Good Friday marks the last day of Lent, and traditionally it was strictest day of abstinence in the Lentern season. As far back as the early nineteenth century Good Friday was also known as the “the Black Fast” and/or “hAoine an Chéasta” (Friday of Torture, Good Friday), the latter name in reference to the torture Jesus Christ suffered while being crucified.
Despite the bleak names previously attached to Good Friday it was seldom a day of complete fasting. On the Blasket Islands limpets and winkles, and other sea foods were collected from the strand, while in the south-east of Ireland bread or dry potatoes seem to have been the choice of sustenance for the day. In west-midland areas, however, a near total fast was observed on Good Friday, where all members of the family, including infants at the breast, refrained from taking…
The feast of the Annunciation, 25 March, also known in many areas as “Lady Day in March”, is one of the three “Lady Days” which are widely celebrated across Ireland, the other two being Candlemas which falls on 2 February and Harvest Lady Day which falls on 15 August. The date is observed in memory of the visit to the Virgin Mary by the Archangel Gabriel at which she discovered she would be the mother of the son of God, Jesus Christ.
If the Feast of the Annunciation fell in Lent the obligations of the Lentern season were relaxed. The day was a social occasion with many attending patrons and fairs, which were often the sites of boisterous behaviour. In 1816 the Reverend James Neligan who was Rector and Victor in the Parish of Kilmactigue in County Sligo complained that while all types of work were avoided on the three…
‘Observed as a holy-day. A sprig of shamrock (or “shamroge” as the peasants call it) is worn in the hats of men. Opinions differ greatly as what is the genuine shamrock; the trefoils which are generally sold in Dublin for some days before the anniversary of the saint’s death are two one rooted varieties: one having a small pink clover blossom, and the other (I think) a yellow flower; both of which are easily gathered. According to the old people, “the rale of errib” is that which sends out branches from the main root, and which themselves takes root at the nodes (i.e. the starting point of the leaves) as they creep along the ground, therefore forming more branches. The flower resembles a small white clover blossom; this trefoil is probably not found on sale in Dublin, owing to the trouble in grubbing it up. The best…
‘St. Patrick was a great favourite with the Lord, and He sent His angel to him. to ask what things he desired most to be granted to him. On which the Saint made seven requests, among others, that no Outlander should ever rule over Ireland; that he, Patrick, should alone judge the Irish at the last day, even as the twelve who were deputed to judge
Israel ; and that every Thursday and Saturday twelve souls of the Irish people should be freed from the pains of hell.’
In Ireland the month of March is associated with all types of weather including strong winds, heavy rain, sunshine, and even the icy conditions of winter. The erratic weather that invariably accompanies March, especially the earlier half of the month, made a deep impression on the imaginations and lives of previous generations who lived their lives closer to the land and the changing seasons. References to the strong winds of March are well known in Ireland; the Donegal writer Seamus MacManus described the noise produced during particularly heated bargaining at cattle markets of the late eighteen hundreds as resembling the roaring of east and the west winds passing through the Barnesmore Gap in the Blue Stack Mountains on the first day of March, while John O’Donoghue, who grew up in County Kerry in the opening years of the twentieth century, noted that the old people in his youth feared the harsh winds of March often associating them like the howl of a banshee as an omen of death.
If dry weather preceded the month of March it was taken as an omen that March would be a wet month that year; as Amhlaoimh Ó Súilleabháin noted in his 1831 diary; ‘if the pools aren’t full before March, March itself will fill them.’ From St Patrick’s Day, which in Ireland is traditionally perceived as the middle of spring, it is traditionally believed that the weather improves. An old Irish saying attributed to Saint Patrick claims that the weather would be fine for half of his own feast day and for every day afterwards. As if to prove the truth of the saying, when the harshest winter in living memory occurred in the early months of 1947, popularly known in Ireland as the Big Snow or White 47, for the icy and blizzardous conditions that continued from late January until the middle of March, when the snow finally ceased falling on Saint Patrick’s Day.
Despite the promise of more settled weather from Saint Patrick’s Day, unsettled
weather was often known to continue into April, with the first three days of that month often referred to as ‘Borrowing Days’, explained by the following legend, ‘an old cow on the 31st March began to curse and swear at March, tossing her tail in the air, and saying to the devil, I pitch you – you are gone and April has come, and now I will have grass. March, however, was too much for her, and he borrowed three days from April, during which time he made such bad weather the old cow died.’
Kinahan, GH. ‘Notes on Irish Folklore’. The Folk-Lore Record 4 (1881),
MacManus, Seamus. The Rocky Road to Dublin. Dublin, 1938.
O’Donoghue, John. In a Quiet Land. London, 1959.
Ó Síocháin, Conchúr. The Man from Cape Clear: The Life of an Islandman. Translated from the Irish by Riobard P Breatnach. Cork and Dublin, 1975.
Ó Súilleabháin, Amhlaoibh. The Diary of an Irish Countryman 1827 – 1835. Translated from the Irish by Tomás de Bhaldraithe. Cork/Dublin 1970/1979.
A View of Waterford City, William Henry Bartlett, 1830s
Samuel Carter Hall & Anna Maria Hall, 1842;
‘In Waterford, some years ago, the lower classes had a species of amusement, we believe peculiar to them; it was practiced on Ash-Wednesday, and was called “drawing the log.”
