A Hobby Horse in Ireland?

Surviving tradition in Ireland – a May garland seen on a threshold in Schull, West Cork. on May Day this year

We are in the month of May. How significant is that here in Ireland? Well, if it’s any indication, it’s a fact that Irish folklorist Kevin Danaher (1913 – 2002) gives far more space in his writings to May and traditional May customs than to any other single subject or season.

Kevin Danaher of Athea, Co Limerick, at the Irish folklore Commission in 1954. the photographer was Dorothea Lange, who features in this post

In the west of England, which has always had close links with Ireland in terms of language, culture and industry – the month of May has long been celebrated with a strong focus on the ‘Hobby Horse’, a phenomenon which bridges the worlds of superstition, spectacle and folklore. In two places – Padstow in Cornwall and Minehead in Somerset – Hobby Horse (or, colloquially ‘Obby Oss’) festivals are huge events – usually. In 2020, sadly, both had to be cancelled due to Covid19 restrictions: probably the first time in hundreds of years that they have not taken place. The Minehead Oss has a recorded history that goes back to at least 1465, while in Padstow they will tell you that the Obby Oss has been revered forever on the First of May with never a break.

The Padstow Oss has survived through peacetime and wartime. This rare photograph (above) – attributed to Joshua Barret – was taken in 1944, while the early 20th century photograph (below) of the Minehead Oss is my all time favourite of a folk custom: the Oss always has and always will perambulate the town every year, even if no-one is interested in watching it!

As we find this very strong May tradition thriving (usually) in the west of England, we might expect to see an equivalent in Ireland, but you can’t immediately think of a Padstow or Minehead equivalent. Oh, yes – the Hobby Horse is purely Irish, in that there was once a now extinct breed – called a Hobby – which is said to have been the genetic source of all race horses since pre-Roman times!

. . . It is possible to trace the root of the Irish Hobby back to the northern Iberian Peninsula where this peculiar population of horse seemed to first be recognised about 700 BC, identified as the Celtic Horse. It was a small horse, gaited and exceedingly fast. It was the fastest horse in the known world back then, by 400 BC the Greeks called them the Thieldones and immortalized them on the frieze of the Parthenon, and this breed was already the Roman’s preferred steeds for racing. Pliny even writes about them in 77 AD, and we know when the Romans invaded Britain they brought those horses with them. But the Romans found that when they arrived they were met by the natives who had Celtic Horses already–horses which had been brought to Britain centuries earlier in trade from Spain by the Phoenicians for the metal mined there . . .

(Source – Sport Horse Breeder.com)

I won’t dwell on this idea that the Irish Hobby Horse was the ancestor of all modern pure bred sports horses – and was probably responsible for the innate Irish love of everything to do with horses and sport – as I am getting completely out of my depth here, and it’s all a bit off-topic anyway! Although, who knows how and where that name might have migrated over the centuries?

The culmination of the Padstow ceremony on May Day is the ‘meeting’ of the Red and Blue Oss at the huge maypole in the Town Square on the evening of the day (above). They have to close the town to all traffic because of the enormous crowds who attend, and you can see why the ‘social distancing’ rules could never have been applied to the event. Let’s hope that in future years ‘normality’ will have returned sufficiently to our lives to ensure that these ancient customs continue. In my lifetime I have been to Padstow on May Day at least thirty times, and also to Minehead on many occasions: I have good memories of them both.

In order to find a precedent in Ireland for a traditional Oss, I have mined the enormous archive that Kevin Danaher left behind in the Irish Folklore Commission, and I am pleased to report a whisper of success! Danaher uses various sources to summarise an account of traditions taking place in Ireland on May Day:

From the diary of Joshua Wight, a Quaker, we learn that so late as the middle of the eighteenth century, propitiatory rustic processions took place in the south of Ireland. The observer records, that about noon in the month of May, 1752, there passed through the streets of Limerick many thousand peasants marshalled in companies, representing various branches of agriculture…

 

And Thomas Crofton Croker (1825) tells us of what he calls mummers:

 

‘They consist of a number of the girls and young men of the village or neighbourhood, usually selected for their good looks, or their proficiency, – the females in the dance, the youths in hurling and other athletic exercises. They march in procession… Two of them bear each a holly-bush, in which are hung several new hurling-balls. the bush is decorated with a profusion of long ribbons which adds greatly to the gay and joyous, yet strictly rural appearance of the whole. The procession is always preceded by music; sometimes of the bagpipes, but more commonly of a military fife, with the addition of a drum or tambourine. A clown is, of course, in attendance: he wears a frightful mask, and bears a long pole, with shreds of cloth nail to the end of it, like a mop, which ever and anon he dips in a pool of water, or puddle, and besprinkles such of a crowd as press upon his compassions, much to the delights of the younger spectators… The Mummers during the day parade parade the neighbouring villages, dancing and receiving money. The evening, as might be expected, terminates with drinking’.

