The Feast of the Immaculate Conception

Monaghan –

Patrick_Kavanagh
Wilshire Collection – National Library of Ireland

Patrick Kavanagh;

‘The eight of December is a Catholic holiday. Since nineteen hundred and twenty-two, my career as a young gangster touched the high spot, fused and went out.

‘Will ye come out with the Mummers?’ a fellow asked me.

‘I wouldn’t think twice of it if I knew the rhymes,’ I said.

‘Rhymes be hanged,’ he said, ‘ye know enough.’

There were about fifteen lads in our troupe of Mummers. I had an insignificant role at the tail of the play. I wore an old black bowler hat and a cardboard false face.

19th century Oxfordshire Mummers
Oxfordshire Mummers – late Nineteenth Century

We headed across, jumping drains and scrambling over hedges. We were well received by the people, hardly any house barred its door against us. We carried a melodeon though none of us could play the instrument. The old folk in the little houses gave us a warm welcome: they looked upon the Mummers as an old Irish custom, which it was not. The big houses looked upon us as hooligans and it might be they were right. During our travels a bottle of poteen made its appearance. One of our characters, Oliver Cromwell, had the bottle on his head…..

In one big house to which we forced our way we were met by silence. A side of bacon hanging from the rafters dangled above our heads. One of our fellows snatched the bacon from its hook and we all ran out.

We went up to a house in a bog village known as Sooty Row. The door was slammed in our faces The ‘Doctor’, part of our cast, carried a huge wooden beetle which he had taken from a tub of pigs’-mash in one of the houses. Bang! Bang! Crash! He struck the closed doors and smashed them to smithereens. Then we all ran.

In another house we got eighteen pence and a warm welcome. That should have satisfied us but it did not. A pile of griddle-cakes stood on the table near the door, one on top of the other. The bottom cake was a lovely fruit cake with cherries and raisins sticking out its sides. As I went out the door I heard a noise and a commotion. I looked around and saw five or six cakes – like the wheels of turf-barrows – rolling about the floor: the fruit cake wasn’t among them. One of our number dashed past me hugging that cake. The man of the house stood in the doorway and we heard him say, very politely: ‘A meaner lot of young men I have never known.’ The cake was devoured in a minute. I got very little, just a crust from which the donor had carefully picked the raisins and cherries.

By the roadside we sat down to count the money. There was a row.

”Yer keepin’ some of it,’ the purse-bearer was told. He got raging mad. ‘There’s the rotten money,’ he said, as he scattered it on the road. One more instance of the saying: ‘A narrow gathering gets a wide scattering.’

We split: it was more or less a political split. The Free Staters turned for home, the Republicans continued ahead.

There was a dance in a near-by hall. I didn’t want to go as I was fagged out.

For my part the dance was a complete flop. I couldn’t see a nice girl in the place.’

The Green Fool 1938

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Feast Day of Saint Catherine in Ireland

25 November-

saint-catherines-well-killybegs
St. Catherine’s Well, Killybegs, circa 1940. Valentine Photographic Collection, National Library of Ireland

Despite having spent all of her short life in Egypt Saint Catherine Alexandria was, at one time, among the most revered saints in Ireland. The many religious institutions named after Saint Catherine give some indication of the saint’s widespread veneration in Ireland over previous centuries, but it is perhaps Saint Catherine’s Bed, one of six penitential beds,  at Lough Derg that gives the greatest indication of the high position she previously held among the saints of Ireland.

As Saint Catherine is considered, at least in Ireland, to be the patron saint of  seafaring* it is natural that her cult has remained strongest in places like the coastal parishes of  Killybegs in Donegal and  Ventry in  Kerry,  both of which have Catherine as their patron saint. Saint Catherine’s Feast Day, 25 November, has continued to be observed in Killybegs and Ventry with pilgrimages and patrons at holy wells which, according to legend , were long ago blessed in Saint Catherine’s honour by survivors of shipwrecks, often monks, who believed the saint had intervened to spare them being drowned.  In Killybegs there is also a more recent legend, dating from the middle of the nineteenth century, in which a Protestant rector named Lodge decided to fill the holy well with soil, in an effort to put a stop to the well worship in the area, only to discover that after doing so a spring shot up through the floor-board of his house flooding his drawing room, leading the rector to have the holy well restored to its previous state.

 

 

* Internationally and in the Roman Catholic tradition Saint Catherine of Alexandria is considered to be the patron saint of many occupations including unmarried women, millers and archivists, however to the best of my knowledge, seafaring is only ascribed to her in the Irish tradition.

 

 

Spilling Blood on Saint Martin’s Eve

Saint Martin’s Eve –

10 November;

395-p-e-somerville-the-goose-girl
The Goose Girl – Edith Sommerville, 1888. Crawford Gallery, Cork.

The tradition of sacrificing a fowl or a farm animal on Saint Martin Eve was once widespread in Ireland, and was still strong in many parts of the country into our grandparents’ times. The type of animal slaughtered depended on the means of the household; in wealthier households a pig, lamb, calf, or other animal was generally chosen, while in the majority of households, especially as the nineteenth century progressed, the slaughter of a fowl, generally a goose, chicken, or duck became the most widespread offering to the saint.

