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.

Sundays & Dancing at the Crossroads

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Rev James Hall, Drumsna;

‘Not willing to have their grass spoiled by the feet of a crowd of dancers, the farmers will sometimes not permit the young people, who meet for the purpose, to dance on their field on Sunday-afternoon. Hence it is no uncommon thing to see groups dancing on the roads on Sundays and holydays, after prayers; no house being able to contain the numbers which, in fine weather, generally meet on those occasions.

It often happens that some innkeeper, in the vicinity of a dance, sends a loaf, of less or more value, not exceeding five shillings, to be given as a premium to the best dancer; in other words to the person who spends most money at the inn. Many times men spend more than they can spare to have the pleasure, and, as they esteem it, honour of dividing the loaf among the dancers.’

Tour Through Ireland, 1813

The Hiring Fair at Strabane – 12 May

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Patrick McGill, circa 1913;

‘There was great talk going on about the Omagh train. The boys who had been sold at the fair before said that the best masters came from near the town of Omagh, and so everyone waited eagerly until eleven o’clock, the hour at which the train was due.

It was easy to know when the Omagh men came, for they overcrowded an already big market. Most of them were fat, angry-looking fellows, who kept moving up and down examining us after the manner of men who seek out the good and bad points of horses which they intend to buy.

Sometimes they would speak to each other, saying that they never saw such a lousy and ragged crowd of servants in the market-place in all their life before, and they did not seem to care even if we overheard them say these things. On the whole I had no great liking for the Omagh men.’

Children of the Dead End, 1914.

The Strabane hiring fair was held twice annually, on 12 May and 12 of November. There’s no coincidence that the occasion of the hiring market coincided with the “Gale Days”; traditionally the time when six months rent was paid to the landlord. The difficulty of paying rent led many tenant farmer families to send their children, both sons and daughters – some as young as 12 or 13, to the fair to seek employment as farm labourers or servants, in order to make up the difference with the rent.

Although hiring markets were held throughout all parts Ireland, the one in Strabane was amongst the most popular for the buying and selling of labour. Contemporary accounts described the trains as packed,  with an extra fourth class carriage was generally added to cope with large amount of passangers. Labourers and farmers travelled from the surrounding counties, and further still. Remembering the hiring fairs of his youth in the 1920’s Ciarán Ó Nualláin, a native of Strabane and a brother of the great Irish novelist Flann O’Brien, described the congregations that assembled in the streets as; ‘so crowded that you could walk across the streets on the people’s heads!’* Remarkably by the 1940’s the Hiring Fair of Strabane had declined completely.

The early years of Brian O’Nolan / Flann O’Brien / Myles Na gCopaleen, Ciarán Ó Nualláin, 1998

Saint Laserian’s Feast Day

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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

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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

The Feast of the Immaculate Conception

Monaghan –

Patrick_Kavanagh
Wilshire Collection – National Library of Ireland

Patrick Kavanagh;

‘The eight of December is a Catholic holiday. Since nineteen hundred and twenty-two, my career as a young gangster touched the high spot, fused and went out.

‘Will ye come out with the Mummers?’ a fellow asked me.

‘I wouldn’t think twice of it if I knew the rhymes,’ I said.

‘Rhymes be hanged,’ he said, ‘ye know enough.’

There were about fifteen lads in our troupe of Mummers. I had an insignificant role at the tail of the play. I wore an old black bowler hat and a cardboard false face.

19th century Oxfordshire Mummers
Oxfordshire Mummers – late Nineteenth Century

We headed across, jumping drains and scrambling over hedges. We were well received by the people, hardly any house barred its door against us. We carried a melodeon though none of us could play the instrument. The old folk in the little houses gave us a warm welcome: they looked upon the Mummers as an old Irish custom, which it was not. The big houses looked upon us as hooligans and it might be they were right. During our travels a bottle of poteen made its appearance. One of our characters, Oliver Cromwell, had the bottle on his head…..

