. Strangely, County Kildare – which is called after the monastery that Saint Brigid founded seems to be one area of the country where there’s less evidence of the tradition being widespread. For example, the author of an article titled ‘Customs Peculiar to Certain Days, Previously Observed in County Kildare’ which appeared in the Journal of the Co. Kildare Archaeological Society and Surrounding Districts V (1906-1908), describes the Brigid’s Cross in the past tense: ‘What was known as “Brigid’s Cross” was woven out of straw, and stuck up inside the house until replaced by another on that night twelvemonths.’ Of course, there a small number of accounts from County Kildare that do confirm existence of the custom at this time. As has been often been noted here and elsewhere in order to confirm the decline of a tradition in a certain area to near obsolescence requires a significant amount of research; early folklorists and researchers often tended to describe certain traditions and customs as declining or dead – some of which continue into our own times. A search through the National Folklore Collection’s Schools’ Collection, 1938-1939, also seems to indicate that Brigid’s Crosses were rarer in County Kildare than most counties in Ireland. However, this, like the first example is negative research, and it’s possible that crosses were seen as such a basic item that their construction became habit rather than custom in the minds of previous generations.

Regional variation on the construction of these crosses is evident from historical accounts and surviving preserved specimens. Brigid Crosses are traditionally made from locally sourced materials including straw, rushes, or sprigs from willow trees, in recent decades a number of modern and manufactured substitutes have become popular for constructing these crosses including pipe-cleaners and newspapers. Today the archetypal type of Brigid’s Cross is the four-legged cross made from rushes or straw. This type of cross gradually gained national recognition as it was featured as part of Raidió Teilifís Éireann embalm from the broadcaster’s inception on New Year’s Eve, 1961 until it was eventually removed in 1995. Prior to the establishment of RTÉ, this cross which is sometimes referred to as the swastika type was only very common in the north of Ireland. According to The Year in Ireland by Irish folklorist Kevin Danaher, prior to the advent of Irish television, the ‘most usual type of cross was the diamond or lozenge of straw.’ A circled cross of reeds known as locally as a ‘Brigid’s Ring’ seems to have been largely restricted to parts of the southern Ireland, while the three-armed type seems to have been most popular in the northern half of the country.

Many folklorists maintain that the shapes of most Brigid Crosses indicate their pre-Christian origin, but if the origin is not Christian the intention, at least in recent centuries, and admittingly maybe only to a certain extent, often was. As many of these accounts recall having Bridget Crosses sprinkled with holy water or blessed by priests. In the early nineteenth century the Reverend James Hall remarked on how the tradition was widespread and that ‘Priests gain a good sum yearly by consecrating’ Brigid’s Crosses. The priests seem to have been ill-disposed to the three legged cross; Jeanne Cooper Foster commented in her book Ulster Folklore that this triskle shaped cross is never taken to the chapels, and upon questioning a Roman Catholic priest from County Armagh on the refusal, she was informed that ‘it was not a ‘true’ cross and so could have no place in the Church.’

The disposal of Brigid’s crosses from previous years seems to have varied both regionally and between one household and another; in some households, crosses from previous years were retained. In these households an old cross was moved out of the way to give the new cross pride of position in the house which was generally over the door, and usually above the interior of main entrance of the dwelling-house. When a cross was replaced with a new one the old one was often placed in the rafters, with crosses from previous years; there are claims that the age of some houses could be determined by the number of Brigid Crosses found in the rafters. In some households, old crosses were discarded, usually burned in the fire, once replacements had been created, however in other areas including parts of County Donegal the crosses were kept only until Saint John’s Eve, 23 June, at which time they were broken up and scattered over the fields to encourage fertility of the soil for the coming harvest.


Andrews, Elizabeth. Ulster Folklore. London 1913.

Crawford, Henry S. ‘Crosses of Straw and Twigs from County Roscommon.’ The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Fifth Series, Vol. 38, no.4 (December 1908), 394-396.

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

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

Foster, Jeanne Cooper. Ulster Folklore. Belfast, 1951.

Hall, James (Rev).  Tour Through Ireland; Particularly the Interior and Least Known Parts. London, 1813.

MacGill, Patrick. Children of the Dead End: The Autobiography of a Navvy. London, 1914.

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

MacManus, Seamus. The Rocky Road to Dublin. Dublin, 1938.

Mulally, Una. ‘The Evolution – and disappearance – of Brigid’s Cross in RTÉ’s Logo’ Irish Times, 1 February 2020.

O’Donnell, John C. ‘St Brigid’s Crosses’ Folk Life: Journal of Ethnological Studies. Volume 11, 1973.

O’Dowd, Anne. Straw, Hay & Rushes in Irish Folk Tradition. Dublin, 2015.

Photograph of a Brigid’s Cross made by myself from pampas grass in 2020.