Irish Folklore for Ireland’s winter visitor the Barnacle Goose

George Marples, 1869-1939, Barnacle Geese

From as early as the middle of September each year flocks of barnacle geese, known in Irish as Gé ghiúrainn, make their winter homes on remote sea-cliffs and islands that surround Ireland’s northern and western coasts, where they stay until their eventual departure which commences as the weather starts to warm up, which usually occurs by the following April. We now know that barnacle geese migrate to Ireland, flying thousands of miles in their distinctive V-shaped formation from the sea-cliffs of Greenland where they spend the summer months, mate, nest, and rear their young goslings. Prior to the development of scientific explanations on the migratory habits of birds the mysterious appearance and disappearance of barnacle geese in Ireland, coupled with the absence of evidence of their reproduction, led many to take special notice of the arrival of these winter visitors in Ireland, and to ascribe legendary explanations for the origin and reproduction of barnacle geese.

As winter visitors the date of arrival of barnacle geese on Irish shores is traditionally believed to provide insight into the weather of the coming season. As noted in a number of accounts provided by the Irish Folklore Commission’s Schools’ Collection, which collected folklore from Irish Schoolchildren in the late 1930s, the early arrival of these geese, between late September and early October was believed to be a harbinger of a ‘hard’ or ‘severe winter.’ The early arrival of barnacle geese, however, was not always believed to impact the weather of the whole season; Mary Agnes Bonner of Ardmalin, County Donegal, provided a local belief that gave the premature arrival of the barnacle goose a shorter period of influence over Ireland’s winter weather noting that the geese’s arrival ‘is a sure sign of a month’s bad weather.’

Barnacle Tree, 1597

The mysterious appearance and disappearance of barnacle geese, who neither nest nor rear their young goslings on Irish shores, led to a number of variants of legends that attempted to explain the obscure origin and reproduction of these distinctive winter visitors.  The earliest documented account describing the origin of barnacle geese is recorded in the twelfth century text The History and Topography of Ireland by Giraldus Cambrensis [Gerald of Wales], who claimed to have witnessed the conception of these geese himself, noting that ‘first they appear as excrescences on fir-logs carried down upon the waters. Then they hang by their beaks from what seems like sea-weed clinging to the log, while their bodies, to allow for their more unimpeded development, are enclosed in shells. And so in the course of time, having put on a stout covering of feathers, they either slip into the water, or take themselves in flight to the freedom of the air.’ Similar variants to Cambrensis’ account of the reproduction of barnacle geese were still well remembered in more recent centuries. The Belfast born ornithologist, Edward A. Armstrong noted in his 1940 book Birds of the Grey Wind  the widespread familiarity of the belief ‘that barnacle geese are generated from the shell-fish of the same name.’* Armstrong also noted that in his 1882 hunting manual The Fowler in Ireland Sir Ralph Payne-Gallwey asserted that around the coast of Ireland ‘men were to be found who professed to have seen the transmogrification taking place. Writing for the Schools’ Collection, in the late nineteen thirties, Mick Campbell of Speenoge in County Donegal recalled hearing the old people ‘say that the gosling of the barnacle goose falls from a barnacle that grows on a certain tree, on a certain shore on one particular island of the Orkney- and nowhere else.’

The accepted and widespread conclusion that barnacle geese were not born of flesh had a significant impact on the consumption of food on Ireland’s many and various fast days throughout the year, which included Fridays, Holy Days and Lent. In the twelfth century Giraldus Cambrensis noted that ‘in some parts of Ireland bishops and religious men eat them [barnacle goose] without sin during a fasting time, regarding them not to be flesh, since they were not born of flesh.’ In 1215, just thirty years after Cambrensis’ visit to Ireland, Pope Innocent III saw that it was fit and necessary to specifically forbid the eating of barnacle goose on fast days. Despite Pope Innocent III’s edict, the consumption of barnacle goose by fasting Irish Catholics continued well into the twentieth century. Kevin Danaher in his 1972 seminal work The Year in Ireland confirmed that the tradition of Irish people, including members of the Catholic clergy, eating barnacle goose on fast days, in the belief that the geese were of the sea rather than of flesh, continued until relatively recent times in areas along the west coast of Ireland, including parts of Donegal and Kerry, and that a well-known hotel in Tralee served ‘brent goose# during Lent, mainly for the benefit of the clergy.’

