New Year’s Day

Antrim & Down – 1 January

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William Conor – Lamp-post Swinging. National Museum of Northern Ireland

 ‘On New Year’s Day about the suburbs of County Down side of Belfast, the boys go about carrying little twisted wisps of straw, which they offer to person whom they meet, or throw into their houses, as New Year’s offerings, and expect to get in return a small present, such as a little money or a piece of bread. About Glenarm, on the coast of County Antrim, the “wisp” is not used, but on this day the boys go about from house to house, and are regaled with bannocks of oaten bread, buttered; these bannocks are baked specially for the occasion, and are commonly small, thick and round, and with a hole through the centre. Any person who enters a house on New Year’s Day must either eat or drink before leaving it.’

Thiselton Dyer, British Popular Customs Past and Present  1900

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

Kildare, 31 December

31 December, Kildare
Illustrated London News, 1852

‘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.

The Feast of the Holy Innocent and Cross days

 Aran Islands, Galway –  28 December

Image of the Aran Islands between l898 and 1902 taken by the playwright John Millington Synge for Weekend Arts
Image of the Aran Islands, circa 1900, taken by the playwright John Millington Synge

 B. N. Hedderman, a nurse from County Clare, stationed on the Aran Islands in the first decades of the 20th Century;

‘The particular day of the week in each year is the one on which we keep the feast of the ‘Holy Innocents.’ If this feast happens to fall upon a Monday, for instance, then every Monday throughout that year will be a ‘Cross day.’ : On these days no person in the South or Middle Island would transact business, commercial or otherwise, have a marriage solemnized, or open a grave; neither would they start the spring planting or the harvest gathering. However, “Mother Nature’ dissents, and permits the arrival of births.’

Glimpses of My Life in Aran

St Stephen’s Day and the Wren Boys

Clare, 26 December –

Clare Wren Boys .

The Rev James Grahame, curate of Kilrush (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.’

Folklore 22, no 2 1911

Christmas day, Gifts, Feasting and the Mummers

Fermanagh –

christmas

Lombe Atthil writing about the Christmas of his youth,  in Fermanagh, in the 1830s;

‘Christmas seemed a glorious time, but what my grandchildren would think of the Christmas-boxes with which I was content, I can well imagine, for the nearest shop at which presents could be bought was fourteen miles off, and even then the choice was of the poorest kind. But then there was a splendid plum pudding as big as a small haycock; this would be carried in all aflame. There were mince pies, too, home-made cakes, etc., and for us youngsters a bottle of home-made gooseberry wine.

Party of Mask Mummers-x350-M-1288

Then I have vivid recollections of bands of boys being admitted to the kitchen at Christmas time, dressed up fantastically to the best of their ability, and called “mummers”; and of the excitement of us children, when the servant would, some evening between Christmas and Twelfth Night, enter the drawing-room and utter the almost magic words, “the mummers have come.” Down we would rush to find the kitchen cleared, the servants ranged around the wall, and the table brought to one end for us to stand on.

These mummers were boys farmers’ and labourers’ sons residing in the district, and were of course poorly clad, but decorated with scraps of coloured calico and ribbon sewed on here and there, and I think they wore paper caps of various shapes. They came into the kitchen one by one, each reciting some scrap of doggerel verse, and when the whole band had come in they danced in some fantastic way on the flagged kitchen floor. Then, a little money being given them, they went their way to some farmer’s house, at which they might hope to receive a trifle. One of the rhymes has fixed itself in my memory, probably because it frightened me. A boy about thirteen, farther better got-up than the others, with a frying-pan in his hand, on one occasion entered, strutted into the centre of the floor, and turning to face us, Said,-

“Here come I little devil doubt;

Under my arm I carry a clout;

In my hand a dripping-pan;

Money I want and money I crave,

If you don’t give me money,

I’ll sweep all to grave.”’

Recollections of an Irish doctor, 1907

 

Christmas Eve & the City below Lough Gur

Limerick-

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Frontispiece from Myths and Folklore of Ireland by Jeremiah Curtin. 1890

 

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.

Saint Finian’s Day

Laois-

patternDay

Rev John Baldwin, Curate – 1819; ‘The people of Rearymore Parish annually assemble, on the 12th of December, at Saint Finian’s well, to celebrate the festival of their Patron Saint. The well consists of three or four holes in the solid rock always full of water, and is surrounded by old hawthorns, which are religiously preserved by the natives: it is also customary for the common people to go round this well on their bare knees, by way of penance and mortification.’

William Shaw Mason, A Statistical Account, or a Parochial Survey of Ireland iii

 

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

Going About with “The Waits”

Longford-

Ballymahon
Ballymahon

Reverend John Graham, Ballymahon, 1819;

‘For some weeks before Christmas, several musicians, generally pipers, serenade the inhabitants of Ballymahon about an hour or two before daybreak, calling out, in intervals, the hour of the morning, and stating whether it is cold, wet, frosty, or fine. This is called going about with “The waits,” and those who give themselves this trouble, expect to be paid for it in the Christmas holidays, when they go about in the daylight playing a tune, and receiving the expected renumeration at every door.’

William Shaw Mason, A Statistical Account or Parochial Survey of Ireland iii