Burns Night in Dundalk

John Swift, Dundalk; ‘Among them (tombstones in graveyard at Saint Nicholas Church, Dundalk) was one that could have been considered relatively modern. That was the one erected over the grave of Robert Burn’s sister.* This monument, erected by the poet’s admirers in the town, stood prominently in the forefront of the cemetery, and through the railings on the low wall between the cemetery and the Church Street, was easily visible to passers by.

For a few years my father (Patrick Swift) and some of his Templar colleagues had, on the poet’s birthday, the 25th of January [circa 1900], made pilgrimage to the hardly substantial mecca in Church Street. Gathered at the railings near the grave, my father would start a recital of Burns’ poems.

Coming towards the end of the recital the reciter would turn in the direction of the Roden demesne gate declaiming from A Man’s a Man for a’ That, rendered, not in the Burns Doric but in the plainer English –

 You see yon birkie, called a lord,

Who struts and stares an’ a’ that;

Tho’ hundreds worship at his word,

He’s but a coof for a’ that,

For an’ that, an’ a that,

His ribband star, an’ a’ that,

The man of independent mind,

He looks an’ laughs at a’ that.

A prince can make a belted knight,

A marquis, duke, an’ a’ that;

But an honest mans above his might,

Good faith he needed for that,

For a’ that, an’ a’ that,

Their dignities an’ a’ that,

The pith o’ sense an’ pride o’ worth,

Are higher rank than a’ that.

Then let us pray that come what may,

(As come it will for a’ that);

That sense and worth o’er all the earth,

Shall make the rank an’ a’ that,

For a’ that, an’ a’ that,

It’s coming yet for a’ that,

That man to man, the world o’er,

Shall brothers be for a’ that.’

Swift, John. Told in Toberona. Dublin, 2008.

*Agnes Burns, 1762-1834, was the sister of Robert Burns. In 1817, along with her husband, she moved near Knockbridge in County Louth, and was later buried in Saint Nicholas Graveyard in Dundalk.

John Swift 1896-1990 spent the formative years of his life in Dundalk, County Louth, before moving to Dublin in 1912.

Main photograph is of Burns Monument in the graveyard of Saint Nicholas Church, Dundalk, County Louth

The King of the Benns & the Fair at Greencastle in County Down

Michael G. Crawford; ‘The fair at Greencastle was revived by Arthur Bagnal, under patent granted by James the First in 1613, when it was held on 12th January and 12th August. It was sometimes called ‘Ram Fair’ on account of a custom that prevailed for a great while of enthroning a great ram, high on the top of old Green Castle’s walls, when he presided over the greatest sheep fair in South Down, where thousands of his bleeting subjects from the surrounding mountains were penned in flocks beneath him, and jolly crowds of people at the Fair came to pay homage crying out ‘The King of the Benns’ for ever, and never did the Golden Ram of old receive greater homage from his worshippers, than did the Mourne Ram, from the jolly crowds that came to the Carnival at Greencastle.’

Crawford, Michael G. Legendary Stories of the Carlingford Lough District. 1913.

Tory Island & the Half Marrying Tradition at Shrovetide

William Le Fanu, 1816-1894; ‘In the south and west of Ireland marriages amongst the peasantry, with rare exceptions, take place during Shrove-tide.* Many of the people think it would not be lucky to be married at any other time of the year; consequently the priest always, when it was possible, visited the island during Shrove for the purpose of solemnizing any weddings which had been arranged. It, however, sometimes happened that the weather was so stormy for weeks together that no boat could approach the island, so it had been arranged that, when this occurred, the engaged couples should at an appointed hour assemble on the east shore of the island, while the priest, standing on the shore of the mainland opposite to them, read the marriage ceremony across the water. As soon as the storm abated he went to the island and did whatever more was necessary to render the marriages valid in the eye of the law and of the Church.

I cannot vouch for the truth of this, though I heard it from a very trustworthy man. He said the young people were not considered really married till after the visit of the priest; but “that they liked to be, at all events, partly married before Shrove was over.”’

Seventy Years of Life in Ireland, 1893

Illustration by undiscovered artist.

*Traditionally the period between Christmas and Shrove Tuesday was known as Shrove-tide throughout Ireland. Generally, it was the most popular time to get married, as the Catholic Church refused to sanctify marriages during Lent and Advent, both of which were times of abstinence and devotion, while at other seasons the people were generally too busy with farm-work or fishing to contemplate marriage.

Incidentally William Le Fanu was the bother of the Irish Gothic writer Sheridan Le Fanu.