 

Patrick Kennedy, in The Banks of the Boru, describes a similar procession:

 

‘After a reasonable pause we had the delight of seeing twelve young men come forth, accompanied by the same number of young women, the boys dressed much more showily than the girls… To heighten the beauty of the spectacle, out sprung the fool and his wife, the first with some head-dress of skin, a frightful mask, and a goat’s beard descending from it. Though we knew that the big bluff, good-natured countenance of Paudh himself was behind the vizard, we could scarcely refrain from taking flight, not being able any more than other children to look on an ugly mask without extreme terror. His wife (little Tome Blanche, the tailor) was in an orange-tawny gown, flaming handkerchief and mob-cap, and had a tanned, ugly female mask, fitting pretty close to her face. Paudh’s first salute to his friends was a yell, a charge in various directions, and a general thrashing of the crowd with his pea-furnished bladder suspended from a long stick. Mrs Clown had a broom, and used it to some purpose when she found her friends disposed to crowd her.’

 

There is also mentioned by Sir William Wilde, together with something like a hobby horse (Popular Irish Superstitions, 67):

 

‘From Monaghan we have a graphic account of a somewhat similar proceeding: there the girls dressed up a churn-dash a s a “May babby” and the men, a pitchfork, with a mask, horse’s tail, a turnip head, and ragged old clothes, as a “May boy” but these customs have, we believe, long since become quite obsolete.’

The mask worn by the Obby Oss at Padstow could have evoked the description by Patrick Kennedy, above: some head-dress of skin, a frightful mask, and a goat’s beard descending from it . . . This particular representation, once used in the Padstow processions, is now a museum piece. So here I present my argument that we can find descriptive evidence of traditional Hobby Horses in Ireland as part of the May festivities. If anyone finds other instances or has direct personal experience or stories passed down which involve Hobby Horses, or activities which sound like the examples described in Danaher’s reports, above, please let me know.

No Wrens Were Harmed in the Making of this Post!

Wran Hunting has featured before in Roaringwater Journal: that’s the way that St Stephen’s Day – 26 December – has been celebrated for generations in ‘Celtic’ parts of western Europe, specifically Ireland and The Isle of Man, but also in Cornwall – where it’s now only a memory – Brittany, Wales and Scotland. ‘The Wran’ is a very strong surviving tradition here, especially on the west side of the country. The Dingle Gaeltacht is the place to go if you want to see all the action (click on the bottom right of the window to turn on the sound):

In our own Ballyedhob community ‘The Wran’ is not forgotten. In fact you can even find a poem written about it in the Duchas folklore records. This was recorded in the 1930s by John Levis, aged 32, who took it down from Jeremiah Driscoll, aged 64 years. Jeremiah had been a Wren Boy in Ballydehob. Here’s the poem:

Come all you ladies and gentlemen,

For tis here we come with our famous wran

With a heart full of cheering for every man

To rise up a booze before the year is gone.

 

Mr O’Leary we came to see,

With our wran so weak and feeble,

The wran is poor and we can’t feed him,

So we hope your honour will relieve him.

 

We’ve hunted our wran three miles and more

We’ve hunted this wran all around Glandore

Through hedges and ditches and fields so green,

And such fine sport was never seen.

 

As we copied our wran again

Which caused our wran-boys for to sing,
She stood erect and wagged her tail,
And swore she’d send our boys to jail.

 

As we went up through Leaca Bhuidhe

We met our wran upon a tree,

Up with a cubit and gave him a fall,

And we’ve brought him here to visit you all.

 

This the wran you may plainly see,

She is well mounted on a holly tree,

With a bunch of ribbons by his side

And the Ballydehob boys to be his guide.

 

The wran, the wran, the king of all birds,

St Stephen’s day he was caught in the furze,

Although he is little, his family is great,

So rise up landlady and fill us a treat.

