The Fading Year is an Irish folklore blog founded in October 2015, and concerned with the promotion of Calendar Customs, Traditions and Beliefs, as practiced in Ireland. The intention of the blog is to post Irish traditions on the particular date or season that they relate to. The material used in posts primarily relate to the 19th and early 20th century, although, from time to time, posts may date from outside this timescale.
‘Up to the early part of the nineteenth century a pattern or fair annually celebrated St John’s Day, 24th June, when well known bards and other artists from Louth and the surrounding counties would gather in the vicinity of Toberona bridge, to show their talents. It is recorded that over-indulgence in alcohol and rowdying brought an end to these patterns…..
But legend had it Toberona did not require either brewed or distilled liquor to engender anything like transports of inebriation. Toberona had its well of spring water, named after Saint John, and those quaffing of its draughts, if endowed to even the slightest extent with poetic or rhetorical talent, would be inspired to speech worthy of the most gifted orator or author. They had a saying in the Temple tavern (in Dundalk): Tell it in Toberona.’
Told in Toberona, 2008
John Swift 1896-1990 spent the formative years of his life in Dundalk, County Louth, before moving to Dublin in 1912.
‘It is the custom at sunset on that evening to kindle numerous immense fires throughout the country, built like our (English) bonfires, to a great height, the pile being composed of turf, bog-wood, and such other combustibles as they can gather.
The turf yields a steady, substantial body of fire, the bog-wood a most brilliant flame; and the effect of these great beacons blazing on every hill, sending up volumes of smoke from every point of the horizon is very remarkable.
Ours was a magnificent one being provided by the landlord as a compliment to his people, and was built on the lawn, as close beside the house as safety would admit. Early in the evening the peasants began to assemble, all habited in their best array, glowing with health, every countenance full of that sparkling animation and excess of enjoyment that characterize the enthusiastic people of the land. I had never seen anything resembling it, and was exceedingly delighted with their handsome, intelligent, merry faces; the bold bearing of the men, and the playful, but really modest deportment of the maidens; and the vivacity of the aged people, and wild glee of the children.
The fire being kindled, a splendid blaze shot up, and for a while they stood contemplating it, with faces strangely disfigured by the peculiar light first emitted when bogwood is thrown on: after a short pause, the ground was cleared in front of an old blind piper, the very beau ideal of energy, drollery, and shrewdness, who seated on a low chair, with a well-plenished jug within his reach, screwed his pipes to the liveliest times and endless jig began.
An Irish jig is interminable, so long as the party holds together; for when one of the dancers becomes fatigued, a fresh individual is ready to step into the vacated place quick as thought; so the other does not pause, until in liked manner obliged to give place to a successor. They continue footing it, and setting to one another, occasionally moving in a figure, and changing place with extraordinary rapidity, spirit and grace. Few indeed, among even the very lowest of the most improvised class, have grown into youth without obtaining some lessons in this accomplishment from the traveling dancing-masters of their district; and certainly in the way they use it, many would be disposed to grant a dispensation to the young peasant which they would withhold from the young peer.
But something was to follow that puzzled me not a little: when the fire had burned for some hours, and got low, an indispensable part of the ceremony commenced. Every one present of the peasantry passed through it, and several children were thrown across the sparkling embers; while a wooden frame of some eight feet long, with a horse’s head fixed to one end, and a large white sheet thrown over it, concealing the wood and the man on whose head it was carried, made its appearance. This was greeted with loud shouts as the “white horse;” and having been safely carried by the skill of the bearer several times through the fire with a bold leap, it pursued the people, who ran screaming and laughing in every direction. I asked what the horse was meant for, and was told it represented all cattle. While I looked upon the now wildly-excited people with their children, and, in a figure, all their cattle, passing again and again through the fire.’
A hundred years ago, and for many centuries before, Midsummer’s Eve was celebrated throughout Ireland on the 23 June, that is, on Saint John’s Eve.
