The Bonfire on Saint John’s Eve

Offaly –

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Saint John’s Eve, 23 June –

Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna, circa 1815;

‘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.’

Personal Recollections, 1841

Sundays & Dancing at the Crossroads

Leitrim-

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Rev James Hall, Drumsna;

‘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.’

Tour Through Ireland, 1813

Halloween Divination in Ireland

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Illustrated London News, 1871

In Ireland Hallowe’en was the most popular night of the year to practice divination, which provided much amusement and excitement. As summer turned to winter on this night, the boundaries between this world and the Otherworld were believed to be less pronounced, and so on Hallowe’en many games, rituals and rites were, and still are, performed partly in earnest and partly in fun, with the object of gaining insight into one’s fate.

One activity involved setting several objects out in saucers or plates, which were then laid on a table. The objects in the saucers varied from region to region, and even between one house and another, but generally included some of the following; a ring, a piece of wood, clay, a bean, a coin, salt,  water, a button or a thimble. Once the saucers were set, a blindfolded person would pick one, the item which the person touched was symbolically believed to indicate their future situation in life.  A ring meant the person would be married, a piece of wood or clay meant that they would die young, a bean or a rag meant that they would always be poor, while a coin indicated that they would be wealthy, salt was for luck, water meant that they would emigrate or travel, while a button or thimble would die bachelor or a spinster.

In another game nuts were used to determine if two young people would be good together when married. Two nuts were named after the pair and placed on the grate or on the turf ashes of the fire, to burn side by side. Chestnuts, wall-nuts and hazelnuts were traditionally the most popular for this activity, while grains of wheat were also sometimes used. If the nuts burned together it was taken as a sign that the young couple would end their days happily married to one and other, however, the pair would not marry if one hopped off, while if one burned fully and not the other, it was taken as a sign of unrequited love.

Other activities took place outside the house on Hallowe’en, for example, cabbages were picked by blindfolded young women*on that night, in the belief that the appearance of the cabbage would reflect the attributes of their future husbands. If a well grown cabbage was picked it indicated that the girl would have a handsome husband, while if the cabbage had a rotten or crooked stalk it was said to signify that the girl’s husband would be a “stingy old man”. A cabbage with two heads was said to protend that the girl would end a widow, while if the cabbage was hollow in the centre it foretold that the young woman would never marry and end her days as a spinster. Additionally, the number buds on the cabbage were believed to correspond the number of children the marriage would produce, and many accounts state that the cabbage must be stolen.

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Illustrated London News, 1865, by  J.T. Lucas

While the above practices were carried out in company, other forms of divination were traditionally carried out by isolated individuals. These practices often commenced at midnight, and were always performed in the name of the devil. One described by Lady Jane Wilde as “the most fearful of all” involved a girl uttering an incarnation before a looking-glass, in the expectation of catching a glimpse of her future husband, it happened sometimes that instead of seeing their future love, the looking-glass instead reflected an image “too terrible to describe”, and the girl from shock would either die or spend the rest of her days in a state of great distress.

Many of these rites were aimed at inducing a dream of one’s future lover. One method of achieving this was to eat a salted egg, a smoked herring, or some other food that would cause thirst  – in the hope that whilst asleep your future lover would come to your aid in a dream with a glass of water. Another rite, which was supposed to give you a glimpse future love while sleeping, involved gathering ten ivy or yarrow leaves – cut with a black handled knife, and without speaking a word. The tenth leaf was thrown away, while the remaining nine were sneaked into the house once everyone was asleep, and were then placed under a pillow in a sock or stocking, with only the following words uttered:-

“Nine ivy leaves I place under my head,

To dream of the living and not of the dead.

If ere I be married or wed unto thee,

To dream of her to-night, and her for to see,

The colour of her hair, and the clothes that she wears,

And the day that she’ll be wedded to me.”

* In some areas, including parts of County Mayo, both young women and men participated in this activity.

Sources

Donaldson, John. A Historical and Statistical Account of the Barony of Upper Fews in the County of Armagh, 1838.