*Edward A. Armstrong thought it probable that the word barnacle was attached to these geese through the similarities between the Latin word for shell-fish – bernaculae, and the Latin word for referring to birds – Hibernicae or Hiberniculae.

      # Brent geese were, and to some extent still are, often confused with barnacle geese. At one time they were they were thought to be of the same species.


Armstrong, Edward Allworthy. Birds of the Grey Wind. Oxford, 1950.

Cambrensis, Giraldus. The History and Topology of Ireland. Translated by John O’Meara. Harmondsworth, 1982.

Danaher, Kevin. The Year in Ireland. Dublin, 1972.

The Last Sheaf – A Harvest Rite for the Old Hag

Traditionally the cutting of the last sheaf of corn is a special rite which, at one time, was observed on many farms throughout Ireland to mark the end of the harvest, generally occurring between late September and early October each year. When the harvest was saved a lone sheaf of corn, wheat, or oats would be left standing in the last field to reaped. This sheaf would then be plaited into the shape of a woman to represent an old woman, a witch, or a hag,* generally known as the Cailleach in Ireland, who was generally blamed for any misfortune suffered by the people throughout the previous year.

A contest of skill between the labourers was then held with the aim of dislodging this lone-standing sheaf from the soil. In the north of Ireland during the early years of the twentieth century proceedings for the contest generally followed the following pattern; labourers, standing at a distance of ten yards, or metres, took turns throwing hooks intending to fell the cailleach. Once the sheaf was felled it was brought triumphantly to the farmer’s wife and hung about her neck, the successful labourer would often take credit for removing misfortune from the mistress and her household, the labourer was generally rewarded for their skill with the first drink, a shilling, or some other small but significant prize. A feast was often provided by the farmer to celebrate the end of harvest, with all involved in the work drinking and dancing through the night.

After the day’s festivities the sheaf was hung in a prominent position in the kitchen, or another room of the farmhouse, and at the end of harvest the following year it was generally relegated to the byre, to make way for the the current year’s sheaf, although in certain cases the sheaf was kept in the kitchen, and would be displayed along with the sheaves from the years that followed.

The tradition seems to have remained strongest in the north of Ireland and was traditionally popular on both Catholics and Protestant farms, where it continued to be practiced as a harvest custom up to the middle the last century.

* also known in some parts as the ‘hare’ or the ‘churn’ with the latter  term sometimes used to describe the feast that followed.


Danaher, Kevin. The Year in Ireland. Dublin 1972.

Evans, E. Estyn. Irish Folk Ways. London, 1957.

Frazer, W and M’Cormick Mr H. M’Neili. ‘Harvest Rites in Ireland’. Folklore, 1914.

Lett, H.W. ‘Winning the Chrun’. Folklore, 1905.

Photograph of Irish harvest workers in 1920, photographer unknown.

Saint Ciarán & the Patron at Clonmacnoise

Located beside the River Shannon in the centre of Ireland stands the ruined sixth-century monastery of Clonmacnoise. Founded by Saint Ciarán, the monastery survived for over a thousand years during which time Clonmacnoise was famed as one of Ireland’s great seats of learning, until it was eventually brought to ruin and looted under the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1552. The name Clonmacnoise, along with some ruins at the site, appear to predate the monastery’s religious associations; with Cluin Mac Nós translating from Irish to English as ‘Meadow of the Sons of Nós.’ Legend has it that the lands were given to Saint Ciarán by Diarmait Mac Cerbaill – who is traditionally held to be the last pagan High King of Ireland. Whether the legend is true or false it is well documented that the Kings of Connaught continued to patronise the monastery of Clonmacnoise until the thirteenth century. In spite the destruction of Clonmacnoise the picturesque ruins of the monastery with its round tower, seven churches, and stone crosses, have continued to attract large crowds of pilgrims on many days throughout the year but, most particularly on the Feast Day of Saint Ciarán which falls on the ninth of September each year. In 1816 the Reverend Patrick Fitzgerald, who was then Vicar of the Parish Clonmacnoise, stated that on Saint Ciarán’s Day from ‘3000 to 4000 people assemble there to do penance from different parts of Ireland,’ remarking that some had travelled from as far away as Donegal.

