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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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.

 

Midsummer’s Eve in Ireland

Midsummer’s Eve-

21 June;

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A hundred years ago, and for many centuries before, Midsummer’s Eve was celebrated throughout Ireland on the 23 June, that is, on Saint John’s Eve.

The bonfire was central to the activities of Midsummer’s Eve, and those who witnessed the flames more than a lifetime ago noted that the landscape was filled with hundreds of bonfires, creating a beautiful aspect by illuminating the country as far as the eye could see. These fires were lit on elevated sites including mountain tops and hills, but also in fields, at crossroads and on the streets and in squares of towns and villages throughout the country. In Dublin bonfires were outlawed by the Lord Mayor in the 1700’s, and as a substitute, the towns’ people attached candles to trees and bushes to maintain the tradition in some form. Gradually, during the nineteenth century, coercion bills eliminated bonfires from many towns and villages across Ireland.

Bonfires in previous centuries fed on materials that could easily be obtained; in some areas straw, reeds and wood were collected throughout the whole six months leading up to Midsummer’s Eve, while in other areas the bonfire was principally made of turf, with every inhabitant of the village donating their own share to feed the bonfire.  Well into the last century the ancient Irish tradition of burning animal bones continued, some believe in imitation of ancient sacrifices, in certain parts of Munster and Connaught, the addition of which created crackling noises, bright stray sparks, while, at the same time, providing the origin of their very name “bone-fire”, now generally spelled and often pronounced as bonfire.

The Midsummer’s bonfire was thought to increase fertility and produce luck, while passing through the flames of the fire was also thought to  provide protection from both the fairies and the evil eye. Many accounts relate how cattle were driven through the flames between two persons who each held lighted sheaf of straw or reeds, known as a “cleer”. Members of the household also jumped through the fire, as did lovers who held hands in the hope of encouraging their own fertility.  In County Cavan, a century ago, it was still believed that if you ate your supper by the fire on Midsummer’s Eve you would be protected from hunger throughout the coming year, while farmers often spread a sod of turf, coal, ashes, or even holy water on their crops as a method of protection from diseases including blight on Midsummer Eve.

Games and amusements were performed by many who attended, caps were often grabbed from unsuspecting heads and thrown or, at least, pretended to be thrown in the flames by the more boisterous members of the community. Spectators at the bonfires also fashioned bundles of reeds or straw which, when lit, were waved through the air, and in some places including Belmullet in County Mayo sods of lighted turf where thrown to the sky in the belief that the air would be purified through the motion of these smouldering sods. Additionally, a lighted piece of turf or a coal was often taken from the bonfire and carried home to relight the hearth in the household, which according to many accounts, was annually quenched on Midsummer’s Eve.*

 

*It is worth mentioning that quenching the fire on Midsummer’s Eve  was only observed in some localities, as there was a strong tradition in many parts of Ireland of keeping the hearth fire burning continuously for years, or even decades, on end.

 

Selective bibliography

 

Mac Lir, Mananaan. ‘The Folklore of Months’. Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, Second series II (1896), 157, 316, 365.

Mahon, Rev. Michael P. Ireland’s Fairy Lore, Boston, 1919.

Mason, William Shaw. A Statistical Account or Parochial Survey of Ireland. Dublin, London and Edinburg, 1814-19.

O’Hanlon, Rev. John (Lageniensis). Irish Folk Lore: Traditions and Superstitions of the Country; with Humorous Tales. London, 1870.

Ó Súilleabháin, Amhlaoibh. The Diary of an Irish Countryman 1827 – 1835. Translated from the Irish by Tomás de Bhaldraithe. Cork/Dublin 1970/1979.

Piers, Sir Henry, A Chorographical Description of the County of West-Meath,  A.D. 1682

Synge, J. M. In Connemara. Dublin, 1979.

Warburton, John & others. History of the City of Dublin. Dublin, 1818.

 

Various articles from the Folklore Journal 1881 – 1916

Saint Kevin’s Day & the Patron at Glendalough

Glendalough, Wicklow –

Saint Kevin’s Day – 3 June,

The Patron of the Seven Churches of Glendalough
The Patron, Festival of Saint Kevin at the Seven Churches, Glendalough, 1813 – Joseph Peacock

Mr & Mrs S.C. Hall;

‘until very recently (the peasantry), honoured the memory of the patron saint by assembling in the churchyard to drink and fight, but this custom was put to an end by the parish priest who, a few days before one of our visits, had actually turned the whiskey into a stream, gathered the shillelaghs into a large bonfire and made wrathful and brutal men,who had been enemies for centuries, embrace each other in peace and goodwill over Kevin’s grave.’

Hall’s Ireland, 1842

The more disreputable activities described above did not cease before 1842, as the Hall’s maintain, but continued until 1862, when Cardinal Paul Cullen suppressed the pilgrimage.