The bonfire was central to the activities of Midsummer’s Eve, and those who witnessed the flames more than a lifetime ago noted that the landscape was filled with hundreds of bonfires, creating a beautiful aspect by illuminating the country as far as the eye could see. These fires were lit on elevated sites including mountain tops and hills, but also in fields, at crossroads and on the streets and in squares of towns and villages throughout the country. In Dublin bonfires were outlawed by the Lord Mayor in the 1700’s, and as a substitute, the towns’ people attached candles to trees and bushes to maintain the tradition in some form. Gradually, during the nineteenth century, coercion bills eliminated bonfires from many towns and villages across Ireland.
Bonfires in previous centuries fed on materials that could easily be obtained; in some areas straw, reeds and wood were collected throughout the whole six months leading up to Midsummer’s Eve, while in other areas the bonfire was principally made of turf, with every inhabitant of the village donating their own share to feed the bonfire. Well into the last century the ancient Irish tradition of burning animal bones continued, some believe in imitation of ancient sacrifices, in certain parts of Munster and Connaught, the addition of which created crackling noises, bright stray sparks, while, at the same time, providing the origin of their very name “bone-fire”, now generally spelled and often pronounced as bonfire.
The Midsummer’s bonfire was thought to increase fertility and produce luck, while passing through the flames of the fire was also thought to provide protection from both the fairies and the evil eye. Many accounts relate how cattle were driven through the flames between two persons who each held lighted sheaf of straw or reeds, known as a “cleer”. Members of the household also jumped through the fire, as did lovers who held hands in the hope of encouraging their own fertility. In County Cavan, a century ago, it was still believed that if you ate your supper by the fire on Midsummer’s Eve you would be protected from hunger throughout the coming year, while farmers often spread a sod of turf, coal, ashes, or even holy water on their crops as a method of protection from diseases including blight on Midsummer Eve.
Games and amusements were performed by many who attended, caps were often grabbed from unsuspecting heads and thrown or, at least, pretended to be thrown in the flames by the more boisterous members of the community. Spectators at the bonfires also fashioned bundles of reeds or straw which, when lit, were waved through the air, and in some places including Belmullet in County Mayo sods of lighted turf where thrown to the sky in the belief that the air would be purified through the motion of these smouldering sods. Additionally, a lighted piece of turf or a coal was often taken from the bonfire and carried home to relight the hearth in the household, which according to many accounts, was annually quenched on Midsummer’s Eve.*
*It is worth mentioning that quenching the fire on Midsummer’s Eve was only observed in some localities, as there was a strong tradition in many parts of Ireland of keeping the hearth fire burning continuously for years, or even decades, on end.
Mac Lir, Mananaan. ‘The Folklore of Months’. Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, Second series II (1896), 157, 316, 365.
Mahon, Rev. Michael P. Ireland’s Fairy Lore, Boston, 1919.
Mason, William Shaw. A Statistical Account or Parochial Survey of Ireland. Dublin, London and Edinburg, 1814-19.
O’Hanlon, Rev. John (Lageniensis). Irish Folk Lore: Traditions and Superstitions of the Country; with Humorous Tales. London, 1870.
Ó Súilleabháin, Amhlaoibh. The Diary of an Irish Countryman 1827 – 1835. Translated from the Irish by Tomás de Bhaldraithe. Cork/Dublin 1970/1979.
Piers, Sir Henry, A Chorographical Description of the County of West-Meath, A.D. 1682
Synge, J. M. In Connemara. Dublin, 1979.
Warburton, John & others. History of the City of Dublin. Dublin, 1818.
Various articles from the Folklore Journal 1881 – 1916
‘The titular saint, or as some express it, the guardian, of this parish, is Columbkill. The 9th of June is his festival day, and is observed most ceremoniously by the old people in the parish: on that day they circumambulate certain places, repeating certain prayers, deified, as it were, for him.
They formerly drove down their cattle to the beach, on that day, and swam them in that part of the sea, into which runs the water of St Columb’s well, which is thereby made holy-water; but this custom, of late, has not been practised.
