Henry Morris, Dundalk; ‘The people of the town kept the fast of Lent so manfully that no meat was eaten there during Lent. This greatly set back the killers of beef, the butchers, and on each Easter Saturday, when their good season was returning they bought a herring, and hung it upon a straight strong lath nine feet long. Then they got big long rods and walked through the town from Gallows Hill to the Big Bridge, beating the poor herring until hardly a fin was left. On reaching the bridge they hurled the horrid herring into the water with insult, and hung up a quarter of lamb decorated with ribbons and flowers in its place, and went back to the market place, playing tunes and loudly boasting to each other.’
Claidheamh Soluis, 12 April 1902
The tradition of Whipping the Herring was once widespread in the towns of east of Ireland and occurred on Easter Saturday, Sunday or Monday depending on the customs of the locality.
Whipping the Herring out of Town, a scene of Cork -Nathaniel Gogan, circa 1800 (Available to view in Crawford Gallery, County Cork
Good Friday marks the last day of Lent, and traditionally it was the strictest day of abstinence in the Lenten season. In Ireland Good Friday is traditionally also called the “the Black Fast” and/or “hAoine an Chéasta” (Friday of Torture), the latter name in reference to the torture Jesus Christ suffered while being crucified.
Despite the bleak names previously attached to Good Friday it was seldom a day of complete fasting. On the Blasket Islands limpets and winkles, and other sea foods were collected from the strand, while in the south-east of Ireland bread or dry potatoes seem to have been the choice of sustenance for the day. In west-midland areas, however, a near total fast was observed on Good Friday, where all members of the family, including infants at the breast, refrained from taking any food from midnight till noon – while adults often continued their fast for the remainder of the day.
As a day of religious observance, work was avoided, and activity around the house was restricted to cleaning. The children and men of the household went barefoot, while women wore their hair loose. Good Friday was also a day for communal devotion. Graveyards were visited, where prayers were offered up for the souls of the dead, while at holy wells rounds were performed on this day in remembrance of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross.
Photograph by J.M. Synge on the Aran Islands circa 1900.
Manannán Mac Lir, 1896; ‘The first of this month is universally known as “All Fools Day,” but why the name or whence the custom of “fooling” people originated I have not been able to ascertain.
Up till recent times the custom prevailed of “raising a laugh” at some simple-minded person’s expense by giving him a letter, which he was told was of an urgent nature, addressed to some personal friend of the sender’s. When delivered, the enclosed note merely bore the legend, “send the fool farther,” which advice was religiously adhered to, for the address merely put missive into another envelope and having addressed it to another friend some few miles further on and having told the guileless messenger that it was a most important matter which was confided to his care, set him again on his fool’s errand….’
Journal of the Cork Archaeological and Historical Society
Photograph of Ballintemple, Cork, Photographer undiscovered
As the name suggests Holy Thursday is traditionally a day for devotion and prayer, with attendance at Mass occupying a central position in the day’s proceedings. Chapels, churches and cathedrals across the county are decorated with flowers and candles, a procession of the Sacred Sacrament is still held in some places just prior to or just after the service, with communion offered in remembrance of the Last Supper which Holy Thursday commemorates. In many areas of Ireland a peculiar silence reigned as the church bells are silenced Holy Thursday only to be heard again on the morning of Easter Sunday in observance and commemoration of the days “while Our Lord was dead.”
The visitation of the seven churches, a Holy Thursday tradition which continues in many cities across the world today, seems to have been popular in Dublin a century ago. The poet Austin Clarke in his autobiography Twice Round the Black Church remembered the adventures he and his sisters had as children visiting some of Dublin’s beautifully decorated churches on the last Thursday of Lent. Clarke recalled that a number of rules were adhered to when paying visits to the seven churches, with churches that were too close to their home on Mountjoy Street disqualified as they considered to be too close to be worth visiting, while a second rule held that the pilgrimage to the churches should be carried out on foot with no trams. From Clarke’s description it seems that the adventures he and his sisters made to religious institutions ordinarily closed to the public, resembled the hustle and bustle of activity that accompanies the recent traditions of opening private houses and institutions, both religious and secular, on Culture Night and during Open House.
An account from the Schools’ Collection of the National Folklore Collection mentions a ghostly apparition that is supposed to appear in an upstairs window of a building known as Iveagh House at 80 Saint Stephen’s Green South in central Dublin, which was previously owned by the Aristocratic Protestant Guinness family but is now the headquarters for the Department of Foreign Affairs. The legend relates how a daughter of Lord Iveagh Guinness was sick one Holy Thursday and sent for a nurse. When the nurse arrived at the Ivy House she brought with her a crucifix as she was a good Catholic and put it before the child. As Lord Iveagh witnessed this he ‘snatched the crucifix out of her hand and threw it out through the window. Ever since on Every Holy Thursday an immense crucifix appears in the window and crowds flock to see it.’
Clarke, Austin. Twice Round The Black Church: Early Memories of Ireland and England. London, 1962.
Various accounts from the Schools’ Collection available at www.duchas.ie
Top illustration is of Dublin City is by H.W. Brewer and was published in the Graphic in 1890.
Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week which leads up to Easter Sunday. This moveable feast commemorates the triumphant welcome Jesus Christ received upon his entry into Jerusalem, where palm leaves were waved in the air and strewn before him as he entered the city. It is still an international custom for Christians in many countries to commemorate this date each year through holding Palm Sunday procession, fashioning crosses from palm leaves, and with people decorating their clothing and homes with palm leaves. In Ireland it seems that only the last of these three is traditionally observed in Ireland – and even then, with its own particular regional variations. Due to the absence and difficulties of growing palm trees in Ireland a variety of native and introduced evergreens served as replacements for holy palm. Conifers including firs, pines, and spruces were more popular than broad leaf evergreens, but laurel, ivy and holly were also used. However, it is the yew tree that was traditionally most commonly substituted for palm leaves; so much so that the traditional Irish name for Palm Sunday is Domhnach an Iúir, or Yew Sunday, while Patrick Weston Joyce noted that the yew was always referred to as a palm tree during his youth in County Limerick during the 1830s, and that he only came to know it’s true name in the latter days of his youth.
As Palm Sunday is the last Sunday of Lent special services are held in churches of all denominations on this day. The blessing of ‘palm’ seems, however, to be restricted to Catholic Churches. It is customary on the morning of Palm Sunday for people to bring branches of yew to their local chapel to be blessed by their priest. After mass sprigs of these blessed yew branches would be broken off and used to adorn the button-holes and lapels of shirts and jackets, as well as hat-bands, as the parishioners made their way home from Mass. In some areas the palm was worn long after Palm Sunday or even Holy Week had ended; an account by Thomas Lonergan of Tullow, County Tipperary found in the Irish Folklore Commission’s Schools’ Collection, mentions that some ‘old men keep the palm in their hats from one Palm Sunday till the next.’ Once home from church branches of yew were placed in the roof, over the mantel, doors, and windows, and around the frames of religious pictures, while a branch was also often put in the byre to protect the cows. For man, woman and beast the hanging of ‘palm’ was believed to protect against a wide variety of dangers including fire, the weather, sickness, accidents, and evil influences. In some houses the ‘palm’ was kept in the home until it was replaced the following Palm Sunday, in others the sprigs of yew were kept until Ash Wednesday when they were burned to create ashes used to make the sign of the cross on a person’s head.
In years when Palm Sunday fell on the same day as Saint Patrick’s Day it was believed to be an ominous occasion, and many considered that a year in which the two days fell together was a harbinger of great change. The falling of these two days together is, however, a rare occurrence; with the last occurrence in 1940, and the next to be in 2391. In the Tailor and Ansty Eric Cross, who had been visiting Timothy Buckley, ‘The Tailor’, throughout the nineteen-thirties noted that Buckley had an understanding of the significance of these two days falling on the same date and had predicted ‘that war would come from the East. It would come in the year when the palm and the shamrock are worn together on the same day.’ As many will notice the tailor’s prediction could be considered to be a year late, however, the bombing of the village of Campile in Wexford on 26 August 1940, where three people lost their lives, could be said to represent the coming of war to Ireland. In a similar manner a story from the Schools’ Collection tells of a man who predicted that Ireland would be free when the shamrock and the palm are worn together – only another 370 years so…
The feast of the Annunciation, 25 March, also known in many areas as “Lady Day in March”, is one of the three “Lady Days” which are widely celebrated across Ireland, the other two being Candlemas which falls on 2 February and Harvest Lady Day which falls on 15 August. The date is observed in memory of the visit to the Virgin Mary by the Archangel Gabriel at which she discovered she would be the mother of the son of God, Jesus Christ.
If the Feast of the Annunciation fell in Lent the obligations of the Lentern season were relaxed. The day was a social occasion with many attending patrons and fairs, which were often the sites of boisterous behaviour. In 1816 the Reverend James Neligan who was Rector and Victor in the Parish of Kilmactigue in County Sligo complained that while all types of work were avoided on the three Lady Days no efforts were made by the local population to ‘refrain from sports, pastimes, cursing or swearing, or frequenting tippling houses, and drinking to excess.’
While traditionally the Feast of the Annunciation has strong religious and social associations, the feast also had a civic significance. Kevin Danaher points out that before the introduction of the Georgian Calendar in 1752 the 25 March was the official start of the year, and therefore a day when rent was due, known as a “Gale Day” in Ireland. Rents were generally collected twice a year in the times when landlords were plentiful, the most popular “Gale Days” fell on the first of May and the first of November, however, in some areas including parts of Kilkenny and Leitrim up until at least the end of the nineteenth century the 25 March and 29 September (Michaelmas) were still the preferred days for collecting rent and beginning contracts. Possibly because the Feast of the Annunciation fell on a “Gale Day” bad weather was expected to occur, while if the feast fell on the same day as Easter Sunday, according to Kevin Danaher, the “people feared that the following harvest would be poor.”
Danaher, Kevin. The Year in Ireland. Dublin 1972.
Folklore Journal, 1894.
Mac Lir, Mananaan. ‘The Folklore of Months’. Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, Second series II (1896), 157, 316, 365.
Mason, William Shaw. A Statistical Account or Parochial Survey of Ireland. Dublin, London and Edinburgh, 1814-19.
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 feast of St Gregory the Great, 12th of March, was formerly observed as a holiday, and one of festivity in all the rural schools in the baronies of Forth and Baigy (the Strongbonian Colony), in the county of Wexford.
The manner was this: the children, for some days previous, brought contributions, according to the means and liberality of their parents, consisting of money, bread, butter, cream, &c., and delivered them to the teacher.
On the morning of the joyous day, the children repaired to the school-house in holiday dress, where the teacher had everything prepared for the festivity, the simplest temple of learning decorated with the richest flowers within his means of obtaining, and the presence of two or more kind-hearted females to do the honours and duties of the tea-table to the happy juveniles. A “king” and a “queen” were nominated, who, of course, took the seat of honour, and the proud and busy teacher was everywhere all attention to his little pupils.
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
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.