 

And if you fill it of the best,

We hope in Heaven your soul will rest,

But if you fill it of the small,

It won’t agree with our boys at all.

 

To Mr O’Leary and his wife

We wish them both a happy life,

With their pockets full of money, and their cellars full of beer,
We now wish a merry Christmas and a happy New Year.

 

And now, our song is ended, we have no more to say,

We hope you’re not offended for coming here today,

For coming here this morning we think it is not wrong,

So give us our answer and let us all be gone.

By good fortune there’s ‘Mr O’Leary’ above! He’s the landlord of Levis’ Corner House Bar in Ballydehob – which is the subject of Finola’s post today. He’s on the left in the upper picture, looking on at the Wran Workshop which he allowed to take over his pub yesterday. Basically that involved covering the whole place in straw out of which, magically, appeared a whole lot of wonderfully crafted Wran masks. Joe is wearing a fine example in the lower picture.

The afternoon started outside, in Levis’ garden, where we were all given guidance on preparing the straw. We had to strip away the leaves and any heads which had been left behind, and produce bunches suitable to be plaited and then turned into ropes which would form the basis of the  hats or ‘masks’ traditionally worn to disguise the wren hunters.

On the right here you can just catch a glimpse of workshop maestro Sonia Caldwell, inspecting another fine mask. Sonia is determined that Ballydehob will embrace the Wran tradition (vestiges of which have appeared on the streets over the years) and re-energise it in the way that only this West Cork village’s vibrant community knows how. I can just imagine that in a couple of years’ time people will be flocking to see ‘The Wran’ in the same way that they flock to the Jazz Festival and all the other festivals and events that happen annually here.

Finola and I were at the workshop, and there I am with work in progress on the straw mask which we made (upper picture). You’ll notice that I’m wearing ‘tatters’: I’ve had these for years, and I used to don them for our own mumming tradition in Devon which also happened on 26 December (that’s me with the squeezebox mumming in the 1970s! – lower picture). Over there we called St Stephen’s ‘Boxing Day’ because that was when ‘Christmas boxes’ were given to the postman, the milkman and anyone else who provided their services through the year. Interestingly, Kevin Danaher mentions the ‘Wran box’ which was taken around the houses by the wrenners (or Wran Boys) and used to collect money ‘for the Wran’. This illustration of a Wren box from County Galway is from Danaher’s book The Year in Ireland:

The workshop in Levis’ was very well attended, and there is clearly great enthusiasm for reviving this custom. Sonia collected the straw at the annual Thrashing in Ballydehob – which is a traditional harvest celebration. It’s not easy to find the right straw for making the masks nowadays: anything that has been through a combine harvester has been flattened and will not survive the plaiting.

It’s a complex process, but the group coped well in acquiring the new skills under Sonia’s tutelage. You can see for yourself how successful the day had been in the last picture below. The making – every year – has always been part of the tradition where it’s still practised today. Sometimes the straw masks (which are only one part of the ‘disguise’) are destroyed after Stephen’s. In some of the Dingle traditions they are ritually burned on the following St Patrick’s Day.

Sonia is holding a further workshop – also at Levis’ Corner Bar – next Thursday 28 November at 7pm. It’s free to attend: please come and join in: you’ll learn more about the history of The Wran, and there’s likely to be some music too! And then on Stephen’s Day itself it’s out into the boreens and byways of Ballydehob to look for a wren . . . Don’t worry – the days are long gone when our (almost) smallest bird would lose its life: it’s a token hunt, the point of which is the disguising, the visiting around the streets, and the celebrations afterwards, which will extend late into the night!

Many thanks to Pól Ó Colmáin for providing this wonderful photograph of the results of the workshop!

Bloodshed and Fenny Poppers – the Legacy of Martinmas

If the wind is in the south-west at Martinmas (10 November), it keeps there till after Candlemas (2 February) . . .

I’m writing about St Martin again! I’ve already put up posts about this character and his fascinating legacy over the past few years. He can take another – after all, we celebrate St Patrick year after year and that’s ok, because this is Ireland . . . But St Martin never set foot in Ireland (as far as we know) although he is well remembered in many Irish traditions, including that piece of weather-lore above. And here – as elsewhere in Europe – there’s a phenomenon known as St Martin’s Summer, or Martin’s Little Summer, which describes an unseasonable spell of warm weather, sunshine and clear blue skies that occurs around about now, in mid-November. In fact today – Martinmas or St Martin’s eve – has dawned warm and clear.