1860s engraving by H. Griffiths

In his book The Holy Wells of Ireland Patrick Logan remarked that by 1980 the traditional longer station at Clonmacnoise had declined in recent decades and had been replaced by a significantly shorter station. The longer station was made up of three circuits, with each circuit. it was usual for a person to do the station barefoot less than a century ago. The station began at Saint Ciarán’s Well, continuing through to the cloister, on to the stone crosses, and further on to the Nun’s church. At each place prayers were offered and decades of the rosary were recited. Logan estimated that to complete the ‘long station’ would take a person over four hours.

Although devotion was the primary objective of those who visited Clonmacnoise many devotees hoped to find cures for a wide variety of long lingering ailments. In 1813, while visiting Clonmacnoise, the Reverend James Hall noticed that pilgrims in their ‘thousands believe that the waters of the well, at the ruins, gives the blind their sight, and makes the lame walk.’ While a cure for toothache could be got by visiting a tree at the religious site according to a relative of Nora Killeen, who provided the traditional belief in the Schools’ Collection in the late nineteen-thirties.* If a pilgrim suffered from epilepsy they could find a cure by sitting on a stone on which, legend had it, Saint Ciarán had sat. Finally, according to Lady Jane Wilde, a woman can clasp her arms around Saint Ciarán’s Cross she ‘would never die in childbirth.’

As the burial site of its founder Saint Ciarán, one of the most revered of the Irish saints, it is to be expected that the graveyard of Clonmacnoise remained a popular burial site in the centuries that followed the saint’s death. However, the thirteenth century ancient Registry of Clonmacnoise, which contains transcriptions from the Life of Saint Ciarán, noted another reason for the preference of being buried at Clonmacnoise. The entry explains that Saint Ciarán was granted a favour from God that no soul buried at Clonmacnoise should be deprived of salvation. While visiting Clonmacnoise in 1813 Reverend James Hall noted that this the above guarantee of salvation was still widely to be true, and that ‘those buried near the ruins have half their sins forgiven, and that the soul only remains half the time in purgatory it otherwise would.’ Those buried at Clonmacnoise did not even need to fear purgatory according to an account collected for the Schools’ Collection by a young school girl named Bridget Feehily, who noted that it is ‘believed that all persons who were interred in the Holy Grounds belonging to it insured to themselves a sure and immediate ascent to Heaven.’

* The Schools’ Collection was a project set up by the Irish Folklore Commission which asked young schoolchildren in the late 1930s to gather folklore from their older relations and neighbours.


Tales of the Elders of Ireland. Translated by Ann Dooley and Harry Roe. Oxford 1999.

Fitzgerald, Patrick, “Parish of Clonmacnoise”, Mason, William Shaw. A Statistical Account or Parochial Survey of Ireland. Dublin, London and Edinburgh, 1816.

Hall, James (Rev).  Tour Through Ireland; Particularly the Interior and Least Known Parts. London, 1813.

Logan, Patrick. The Holy Wells of Ireland. Buckinghamshire, 1980.

O’Hanlon, John (Rev), Lives of the Irish Saints. New York, 1905.

Otway, Caesar. A Tour of Connaught. Dublin, 1839.

Wilde, Lady Jane, Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland. London, 1888.

Top illustration graphite and watercolour ‘The Last Circuit at Clonmacnoise’, George Petrie, 1838, housed in the National Gallery of Ireland.

Second illustration 1860s engraving by H. Griffiths.

The Fair of Donnybrook

Richard  Warburton, 1818; ‘It is however at the fair of Donnybrook, that the natural humour and peculiar character of the lower classes of the metropolis are best seen. Donnybrook is a pleasant village contiguous to the south suburbs of the city.

It has a green or common, on which the fair is held, in the month of August. It is regularly proclaimed, and is attended by police officers, whose interposition is indispensable to preserve the peace. The fair, which is held for the sale of horses and black cattle, lasts a week, during which time every mode of amusement and gymnastic exercise peculiar to the Irish is practised, each day concluding with a pitched battle, in which much blood is spilled, and many heads broken, but rarely and life lost.

The Green is covered with tents, and filled with pipers, fiddlers, and dancers; and of late years has been introduced mimes, mountebanks, shows of wild beasts, and all these spectacles, but on a much more limited scale, which are to be found at Bartholomew fair.

