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 x’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.
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 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 the community, and sold in large quantities, while also appearing in newspapers, on lampposts, on church doors and the fronts of other public buildings, where they were recited before large crowds of spectators, embarrassingly the crowd would often include those whose names appeared on these lists. The following example of a Skellig List was provided by Patrick Weston Joyce, who recalled hearing this list ‘sung to a spirited air’ during his youth in the 1830s in the townland of Glenosheen in County Limerick:
“As young Rory and Moreen were talking,
How Shrove Tuesday was just drawing near;
For the tenth time he asked her to marry;
But she says ‘time enough till next year.’
Then ochone I’m going to the Skellig:
O Moreen, what will I do?
’Tis the woeful road to travel;
And how lonesome I’ll be without you!
As the evening wore on more boisterous activities were resorted to, with many symbolically being encouraged to make a trip to the Skelligs. The late nineteenth century American folklorist Jerimiah Curtain noted that in the village of Cahirciveen, County Kerry, the ‘boys and girls from eight to fifteen years of age were out with ropes to lasso any girl of marriageable age whom they could find. If they caught one, they tried to drag her to the river and throw her in, because the time had expired and she was not married.’ While an article from a 1916 issue of the Folklore Journal explained that previously Macroom, County Cork, it was the men who were targeted by bands of youths for their failure to marry before lent; ‘the party holding a rope, would watch for his approach, and then divide and half would go one way, the rest on the other side round their victim, to wind him in the rope. Meanwhile a song would be improvised, to the effect that “Paddy Leary is an old man and ought to be married,” setting forward the merits and demerits of the accused, his worldly possessions, and the reasons why he ought to marry. This in rough rhyme would be chanted, and the doggerel sent round to the neighbours that they might sing and laugh him into matrimony.’
Going to the Skelligs seems to have been literal as well as symbolic, according to an 1895 article in the Journal of the Cork Historical & Archaeological Society, it was claimed that previously those who had failed to marry, male and female, were forced to walk barefoot on Skellig Rocks on Shrove Tuesday night, and that additionally they were expected to gather amounts of bogwood in proportion to the number of Shrovetides they had let pass without marrying. While the Reverend Patterson, the chaplain of her Majesties Forces in Cork in 1889 mentioned that the priest in the parish which includes the Skelligs, reportedly used to marry couples on the Great Skellig during Lent, Patterson maintains word of these wedding spread throughout Munster and gave the Skellig Islands their reputation as a place where couples could be joined in holy matrimony after Shrove Tuesday.
*Shrove Tuesday was at one time the most popular day of the year for weddings in Ireland. As the Catholic Church previously forbid weddings to take place during Lent and Easter those who failed to get married by Shrove Tuesday were forced to wait till Low Sunday; the Sunday after Easter. Often if one had not married by Shrove Tuesday a year could lapse before an opportunity presented itself again; responsibilities to the land with tilling and harvest work prevented many from marrying from late spring until winter, while Advent and Christmas were also times when marriage was forbidden, leaving Shrovetide as the best opportunity for many to marry.
Curtin, Jeremiah. Memoirs of Jeremiah Curtin. Edited by Joseph Schafer. Wisconsin, 1941.
James Mooney, 1889; ‘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 of ill-fortune with an accepted lover, and is so strong in the feeling that engagements have been broken off for no other reason.
The lucky tosser of the first cake at once shares it with the other girls. On eating it there is generally found in one slice the mother’s wedding ring and in another a piece of furze, both having been put in the batter before baking. Whoever gets the ring will be most happy in her future choice, while the other will remain unmarried.’
Mooney, James. ‘Holiday Customs of Ireland’, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Held at Philadelphia, for Promoting Useful Knowledge, Vol. 26 Number 190. 1889.
Illustration ‘Tossing Pancakes on Shrove Tuesday’ by Daniel Maclise, 1806-1870.
