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

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

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 currently 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, were 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.

 

 

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.

Thackeray, William Makepeace. The Irish Sketch Book. London. 1842.

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Spilling Blood on Saint Martin’s Eve

Saint Martin’s Eve –

10 November;

395-p-e-somerville-the-goose-girl
The Goose Girl – Edith Sommerville, 1888. Crawford Gallery, Cork.

The tradition of sacrificing a fowl or farm animal on Saint Martin Eve was once widespread in Ireland, and was still strong in many parts of the country into our grandparents’ times. The type of animal slaughtered depended on the means of the household; in wealthier households a pig, lamb, calf, or other animal was generally chosen, while in the majority of households, especially as the nineteenth century progressed, the slaughter of a fowl, generally a goose, chicken, or duck became the most widespread offering to the saint.

Once the creature was slaughtered, to protect the household from evil and to encourage prosperity in the coming year, the blood was spilled and sprinkled over the threshold, about the windows, and in each corner of the dwelling, in some cases, the byre, stables and other outbuilding were protected in a similar manner. On Saint Martin’s Eve the spilling of blood was considered so essential that, in cases where a household could not procure an animal a member of the family would spill some of their own blood,  by cutting the finger, to maintain the custom and ensure the household’s safety.

There are many legends relating to the importance of killing a creature on  Saint Martin’s Eve, for example, versions of the legend below were well known in county Leitrim at the turn of the twentieth century;

‘A man who, having nothing else, killed his only cow in honour of the saint, who rewarded him by increasing his riches in the following year, so that when St Martin’s Day came round again, he was the possessor of many beasts. Then in his plenty, he grudged even a fowl, and by the following 11th November was as poor as he ever was.’

The slaughtered foul or beast was eaten on Saint Martin’s Day which along with Michaelmas and Christmas day were the only holy days when the consumption of meat was permitted.

Sources

Mason,William Shaw. A Statistical Account or Parochial Survey of Ireland. London, 1814-1819

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

 Issues from the Folklore Journal 1896-1916