There is also a traditional story told here, that the earth of a little hillhock (tempo desh,) on the right of the road leading from the chapel to the church, formerly expelled all mice and rats, until the earth of it was vended, when its expelling powers ceased; still, however, they carry all their dead around it, as being an ancient custom.
There is a circular flat stone in the centre of the church-yard, about fourteen inches in diameter, on which are two round hollow places, which they say are prints of Saint Columb’s knees. On that day mass used to be celebrated, but of late, I believe, it has being discontinued.’
A Statistical Account or a Parochial Survey of Ireland – William Shaw Mason.
‘Whitsuntide is a very fatal and unlucky time. Especially beware of water then, for there is an evil spirit in it, and no one should venture to bathe, nor to sail a boat for fear of being drowned; nor to go on a journey where water has to be crossed.
And everything in the house must be sprinkled with holy water at Whitsuntide to keep away the fairies, who at this season are very active and malicious, and bewitch the cattle, and carry off young children, and come up from the sea to hold strange midnight revels, when they kill with their fairy darts the unhappy mortal who crosses their path and pries at their mysteries.’
Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland.
‘until very recently (the peasantry), honoured the memory of the patron saint by assembling in the churchyard to drink and fight, but this custom was put to an end by the parish priest who, a few days before one of our visits, had actually turned the whiskey into a stream, gathered the shillelaghs into a large bonfire and made wrathful and brutal men,who had been enemies for centuries, embrace each other in peace and goodwill over Kevin’s grave.’
Hall’s Ireland, 1842
The more disreputable activities described above did not cease before 1842, as the Hall’s maintain, but continued until 1862, when Cardinal Paul Cullen suppressed the pilgrimage.
‘Lough Derg is in the centre of a lake in the wild and gloomy mountains of Donegal, and can only be approached by boat. The property in which it lies belongs to the Leslies of Glasslough. They have leased the ferry of the island to certain persons, who were contracted to pay them two hundred a year. I think it was in the year 1796, that a boat filled with ‘pilgrims’, as they are called, was lost, on its way across to the lake, owing to the drunkenness of the boatmen.
My father’s anecdote, or rather legend, went on to state that there was a holy priest in the boat who, when it sank with its freight, deliberately walked on the waters of the lake until he reached the island in perfect safety. I recollect observing to my father when he told me this legend: ‘It is strange that if he had the power of walking upon the water, he had not the power of saving the boat and all that were in it.’ He paused and looked at me, but said nothing.’
Wiilliam Carleton’s Autobiography, 1896
Pilgrimages to Lough Derg traditionally, as well as latterly, began in late May or early June, and continued until the Feast of the Assumption, 15 of August.
During the eighteenth and nineteenth century Station Island was often referred to as Saint Patrick’s Purgatory, a name that was adopted from a cave on the island. The cave itself received the name through a legend, where Saint Patrick prayed to God for assistance in converting the Irish, and God, answering his prayer, showed Patrick a cave which led to purgatory, where the horrors of hell could be viewed by pilgrims. The cave remained accessible to pilgrims who visited the island up until 1632, when the cave was closed by order of the Lord Lieutenant.
The Lough Derg Pilgrimage remains one of one Ireland’s most popular pilgrimage sites, and accounts of pilgrimages to the island date back to the twelfth century, with oral accounts bringing the site back to the fifth century. Shane Leslie bequeathed the site to the Bishop of Clougher in 1960.
‘Not willing to have their grass spoiled by the feet of a crowd of dancers, the farmers will sometimes not permit the young people, who meet for the purpose, to dance on their field on Sunday-afternoon. Hence it is no uncommon thing to see groups dancing on the roads on Sundays and holydays, after prayers; no house being able to contain the numbers which, in fine weather, generally meet on those occasions.
