The Last Sheaf – A Harvest Rite for the Old Hag

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Irish harvest workers, 1920s. Photographer unknown

Traditionally the cutting of the last sheaf of corn, or cailleach ‘old hag/witch/wife’*, as it was generally known in Ireland, was observed as a special rite on many farms throughout the country. The corn harvest was typically saved by late September or early October, on the final day a bunch of corn was left standing in the corner of the last field to be harvested, this sheaf would be plaited to symbolically represent an old woman, witch, or hag, who was generally blamed for any misfortune suffered by the people.

A contest of skill was then devised to dislodge this sheaf. In the north of Ireland they generally followed this pattern; labourers, standing at a distance of ten yards, or metres, took turns throwing hooks intending to fell the cailleach. Once the sheaf was felled it was brought triumphantly to the farmer’s wife and hung about her neck, the successful labourer would often take credit for removing misfortune from the mistress and her household, the labourer was generally rewarded for their skill with the first drink, a shilling, or some other small but significant prize. A feast was often provided by the farmer to celebrate the end of harvest, with all involved in the work drinking and dancing through the night.

After the day’s festivities the sheaf was hung in a prominent position in the kitchen, or another room of the farmhouse, and at the end of harvest the following year it was generally relegated to the byre, to make way for the next years’ sheaf, although in certain cases the sheaf was kept in the kitchen, to be displayed with the sheaves from previous years.

The tradition seems to have remained strongest in the north of Ireland and was traditionally popular on both Catholics and Protestant farms well into the last century.

* also known in some parts as the ‘hare’ or the ‘churn’ with the latter  term sometimes used to describe the feast that followed.

 

Sources

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

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

Frazer, W and M’Cormick Mr H. M’Neili. ‘Harvest Rites in Ireland’. Folklore, 1914.

Lett, H.W. ‘Winning the Chrun’. Folklore, 1905.

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The Lady Well at Modeligo

Waterford-

Holy Well near Modeligo, Waterford
Holy Well near Modeligo, Waterford

Gordon W. Foksayeth, 1911;

‘In the parish of Modeligo, on the right bank of the Finisk, there may be found a remarkable specimen of the many holy wells of Ireland.

The name “well” is really deceptive : for the water is merely rainwater, and does not derive its existence from any spring, but is simply contained in a bath-shaped receptacle in a piece of limestone jutting up from the surface of the land. The dimensions of the well are about 4 feet long, by 3 feet broad, and 2 feet deep. I have called it bath-shaped, as it is an oval in appearance, and seems to be an unusually large bullaun, or a natural cavity in the rock. There is generally about six inches of water in it, and a legend asserts the existence of an inscribed cross and an inscription on the bottom. I have seen the cross myself, but it seems to be merely an accidental mark on the stone.

On the 14th day of August, the water is removed from the basin, and a fresh supply put in, by a man who lives close by; and the following day a pattern used to take place in the olden times. People may still be seen to congregate on the aforesaid date, and they invariably hang mementoes, in the shape of rags or other objects, on the ancient hawthorn bush that grows beside the well.

Tradition asserts that this well formerly existed some distance from its present position, and that a trooper of Cromwell’s led his blind horse, in mockery, around it, in order to find out and test the miraculous powers of the place. The horse was cured, but the soldier became blind, and the following day the well had taken up its present position. The place is known to the natives as the tobar beannuighte, and is marked on the 0. S. as ” Lady Well.”‘.

Journal of the Royal Society  of Antiquities Ireland, 1911

Saint Molua’s Day

Limerick-

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Mananaan MacLir, 1897;

‘The 3rd of August* is “St Molua’s Day” in East Limerick, and at this date a large “patron” is still held at Tobar Molua, ie., “St Molua’s Well,” a rural district (in the townland of Balline and parish of Emly-Grenane), about seven miles east of Killmallock, and near Clareen cross-roads.

Arrived there the pilgrim turns up a bye-road or lane leading to St Molua’s grave-yard, where an abbey formerly stood, portions of the wall of which (of cyclopean masonry) may still be seen incorporated in the boundary wall of the graveyard, which was sometime since erected by the Kilmallock Poor Law Board, acting as a sanitary authority. Proceeding past the grave-yard a little farther east we come on “St Molua’s Well,” situate nearly mid-way in a large green field, and without a shrub or bush of any kind, a very unusual circumstance in connection with such shrines.

The manner of “paying rounds” here is peculiar. The devotion consists in first reciting a rosary of six Paters, sixty Aves, and six Glorias, while travelling over a well-beaten circular path around the holy well, after which another rosary of five Paters, sixty Aves, and five Glorias is recited while kneeling at the well’s brink. The water is then drank of and some taken away in bottles or jars for consumption in the houses of the pilgrims. It is looked on as a good omen if the pilgrims behold the fresh water stickle-back in the well – here known as “St Molua’s trout” – while performing their devotions. To have the “rounds” prove efficacious it is locally considered that they must be performed on three consecutive Saturdays, and even then, before sunrise. As the district is a rural one, far from a town, or even village, this last stipulation is not easily accomplished. From “St Molua’s Day” (August 3) to the 15th, however, those restrictions are not in force, and “rounds” may be performed at any time on those privileged days.

St Molua’s Well is now principally resorted to for the cure of ague (malaria or another illness involving fever and shivering) and kindred complaints, and such is the belief in the efficacy if this illness that the writer has been informed of many Irish -Americans who (afflicted with ague in the land of their adoption) who have written home to their kindred in the old land to visit St Molua’s Well on their behalf, and thus, by deputy, at the saint’s shrine, ask his intercession for them. We may add, we were informed that this pilgrimage was very often efficacious.’

Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society.

* Most sources maintain that Saint Molua’s Day is the 4th of August.

Patrick’s Stack: Reek Sunday & other Irish Traditions associated with the Last Sunday of July

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Croagh Patrick & Rosbeg - Westport Croagh Patrick & Rosbeg – Westport (Postcard)

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…

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Saint Maelruain’s Feast Day

thefadingyear

Dublin-

Saint Maelruain's Chuch, Tallaght Saint Maelruain’s Chuch, Tallaght. Laurence Collection 1870-1914

WSA 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 drunkeness 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…

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