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.

The Feast of the Holy Innocent and Cross Days

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

Photograph of Aran Islanders taken by John Millington Synge, 1898-1902.

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.