Header and above – looking across Rossbrin Cove from the garden of Nead an Iolair early this morning – St Martin’s Eve – conforming with the tradition of ‘Little Summer’ associated with the saint

The English poet John Clare (1793 – 1864) – sometimes called the peasants’ poet – wrote a very long poem about  St Martin’s Eve: I’ll quote some verses as we go along. It’s worth noting that Clare was a great champion of traditional rural life, and was known as “. . . the greatest labouring-class poet . . . No one has ever written more powerfully of nature, of a rural childhood, and of the alienated and unstable self . . .” That’s according to his biographer Jonathan Bate. Although some of his work was well received in his lifetime, he was unable to make enough to keep him, his wife and seven children – and his alcohol consumption – on an even keel. He suffered from ‘strange delusions’ and spent the last twenty seven years of his life in asylums where, nevertheless, he continued to write.

Now that the year grows wearisome with age 

& days grow short & nights excessive long

No outdoor sports the village hinds engage                                                                                Still is the meadow romp and harvest song                                                                               That wont to echo from each merry throng

At dinner hours beneath high spreading tree

Rude winds hath done the landscape mickle wrong

That nature in her mirth did ill foresee                                                                                       Who clingeth now to hope like shipwrecked folk at sea . . .

 

(John Clare, St Martin’s Eve, 1823)

Here’s St Martin, looking every inch a medieval knight – although in fact he lived in the fourth century. He was St Patrick’s uncle – possibly accounting for his popularity in Ireland. In this Italian representation he is shown cutting his cloak in two and giving half to a beggar: the act that has made him famous. He was a Roman soldier but gave up that calling to be consecrated as Bishop of Caesarodunum (Tours) in 371. Although he lived a long life, he is said to have died a martyr by being thrown into a mill stream where he was crushed by the wheel. He achieved acclaim as the patron saint of soldiers, but also managed to become the patron saint of conscientious objectors!

The Basilica at Tours, France (above). St Martin served as Bishop here from 371 – but reluctantly. It is said that he tried to hide from those who wanted to install him as Bishop, but his hiding place was given away by the cackling of geese – which have been associated with the saint ever since. Other stories tell how the saint destroyed pagan temples and cut down sacred trees: in one instance, the pagans agreed to fell their sacred fir tree, if Martin would stand directly in its path. He did so, and it miraculously missed him. There’s a relic in the St Catherine’s Convent Museum of Religious Art in Ultrecht, the Netherlands, which claims to be a hammer which St Martin used to fell pagan sites including sacred trees.  Archaeological analysis has shown it was probably made in the 13th or 14th century from a late Bronze Age stone axe dating from c 1,000 – 700 BC. The handle contains a Latin text saying Ydola vanurunt Martini cesa securi nemo deos credat qui sic fuerant ruicuri (‘the pagan statues fall down, hit by St Martin’s axe. Let nobody believe that those are gods, who so easily fall down’). Here it is:

Beside the fire large apples lay to roast

& in a high brown pitcher creaming ale

Was warming seasoned with a nutmeg toast

The merry group of gossips to regale

Around her feet the glad cat curled her tail

Listening the crickets song with half shut eyes

While in the chimney top loud roared the gale

Its blustering howl of outdoor symphonies

That round the cottage hearth bade happier moods arise . . .

 

(John Clare, St Martin’s Eve, 1823)

It seems a little incongruous, perhaps, to come from a world of basilicas and silver hammers to ancient folk-customs in rural Ireland, but not so long ago Martinmas was greatly celebrated here. Kevin Danaher quotes Mason’s Parochial Survey:

On the eve of St Martin (who is one of the greatest saints in their calendar) in November every family of a village kills an animal of some kind or other; those who are rich kill a cow or a sheep, others a goose or a turkey; while those who are poor, and cannot procure an animal of greater value, kill a hen or a cock and sprinkle the threshold with the blood, and do the same in the four corners of the house; and this ceremonious performance is done to exclude every kind of evil spirit from the dwelling where this sacrifice is made, till the return of the same day in the following year . . .

Danaher also mentions a writer, Amhlaoibh Ó Súilleabháin, commenting in 1830 from County Kilkenny:

The eleventh day, St Martin’s Day. No miller sets a wheel in motion today, no more than a spinning woman would set a spinning wheel going, nor does the farmer put his plough team to plough . . .