Once the creature was slaughtered, to protect the household from evil and to encourage prosperity in the coming year, the blood was spilled and sprinkled over the threshold, about the windows, and in each corner of the dwelling, in some cases, the byre, stables and other outbuilding were protected in a similar manner. On Saint Martin’s Eve the spilling of blood was considered so essential that, in cases where a household could not procure an animal a member of the family would spill some of their own blood,  by cutting the finger, to maintain the custom and ensure the household’s safety.

The slaughtered foul or beast was eaten on Saint Martin’s Day which along with Michaelmas and Christmas day were the only holy days when the consumption of meat was permitted.

There are many legends relating to the importance of killing a creature on  Saint Martin’s Eve, for example, versions of the legend below were well known in county Leitrim at the turn of the twentieth century;

‘A man who, having nothing else, killed his only cow in honour of the saint, who rewarded him by increasing his riches in the following year, so that when St Martin’s Day came round again, he was the possessor of many beasts. Then in his plenty, he grudged even a fowl, and by the following 11th November was as poor as he ever was.’

The slaughtered foul or beast was eaten on Saint Martin’s Day which along with Michaelmas and Christmas day were the only holy days when the consumption of meat was permitted.

Sources

Mason,William Shaw. A Statistical Account or Parochial Survey of Ireland. London, 1814-1819

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

 Issues from the Folklore Journal 1896-1916

 

All Souls’ Day

Kildare, 2 November

Barry-interior
William Gerald Barry (1864-1941), ‘An Old Woman and Children in a Cottage Interior’, circa 1910. (Crawford Art Gallery, Cork)

‘It is said that on this one day of the year the souls of the dead are allowed to re-visit their native districts*; and if only the human eye had the power to see them, they would be observed about one on every side “as plenty as thranteens in an uncut meadow.”

At night time it is customary in every house to light a candle in memory of each member of a family who has died. They are placed in an unused room and allowed to burn till midnight, when, after praying for the souls of the dead, they are extinguished, as by that time the souls themselves have returned to rest.

At the last thing at night the hearth is swept clean, and on it are placed three cups of spring water.’

* That the souls of the dead can visit the living is often said of Hallowe’en, and  sometimes extends for a two day period from Hallowe’en to All Souls’ Day.

Journal of the Kildare Historical and Archaeological Society, 1906-8.

Welcoming the New Moon in Irish Folklore

Sidereus_Nuncius_sickle_moonIn Ireland there are a host of traditional beliefs and rituals  that were once commonly observed on the dark nights when the New Moon appeared by those who feared or hoped that the New Moon would influence their fate

One such widespread belief, which has survived advised that in order for a person to increase their fortune a piece of silver should be borrowed when the New Moon first appeared, in the belief that your wealth would increase as the new moon waxed, while, at least in County Clare, it was considered lucky to turn the coins in your pocket on the first occasion that the luminary is sighted. In a similar manner, but with less favourable results, it was believed to be unlucky to catch sight of the New Moon through glass; a correspondent from a 1903 issue of Ireland’s Own warned that sorrow would follow a person who saw a new moon through glass until the following new moon appeared. Even the position that the New Moon was viewed from was deemed to be of consequence to the viewer’s fate: ideally, for luck, the New Moon should be seen over the right shoulder, while to see the New Moon over the left shoulder was believed to be unlucky, and seeing the New Moon directly before you was said to foretell that the onlooker would have a fall.

As with fixed festivals like Hallowe’en and May Eve the appearance of New Moon was once believed to be a significant event. On these dark nights appeals for protection and experiments into divination were noted in a number of accounts from the nineteenth-century. The famous nineteenth century Irish Folklorist and Hagiographer, John O’Hanlan provided two accounts of how salutations were made to the New Moon in during the middle of that century in County Galway.  In the first account a person kneels down before the moon says a Pater or Ave, and then recites ‘Oh Moon! May thou leave us safe, as thou hast found us!’ While in the second account ‘was to make a sign of the Cross, and to say in an undertone, “God and the holy Virgin be about me!” Then followed this verse -] “I see the moon, and the moon sees me;] God bless the moon, and God bless me!”’ Appeals to the New Moon were also made by those who sought insight to foretell the identity of their future marriage partner, as A. H. Singleton recorded a detailed account of the following salutation from an unidentified elderly woman from County Tipperary in the early years of the twentieth who had prayed to the New Moon in her young days for insight into her future love life:

‘When you get a sight of it [the New Moon] kneel down, and with a black-handled knife lift a sod from under your right knee and from under the toe of your right foot repeating:

“New moon, new moon,

Happy may I be;

Whoever is my true love

This night may I see.”

Once this verse is recited a number of times the Lords pray should be repeated, after which the sod of earth is lifted from under your knee and foot and hidden outside your house ‘till you are ready to go to bed, then bring it inside. You must not speak to a living soul once the earth brought into the house. Then put the earth into the right-foot stocking, and put that under your head. But be sure you talk to no one till morning.’

Sources

Anonymous correspondent. Ireland’s Own, Vol 1, No. 8, 14 January 1903.

Donaldson, John. A Historical and Statistical Account of the Barony of Upper Fews in the County of Armagh. Dundalk, 1923.

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

Singleton, A. H. ‘Dairy Folklore and other Notes from Meath and Tipperary.’ London, 1904.