Charles McGlinchey, Ballyliffin, recounting a tradition of his youth in the 1860s;
‘Brigid’s Eve was the night for making crosses. Before the people of the house sat down to supper, a girl belonging to the family went out to bring in the rushes. If there was a girl by the name of Brigid in the house she got the privilege. She knocked on the door and the one inside said:
Oiche Bhríde brichíneach
Bain an ceann den croiceanach,
Gabhaigí ar na glúnaí,
Is ligigí isteach Bríd Bheannaithe.
‘Sé beatha, ‘sé beatha, sé beatha.
On St Brigid’s night
Take the head off the rushes,
Go on your knees,
And let St Brigid in.
You’re welcome, you’re welcome, your welcome.
That was the night my father always said the prayer “Bail na gcúig n-arán.The blessing of the five loaves”.
Illustration by Niamh Ní Ruairc of Wytchwood Creations
John Canon O’Hanlon (Lageniensis), 1870;
‘In parts of Ireland – especially throughout the dioceses of Kildare and Leighlin – it was customary with the young people to assemble on the eve of St. Bridget’s festival, observed the first day of February, and to carry with them what had been demoninated a Bride-oge, which means in English, The Virgin Brigid. This was formed of a churn-dash, covered with stuff of materials, to fashion it, as near as possible, like a female figure. These materials were usually covered with white calico. A dress of some village belle covered the whole, with an elegant bonnet and fashionable cap surmounting the figure’s head. The Brideoge’s face, however, was round, and perfectly featureless. Frills, tuckers, necklace, and a handsome sash usually decorated this grotesque figure.
Burns’ monument in the graveyard of Saint Nicholas Church, Dundalk. Photograph by Nev Swift
John Swift, Dundalk, circa 1900;
‘Among them (tombstones in the graveyard) was one that could have been considered relatively modern. That was the one erected over the grave of Robert Burn’s sister.* This monument, erected by the poet’s admirers in the town, stood prominently in the forefront of the cemetery, and through the railings on the low wall between the cemetery and the Church Street, was easily visible to passers by.
For a few years my father (Patrick Swift) and some of his Templar colleagues had, on the poet’s birthday, the 25th of January, made pilgrimage to the hardly substantial mecca in Church Street. Gathered at the railings near the grave, my father would start a recital of Burns’ poems.
Coming towards the end of the rectial the reciter would turn in the direction of…
‘”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,”…
‘In the south and west of Ireland marriages amongst the peasantry, with rare exceptions, take place during Shrove-tide.* Many of the people think it would not be lucky to be married at any other time of the year; consequently the priest always, when it was possible, visited the island during Shrove for the purpose of solemnizing any weddings which had been arranged. It, however, sometimes happened that the weather was so stormy for weeks together that no boat could approach the island, so it had been arranged that, when this occurred, the engaged couples should at an appointed hour assemble on the east shore of the island, while the priest, standing on the shore of the mainland opposite to them, read the marriage ceremony across the water. As soon as the storm abated he went to the island and did whatever more was necessary to…
The custom of lighting candles or rush-lights in honour of the Twelve Apostles is traditionally carried out by families on Twelfth Night, which is observed on the fifth or sixth of January.* The number of candles used in this ritual varied between one district and another, with some areas lighting twelve candles to represent the Twelve Apostles, while in other areas a thirteenth candle, usually larger and generally placed in the centre of the original twelve, was added to represent Jesus. Whilst the candles melted prayers and decades of the rosary were recited by those present. Traditionally each member of the family lit one candle, the flame of which was said to signify that person’s longevity. In this way the first candle to burn out was supposed to indicate the member of the household who was destined to be the first to die.
In the old days, when candlesticks were scarce, candles were stabilised in a bed of ashes, cow-dung, mud, or even graveyard clay, while sieves of oats were used, for the same purpose, at least in County Westmeath at the end of the seventeenth century. Once the candles had consumed themselves a ball would be made of what remained, if the candles were supported using cow-dung the ball was placed above the door of the cow-house to encourage an increase in the herd of cattle for the coming year, while if the ball was made of mud or clay it was often placed above the main entrance of the home, where it was believed to protect the inhabitants till the next Twelfth Night.
*In Ireland, and indeed internationally, there is some contention as to when Twelfth Night falls, with some observing Twelfth Night traditions on the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany, 5 January, while for others the Feast of the Epiphany, 6 January is believed to be the proper date.
Danaher, Kevin. The Year in Ireland. Dublin 1972.
Duncan, Leland L. ‘Further Notes from County Leitrim.’ Folklore 5, no. 3 (1894), pp. 177-211.
Mason, William Shaw. A Statistical Account or Parochial Survey of Ireland. Dublin, London and Edinburgh, 1814-19.
Piers, Sir Henry, A Chorographical Description of the County of West-Meath, 1682
Wilde, Lady Jane, Irish Cures, Mystic Charms & Superstitions, London 1890.