The tradition undoubtedly refers back to St Martin’s death from being ‘ground by a mill wheel’. Significantly, there are numerous entries in the Dúchas Folklore Collection, dating from the 1930s, which show that these customs were still remembered and – on occasion – practised:

One of many examples from the Dúchas Folklore Collections which remember the importance of Martinmas customs

Martin King used kill a fowl every St Martin’s night in honour of St Martin. One year Martin forgot it and when he awoke in the morning the floor from his bedroom to the kitchen was covered with blood. Martin washed out the floor, but when he awoke again the following morning the floor was covered with blood again. This went on for three nights. Martin was very troubled about it so he told his story to an old woman that lived near him. The old woman told him it was because he had not killed something in honour of St Martin. Every year after that till he died Martin killed a hen or something in honour of St Martin . . .

 

(Eileen Donegan, Knockane, Listowel – collected for Dúchas 1935)

Another from Co Kerry:

St Martin’s day is held on the 11th of November. It is held as a feast day in honour of St Martin. The night before St Martin’s day people kill a goose or a chicken or some other kind of fowl, and they draw the blood and dip a piece of flax in it. They keep the piece of flax because it is said to be a cure for a pain in one’s side.

 

St Martin was a saint who was ground in a mill for his faith.

 

In olden times the mills used not work on that day The women in olden times used not work. No one would turn a wheel not even of a car.

 

(Mrs Walsh, aged 90 years – Tullamore, Co Kerry – collected for Dúchas)

The next piece is particularly interesting as it mentions St Martin’s association with a white horse:

It is a custom in Ireland to kill a cock on Saint Martin’s Night.

 

There was a man who emigrated to America. On St Martin’s night he was very sad. He was telling his friends that he would like to be home in Ireland, because if he were home he would kill a cock in honour of St. Martin.

 

He went outside and he went down the street. He met a man on a beautiful white horse. The man asked him would he like to go home. He said he was just wishing to be at home. He told him to get up on the horse. He did so and the next place he found himself was at his own door in Ireland.

 

The man told him to come out at a certain hour. He killed the cock and came out at the hour that he was told to do so. The man was waiting for him at the door. He got up on the horse and rode away. It was said that it was St Martin who brought him home.

 

(Maura Keating, aged 82 years, Passage East, Co Waterford)

St Martin’s Eve celebrations are still observed all over Europe. This is a festival in Italy, where children carrying lanterns watch out for the saint arriving on his white charger

What about Fenny Poppers? I hear you ask . . . Well, we have to go across to Northamptonshire, in England, for this surviving – and most curious – custom. St Martin’s Church, Fenny Stratford is to this day the scene of an event which has no apparent origin, nor any particular purpose. I won’t try to offer you an explanation – just to point out that it happens every Martinmas come hell or high water. Here’s a somewhat eccentric account of the event from a Movietone News snippet c 1950:

That’s probably enough about St Martin and his special day to last you another year. The subject is by no means exhausted!

Licking the Lizard – or The World Turned Upside Down

…Nothing was more natural than the desire to have a ‘last fling’ just before the beginning of Lent. On the Continent of Europe this became a public, communal revel, the carnival, but generally in Ireland the Shrove Tuesday celebration was a household festival with the family and their friends gathered about the fire-side, when the surplus eggs, milk and butter were used up in making pancakes, and even the most thrifty housewife did not object, as otherwise these perishable foodstuffs might go to waste. Some people kept the Christmas holly for the fire which baked the pancakes…

That’s my old friend Kevin Danaher again, reporting on the seasonal customs which we will be celebrating this week, described in The Year in Ireland Mercier Press, 1972. As he points out, the ‘last fling’ in Ireland is tame by comparison with Carnival in other countries, where it really can be the case of A World Turned Upside Down – authority is despatched to the sidelines while fools, mock kings, mock abbots and ‘Lords of Misrule’ conduct the proceedings. Hence the illustrations above, where malevolent hares get their own back on human hunters – and men lay eggs! Both of these are from the marginalia of thirteenth century manuscripts which are teeming with such anarchic visions.

Above – role reversal, a popular feature of carnival customs – and contemporary political upheaval which seems carnivalesque

An 18th century chapbook carries a remarkable and wonderful series of illustrations: The World Turned Upside Down or The Folly of Man, Exemplified in Twelve Comical Relations upon Uncommon Subjects. Here we find ‘the cart before the horse’, ‘children caring for their parents’ and many other thought-provoking reversals.