During the continuance of this fair, Harcourt-street, and the other avenues leading to it, present extraordinary spectacles, particularly in the evenings. Almost all the carriages, which plied at other ends of the town now assemble here, and while they go to and from the fair they are crowded at all hours with company. The din and tumult of the roads on these occasions is inconceivable, particularly during the stillness of night; form the vociferation, laughter and fighting of these turbulent cargoes, a noise ascends which is heard for several miles in all directions.

The attachment of the populace to this amusement is so great, that the Lord Mayor finds it necessary to proceed there in person at the expiration of the limited time, and, striking the tents, compel the people to go home.’

History of Dublin

Donnybrook Fair traditionally ran for a week, from the 26 August each year, however the fair could, and often did, run for a fortnight.  The  fair was held annually on that date for seven hundred years, from the middle of the thirteenth century and continuing until the 1850’s. Various attempts, which eventually found success, were made by the Dublin authorities to put an end to the drunken debauched riots that invariably accompanied, and often overshadowed the intended trade of black cattle and horses at Donnybrook Fair.

Although the Fair at Donnybrook has not been held in over a century and half the fair’s reputation has been kept alive up till today through songs, poems and stories; the Dublin poet Austin Clarke recorded the following verse poem in his second autobiography, A Penny in the Clouds, over a century after the last fair in 1962;

‘Tis there are dogs dancing and wild beasts a-prancing.

With neat bits of painting in red, yellow and gold,

Toss-players and scramblers, and showmen and gamblers,

Pickpockets in plenty, both young and old.

There are brewers, and bakers, and jolly shoemakers,

with butchers and porters, and men that cut hair;

There are mountebanks grining,

while others are singing

To keep the honours of Donnybrook Fair.’


Clarke, Austin. A Penny in the Clouds: More Memories of Ireland and England. 1968.

Evans, E. Estyn. Irish Folk Ways. London, 1957.

Hall, S.C. (Mr & Mrs). Hall’s Ireland, London,1840.

Warburton, Richard. History of Dublin. Dublin, 1818.

The Feast of the Assumption & the Lady well at Modeligo in County Waterford

Holy Well near Modeligo, Waterford

Gordon W. Foksayeth, 1911; ‘In the parish of Modeligo, on the right bank of the Finisk, there may be found a remarkable specimen of the many holy wells of Ireland.

The name “well” is really deceptive : for the water is merely rainwater, and does not derive its existence from any spring, but is simply contained in a bath-shaped receptacle in a piece of limestone jutting up from the surface of the land. The dimensions of the well are about 4 feet long, by 3 feet broad, and 2 feet deep. I have called it bath-shaped, as it is an oval in appearance, and seems to be an unusually large bullaun, or a natural cavity in the rock. There is generally about six inches of water in it, and a legend asserts the existence of an inscribed cross and an inscription on the bottom. I have seen the cross myself, but it seems to be merely an accidental mark on the stone.

On the 14th day of August, the water is removed from the basin, and a fresh supply put in, by a man who lives close by; and the following day a pattern used to take place in the olden times. People may still be seen to congregate on the aforesaid date, and they invariably hang mementoes, in the shape of rags or other objects, on the ancient hawthorn bush that grows beside the well.

Tradition asserts that this well formerly existed some distance from its present position, and that a trooper of Cromwell’s led his blind horse, in mockery, around it, in order to find out and test the miraculous powers of the place. The horse was cured, but the soldier became blind, and the following day the well had taken up its present position. The place is known to the natives as the tobar beannuighte, and is marked on the 0. S. as ” Lady Well.”‘.

Text and photograph taken from the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquities Ireland, 1911

Puck Fair of Killorglin in County Kerry

Puck Fair
Puck Fair Killorglin, circa 1900 – From the National Library of Ireland’s Photographic Collection

John M. Synge, circa 1900;

‘The greatest event in West Kerry is the horse-fair known as Puck Fair, which is held in August.

If one asks anyone, many miles east or  west of Killorglin, when he reaped his oats or sold his pigs or heifers, he will tell you it was four or five weeks, or whatever it may be, before or after Puck.