McGlinchey, Charles, The Last of a Name

Wilde, Lady Jane. Ancient Cures, Charms and Usages in Ireland. 1890

Folklore, various articles, 1881-1916

Journal of the Kildare Historical and Archaeological Society, 1908

Processions, Tributes & the Láir Bhán at Samhain

Cork –

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Illustration by Niamh Ní Ruairc of Wytchwood Creations, 2016.

William Hackett, 1853;

‘It is not many years since on Samhain’s eve, 31st October, a rustic procession perambulated the district between Ballycotton and Trabolgan, along the coast.

The parties represented themselves as messengers of Muck Olla, in whose name they levied contributions on farmers; as usual they were accompanied by sundry youths, sounding lustily on cows’ horns; at the head of the procession was a figure enveloped in a white robe or sheet, having, as it were, the head of a mare, this personage was called the Láir Bhán, “the white mare,” he was a sort of president or master of ceremonies. A long string of verses was recited at each house.

In the second dispatch we distinctly mentioned two names savouring strongly of paganism, the archaeological reader will understand what they were. Though they did not disturb the decorum of the assembly, they would not have been allowed to be publicly uttered elsewhere, for these people, and, indeed, all our peasantry are very free from any coarse expressions.

The other verses purported to be uttered by a messenger of Muck Olla, in which it was set forth, that, owing to the goodness of that being, the farmer whom they addressed had been prosperous all his life, that his property would continue as long as he was liberal in his donations in honour of Muck Olla; giving a very uninviting account of the state in which his affairs would fall should the Muck Olla withdraw his favour, and visit him with the vengeance certain to follow any illiberal or churlish treatment of his men.

Whether it was owing to the charm of the poetry or the cogency of the appeal, the contributions were in general of a liberal scale, every description of gifts was bestowed, milk, butter, eggs, corn potatoes, wool, &c. To distribute the accumulated store, it was the regular practice for a sort of rural merchant or two to await the return of the group and purchase the whole stock, distributing each share to each according to conventional arrangement of the respective ranks.’

Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries Ireland, 1855.

Although Hackett believed the word Muck Olla to be a deity, the Irish Folklorist, Kevin Danaher, speculates that it could have its root in the Irish word for echo – macalla.

If you would like a print of the above drawing please contact Niamh Ní Ruairc at www.facebook.com/wytchwoodcreations/

The Last Sheaf – A Harvest Rite for the Old Hag

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Irish harvest workers, 1920s. Photographer unknown

Two hundred years ago the cutting of the last sheaf of corn, or cailleach ‘old hag/witch/wife’*, as it was generally known in Ireland, was observed as a special rite on many farms throughout the country. The corn harvest was typically saved by late September or early October, on the final day a bunch of corn was left standing in the corner of the last field to be harvested, this sheaf would be plaited to symbolically represent an old woman, witch, or hag, who was generally blamed for any misfortune suffered by the people.

A contest of skill was then devised to dislodge this sheaf. In the north of Ireland, a century ago, they generally followed this 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, and was 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 the kitchen, or other 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 next years’ sheaf, although in certain cases the sheaf was kept in the kitchen and displayed with the last sheaves of previous years.

The tradition seems to have remained strongest in the north of Ireland, with both Protestants and Catholics, where it was still practised, although sporadically well into 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.

 

Sources

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.

Michaelmas in Irish Folklore

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Postcard uncredited

Michaelmas is the feast-day of the Archangel Michael and is traditionally observed throughout Ireland on the 29th September. A host of tradition is attached to this date, for example, male children born on, or near, Michaelmas were often called Michael or Micheál in his honour. While in Swinford, County Mayo, in the early twentieth century,  Michaelmas had a special significance; as many locals returned to Swinford from working the harvest in England on, or before, the day of the feast, according to John Millington Synge the returned harvesters would be, ‘sitting around in each other’s houses playing cards through the night, and a barrel of ale set up among them.’

As with many Irish calendar customs food took a central role in the activities of the day. An animal – usually a goose, which was generally referred to as a Michaelmas Goose, was slaughtered and eaten in honour of the saint. John Hannon in his 1870 book Irish Folklore maintained that a sheep used to be slaughtered by those who could afford it on Michaelmas day, while he also states that it was ‘ordained by law that a part of the animal must be given to the poor. This is said to have been done, in order to perpetuate the memory of a miracle wrought by St Patrick, through the assistance of that Archangel.’