Twelfth Night in Ireland

106_0210
Photograph by the Fading Year

The custom of lighting candles or rush-lights in honour of the Twelve Apostles is traditionally carried out by families on Twelfth Night, which is observed on the fifth or sixth of January.* The number of candles used in this ritual varied between one district and another, with some areas lighting twelve candles to represent the Twelve Apostles, while in other areas a thirteenth candle, usually larger and generally placed in the centre of the original twelve, was added to represent Jesus. Whilst the candles melted prayers and decades of the rosary were recited by those present. Traditionally each member of the family lit one candle, the flame of which was said to signify that person’s longevity. In this way the first candle to burn out was supposed to indicate the member of the household who was destined to be the first to die.

In the old days, when candlesticks were scarce, candles were stabilised in a bed of ashes, cow-dung, mud, or even graveyard clay, while sieves of oats were used, for the same purpose, at least in  County Westmeath at the end of the seventeenth century. Once the candles had consumed themselves a ball would be made of what remained, if the candles were supported using cow-dung the ball was placed above the door of the cow-house to encourage an increase in the herd of cattle for the coming year, while if the ball was made of mud or clay it was often placed above the main entrance of the home, where it was believed to protect the inhabitants till the next Twelfth Night.

*In Ireland, and indeed internationally, there is some contention as to when Twelfth Night falls, with some observing Twelfth Night traditions on the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany, 5 January, while for others the Feast of the Epiphany, 6 January is believed to be the proper date.

Sources

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

Duncan, Leland L. ‘Further Notes from County Leitrim.’ Folklore 5, no. 3 (1894), pp. 177-211.

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

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

Wilde, Lady Jane, Irish Cures, Mystic Charms & Superstitions, London 1890.

The First Monday of the Year – Hansel Monday

Hansel Monday – the first Monday of the year is so called as it is traditionally believed that anyone who received a hansel – a gift of money on this day, would never be short of money for the rest of the year. It was customary for farmers, employers, and parents to give a token gift of money to their respective labourers, workers, and children on Hansel Monday. The recipient of this gift would often keep the coin with them for the remainder of the year to bring them luck wherever they travelled. To be the recipient of anything on Hansel Monday was believed to be lucky be it a present, the birth of a child or an animal, or even to seal a favourable bargain.

While it was considered to be lucky to receive on Hansel Monday, it was also considered to be unlucky to pay for anything on this day as it was believed that any person who did so would-be paying bills every day for the rest of the year and would be likely to come to poverty. Similar taboos were connected with giving away milk and other household items. Many believed that even a person’s behaviour and mood on Hansel Monday was liable to continue throughout the following year. An 1881 article from the Folklore Record noted that on Hansel Monday ‘people salute one another with “My Hansel on you.”’ While, an account taken from the Schools’ Collection and provided by Mary Grehan from Rochfortbridge in County Westmeath noted that Hansel Monday ‘was looked upon by most people as a very particular day. If a person were in good humour that day, it was supposed to count for the rest of the year, and if possible everyone tried to wear a smile.’

In Ireland the first Monday of the year is referred to as both Handsel Monday and as Hansel Monday, however, at least historically, the day seems to have more often been referred to as “Hansel Monday.” The hanseling tradition appears to have come to Ireland from Scotland, where it seems to have been always known as Handsel Monday, and observed on the first Monday after the twelfth of January – old New Year’s Day. Up until the end of the nineteenth century Handsel Monday was a recognised holiday for Scotland’s farm labourers and workers.

Sources

Duncan, Leland L. ‘Further Notes from County Leitrim.’ Folklore 5, no. 3 (1894), pp. 177-211.

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

Hole, Christina. A Dictionary of British Folk Customs. London, 1978.

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

https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes

Photograph of Claddagh, Galway, taken by Marguerite Mespoulet &Madeleine Mignon, 1913.

Irish New Year’s Day Traditions & Beliefs

Causeway cottages, Antrim
Causeway Cottages, County Antrim, circa 1888.

In many areas of Ireland New Year’s Day is overshadowed by the traditional observances and festivities that accompany the Twelve Days of Christmas, which run from Christmas Eve to the Feast of the Epiphany, 6 January. In many Irish Protestant communities New Year’s Day  was traditionally believed to mark the end of the Christmas season, and was often referred to in nineteenth century sources as ‘Little Christmas’ – one of the many names applied to the Feast of the Epiphany, 6 January, which marked the end of the Christmas season in Catholic households.

As the first day of the year many traditions associated with New Year’s Day are tied up with encouraging luck for the coming year. No dust, dirt or slop should be brushed out of the house on New Year’s Day, as it was believed that in carrying out these tasks the house’s luck could be swept away for the next twelve months. In a similar manner it was considered unlucky to open a grave on New Year’s Day as doing so was believed to encourage death throughout the coming year. In order to facilitate the traditional two-night wake, when a person died on the 30th or 31st of December attempts were generally made to, at least, start the digging of the the departed’s grave in the old year.

