‘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.
‘The titular saint, or as some express it, the guardian, of this parish, is Columbkill. The 9th of June is his festival day, and is observed most ceremoniously by the old people in the parish: on that day they circumambulate certain places, repeating certain prayers, deified, as it were, for him.
They formerly drove down their cattle to the beach, on that day, and swam them in that part of the sea, into which runs the water of St Columb’s well, which is thereby made holy-water; but this custom, of late, has not been practised.
There is also a traditional story told here, that the earth of a little hillhock (tempo desh,) on the right of the road leading from the chapel to the church, formerly expelled all mice and rats, until the earth of it was vended, when its expelling powers ceased; still, however, they carry all their dead around it, as being an ancient custom.
There is a circular flat stone in the centre of the church-yard, about fourteen inches in diameter, on which are two round hollow places, which they say are prints of Saint Columb’s knees. On that day mass used to be celebrated, but of late, I believe, it has being discontinued.’
A Statistical Account or a Parochial Survey of Ireland – William Shaw Mason.
‘Whitsuntide is a very fatal and unlucky time. Especially beware of water then, for there is an evil spirit in it, and no one should venture to bathe, nor to sail a boat for fear of being drowned; nor to go on a journey where water has to be crossed.
And everything in the house must be sprinkled with holy water at Whitsuntide to keep away the fairies, who at this season are very active and malicious, and bewitch the cattle, and carry off young children, and come up from the sea to hold strange midnight revels, when they kill with their fairy darts the unhappy mortal who crosses their path and pries at their mysteries.’
Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland.
‘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.
‘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 place to find shamrock is along the edge of a public roads, where it extends beyond the grassy sod.
Young girls and small children wear on the right shoulder “a St. Patrick’s Cross” consisting of a single or double cross formed of pieces of narrow silk ribbon stitched to a circular disk of white paper, nicked at the edge, and measuring from 8 to 4.5 inches in diameter. At the ends of the arms of the cross a very small bow or rosette is fixed, and one a trifle longer at the junction of the arms; the more and the brighter the colours of the silk, the more handsome is considered the St. Patrick’s Cross. Those crosses sold in the Dublin slums are made on the same principle, except that instead of gaudy pieces of silk being stitched to the disk, coloured paper, cut into the devices, is gummed as a substitute.
“The Drowning of the Shamrock” by no means implies that it is necessary to get drunk in doing so. At the end of the day the shamrock that has been worn in the coat or the hat is removed and put into the final glass of grog or tumbler of punch; and when the health has being drunk or the toast honoured, the shamrock should be picked out of the bottom of the glass and thrown over the left shoulder.’
Jounal of the Kildare Historical & Archaeological Society, 1906-8.
In Ireland Hallowe’en was the most popular night of the year to practice divination, which provided much amusement and excitement. As summer turned to winter on this night, the boundaries between this world and the Otherworld were believed to be less pronounced, and so on Hallowe’en many games, rituals and rites were, and still are, performed partly in earnest and partly in fun, with the object of gaining insight into one’s fate.
One activity involved setting several objects out in saucers or plates, which were then laid on a table. The objects in the saucers varied from region to region, and even between one house and another, but generally included some of the following; a ring, a piece of wood, clay, a bean, a coin, salt, water, a button or a thimble. Once the saucers were set, a blindfolded person would pick one, the item which the person touched was symbolically believed to indicate their future situation in life. A ring meant the person would be married, a piece of wood or clay meant that they would die young, a bean or a rag meant that they would always be poor, while a coin indicated that they would be wealthy, salt was for luck, water meant that they would emigrate or travel, while a button or thimble would die bachelor or a spinster.
In another game nuts were used to determine if two young people would be good together when married. Two nuts were named after the pair and placed on the grate or on the turf ashes of the fire, to burn side by side. Chestnuts, wall-nuts and hazelnuts were traditionally the most popular for this activity, while grains of wheat were also sometimes used. If the nuts burned together it was taken as a sign that the young couple would end their days happily married to one and other, however, the pair would not marry if one hopped off, while if one burned fully and not the other, it was taken as a sign of unrequited love.