It often happens that some innkeeper, in the vicinity of a dance, sends a loaf, of less or more value, not exceeding five shillings, to be given as a premium to the best dancer; in other words to the person who spends most money at the inn. Many times men spend more than they can spare to have the pleasure, and, as they esteem it, honour of dividing the loaf among the dancers.’
‘There was great talk going on about the Omagh train. The boys who had been sold at the fair before said that the best masters came from near the town of Omagh, and so everyone waited eagerly until eleven o’clock, the hour at which the train was due.
It was easy to know when the Omagh men came, for they overcrowded an already big market. Most of them were fat, angry-looking fellows, who kept moving up and down examining us after the manner of men who seek out the good and bad points of horses which they intend to buy.
Sometimes they would speak to each other, saying that they never saw such a lousy and ragged crowd of servants in the market-place in all their life before, and they did not seem to care even if we overheard them say these things. On the whole I had no great liking for the Omagh men.’
Children of the Dead End, 1914.
The Strabane hiring fair was held twice annually, on 12 May and 12 of November. There’s no coincidence that the occasion of the hiring market coincided with the “Gale Days”; traditionally the time when six months rent was paid to the landlord. The difficulty of paying rent led many tenant farmer families to send their children, both sons and daughters – some as young as 12 or 13, to the fair to seek employment as farm labourers or servants, in order to make up the difference with the rent.
Although hiring markets were held throughout all parts Ireland, the one in Strabane was amongst the most popular for the buying and selling of labour. Contemporary accounts described the trains as packed, with an extra fourth class carriage was generally added to cope with large amount of passangers. Labourers and farmers travelled from the surrounding counties, and further still. Remembering the hiring fairs of his youth in the 1920’s Ciarán Ó Nualláin, a native of Strabane and a brother of the great Irish novelist Flann O’Brien, described the congregations that assembled in the streets as; ‘so crowded that you could walk across the streets on the people’s heads!’* Remarkably by the 1940’s the Hiring Fair of Strabane had declined completely.
* The early years of Brian O’Nolan / Flann O’Brien / Myles Na gCopaleen, Ciarán Ó Nualláin, 1998
On May Day, or more particularly, May morning, witches are traditionally believed to be able to steal their neighbour’s milk or butter, so that no amount of churning will create butter. These witches, or hags as they were often known, were usually widowed women, frequently they were poor, and invariably they were known in their community as odd. Anyone visiting a household between sunset on May Eve and sunset on May Day would be treated with great suspicion. People were particular in not giving anything away, especially fire, milk, salt and water as to do so was considered to be risking the household’s luck and milk-profit for the coming year. Tradesmen who worked about the house would have to smoke by the hearth, and extinguish their pipes before they left the dwelling, while beggars who regularly received hospitality at other times of the year would know to avoid calling at Maytime.
To protect the household from harm on May Eve May-flowers, often marigolds or primroses, are strewn across the window-ledges and the threshold of the dwelling, while branches of rowan or mountain ash are placed above the byre and around the boundaries of the land to protect the cattle, who are thought to be particularly vulnerable to evil influence during Maytime. Holy water was sometimes used along with, or as an alternative to, May-flowers or boughs, while milk was in some instances poured on the threshold of the household as an offering to the fairies. Farmers went to special lengths to protect their cattle on May morning. R. Clarke in an 1882 article titled ‘Folklore Collected in County Wexford’ mentioned that on May morning cows are struck with a quicker-berry switch, which prevents any person putting any evil on them or taking their profit or butter.’ While William Wilde tells us that before the famine súgans (straw ropes) were sometimes placed around the necks of cattle on May Eve to protect them against ill luck and the fairies, while another method to protect the cattle against the powers of witchcraft twas to singe the hair on the heads of each of the cattle, or in other cases a sod of coal was passed around the animal.
