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.
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 ex’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.
Joyce, Patrick Weston. English As We Speak it in Ireland, 1910.
Folklore Journal, various issues 1881-1916.
Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, 1895
In the south of Ireland up until the early years of the twentieth century Shrove Tuesday was popularly known as “Skellig Night” and named after a belief that Lent began a week later on the Skellig Rocks, a set of islands which lie off the west-coast of County Kerry. Those who were thought to be eligible to marry, but had failed to do so during Shrovetide, were mockingly encouraged to go to the Skelligs on Shrove Tuesday night where there was still a chance to be wedded before Lent.* Skellig Lists were drawn up, written by local poets in doggerel verse, these lists were less concerned with naming courting couples, but were often used to link names of persons from the community who were considered the least likely to marry each other; so that old were matched with young, rich with poor, and foes with each other. The Skellig Lists were widely distributed within…
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James Mooney, 1889;
Tossing Pancakes on Shrove Tuesday – Daniel Maclise, 1806-1870
‘In the evening, the young folks – and the old ones as well – gather round the turf fire to learn by “tossing a pancake,” what is to be the of their future marriage ventures. A crock of butter having been prepared a part is poured out on the pan to form the first cake, which is consigned to the care of the oldest unmarried daughter.
At the proper time she turns the cake with a dexterous toss up the chimney, and if it comes down smoothly on the other side in the pan, she can have her choice of a husband whenever she likes, if, on the other hand, it falls into the ashes or comes down with a corner doubled over, she cannot marry for at least a year. This is also regarded as an omen…
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Wanderer in the Strom – Julius Von Leyold, 1835
In Ireland the month of March is associated with all types of weather including strong winds, heavy rain, sunshine, and even the icy conditions of winter. The erratic weather that invariably accompanies March, especially the earlier half of the month, made a deep impression on the imaginations and lives of previous generations who lived their lives 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 passing 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…
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