On the main roads, for many days past, I have been falling in with tramps and trick characters of all kinds, sometimes single and sometimes in parties of four or five, and as I am on the roads a great deal I have met the same persons several days in succession – one day perhaps at Ballinskelligs, the next day at Feakle Callaigh and the third in the outskirts of Killorglin.

Yesterday cavalcades of every sort were passing from the west with droves of horses, mares, jennets, foals and asses, with their owners going after them in flat or railed carts or riding on ponies.

The men of this house – they are going to buy a horse – went to the fair last night, and I followed at an early hour in the morning. As I came near Killorglin the road was much blocked by the latest sellers pushing eagerly forward, and early purchasers who were anxiously leading off their young horses before the roads became dangerous from the crush of drunken drivers and riders.

Just outside the town, near the public house, blind beggars were kneeling on the pathway, praying with almost Oriental volubility for the souls of anyone who would throw them a coin.

“Mary the Holy Immaculate Mother of Jesus Christ,” said one of them, “intercede for you in the hour of need. Relieve a poor blind creature, and may Jesus Christ relieve yourselves in the hour of death. May He have mercy, I’m saying, on your brothers and fathers and sisters for evermore.”

Further on stalls were set out with cheap cakes and refreshments, and one could see that many houses had been arranged to supply the crowds who had come in. Then I came to the principal road that goes around the fair-green, where there was a great concourse of horses, trotting, walking and galloping; most of them were of the cheaper class of animals, and were selling, apparently to the people’s satisfaction, at prices that reminded one of the time when fresh meat was sold for three pence a pound.

At the further end of the green there were one or two rough shooting galleries and a number of women – not very rigid, one could see – selling, or appearing to sell, all kinds of trifles: a set that came in, I am told, from towns not far away. At the end of the green I turned past the chapel, where a little crowd  had just carried in a man who had been killed or badly wounded by a fall from a horse, and went down to the bridge of the river and then back again into the main slope of the town. Here there were a number of people who had come in for amusement only, and were walking up and down, looking at each other – a crowd is as exciting as champagne to these lonely people, who live in long glens among the mountains – and meeting  with cousins and friends.

Then, in a three-cornered space in the middle of the town, I came on Puck himself, a magnificent he-goat (Irish puc), raised on a platform twenty feet high, and held by a chain from each horn, with his face down the road.  He is kept in position, with a few cabbages to feed on, for three days, so that he may preside over the pig-fair, the horse-fair and the day of winding up.’

In Wicklow, West Kerry and Connemara. 1911.

Puck Fair is held annually for three days from the 10th of August in the West Kerry town of Killorglin. Each of the three days received its own name, therefore; the 10th August is ‘Gathering Day’, the 11th is ‘Fair Day’, and the 12th ‘Scattering Day’.  Puck Fair is reputedly the most ancient fair still held in Ireland. The fair was granted an official licence by James I in 1603, but the fair was held for centuries prior this licence being granted.

Saint Molua’s Day in East Limerick

Mananaan MacLir, 1897; ‘The 3rd of August* is “St Molua’s Day” in East Limerick, and at this date a large “patron” is still held at Tobar Molua, ie., “St Molua’s Well,” a rural district (in the townland of Balline and parish of Emly-Grenane), about seven miles east of Killmallock, and near Clareen cross-roads.

Arrived there the pilgrim turns up a bye-road or lane leading to St Molua’s grave-yard, where an abbey formerly stood, portions of the wall of which (of cyclopean masonry) may still be seen incorporated in the boundary wall of the graveyard, which was sometime since erected by the Kilmallock Poor Law Board, acting as a sanitary authority. Proceeding past the grave-yard a little farther east we come on “St Molua’s Well,” situate nearly mid-way in a large green field, and without a shrub or bush of any kind, a very unusual circumstance in connection with such shrines.

The manner of “paying rounds” here is peculiar. The devotion consists in first reciting a rosary of six Paters, sixty Aves, and six Glorias, while travelling over a well-beaten circular path around the holy well, after which another rosary of five Paters, sixty Aves, and five Glorias is recited while kneeling at the well’s brink. The water is then drank of and some taken away in bottles or jars for consumption in the houses of the pilgrims. It is looked on as a good omen if the pilgrims behold the fresh water stickle-back in the well – here known as “St Molua’s trout” – while performing their devotions. To have the “rounds” prove efficacious it is locally considered that they must be performed on three consecutive Saturdays, and even then, before sunrise. As the district is a rural one, far from a town, or even village, this last stipulation is not easily accomplished. From “St Molua’s Day” (August 3) to the 15th, however, those restrictions are not in force, and “rounds” may be performed at any time on those privileged days.