Back to Danaher:

…In Skibbereen, County Cork, after the fall of darkness on Shrove Tuesday evening the boys of the town amuse themselves by discharging home-made firecrackers. These were made by wrapping gunpowder in paper with a short fuse attached and enclosing the packet in a tight covering of the lead-foil lining of tea chests. Some, even more dangerous, were made from a short length of lead pipe stuffed with powder. These miniature bombs were thrown about the streets, at groups of people, when the sight of the glowing fuse flying through the air was the signal to scatter and run. The bang from these fireworks is said to have been very loud and when thrown at a belated wedding cavalcade, usually caused the horses to bolt, much to the public danger. Towards the end of the last century this custom was finally suppressed by an active police official… (ibid)

amorous hare

John Dunton, an English writer and bookseller, visited Ireland and described various customs he encountered, in Teague Land: or A Merry Ramble to the Wild Irish (1698). Here’s one he observed in Naas, Co Kildare:

…The inhabitants of this place and the neighbourhood have a custom (how begun I could not learn) on Shrove Tuesday to meet on horseback in the fields, and wherever they spy a hare in her form, they make as wide a circle as the company can and the ground will permit, and someone is sent in to start poor puss, who cannot turn herself any way but she is repulsed with loud cries and so frightened that she falls dead in the magical circle, though sometimes she breaks through and escapes; if a greyhound or any other dog be found in the field, it is a thousand to one she loses her life; and thus after they have shouted two or three hares to death they disperse…

Hardly surprising, then, that the hares in the 13th century manuscript marginalia should want to get their revenge… And, unhappily, an evolution of this same barbarous sport, now under the name of ‘hare coursing’ is still permitted in Ireland! We live in a topsy turvy world, indeed.

better hunting hares

Amhlaoibh Ó Suilleabháin, the schoolmaster of Callan, Co Kilkenny reported a similarly unsavoury Shrove Tuesday custom in  1831:

…To-day is the day when cocks were pelted. It was a barbarous trick. The poor cock was tied to a post or a stone by a hard hemp cod, and sticks were thrown at it. He who killed it became owner of it. A penny was wagered on every shot. Recently this custom has receeded. I have not seen it for thirty years. It was an English custom…

Good to know that we can at least blame the English for that! Cock-throwing was also noted in the three volume Guide to Ireland published between 1841-1843 by Samuel Carter Hall (1800-1889), and his wife Anna Maria (1800-1881) …The day for this sport was Shrove Tuesday, a day which is still dedicated to games and amusements far less cruel and irrational… They went on to describe and illustrate pastimes more familiar to us.

hall's shrove tuesday

…The family group – and the “boys and girls” of the neighbours – gather round the fireside; and each in turn tries his or her skill in tossing the pancake. The tossing of the first is always alloted to the eldest unmarried daughter of the host, who performs the task not altogether without trepidation, for much of her “luck” during the year is supposed to depend on her good or ill success on the occasion. She tosses it, and usually so cleverly as to receive it back again on its surface, on its reverse, in the pan. Congratulations upon her fortune go round, and another makes the effort: perhaps this is a sad mischance; the pancake is either not turned or falls among the turf ashes; the unhappy maiden is then doomed – she can have no chance of marrying for a year at least – while the girl who has been lucky is destined to have her “pick of the boys” as soon as she likes…

We had better finish off with a pancake recipe – and who better than Monica Sheridan to provide a traditional Irish one?

Oh! Do I hear you asking where Licking the Lizard comes into all this? Here is Kevin Danaher to round things off:

…There was a common belief that to lick a lizard endowed the tongue with a cure for burns and scalds; this was especially effective if the lizard was licked on Shrove Tuesday…

hare with dog

‘Will the Hare’ – and the Mizen Olympics!

street market

…In ancient Ireland the festival of the beginning of the harvest was the first day of Autumn, that is to say, it coincided with 1 August in the Julian calendar. This has continued in recent tradition, insofar as Lúnasa or Lammas-Day was still taken to be the first day of Autumn; the gatherings and celebrations connected with it were, however, transferred to a nearby Sunday, in most parts of Ireland to the last Sunday in July, in some places to the first Sunday in August… The old Lúnasa was, in the main, forgotten as applying to the popular festival and a variety of names substituted in various localities, such as Domhnach Chrom Dubh, Domhnach Deireannach (Last Sunday), Garland Sunday, Hill Sunday and others…

making the stack

All the photographs in this post are from the collection of Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh who travelled and photographed the west of Ireland during the 1930s, 40s and 50s and is an invaluable documentary of the times in which he lived. Generally, the locations of the photographs are not noted, and very few are likely to be specific to the Mizen: they do however record life as it would have been lived at that time in all the rural areas