In one big house to which we forced our way we were met by silence. A side of bacon hanging from the rafters dangled above our heads. One of our fellows snatched the bacon from its hook and we all ran out.

We went up to a house in a bog village known as Sooty Row. The door was slammed in our faces The ‘Doctor’, part of our cast, carried a huge wooden beetle which he had taken from a tub of pigs’-mash in one of the houses. Bang! Bang! Crash! He struck the closed doors and smashed them to smithereens. Then we all ran.

In another house we got eighteen pence and a warm welcome. That should have satisfied us but it did not. A pile of griddle-cakes stood on the table near the door, one on top of the other. The bottom cake was a lovely fruit cake with cherries and raisins sticking out its sides. As I went out the door I heard a noise and a commotion. I looked around and saw five or six cakes – like the wheels of turf-barrows – rolling about the floor: the fruit cake wasn’t among them. One of our number dashed past me hugging that cake. The man of the house stood in the doorway and we heard him say, very politely: ‘A meaner lot of young men I have never known.’ The cake was devoured in a minute. I got very little, just a crust from which the donor had carefully picked the raisins and cherries.

By the roadside we sat down to count the money. There was a row.

”Yer keepin’ some of it,’ the purse-bearer was told. He got raging mad. ‘There’s the rotten money,’ he said, as he scattered it on the road. One more instance of the saying: ‘A narrow gathering gets a wide scattering.’

We split: it was more or less a political split. The Free Staters turned for home, the Republicans continued ahead.

There was a dance in a near-by hall. I didn’t want to go as I was fagged out.

For my part the dance was a complete flop. I couldn’t see a nice girl in the place.’

The Green Fool 1938

Saint Martin’s Day

Wexford, 11 November –

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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 is the feast-day of the Archangel Michael and is traditionally observed throughout Ireland on the 29th September. A host of tradition is attached to this date, for example, male children born on, or near, Michaelmas were often called Michael or Micheál in his honour. While in Swinford, County Mayo, in the early twentieth century,  Michaelmas had a special significance; 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 Hannon in his 1870 book Irish Folklore maintained that a sheep used to be slaughtered by those who could afford it on Michaelmas day, while he also states that 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.’

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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. Up until the first decades of the 19th century, on the feast day of Saint Michael, a bull was baited* at a bull-ring situated  near Saint Francis Abbey in Kilkenny. 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 foul 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.

The Full Moon & the Fairies in Irish Folklore

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Illustration by Arthur Rackham, 1867 – 1939

The fairies were thought to be particularly active under the light of the full moon. On those brightly illuminated nights fairies, who lived in beautiful palaces under the sea, were said to come up on to the land to revel and converse with the fairies of Ireland, at fairy mounds and around hawthorn trees, as Lady Wilde explains, ‘on moonlight nights they often come up on the land, riding their white horses, and they hold revels with their fairy kindred of the earth, who live in the clefts of the hills, and they dance together on the green sward under the ancient trees, and drink, nectar from the cups of the flowers, which is the fairy wine.’

As fairies and mortals lived separate but connected lives, the full moon presented greater possibilities of association between these two races. On Inishbofin, for example, dread of the fairies was so strong that when the moon was fullest, young girls were encouraged to stay indoors to avoid being abducted as brides to the fairies, while the good people’s* beautiful music and dancing was said to have tempted many a young girl to leave her home on these most ominous evenings. The full moon also presented an opportunity for the fairies to seek revenge on anyone who had slighted them, and anyone who built over a mound or cut down a fairy tree would do well to stay in on these nights for there are many stories that attest that the fairies took their opportunity to seek revenge on those mortals on  moonlit evenings.

* When speaking of the fairies the name ‘good people’ was often used as a precaution to causing offence.

 

Sources

Lady Jane Wilde,  Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland, 1887

Lady Jane Wilde, Ancient Cures, Charms and usages in Ireland, 1890