Reek Sunday & Other Irish Traditions for the Last Sunday of July

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 presently 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, where 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.


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.

Saint Declan’s Day

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. It was anciently an episcopal see erected by St Declan in the infancy of the Irish Church and before the arrival of St Patrick. St Declan, it is said, was a native to Ireland who travelled to Rome and returned to teach his countrymen in the year 402. The ruins of two churches which, from their architecture, must be of the Saint’s era, are in the immediate neighbourhood, and one of them, which had being used for service until very recently, is close to the famous round tower.’

Hall’s  Ireland, 1842

Although Mr and Mrs S.C. Hall fail to provide information on the patron at Ardmore, Thomas Crofton Croker lets us know that it was a popular site of pilgrimage in the early decades of the nineteenth century. In his Researches in the South of Ireland, published in 1826 – less than twenty years before the Hall’s account,  Croker comments that on Saint Declan’s Day, ‘vast numbers of the country people flock to Ardmore for the purposes of penance and prayer.’

Saint Swithin’s Day & the Weather

‘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 and money which might easily be spent with more advantage in relieving the poor and needy. Accordingly when his monks had completed this beautiful and costly mausoleum they named a day (July 15) on which the mortal remains of the saint were to be publically exhumed and publicly transmitted to the new, as they considered, more befitting abode.

But the prayer of a humble servant of God prevailed, for early on that morning the floodgates of heaven were again, as of old, opened, and one continuous downpour of rain prevailed and thus continued without intermission for the succeeding forty days. The country for miles around was flooded, which gave all parties, St Swithin’s monks included, much concern. Thereupon they all prayed to God to lessen His anger against them, and earnestly besought their holy abbot, Swithin, to intercede for them. It was at this period he appeared to one of his monks and revealing to him how displeasing it was to God thus to spend their time in such a useless display, forbade ever interfering with his remains thereafter. The command was obeyed, and ever since (as a remembrance to St Swithin) when it rains on St Swithin’s Day, the succeeding forty days will be times of anxiety for the agriculturist for ever.’

Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, 1896.

Saint Maelruain’s Feast Day

Weston St. John Joyce, Tallaght, 7 July; ‘St Maelruan’s patron or “pattern”, was every year celebrated here but in the later years the original Saint’s name was lost sight of altogether, and replaced by the corrupted form, “Moll Rooney”, under which title “the pattern” continued to be annually held, until it came to be such a nuisance, owing to drunkenness and debauchery, that it was suppressed in 1874.

The proceedings consisted of making a kind of effigy, supposed to represent the saint, and carrying it about from house to house in procession, headed by a fiddler or piper. The occupants of each house then came out as they were visited and danced to the music after which a collection was made to be spent on drink. Few went to bed that night; many slept in ditches on the way home, and drinking, dancing and fighting went on intermittently until morning.

Another item in the performance in recent times was to visit the grave of an old village piper named Burley O’Toole who had expressed a dying wish to that effect, and to dance and fight around his grave.’

The Neighbourhood of Dublin, 1921.

Photograph Saint Maelruain’s Church, Tallaght. Laurence Collection 1870-1914, National Library of Ireland.

The Dead Month: the Hunger & Thirst of July

For our nineteenth century ancestors July was the month when food was at its scarcest. By the time that July arrived food from the previous harvest had sustained households over most of the previous year, and many families found that their stores of food were much depleted or had disappeared entirely by July. The decline in living standards, present throughout nineteenth century Ireland, would peak during the Famine which would eventually take a million lives and force a further million Irish men and women to emigrate from the land in which they were born. Many of whom would never return to the land of their ancestors. 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 would be to varying degrees a difficult month to get by – even without the devastation of famine.

These tough conditions gave July many alternative names including, most generally, ‘The Hungry Month’, ‘The Blue Month’ and ‘Staggering July.’ Other names for July appear to have been more regional; Amhlaoibh Ó Súilleabháin, who was living near Callan in the County of Kilkenny 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 during this month. While in the latter half of the nineteenth century Charles McGlinchey recalled that the heat alone was reason enough to give the first half of July and the second half of August the dark nickname Mí Mharbh “The Dead Month” in reference to the stifling heat that accompanied this sultry season.

If July was a month for hunger and stifling heat it was, at least in eastern Donegal, also a month for thirst; as 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 the distilling of poitín illegal it was often traditionally made on away on islands or in difficult to reach areas to approach. But distance was not the only consideration in the minds of these distillers; the great plumes of smoke that were released while distilling their ‘Uisce Beatha,‘ literally water of life, made their task to carryout their secular vocations. There was a man named Dolty MacGarvey who lived in the small village of Glen in the early 1870s who explained to  William Le Fanu the seasonal strategy that local poitín distillers used to avoid detection form the British authorities; ‘we always dry the malt in the beginning of July, when all the police are taken off to Derry to put down the riots there ; so we can do it safely then. God is good, sir ; God is good.’ 


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.