St Molua’s Well is now principally resorted to for the cure of ague (malaria or another illness involving fever and shivering) and kindred complaints, and such is the belief in the efficacy if this illness that the writer has been informed of many Irish -Americans who (afflicted with ague in the land of their adoption) who have written home to their kindred in the old land to visit St Molua’s Well on their behalf, and thus, by deputy, at the saint’s shrine, ask his intercession for them. We may add, we were informed that this pilgrimage was very often efficacious.’

Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society.

Illustration by an unidentified artist.

* Most sources maintain that Saint Molua’s Day is the 4th of August.

The Festival of Lughnasa & Welcoming the Harvest Season

As one of the four quarter days of the Irish year the festival of Lughnasa is traditionally observed on or near the first of August and welcomes the beginning of the harvest season, and the end of the hungry days of July which many of our ancestors endured as they awaited the coming of harvest for the ripening of their crops. The bright weather, long days, and abundant harvests, with the stores of fruits, vegetables and grains ready to be picked, reaped or dug, meant that the celebrations of Lughnasa are traditionally held outdoor at both populous and remote locations, varying from observations on Ireland’s three other quarter days Samhain, Imbolc, and Bealtaine, as the traditions and observations carried out during these festivals tend to be centred around the home.

In the Irish language the month of August is known as Lughnasa after the Tuatha De Danann god Lugh – with the literal meaning of Lughnasa being ‘Lugh’s gathering.’ Ireland’s ancient texts credit Lugh as the creator rather than the inspiration of the festival – that particular honour having been generally given to his deceased foster-mother Tailtiu, for whom the festival was named the Fair of Tailteann [Fair of Telltown]. The fair was held on the banks of the River Blackwater between towns of Kells and Navan in County Meath over a number of weeks which culminated on the first day of August.* The Fair of Tailteann is depicted as a sort of Irish Olympic Games, where many partook in sport and competitions, including chariot racing, archery, fidchel (an Irish version of chess), but the fair was also a gathering for contracting marriages, leases, and sales of livestock for the coming year. Some sources suggest that marriages at Tailteann were of a temporary nature and could be annulled at the festival the following year.

Echoes of the ancient festival of Lughnasa have continued into our own times and traditions that reflect the cultural and societal changes over thousands of years. However, Lugh’s association with the festival is now noticeable more through the influence of his name rather than his deeds. Tales from Irish folk tradition has largely displaced Lugh’s participation in our seasonal harvest legends. The Irish folklorist Máire MacNeill remarked in her landmark book The Festival of Lughnasa that ‘the dominant theme of the festival legends was a struggle between two persons, who must originally have been gods, and that the two main actors are usually named Crom Dubh~ and Saint Patrick. One of those, we may presume, has taken the part of Lugh.’ She goes on to conclude that ‘Lugh would certainly have had the role of victor, as Saint Patrick has.’ An explanation of the Irish deity Crom Dubh should probably be given at this juncture. Crom Dubh is often said by Irish folklorist to be related to the fertility god Crom Cruach. As is often the case with Irish deities, clues to their identity can be discovered from the descriptiveness of their names; the Irish folklorist Dáithí Ó hÓgain explained that the name Crom Dubh ‘has been taken to mean ‘black stoop’’, while speculating that the name ‘may have actually signified ‘dark croucher’, an image of the devil.’ This battle between Patrick and Crom Dubh in these terms can be seen to represent a battle between good and evil, and perhaps, plentifulness and starvation. In many of these legends Saint Patrick invariably gets the better of Crom Dubh in what could be described as a contest of trickery, while in other legends Crom Dubh’s soul is saved by the weight of his good deeds.