In many areas of Ireland New Year’s Day is overshadowed by the traditional observances and festivities that accompany the Twelve Days of Christmas, which run from Christmas Eve to the Feast of the Epiphany, 6 January. In many Irish Protestant communities New Year’s Day was traditionally believed to mark the end of the Christmas season, and was often referred to in nineteenth century sources as ‘Little Christmas’ – one of the many names applied to the Feast of the Epiphany which marked the end of the Christmas season in Catholic households.
As the first day of the year many traditions associated with New Year’s Day are tied up with encouraging luck for the coming year. No dust, dirt or slop should be brushed out of the house on New Year’s Day, as it was believed that in carrying out these tasks the house’s luck could be swept away for the next twelve months. In a similar manner it was considered unlucky to open a grave on New Year’s Day as doing so was believed to encourage death throughout the coming year. In order to facilitate the traditional two-night wake, when a person died on the 30th or 31st of December attempts were generally made to, at least, start the digging of the the departed’s grave in the old year.
The New Year’s Day tradition of first-footing, although more prevalent in Scotland and Northern England, was widely observed in many urban areas as well as parts of the north east of Ireland a generation ago. Belief holds that the first person to enter the house, after the clock strikes midnight represents the household’s luck for the following twelve months; a dark-haired male visitor is considered to bring luck with him into the household, while a female visitor, especially one with red hair, was considered to be an omen of bad luck. In many instances efforts were made to ensure that the first visitor on New Year’s Day was a dark-haired male; if a dark-haired male was present in a household on New Year’s Eve he would often to step outside a few minutes prior to midnight and then call back when the year had changed. To secure the households look in some accounts of the tradition it was considered necessary for the gentleman to bring a gift, often silver coins and food often when making the New Year visit. In parts of Ireland hospitality required that visitors to a house on New Year’s Day should eat or drink before making their departure, while food also featured in a County Leitrim belief noted by Leland L Duncan in the first quarter of the twentieth century; the ‘first thing you eat in the morning [of New Year’s Day] will cure you throughout the year if you fall sick.’
Outdoor activities are also traditional on New Year’s Day, which in common with Christmas Day and sometimes the whole Christmas period, is traditionally a time for playing sports and games in Ireland. In coastal areas, in places as far flung as Ballintoy in County Antrim and the Blasket Islands off the Coast of County Kerry, it was customary for the local inhabitants to participate in hurling matches on New Year’s Day. Celebrations and boisterous behavior often followed in the aftermath of these matches; in the Ballintoy two hundred years ago, for example, the Reverend Robert Trail noted that the New Year’s Day hurling previously ‘ended by drinking whiskey and broken heads: but of the late years, only young people appear on these occasions, and the day concludes with drunkenness or riot.’
Mason, William Shaw. A Statistical Account or Parochial Survey of Ireland. Dublin, London and Edinburgh, 1814-19.
Mc Glinchey, Charles. The Last of the Name. Edited by Brian Friel. Belfast, 1986.
Ó Crohan, Tomás. The Islandman. Translated by Robin Flower. Dublin, 1929; 1937.
Omorethi. ‘Customs Peculiar to Certain Days, Previously Observed in County Kildare.’ Journal of the Co. Kildare Archaeological Society and Surrounding Districts V (1906-1908), 439-454.
Thiselton Dyer, T. R. (Rev). British Popular Customs Past and Present: Illustrating the Social and Domestic Manners of the People. London 1900.
Various articles from the journal Folklore, 1894-1923.
‘It was customary on New Year’s Eve to bake a large barn-brack, which the man of the house, after taking three bites out of it, dashed against the principal door of his dwelling, in the name of the Trinity, at the same time expressing the hope that starvation might be banished from Ireland and go to the King of the Turks. The fragments of the cake were then gathered up and eaten by all members of the household. Before retiring to rest, twelve candles were lit in honour of the twelve Apostles and family prayers were said.’
Omurethi, Journal of the Kildare Archaeological and Historical Society, 1906-08.
Image of the Aran Islands, circa 1900, taken by the playwright John Millington Synge
B. N. Hedderman, a nurse from County Clare, stationed on the Aran Islands in the first decades of the 20th Century;
‘The particular day of the week in each year is the one on which we keep the feast of the ‘Holy Innocents.’ If this feast happens to fall upon a Monday, for instance, then every Monday throughout that year will be a ‘Cross day.’ : On these days no person in the South or Middle Island would transact business, commercial or otherwise, have a marriage solemnized, or open a grave; neither would they start the spring planting or the harvest gathering. However, “Mother Nature’ dissents, and permits the arrival of births.’
Lombe Atthil writing about the Christmas of his youth, in Fermanagh, in the 1830s;
‘Christmas seemed a glorious time, but what my grandchildren would think of the Christmas-boxes with which I was content, I can well imagine, for the nearest shop at which presents could be bought was fourteen miles off, and even then the choice was of the poorest kind. But then there was a splendid plum pudding as big as a small haycock; this would be carried in all aflame. There were mince pies, too, home-made cakes, etc., and for us youngsters a bottle of home-made gooseberry wine.
Then I have vivid recollections of bands of boys being admitted to the kitchen at Christmas time, dressed up fantastically to the best of their ability, and called “mummers”; and of the excitement of us children, when the servant would, some evening between Christmas and Twelfth Night, enter…