The Lough Derg Pilgrimage

Donegal-

station island lough derg 1913 laurence
Station Island, Lough Derg, 1913 – Lawrence Collection, The National Library of Ireland

William Carleton;

‘Lough Derg is in the centre of a lake in the wild and gloomy mountains of Donegal, and can only be approached by boat. The property in which it lies belongs to the Leslies of Glasslough. They have leased the ferry of the island to certain persons, who were contracted to pay them two hundred a year. I think it was in the year 1796, that a boat filled with ‘pilgrims’, as they are called, was lost, on its way across to the lake, owing to the drunkenness of the boatmen.

My father’s anecdote, or rather legend, went on to state that there was a holy priest in the boat who, when it sank with its freight, deliberately walked on the waters of the lake until he reached the island in perfect safety. I recollect observing to my father when he told me this legend: ‘It is strange that if he had the power of walking upon the water, he had not the power of saving the boat and all that were in it.’ He paused and looked at me, but said nothing.’

Wiilliam Carleton’s Autobiography, 1896

 

Pilgrimages to Lough Derg traditionally, as well as latterly, began in late May or early June, and continued until the Feast of the Assumption, 15 of August.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth century Station Island was often referred to as Saint Patrick’s Purgatory, a name that was adopted from a cave on the island. The cave itself received the name through a legend, where Saint Patrick prayed to God for assistance in converting the Irish, and God, answering his prayer, showed Patrick a cave which led to purgatory, where the horrors of hell could be viewed by pilgrims. The cave remained accessible to pilgrims who visited the island up until 1632, when the cave was closed by order of the Lord Lieutenant.

The Lough Derg Pilgrimage remains one of  one Ireland’s most popular pilgrimage sites,  and accounts of pilgrimages to the island date back to the twelfth century, with oral accounts bringing the site back to the fifth century. Shane Leslie bequeathed the site to the Bishop of Clougher in 1960.

 

 

 

 

 

Saint Laserian’s Feast Day

Carlow-

St Stenan's Tree with rag offering, Kiltinanlea (Folklore 22, no 2 1911, 210-212).

Mr & Mrs S.C. Hall;

‘In the immediate vicinity of Leighlin is a remarkable and very picturesque rath, and close to the cathedral is the well of Saint Laserian. This was until a few years ago a famous resort of the peasantry on the saint’s day, the 18th of April. However the patron was very properly prohibited by the parish priest and it is no longer the scene of gambling and intoxication. Two very old ash trees and a whitethorn which formerly overshadowed the well were cut down about 1823 by the late Captain Vigors of Erindale who leased a considerable tract of land here from the see of Leighton. The Whitethorn was formerly hung with all sorts of rags by devotees, pilgrims or visitors to this holy spot.’

Hall’s Ireland

April Bird-lore: the Cuckoo, the Corncrake & the Swallow

Cork-

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The Cuckoo

‘It is in April that the cuckoo, corncrake and swallow arrive, and it is the custom when one first hears the cuckoo or corncrake, or sees a swallow, to say “May we all be alive and in God’s grace next year. Amen,” or literally “May we all be alive this time again. Amen.”

If one hears the cuckoo from behind, and in the right ear, and also finds some hairs (at the same time) under his right foot, such a one will be lucky for that year. If the cuckoo is first heard in the left ear it is an unlucky sign. Should the sowing of oats be deferred from any cause until the coming of the cuckoo, such sowing is invariably known as “cuckoo oats,” and is thus designated to mark the lazyness of that particular farmer.’

Journal of the Cork Historical & Archaeological Society, 1896

Saint Martin’s Day

Wexford, 11 November –

360px-New_Ross_1832
New Ross – 1832

Patrick Kennedy;

‘A Wexford legend says that on one recurrence of this festival, November 11, the people in all the boats plying about the Wexford line of coast were warned, by an apparition of the Saint pacing along the waves, to betake themselves to the harbours. All who neglected the advice perished in a storm that ensued the same afternoon.

In our youth (c.1810), no Wexford boat would put to sea on that Saint’s festival, no miller would set his wheel a-going, no housewife would yoke her spinning wheel. Occasionally, when a goat or sheep was ill, and seemed likely to die, its ear was slit, and itself devoted to St. Martin. If it recovered, it was killed and eaten on some subsequent 11th of November. It would not be sold in the interim for ten times its value.’

Patrick Kennedy – The Banks of the Boro, 1867.

The Púca, and Blackberries after Hallowe’en

Monaghan, 1 November –

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Henry Morris in 1915, recounting beliefs from his Childhood in the Farney Barony;

‘Nice ripe blackberries are sweet and palatable; but hungry boys and girls will eat blackberries that are neither sweet or palatable. However after ‘Oidhche Shamhna’ or Hallow Eve no blackberries are eaten. And why? Because on that night the púca* goes abroad and crawls over the blackberries covering them with an invisible slime, and where is the boy or girl who would eat a berry soiled with the púca’s slime. The fact seems to be that blackberries after that date are stale and unwholesome. But the púca’s slime is the great deterrent.’

*Sometimes spelled pooka, is a shape-shifting spirit/fairy/ghost, often taking the form of a black horse, with some describing it as resembling a mix between a mule a bullock and a big black pig. The púca is also said to befoul blackberries at Michaelmas, 29 September.

Journal of the Louth Archaeological Society, 1915.

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.