Legends of Crom Dubh’s importance and relevance to the season have survived in the Irish imagination for many centuries and Crom Dubh is often perceived as a provider. In 1870, for example, Canon John O’Hanlon made the following remark on the persistence of worshiping Crom Dubh; noting that in west County Clare at Tullagh na Greine [Hill of the Sun] near Slieve Callan ‘the people are said to have sacrificed to their tutelary divinity on the 1st of August, during the Pagan period; and such traditions still survive in their neighbourhood.’ Devotion to the god was also noted by the Rev. Michael P. Mahon half a century later in his 1919 volume Ireland’s Fairy Lore, where he remarked that ‘It is most interesting to hear them call the first Sunday in August domnac Cruim Duib, or Cromm Dubh’s Sunday, as if he were one of the saints of the Calendar.’ However, Saint Patrick’s victory over Crom Dubh can be seen through Ireland’s many religious traditions that continue to be celebrated on or near the first of August, and particularly by Ireland’s largest gathering at the beginning of the season which sees tens of thousands of  people undertake pilgrimages to Croagh Patrick on the last Sunday of July each year.

For the past few centuries the date upon which Lughnasa has been observed has varied between one region or another. The first of August is often, though not always, displaced with the traditional and still ancient mass gatherings that occur annually in remote areas on the last Sunday of July or the first Sunday of August. In a similar fashion, though through civic law rather than religious tradition, fairs like Puck Fair in Killorglin, County Kerry, and the Fair at Greencastle, County Down, are held on the traditional date according to the Julian Calendar – and so commence between the tenth and twelfth of August each year. ^ As the weather is generally better at this time of year these remote gatherings and urban markets have always served as opportunities for those who attend to compete in sports and to mix with the opposite sex.

Since the festival that marks the beginning of the harvest season and follows on from hungry July it is hardly surprising that some found great difficulty in resisting the temptation to harvest their crops before the first of August. Ireland’s changing from the Julian Calendar to the Gregorian Calendar in 1752 made the first of August come eleven days earlier in the season than it previously did. Some farmers attempted to keep to the older calendar by holding off beginning to harvest their crops until the eleventh of August, while others who found that their crops were not ready would ritually dig up a sample of their crops the first of the August. This tradition was still observed in County Donegal at the end of the nineteenth century as Hugh Dorian describes in the following extract from his 1889 biography The Outer Edge of Ulster ‘everyone who has a crop to fasten on makes it a point to open the new clay or as they say “bleed the crop” on the first day of August. To fulfil the observance of digging on the first of the month, some would do so at a loss to the green crop, it not being in perfection, but then they withdraw hands for some days till nearer ripe.’ As with crops Lughnasa was a time when rites were performed to secure the protection of livestock. Sir Henry Piers noted in 1682 that on the first Sunday of August it was at one time customary for local farmers in County Westmeath to ‘drive their cattle into some pool or river, and therein swim them’, explaining that by doing ‘this they observe as inviolable as if it were a point of religion, for they think no beast will live the whole year thro’ unless they be thus drenched.’

    *In the 1920s the, above mentioned, Tailtain games were briefly revived by the newly established Irish Free State.

    ^ The introduction of the Gregorian Calendar in 1752 displaced and created alternative festivals – which in some cases eclipsed the original date, but just as often continued on the old date with shared and their own distinct activities and observances.


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.

Ledwidge, Francis E. Legends and stories of the Boyneside. 1913

Mahon, Michael P., Rev. Ireland’s Fairy Lore. Boston, 1919.

McGlinchey, Charles. The Last of the Name. Edited by Brian Friel. Belfast, 1986.

MacNeill, Máire. The Festival of Lughnasa: A Study of the Survival of the Celtic Festival of the Beginning of Harvest. Dublin, 1962-2008.

O’Hanlon, John (Lageniensis). Irish Folk Lore: Traditions and Superstitions of the Country; with Humorous Tales. London, 1870.

Ó hÓgain, Dáithí. Myth, Legend & Romance: An Encyclopaedia of the Irish Folk Tradition. London 1990.

Otway, Caesar. A Tour of Connaught. Dublin, 1839.

Piers, Sir Henry, A Chorographical Description of the County of West-Meath,  A.D. 1682

Painting is ‘The Potato Gathers in the West’, 1902, by Charles McIvor Grierson, available to view at Crawford Art Gallery, Cork.

Illustration is Saint Patrick and Crom Cruaich by L.D. Symingtom, 1907.

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.’