It was instituted as a penitential exercise to the bachelors and maidens who permitted Lent to arrive without “joining in the holy bands.” The log was a large piece of timber, to which a long rope was attached; it was drawn through the streets of the city, followed by a crowd of men and boys of the lowest grade armed with bludgeons, shouting and hollowing “Come draw the log, come draw the log; bachelors and maidens come draw the log.” The party had generally a piper, who squeezed from his bags the most noted of the nationalist airs; and it was no small…
In the south of Ireland up until the early years of the twentieth century Shrove Tuesday was popularly known as “Skellig Night” and named after a belief that Lent began a week later on the Skellig Rocks, a set of islands which lie off the west-coast of County Kerry. Those who were thought to be eligible to marry, but had failed to do so during Shrovetide, were mockingly encouraged to go to the Skelligs on Shrove Tuesday night where there was still a chance to be wedded before Lent.* Skellig Lists were drawn up, written by local poets in doggerel verse, these lists were less concerned with naming courting couples, but were often used to link names of persons from the community who were considered the least likely to marry each other; so that old were matched with young, rich with poor, and foes with each other. The Skellig Lists were widely distributed within the community, and sold in large quantities, while also appearing in newspapers, on lampposts, on church doors and the fronts of other public buildings, where they were recited before large crowds of spectators, which often included those whose names appeared on the lists.
As the evening wore on more boisterous activities were resorted to, with many symbolically being encouraged to make a trip to the Skelligs The late nineteenth century American folklorist Jerimiah Curtain noted that in the village of Cahirciveen, County Kerry, the ‘boys and girls from eight to fifteen years of age were out with ropes to lasso any girl of marriageable age whom they could find. If they caught one, they tried to drag her to the river and throw her in, because the time had expired and she was not married.’ While an article from a 1916 issue of the Folklore Journal explained that previously Macroom, County Cork, it was the men who were targeted by bands of youths for their failure to marry before lent; ‘the party holding a rope, would watch for his approach, and then divide and half would go one way, the rest on the other side round their victim, to wind him in the rope. Meanwhile a song would be improvised, to the effect that “Paddy Leary is an old man and ought to be married,” setting forward the merits and demerits of the accused, his worldly possessions, and the reasons why he ought to marry. This in rough rhyme would be chanted, and the doggerel sent round to the neighbours that they might sing and laugh him into matrimony.’
Going to the Skelligs seems to have been literal as well as symbolic, according to an 1895 article in the Journal of the Cork Historical & Archaeological Society, it was claimed that previously those who had failed to marry, male and female, were forced to walk barefoot on Skellig Rocks on Shrove Tuesday night, and that additionally they were expected to gather amounts of bogwood in proportion to the number of Shrovetides they had let pass without marrying. While the Reverend Patterson, the chaplain of her Majesties Forces in Cork in 1889 mentioned that the priest in the parish which includes the Skelligs, reportedly used to marry couples on the Great Skellig during Lent, Patterson maintains word of these wedding spread throughout Munster and gave the Skellig Islands their reputation as a place where couples could be joined in holy matrimony after Shrove Tuesday.
Shrove Tuesday was at one time the most popular day of the year for weddings in Ireland. As the Catholic Church previously forbid weddings to take place during Lent and Easter those who failed to get married by Shrove Tuesday were forced to wait till Low Sunday; the Sunday after Easter. Often if one had not married by Shrove Tuesday a year could lapse before an opportunity presented itself again; responsibilities to the land with tilling and harvest work prevented many from marrying from late spring until winter, while Advent and Christmas were also times when marriage was forbidden, leaving Shrovetide as the best opportunity for many to marry.
*A disagreement between the Irish Church and the Roman Catholic Church in calculating the date Easter and therefore when Lent should fall continued until the seventh century. Due to the remoteness of the monastic community who inhabited Skellig Michael, while the disagreement continued between the two churches, a belief persisted up until the twentieth century, that the monks never heard about the change in date of Easter, and therefore Lent started a week later on the Skelligs than in the rest of Ireland.
Curtin, Jeremiah. Memoirs of Jeremiah Curtin. Edited by Joseph Schafer. Wisconsin, 1941.
Mac Lir, Mananaan. ‘The Folklore of Months’. Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, 1895.
Patterson, Rev P.S, Chaplain to Her Majesty’s Forces in Cork, Notes & Queries, 1889.
‘In the evening, the young folks – and the old ones as well – gather round the turf fire to learn by “tossing a pancake,” what is to be the of their future marriage ventures. A crock of butter having been prepared a part is poured out on the pan to form the first cake, which is consigned to the care of the oldest unmarried daughter.
At the proper time she turns the cake with a dexterous toss up the chimney, and if it comes down smoothly on the other side in the pan, she can have her choice of a husband whenever she likes, if, on the other hand, it falls into the ashes or comes down with a corner doubled over, she cannot marry for at least a year. This is also regarded as an omen of ill-fortune with an accepted lover, and is so strong in the feeling that engagements have been broken off for no other reason.
The lucky tosser of the first cake at once shares it with the other girls. On eating it there is generally found in one slice the mother’s wedding ring and in another a piece of furze, both having been put in the batter before baking. Whoever gets the ring will be most happy in her future choice, while the other will remain unmarried.’
‘Holiday Customs of Ireland’, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Held at Philadelphia, for Promoting Useful Knowledge, Vol. 26 Number 190.