The New Year’s Day tradition of first-footing, although more prevalent in Scotland and Northern England, was widely observed in many urban areas as well as parts of the north east of Ireland a generation ago. Belief holds that the first person to enter the house, after the clock strikes midnight represents the household’s luck for the following twelve months; a dark-haired male visitor is considered to bring luck with him, while a female visitor, especially one with red hair, was considered to be an omen of bad luck for the household. In many instances efforts were made to ensure that the first visitor on New Year’s Day was a dark-haired male; if a dark-haired male was present in a household on New Year’s Eve he would often be asked to step outside a few minutes prior to midnight and then call back when the year had changed. To secure the households’ luck in some accounts of the tradition it was considered necessary for the gentleman to bring a gift, often silver coins and food when making the New Year visit. In parts of Ireland hospitality required that visitors to a house on New Year’s Day should eat or drink before making their departure, while food also featured in a County Leitrim belief noted by Leland L Duncan in the first quarter of the twentieth century; the ‘first thing you eat in the morning [of New Year’s Day] will cure you throughout the year if you fall sick.’

Outdoor activities are also traditional on New Year’s Day,  which in common with Christmas Day and sometimes the whole Christmas period, is traditionally a time for playing sports and games in Ireland. In coastal areas, in places as far flung as Ballintoy in County Antrim and the Blasket Islands off the Coast of County Kerry, it was customary for the local inhabitants to participate in hurling matches on New Year’s Day. Celebrations and boisterous behaviour often followed in the aftermath of these matches; in the Ballintoy two hundred years ago, for example, the Reverend Robert Trail noted that the New Year’s Day hurling previously ‘ended by drinking whiskey and broken heads: but of the late years, only young people appear on these occasions, and the day concludes with drunkenness or riot.’

Sources

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

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

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

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.

Thiselton Dyer, T. R. (Rev). British Popular Customs Past and Present: Illustrating the Social and Domestic Manners of the People. London 1900.

Various articles from the journal Folklore, 1894-1923.

New Year’s Eve in Ireland: Banishing Hunger for the following Year

31 December, Kildare

‘It was customary on New Year’s Eve to bake a large barn-brack, which the man of the house, after taking three bites out of it, dashed against the principal door of his dwelling, in the name of the Trinity, at the same time expressing the hope that starvation might be banished from Ireland and go to the King of the Turks. The fragments of the cake were then gathered up and eaten by all members of the household. Before retiring to rest, twelve candles were lit in honour of the twelve Apostles and family prayers were said.’

Omurethi, Journal of the Kildare Archaeological and Historical Society, 1906-08.

Illustration taken from the Illustrated London News, 1852.

Saint Stephen’s Day & the Wren Boys

The Rev James Grahame, curate of Kilrush, County Clare (Noted before 1816); ‘Formerly the youth of the whole district combined as wren boys, but now they go in bands of from two to six, and the wren bush is often a mere branch with a few rags and no wren. A structure of  evergreens, in general design like a crux ansate, covered with streamers and with the dead bird hung up or in a sort of cage, was till lately carried around. There is still to be found tolerable dancing and singing, as a break in the weary succession of small begging parties, shuffling and playing stupid bulfoonery.

The verses usually begin with:

“The wran, the wran, the king of all the birds,

On Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze.”

but the next lines are greatly varied:

“Although he is little his family is great,

And (or So) I pray you all ladies (or good Christians) to give him a treat.”

I noted the following haunting lines on St Stephen’s Day in 1909:

“Put your hand in your pocket and take out your purse

And give us some money to bury the wran.”

Equally melodious were lines in vogue some thirty years ago:

“We broke his bones with sticks and stones,

And give us some money to get us some drink.

It was generally believed that St Stephen had hid in a cave, and that his retreat had been betrayed to his enemies by the wren. Mummers are now reappearing, after a long lapse of time, among the wren boys.’

Thomas J Westropp. ‘A Folklore Survey of County Clare.’ Folklore 22, no 2 1911.

Photograph of Clare Wren Boys, circa 1910, included in Westropp’s article.

Christmas Eve & the City Below Lough Gur

Mary Fogarty, born in 1858, Lough Gur; ‘some say that in ancient days there was a city where the lake is now, before an earthquake threw up the hills and filled the hollow with water so that the city was submerged. Even now, the peasants say, when the surface of the lake is smooth one may see from a boat, far down and down again, the drowned city, its walls and castle, houses and church, perfect and intact, waiting for the Day of Resurrection.

And on Christmas Eve, a dark night without moon and stars, if one looks down and down again, one may see lights in the windows, and listening with the ears of the mind, hear the muffled chiming of church bells.’

The Farm by Lough Gur – Mary Carberry, 1937.

Illustration is taken from the frontispiece of Myths and Folk-lore of Ireland by Jeremiah Curtin, 1890.

The Feast of the Immaculate Conception

Patrick Kavanagh, Inniskeen, County Monaghan; ‘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

Top photograph from the Wilshire Collection, National Library of Ireland.