Today we celebrate Lúnasa – the festival of the bringing-in of the harvest. Kevin Danaher (The Year in Ireland, Mercier Press 1972) wrote (above) about what he observed in the middle of the last century, when things were already changing and many of the old customs were, as he notes, ‘in the main forgotten’, although still talked about. What changes do we see in Ireland, a few generations on?

seascape

Northside of the Mizen by Patrick McCarthy and Richard Hawkes was written in 1999 (Mizen Productions) and is a collection of memories and stories still being told then about traditional life in this westerly part of of the country:

…The heat of the summer was eased by the cooling breezes from the Atlantic. It was busy on land and sea, with seine fishing by night and fish curing and farming by day, but there was always time for scoriachting, games and dance, sometimes on Carbery Island or across Dunmanus Bay…

…Once in the year Carbery Island was the location for a dance and in settled weather the Northsiders could shout across and give the signal to the people of Muintir Bháire to meet at Carbery Island. As many as forty-five people in three boats would cross Dunmanus Bay to the White House, and a good crowd of men and women from Bear Island would also come to the dances. They were great hearty people. Ann Daly from Kilcrohane and Agnes O’Donovan of Dunkelly played the melodeon…

I like the idea of the Northsiders shouting across the water to the residents of the Sheep’s Head, two miles away! I wonder if they would be heard nowadays?

horse race

…There were competitions at Dunmanus for swimming, running, jumping and weight lifting, and you could be sure that the Northsiders were well represented in each of the events. ‘Will the Hare’ (William McCarthy of Dunkelly Middle), was good at the long jump and the running races and would often win and bring great honour to the Northside. It was said that ‘Will the Hare’ got his name by catching a hare on the run! It was also said that when you blew the whistle to gather the men for seining, by the time you had finished, ‘Will the Hare’ would be at Canty’s Cove waiting!

boat race

…Wild John Murphy would take the lads to the Crookhaven Regatta which was held on The Assumption (15th August). It was a long pull around the Mizen but a good time was had by all. The Northsiders were great with the oars, but it was hard to beat the Long Island crews in the boat races…

(Danaher): …In very many localities the chief event of the festival was not so much the festive meal as the festive gathering out of doors. This took the form of an excursion to some traditional site, usually on a hill or mountain top, or beside a lake or river, where large numbers of people from the surrounding area congregated, travelling thither on foot, on horseback or in carts and other equipages… Many of the participants came prepared to ‘make a day of it’ bringing food and drink and musical instruments, and spending the afternoon and evening in eating, drinking and dancing…

picnic

…Another welcome feature of the festive meal was fresh fruit. Those who had currants or gooseberries in their gardens, and this was usual even among small-holders in Munster and South Leinster, made sure that some dish of these appeared on the table. Those who lived near heather hills or woods gathered fraucháin (‘fraughans’, whortleberries, blueberries) which they ate for an ‘aftercourse’ mashed with fresh cream and sugar. Similar treatment was given to wild strawberries and wild raspberries by those lucky ones who lived near the woods where these grow… A number of fairs still held or until recently held at this season bear names like ‘Lammas Fair’, ‘Gooseberry Fair’, ‘Bilberry Fair’…

market in town

One interesting custom was the driving of cattle and horses into the water. This is mentioned in the 1680s by Piers in his Description of the County of West-Meath:On the first Sunday in harvest, viz in August, they will be sure to drive their cattle into some pool or river, and therein swim them; this they observe as inviolable as if it were a point of religion, for they think no beast will live the whole year thro’ unless they be thus drenched; I deny not but that swimming of the cattle, and chiefly in this season of the year, is healthful unto them…

at the fair

‘Going to the Skelligs’

star wars on the skelligs

My eye was taken by an article in the Irish Times this week which stated that the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Pope have agreed to work towards a fixed date for Easter. Currently, that festival can occur anywhere between 22 March and 25 April – this year it will be an early one: Easter Sunday will be on 27 March. This has meant that, in Ireland, the Easter school holiday will last for three weeks, from St Patrick’s day (17 March – and always a day off school) until 4 April. Evidently the church leaders believe that a fixed date for all Christians around the world to celebrate Easter would be logical and practical. So much for logic – what about history and tradition?

