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

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 top of the mountain. Here there is a great alter – a shapeless heap of stones. The poor wretches crawl on their knees into this place, say fifteen prayers, and after going around the whole top of the mountain fifteen times, saying fifteen prayers again.

The third station is near the bottom of the mountain at the further side of Westport. It consists of three heaps. The penitents must go several times round these collectively, and several times round each individually, saying a prayer before and after each progress.

The pleasures of the poor people – for after the business on the mountain came the dancing and love-making at its foot – was woefully spoiled by the rain, which rendered dancing on the grass impossible, nor were the tents big enough for that exercise. Indeed, the whole site was as dismal and half-savage a one as I have seen.’

Although the pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick is both traditionally and currently the most popular and infamous custom associated with the last Sunday of July,  other traditions with different names exist throughout the country, some still surviving to this day and observed on the last day of July, were people from near and far gather on mountains, hills and strands in many parts of Ireland to mark the end of summer, and welcomed in the harvest.

Activities to mark the start of harvest have traditionally differed from region to region, in Lahinch in County Clare, for example, the Rev James Kenny, in 1814, recorded that the last Sunday in July was known as Garlic Sunday, and was a patron day, but also included activities participated in  included  the less devotional activities of  horse-racing on the strand, and dancing.  From Ballyliffen in County Donegal, Charles McGlinchey remembered that in his youth, 1860s-1870s, the last Sunday in July was known as Heather-Berry Sunday, and was marked by the younger people who went up into the hills to gather hill-berries and heather-berries, while in Leitrim, the last Sunday of July was known as Garland Sunday, in reference to the custom of the younger people, in parts of the county, adorning the holy wells with Garlands of flowers on that day.

 

 

Sources

Duncan, Leland  L. ‘Folklore Gleamings from County Leitrim’ in  Folklore 1893.

Kenny, Rev James.’Union of Kilmanaheen’, in A Statistical Account or Parochial Survey of Ireland, edited by  William Shaw Mason. Dublin, London and Edinburg, 1814.

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

Thackeray, William Makepeace. The Irish Sketch Book. London. 1842.

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Saint Declan’s Day, Ardmore

thefadingyear

Waterford-

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Mr & Mrs S.C. Hall, 1840;

‘The 24th of July is the patron day of Saint Declan, whom the Roman Calendar states to have flourished prior to the appearances of Patrick. He is said to have landed at Ardmore and to have there preached Christianity where he also, and in one night, built the famous tower and the adjoining church. The grave in which he is supposed to be buried and a singular mass rock on the sea-shore near the church are objects of peculiar veneration. This rock is believed to have floated over from Rome with the vestments of the saint, a bell for this tower and a lighted candle for the celebration of mass.

Though now a miserable village containing no house above the rank of cabin save that of the rector, there was a time when Ardmore was classed among the high places of Ireland…

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Saint Swithin’s Day

thefadingyear

Ireland –

Researches in the South of Ireland

15 July –

‘The fifteenth of July is St Swithin’s Day, and the belief that if it rains on St Swithin’s Day (Sweeten or Sweeteen as it is called in Munster), the succeeding forty days will also be wet, still prevails.

The folklore history is as follows:- when St Swithin, after being waked, was buried, by his monks, who dearly loved him, thought the simple “house of clay” was not befitting their lord abbot, so they determined to build a costly mausoleum which to their minds would more suitably mark his last resting-place on earth, and also show to the world how him they loved while living was venerated even in death.

But St. Swinton, who during his life detested ostentation or display of any kind, besought his divine Master (as it was afterwards revealed by one of his monks) to prevent such a useless expenditure of time…

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The Dead Month: The Hunger & Thirst of July

poitin_still
Poitín Still

For our nineteenth century ancestors July was the month when food was scarcest. By July the previous harvest was almost a year old, and many families found that their stores of food were much depleted or had disappeared completely at this late stage. The decline in living standards that was present throughout the nineteenth century Ireland would peak during the Famine which would eventually take a million lives and force another million to emigrate. For families who had cattle running out of stored crops was not as lethal, but for the quarter of the population that relied on the potato as their sole source of sustenance July could be a difficult month to get by even without famine.

These tough conditions gave July many alternative names including, most generally the “Hungry Month”, but other names were also applied to illustrate the harsh conditions and lack of food that often accompanied July included the Blue Month and Staggering July. Amhlaoibh Ó Súilleabháin, who was living near Callan in the early decades of the nineteenth century recorded in his diary that July was known as Buímhís “The yellow month” in reference to both the colour of fields and the faces of the poor near his home in Callan, County Kilkenny. The heat alone was reason enough to give July a dark nickname Charles McGlinchey of Ballyliffen in Donegal noted that in the eighteen hundreds the latter half of July and the earlier half of August shared the ominous name Mí Mharbh “The Dead Month” in reference to the stifling heat that accompanied these weeks.

If July was a month for hunger and stifling heat it was, at least in eastern Donegal, also a month for thirst; the opening days of July provided the people of the Inishowen peninsula with a unique opportunity to produce poitín, a strong alcoholic drink made from cereals or potatoes, unnoticed by the local authorities. As a local poitín distiller, Dolty MacGarvey from the small village of Glen explained to William Le Fanu in the early 1870s, while the distilling of poteen could go unnoticed, the drying of malt created great clouds of smoke, easily noticeable to a passer-by. An opportunity to dry the malt presented itself when the local Royal Irish Constabulary were sent Derry to put down the riots which occurred annually at the Battle of the Boyne celebrations in the town, with the absence of these officers the malt could be dried with no chance of police interference.

 

Sources

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

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

Le Fanu, William Richard. Seventy Years of Life in Ireland, 1893

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

Ó Súilleabháin, Amhlaoibh. The Diary of an Irish Countryman 1827 – 1835. Translated from the Irish by Tomás de Bhaldraithe. Cork/Dublin 1970/1979.