‘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…
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.
‘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…
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.
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.
‘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…
‘The fifteenth of July is St Swithin’s Day, and the belief that if it rains on St Swithin’s Day (Sweeten or Sweeteen as it is called in Munster), the succeeding forty days will also be wet, still prevails.
The folklore history is as follows:- when St Swithin, after being waked, was buried, by his monks, who dearly loved him, thought the simple “house of clay” was not befitting their lord abbot, so they determined to build a costly mausoleum which to their minds would more suitably mark his last resting-place on earth, and also show to the world how him they loved while living was venerated even in death.
But St. Swinton, who during his life detested ostentation or display of any kind, besought his divine Master (as it was afterwards revealed by one of his monks) to prevent such a useless expenditure of time…
For our nineteenth century ancestors July was the month when food was scarcest. By July the previous harvest was almost a year old, and many families found that their stores of food were much depleted or had disappeared completely at this late stage. The decline in living standards that was present throughout the nineteenth century Ireland would peak during the Famine which would eventually take a million lives and force another million to emigrate. For families who had cattle running out of stored crops was not as lethal, but for the quarter of the population that relied on the potato as their sole source of sustenance July could be a difficult month to get by even without famine.
These tough conditions gave July many alternative names including, most generally the “Hungry Month”, but other names were also applied to illustrate the harsh conditions and lack of food that often accompanied July included the Blue Month and Staggering July. Amhlaoibh Ó Súilleabháin, who was living near Callan in the early decades of the nineteenth century recorded in his diary that July was known as Buímhís “The yellow month” in reference to both the colour of fields and the faces of the poor near his home in Callan, County Kilkenny. The heat alone was reason enough to give July a dark nickname Charles McGlinchey of Ballyliffen in Donegal noted that in the eighteen hundreds the latter half of July and the earlier half of August shared the ominous name Mí Mharbh “The Dead Month” in reference to the stifling heat that accompanied these weeks.
If July was a month for hunger and stifling heat it was, at least in eastern Donegal, also a month for thirst; the opening days of July provided the people of the Inishowen peninsula with a unique opportunity to produce poitín, a strong alcoholic drink made from cereals or potatoes, unnoticed by the local authorities. As a local poitín distiller, Dolty MacGarvey from the small village of Glen explained to William Le Fanu in the early 1870s, while the distilling of poteen could go unnoticed, the drying of malt created great clouds of smoke, easily noticeable to a passer-by. An opportunity to dry the malt presented itself when the local Royal Irish Constabulary were sent Derry to put down the riots which occurred annually at the Battle of the Boyne celebrations in the town, with the absence of these officers the malt could be dried with no chance of police interference.
Danaher, Kevin. The Year in Ireland. Dublin 1972.
Evans, E. Estyn. Irish Folk Ways. London, 1957.
Le Fanu, William Richard. Seventy Years of Life in Ireland, 1893
Mc Glinchey, Charles. The Last of the Name. Edited by Brian Friel. Belfast, 1986.
Ó Súilleabháin, Amhlaoibh. The Diary of an Irish Countryman 1827 – 1835. Translated from the Irish by Tomás de Bhaldraithe. Cork/Dublin 1970/1979.
‘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.
‘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.’