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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The Dead Among Us – Hallowe’en in Irish Folklore

james-waltr-gozzard
James Walter Gozzard 1888-1950

The souls of the dead were believed to be able to walk among the living between Hallowe’en and All Souls Day. When darkness fell great care was taken by the living to honour and extend hospitality to their own departed. To welcome the wandering dead on Hallowe’en, front doors were left open, food was prepared, and seats were set by the fire, which was built to burn through the night. Before the household retired to bed prayers were said and candles lit for the souls of those family members who had passed away. In parts of County Wexford candles served another purpose, and were placed in the windows of houses to assist departed loved ones in finding their past homes.

While released from their suffering the hospitality extended to the dead was, in part, offered out of respect, but also as a precautionary measure, as the dead were supposed to be jealous of the living, and believed to take revenge over past grievances. Many feared to set foot outside on Hallowe’en; as Lady Wilde explained ‘according to the popular belief, it is not safe to be near a churchyard on Hallow Eve, and people should not leave their homes after dark, or the ghosts would pursue them . . . if on that night you hear footsteps following you, beware of looking round; it is the dead who are behind you ; and if you meet their glance, assuredly you must die.’

For the mothers of babies who had died before baptism, even as they sat at home, Hallowe’en presented  a night of great anguish and sorrow, as prayers could not save the souls of their unbaptised offspring who where thought to be the captives of the fairies, and only released on Hallowe’en when the fairies had their own revels. As a Mayo correspondent wrote to the Graphic newspaper in 1881, unbaptised babies ‘come to gaze hopelessly in at the warm kitchen and the mother from whom it was so crudely torn, while it shivers and wails in the cold. Then she will make the sign of the cross and then weep, but dares not offer up a prayer for the doomed soul, which, she believes, must wander hopelessly for eternity.’

 

Michaelmas in Irish Folklore

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Postcard uncredited

Michaelmas, the feast-day of the Archangel Michael, is traditionally observed throughout Ireland on the 29th September. A host of traditions and beliefs are associated with the day, for example, male children born on, or near, Michaelmas were often called Michael or Micheál in honour of the saint, while in Swinford, County Mayo,  Michaelmas had a special significance and was a time of celebration and reunion; 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 O’Hanlon in his 1870 book Irish Folklore maintained that a sheep used to be slaughtered by those who could afford it, while he also states that, on Michaelmas, 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.’

history_bullbaiting
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. As part of the celebrations in Kilkenny a bull was baited* at a bull-ring situated  near Saint Francis Abbey. 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 fowl 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.