Mananaan Mac Lir; ‘The 11th of February is the Feast of St Gobinet. At this date a large cattle fair – “the fair of St Gobinet’s Well” – was, up till recent times, held in the townland of Kilgobinet (“Gobinet’s church”), near Ballyagran (Baile Atha Grean “the ford mouth of gravel”) village, about four miles west of Bunree, county Limerick. “Rounds” were also paid to St. Gobinet’s Holy Well there, and all the marriageable young men took care to stand on the hillock in the fair green, locally known as Cnocán a bouchailli ie. “the boy’s hillock,” or, literally, “the hillock of the cowherd.” For it is a well-known fact that the young man who stood on Cnocán a bouchailli on St Gobinet’s Day and invoked her intercession was certain (unless his own fault) to be “well married” – that is, a prosperous or wealthy match – against that day twelve months. The fair, notwithstanding this paramount attraction, is extinct for the past dozen years, and with the fair is also gone the custom of standing on the “cowboy’s hillock.”
In this (the county Limerick) district, Gobinet is translated into Deborah, while in the county Cork it is rendered Abina or Judith.’
‘The Folklore of Months.’ Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, 1895.
Image of Saint Gobnait is from stained glass window by Harry Clarke in Honan Chapel, Cork.
Candlemas Day, observed on the second of February each year, is a Christian festival that marks the presentation of Jesus at the Temple and the purification of the Virgin Mary. Candlemas Day is the first of three annual Lady Days dedicated to the Virgin Mary in Ireland, which also include the Feast of the Annunciation, 25 March, and the Feast of the Assumption, 15 August. As the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary the second of February is one of the Christian Churches oldest feasts stretching back to the fourth century AD, when it began to become a substitute for a number of pagan spring festivals that it would eventually displace. In Ireland the succession of Candlemas Day from Saint Bridget’s Feast Day, first of February, is so immediate that many of the traditions of these two feast days have become confused or intertwined. The following Irish legend explaining the close association of the two days was provided in an article that appeared in the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society in 1895. The article explained that the Virgin Mary gave Saint Bridget her feast day on the first of February as an expression of her gratitude to the Irish Saint for distracting crowds of onlookers in Jerusalem by wearing a headdress adorned with lit candles, and in so doing enabling the Virgin Mary to go unnoticed with the infant Jesus to the Temple.
Traditionally Candlemas is a day for devotion and prayer. On this day people brought candles to their local places of worship. In return for the candles bequenthed to the church a blessed candle would be handed back to each member of the congregation. These candles would be put to use during sacraments that occurred in family homes. Visits to graveyards were also popular on this day and families and loved ones attended to the graves of their departed loved ones. In the late nineteenth century Lady Jane Wilde provided the following account of how the dead were honoured by their loved ones on Candlemas Day: ‘people make a cake of yellow clay taken from a churchyard, then stick twelve bits of candle in it, and recite their prayers, kneeling round, until all the lights have burned down. A name is given to each light, and the first that goes out betokens death to the person whose name it bears, before the year is out.’
As Candlemas Day occurs at the beginning of spring it is hardly surprising that many of the day’s traditions are concerned with the lengthening of days and forecasting of the weather. Traditionally on, or from, Candlemas Day the stretch in the evenings was believed to be great enough for people to restrict their activities to the daylight hours, and to dispense with artificial light from this date onwards. An old popular saying in Ireland goes “On Candlemas Day throw the candle and candle stick away.” The weather on this day was also thought to be significant; many hoped for bad weather as it was widely believed that the weather for the remainder of February would be the opposite to the weather that accompanied Candlemas Day. A County Galway account from the Schools’ Collection noted that on the second of February a shepherd ‘would sooner see the wolf come into his flock, than see the sun shine through the window,’ while a popular saying maintained that “If Candlemas is bright and clear there will be two winters in one year.”
Frazer, W. ‘On Rude Crosses Made from Twigs with interlaced Straw or Rushes. Used in Some Country Districts.’ The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Fifth Series, Vol. 2, no. 2 (Jul., 1892), pp. 185-186.
Mac Lir, Mananaan. ‘The Folklore of Months’. Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, 1895.