Farmers would often watch the well though the night on May Eve to ensure that no one tampered with it, as there was great importance attached to being the first on May morning to draw water from the well, this first water was often referred to as the ‘flower of the well’, and was fed to the cattle in the belief that the milk-profit was protected from the power of witchcraft for the season. Conversely, if a witch managed to get to the well first on May morning, having retrieved a cinder from a fire on May Eve, it was believed that by dropping the cinder down the well, in an action known as “burn the well”, she could gain the milk profit of the well’s users for the year to come.
Witches were thought to have many methods for stealing a person’s milk profit on May Day. If a person was seen dragging a straw rope, a spancel, or other object connected with cattle across the dew of a neighbouring farm on May morning they would be presumed to be attempting to steal their neighbour’s milk and butter. On May Day witches were also believed to be able to transform themselves into hares and, in this form, steal the milk-profit from a neighbouring farmer by suckling on the udders of his cows. The ability of ‘old hags’ to transform themselves into hares is noted by Giraldus Cambernsis in his twelfth century text the History and Topography of Ireland, and is the subject of a local legend, still well known in many parts of Ireland that tells of how a farmer upon discovering a hare suckling one of his cow’s udders on May morning chases the hare with his dogs, one of which manages to bite the hare as it passes through a small gap in the wall of a house of a local elderly woman. Upon entering the house the hare is nowhere to be seen, however a wound is discovered on the woman in the same position as the spot where the hare was bitten.
Previously there was great reluctance to be the first household to light a fire on May morning as witches were believed to be able to steal the luck and the milk-profit from the first household that did so, with this in mind people would be waiting for their neighbours’ fires to be lit, watching their chimneys, before they lit their own. In some areas the people waited until the priest’s fire was going, believing that the priest’s close relations with God would act as protection against any threat of witchcraft. An inventive method to protect a household’s milk profit on May morning, noted in the 1890s in County Leitrim, was to ‘get a bunch of rowan leaves, and tie it up the chimney to dry, then on May morn, light this, and let that be the first smoke to go out of the chimney; for witches can do nothing with it.’
If a witch managed to steal your milk-profit there were a number of methods to regain what was lost. The woman of the house, in this situation, is often advised by an outsider to the community on how this can be achieved. In one such instance, an old woman from Mallow related to the American folklorist Jeremiah Curtin that a firebrand was stolen from her house on May morning, the woman went on to explain that a ‘man was sitting there that knew what that meant. He took a piece of peat and threw it into the butter furkin. If he hadn’t done that, we would have been a whole year without butter.’ The Journal of the Kildare Historical and Archaeology Society provides a detailed account of how to retrieve the lost butter along with the consequences the perpetrator would face; ‘If on the May Day’s churning it is discovered that the butter has been already robbed by a witch-woman, a plough-chain should be looped round the churn, which should be placed on three stones, and the colter of the plough should be heated and placed under the churn; it will then be found, on commencing to churn again, that the butter will come; but during the operation no one on any pretex should be allowed into the house. During the heating of the colter the witch-woman will suffer torture; and it is she who will come and endeavour to gain admittance in to the house when the churning is again in full swing, if anyone thoughtlessly let her in, the butter would again disappear to the witch-woman’s house.’
Curtin, Jeremiah. Memoirs of Jeremiah Curtin. Edited by Joseph Schafer. Wisconsin, 1941.
Donaldson, John. A Historical and Statistical Account of the Barony of Upper Fews in the County of Armagh. Dundalk, 1923.
Dorian, Hugh. The Outer Edge of Ulster: A Memoir of Social Life in Nineteenth-Century Donegal. Edited by Breandán Mac Suibhne & David Dickson. Dublin, 2000.
Duncan, Leland L; Whelan Barney; Whelan, Anne; Lynch, Michael; McVittie, Edward; and Drumkeeran. ‘Fairy Beliefs and other Folklore notes from County Leitrim.’ Folklore 7, no. 2 (June 1896), pp. 161-183.
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.
Seymour, St. John D. Irish Witchcraft & Demonology. Dublin, 1913 / New York 1992.
Wilde, William. Irish Popular Superstitions. Dublin 1852, 1972.