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