Other activities took place outside the house on Hallowe’en, for example, cabbages were picked by blindfolded young women*on that night, in the belief that the appearance of the cabbage would reflect the attributes of their future husbands. If a well grown cabbage was picked it indicated that the girl would have a handsome husband, while if the cabbage had a rotten or crooked stalk it was said to signify that the girl’s husband would be a “stingy old man”. A cabbage with two heads was said to protend that the girl would end a widow, while if the cabbage was hollow in the centre it foretold that the young woman would never marry and end her days as a spinster. Additionally, the number buds on the cabbage were believed to correspond the number of children the marriage would produce, and many accounts state that the cabbage must be stolen.
While the above practices were carried out in company, other forms of divination were traditionally carried out by isolated individuals. These practices often commenced at midnight, and were always performed in the name of the devil. One described by Lady Jane Wilde as “the most fearful of all” involved a girl uttering an incarnation before a looking-glass, in the expectation of catching a glimpse of her future husband, it happened sometimes that instead of seeing their future love, the looking-glass instead reflected an image “too terrible to describe”, and the girl from shock would either die or spend the rest of her days in a state of great distress.
Many of these rites were aimed at inducing a dream of one’s future lover. One method of achieving this was to eat a salted egg, a smoked herring, or some other food that would cause thirst – in the hope that whilst asleep your future lover would come to your aid in a dream with a glass of water. Another rite, which was supposed to give you a glimpse future love while sleeping, involved gathering ten ivy or yarrow leaves – cut with a black handled knife, and without speaking a word. The tenth leaf was thrown away, while the remaining nine were sneaked into the house once everyone was asleep, and were then placed under a pillow in a sock or stocking, with only the following words uttered:-
“Nine ivy leaves I place under my head,
To dream of the living and not of the dead.
If ere I be married or wed unto thee,
To dream of her to-night, and her for to see,
The colour of her hair, and the clothes that she wears,
And the day that she’ll be wedded to me.”
* In some areas, including parts of County Mayo, both young women and men participated in this activity.
Donaldson, John. A Historical and Statistical Account of the Barony of Upper Fews in the County of Armagh, 1838.
McGlinchey, Charles, The Last of a Name
Wilde, Lady Jane. Ancient Cures, Charms and Usages in Ireland. 1890
Folklore, various articles, 1881-1916
Journal of the Kildare Historical and Archaeological Society, 1908
The souls of the dead were believed to be able to walk among the living between Hallowe’en and All Souls Day. When darkness fell great care was taken by the living to honour and extend hospitality to their own departed. To welcome the wandering dead on Hallowe’en, front doors were left open, food was prepared, and seats were set by the fire, which was built to burn through the night. Before the household retired to bed prayers were said and candles lit for the souls of those family members who had passed away. In parts of County Wexford candles served another purpose, and were placed in the windows of houses to assist departed loved ones in finding their past homes.
While released from their suffering the hospitality extended to the dead was, in part, offered out of respect, but also as a precautionary measure, as the dead were supposed to be jealous of the living, and believed to take revenge over past grievances. Many feared to set foot outside on Hallowe’en; as Lady Wilde explained ‘according to the popular belief, it is not safe to be near a churchyard on Hallow Eve, and people should not leave their homes after dark, or the ghosts would pursue them . . . if on that night you hear footsteps following you, beware of looking round; it is the dead who are behind you ; and if you meet their glance, assuredly you must die.’
For the mothers of babies who had died before baptism, even as they sat at home, Hallowe’en presented a night of great anguish and sorrow, as prayers could not save the souls of their unbaptised offspring who where thought to be the captives of the fairies, and only released on Hallowe’en when the fairies had their own revels. As a Mayo correspondent wrote to the Graphic newspaper in 1881, unbaptised babies ‘come to gaze hopelessly in at the warm kitchen and the mother from whom it was so crudely torn, while it shivers and wails in the cold. Then she will make the sign of the cross and then weep, but dares not offer up a prayer for the doomed soul, which, she believes, must wander hopelessly for eternity.’
