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.

Saint John’s Day, “Tell it in Toberona”

Louth-

Saint John's Well, Toberona
Saint John’s Well, Toberona -Photograph by John P. Swift

John Swift, Toberona;

‘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.

 

Saint Finian’s Day

Laois-

patternDay

Rev John Baldwin, Curate – 1819; ‘The people of Rearymore Parish annually assemble, on the 12th of December, at Saint Finian’s well, to celebrate the festival of their Patron Saint. The well consists of three or four holes in the solid rock always full of water, and is surrounded by old hawthorns, which are religiously preserved by the natives: it is also customary for the common people to go round this well on their bare knees, by way of penance and mortification.’

William Shaw Mason, A Statistical Account, or a Parochial Survey of Ireland iii

 

The Lady Well at Modeligo

Waterford-

Holy Well near Modeligo, 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.”‘.

Journal of the Royal Society  of Antiquities Ireland, 1911

Saint Molua’s Day

Limerick-

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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.

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

St. Ita’s Day

Limerick – 15 January:-

ita
Saint Ita

Mananann Mac Lir, Parish of Killeedy, 1895;

‘”St Ita’s Day” falls on the 15th of January, on which day a large gathering – “Pattern,” ie “Patron” is held at Killeedy [Ita’s Church], a rural district about six miles south-west of Newcastle West, and about an equal number north-west of Dromcolloher.

The Catholic clergy of the deanery have developed a most praiseworthy method of having this “patron day” properly observed. On each 15th of January they also assemble here, and at the little rural chapel of Raheena a solelm high mass is celebrated, and a suitable sermon on the life and distinguishing characteristics of the saint is preached. No manual work is done on St Ita’s Day in the Parish of Killeedy, and female children born in January in this parish are usually christened Ita, in honour of this saint – “The Mary of Munster,” as she is sometimes called.

“Rounds” are paid to St Ita’s Well, and an oblong hole in the ground near is called “St Ita’s Bed,” where if childbearing women roll themselves they will not suffer the pains of childbirth. Needless to add, no decent woman would do this in public, but I am told several come here privately on bye-days for that purpose, or take home a handful of the earth from the “Bed,” for the purpose of rubbing it around their bodies in the name of the Holy Trinity.

Near “St Ita’s Well” is a stone, which is said to bear the impress of the hoof of St Ita’s favourite ass. This beast was used for the purpose of bringing new milk to her convent here, from a farm she had four miles farther west, whither the donkey repaired every day, and without a guide. Someone who was acting as caretaker for the saint there milked the cows, when the milk was then placed in the two empty pails, which hung like panniers, one on each side of the faithful beast. On one occasion some robbers, who made a raid on this dairy farm, found the donkey with the two pails full of milk, and just ready to start on its return journey. Enraged at not finding any treasure as they expected, they overturned two milk-pails, allowing the contents to flow down the hill side. But the anger of God was immediately evidenced at that act, for that milk, which was intended for the support of St Ita and her household (nuns), as also to be distributed among the needy and poor, was now turned into blood, and that place was called (Irish Name), ie., “Plenty (or abundance) of blood”, and which event gives the name Turnafulla to the townland and parish of that name to-day.

Or another occasion this donkey stood on a strong thorn, which then entered the sole of frog of its hoof, laming it very much. St Ita pulled out the thorn, which she then thrust into the ground, at the same time “commanding” it not to lame her donkey evermore. This grew into a large tree, and a peculiarity of that whitethorn was that all it thorns were pointed downwards. The tree, I was assured, was flourishing until, in recent times, someone with the idea of effecting improvements dug the surface around it, when “St Ita’s thorn” withered and died off, and is no longer an object of veneration there.

St Ita is the special patroness of pregnant women (why? There is no tradition) and it is principally such who visit and pay “rounds” at her holy well. Besides Killeedy (“Ita’s Church,”) we have also Moveedy “My Mide, or Ita.”’

Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society.