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uncredited

Michaelmas also acted as a marker for certain civic and domestic activities. In many Irish towns, including Drogheda, Dublin and Kilkenny, the Mayor took office on Michaelmas Day. Up until the first decades of the 19th century, on the feast day of Saint Michael, a bull was baited* at a bull-ring situated  near Saint Francis Abbey in Kilkenny. In some areas Michaelmas was one of the two annual rent days, previously known in Ireland as Gale Days, (the other being the 25 March), in place of the more usual Gale Days of the first days of May and November. Domestically the woman of the house started slaughtering the foul at Michaelmas, with the first goose slaughtered becoming the “Michaelmas Goose”, while for the men, the day marked the beginning of the fox and hare hunting seasons, and, in many parts of Ireland, the end of the fishing season.

Otherworldly creatures were active at Michaelmas, and children were warned not to eat blackberries after Michaelmas eve, as it was believed that the púca  flies through the county defiling the blackberries on that night.** Michaelmas was also a time for divination; a Michaelmas cake was baked on the night of Michaelmas with a ring mixed through the dough, exactly as is still done on Hallowe’en. Portions of the cake were then distributed amongst any unmarried persons who were present, with the belief that whomever discovered the ring was destined to be wed before next Michaelmas.

 

*Bull-baiting typically involved a bull being attacked by dogs, while trapped in an area, often a pit of some kind.

**The púca, sometimes spelled pooka, is a shape-shifting spirit that most commonly takes the form of a horse, but can also take the form of other animals, it was also said that the púca defiled blackberries on Hallowe’en.

 

Sources

Hannon, John (Lageniensis), Irish Folk Lore: Traditions and Superstitions of the Country; with Humouress Tales. London1870.

Mason, William Shaw. A Statistical Account or Parochial Survey of Ireland. Dublin, London and Edinburgh, 1814-19.

Synge, J. M. In Connemara. Dublin, 1910/1979.

Various articles from the Folklore Journal, up until 1920, as well as Transactions of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society, 1852 and the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, 1897.

The Fair of Donnybrook

Dublin-

26 August-

Donnybrook Fair
Donnybrook Fair – Erskine Nicol, 1859

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 untill 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.

Patrick’s Stack: Reek Sunday & other Irish Traditions associated with the Last Sunday of July

County Mayo –

Croagh Patrick & Rosbeg - Westport
Croagh Patrick & Rosbeg – Westport (Postcard)

William Thackeray, 1842, The Croagh Patrick Pilgrimage;

‘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.’

The Irish Sketch Book  1842

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, where Saint Patrick is said to have fasted for 40 days. Pilgrimages have been made to this mountain for over four thousand years, with the site originally hosting pagan gatherings which were later gradually became Christianised.

Although the pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick was, and continues to be, the most popular and infamous tradition associated with the last Sunday of July, there were other traditions, some maybe still surviving, which were practiced on mountains, hills and on strands across Ireland, which served to mark the end of summer, and welcomed in the harvest.

Activities 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 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.

Sources

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.

Saint Maelruain’s Feast Day

 

Dublin-

Saint Maelruain's Chuch, Tallaght
Saint Maelruain’s Chuch, Tallaght. Laurence Collection 1870-1914

WSA 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 drunkeness 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 of 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, and to dance and fight around his grave.’

Neighbourhood of Dublin, 1921.

Sunday Amusements

Sligo-

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Rev James Hall, 1817;

‘On the rising ground – on the south-east of Sligo, where a camp was formed in 1798, there is an extensive, beautiful view. Indeed the hills all around have a curiously fantastic appearance; particularly Malachwee, to which in fine weather, the people go on Sunday, to drink and amuse themselves.

It is a generally prevalent custom with every person who visits Malachwee, to carry up a stone with him. In consequence of this custom there is, at the top of it, a cairn or heap, which, at the distance of eight or ten miles, appears like a farm-house. I endeavoured to ascertain the origin of this custom, but could not….as ploughs, carts, barrows, &c go here on Sunday.’

Tour Through Ireland