‘The Feast of St. Francis was a day of great devotion in the Barony, and fifty years ago it was the custom for a crowd of its good people to gather into the St. Francian Church at Luainford [Athlone] to keep not only the day itself, but even its Vigil.
The whole night before a throng of country people sat up in the little church, and passed the time in the familiar and homely practices of piety then so dear to them. Foremost among these was the Rosary – the decades being “let round” by men or women of recognised social or spiritual superiority – not within a mild contention now and then as to whether it was Pat Ryan’s or Mrs. Murphy’s turn to officiate, or whether the fifth “dicket” had or had not been said.
But when this and other devotions were fulfilled, Johnny McKay would be requested to play a “pious chune in honour of the night that was in it.” This the Barony minstrel, himself a man of much faith and exemplary life, never failed to do, discoursing a “linked sweetness long drawn out,” with a wealth of expression and tremulous pathos that made many of his hearers, as they testifide, “turrible devout.” But even in these days there were not wanting cynics who declared that Johnny could not play a hymn “if you were to kill him,” and that the sacred melody he palmed off on the congregation was nothing else than an adagio rendering of “The Hare in the Corn.”’
Old Times in the Barony
Father John Conmee, 1847-1910, was Rector of Clongowes Wood College when a six year old James Joyce was enrolled there in 1888. Joyce would later depict Conmee, under his own name, in both Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses.
‘It is however at the fair of Donnybrook, that the natural humour and peculiar character of the lower classes of the metropolis are best seen. Donnybrook is a pleasant village contiguous to the south suburbs of the city.
It has a green or common, on which the fair is held, in the month of August. It is regularly proclaimed, and is attended by police officers, whose interposition is indispensable to preserve the peace. The fair, which is held for the sale of horses and black cattle, lasts a week, during which time every mode of amusement and gymnastic exercise peculiar to the Irish is practised, each day concluding with a pitched battle, in which much blood is spilled, and many heads broken, but rarely and life lost.
The Green is covered with tents, and filled with pipers, fiddlers, and dancers; and of late years has been introduced mimes, mountebanks, shows of wild beasts, and all these spectacles, but on a much more limited scale, which are to be found at Bartholomew fair.
During the continuance of this fair, Harcourt-street, and the other avenues leading to it, present extraordinary spectacles, particularly in the evenings. Almost all the carriages, which plied at other ends of the town now assemble here, and while they go to and from the fair they are crowded at all hours with company. The din and tumult of the roads on these occasions is inconceivable, particularly during the stillness of night; form the vociferation, laughter and fighting of these turbulent cargoes, a noise ascends which is heard for several miles in all directions.
The attachment of the populace to this amusement is so great, that the Lord Mayor finds it necessary to proceed there in person at the expiration of the limited time, and, striking the tents, compel the people to go home.’
History of Dublin
Donnybrook Fair traditionally ran for a week, from the 26 August each year, however the fair could, and often did, run for a fortnight. The fair was held annually on that date for seven hundred years, from the middle of the thirteenth century and continuing until the 1850’s. Various attempts, which eventually found success, were made by the Dublin authorities to put an end to the drunken debauched riots that invariably accompanied, and often overshadowed the intended trade of black cattle and horses at Donnybrook Fair.
‘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. It was anciently an episcopal see erected by St Declan in the infancy of the Irish Church and before the arrival of St Patrick. St Declan, it is said, was a native to Ireland who travelled to Rome and returned to teach his countrymen in the year 402.The ruins of two churches which, from their architecture, must be of the Saint’s era, are in the immediate neighbourhood, and one of them, which had being used for service until very recently, is close to the famous round tower.’
Hall’s Ireland, 1842
Although Mr and Mrs S.C. Hall fail to provide information on the patron at Ardmore, Thomas Crofton Croker lets us know that it was a popular site of pilgrimage in the early decades of the nineteenth century. In his Researches in the South of Ireland, published in 1826 – less than twenty years before the Hall’s account, Croker comments that on Saint Declan’s Day, ‘vast numbers of the country people flock to Ardmore for the purposes of penance and prayer.’