It’s all about the sun and the moon, and the Vernal Equinox. That’s the point in the first half of the year when day and night are of exactly equal length. We are used to thinking of the equinox occurring on 21 March but this won’t happen again until the 22nd century! From now until 2044 the equinox will be on 20 March, then on the nineteenth. This is in part because our Gregorian calendar is inaccurate, but also because the Earth’s axial precession is gradually changing. In 325 the Council of Nicaea established that Easter would be held on the first Sunday after the first full moon occurring on or after the Vernal Equinox, but that was taken to be 21 March. You can begin to see the complications…

As you might expect, Ireland has had a lot to say about all this. The early church here, established by Saint Patrick, didn’t necessarily agree with the Roman church over certain issues, including the date of Easter. Matters came to a head in 664 when a synod was convened in Whitby, Yorkshire attended by delegates from the Ionian tradition and the Roman tradition. The Ionians were led by the Irish Saint Colmán, Bishop of Lindisfarne. They supported the older traditions, but the debate was won by the Romans and Saint Colmán resigned his post and returned to Ireland, where he founded abbeys in Inishbofin and Mayo and – presumably – continued to celebrate Easter in the ‘old way’.

The situation today is still confused. While Roman Catholic and Protestant churches use the ‘Alexandrine rules’, agreed in the 7th century and adapted when the Gregorian calendar was introduced (1582), Orthodox churches generally follow a method based on the earlier Julian calendar but, in fact, there are different systems used by the many different branches of Orthodoxy around the world so the Easter festival in any year may be celebrated on varying dates in divergent places.

Let’s look at tradition, especially in Ireland. Although the churches here did eventually conform to the Roman calculations, there was always some dissent. Folklore tells us that the monks on the Skelligs – isolated rocks off the Kerry coast which housed a monastery back in medieval times – followed a calendar which was several days behind the rest of the country – this sounds as though they were still basing themselves on the Julian system. This was useful, however, if you missed out on getting married before the beginning of Lent (you couldn’t marry during Lent): the period we are in now – between Little Christmas (6 January) and the beginning of Lent – was in Ireland always the most popular time for weddings. ‘Going to the Skelligs’ was a joking expression used unkindly against confirmed bachelors and spinsters.

From Danaher The Year in Ireland – Mercier Press 1972:

In much of the south-west of Munster there is a vague tradition that the festival of Easter was celebrated a week later on the island sanctuary of Sceilg Mhichil than on the mainland. Whether this tradition is a distant echo of the ancient controversy on the date of Easter is a matter of speculation, but it did give the occasion of another form of disapproval of the unmarried. These had lost their chance of marrying this year on the mainland, but they could still be married on the Skellig, and steps must be taken to send them there… All over County Kerry, in parts of west County Limerick, in much of County Cork, especially along the coast, and in west County Waterford the negligent were greeted, in the first days of Lent, with a barrage of chaff and banter. ‘You’re off to the Rock, I suppose?’ ‘Don’t miss the boat!’ ‘Is it Mary or Katie you’re taking on the excursion’ etc etc. The victims had to grin and bear it… In many places the custom was carried further, and local poets were encouraged to compose verses on the occasion, verses which told of a grand sea excursion to the Skelligs, praised the splendid vessel which would take the party there and gave a long list of the participants, linking together the names of the bachelors and old maids as incongruously as possible. These verses – most of them mere doggerel – were written out and circulated about the parish so that all might enjoy them, and were sung to popular airs, often in the hearing of those lampooned in them… The custom has in more recent times taken the form of large posters, giving details of the ‘Grand Excursion’ with a list of the couples taking part in it. These notices were hung in prominent positions on the first Sunday of Lent, where they might be read by all on their way to church… In south-east County Cork the Skellig joke appeared in its most extreme form. Here bands of young men went about on Shrove Tuesday evening, and if some inveterate bachelor ventured out and fell into their hands he was bound with ropes and had his head ducked under a pump or in a well; this drenching was called ‘going to the Skelligs’

The Skelligs have been in the news recently, as the setting for a scene in the new Star Wars film: The Force Awakens. Filming on the historic site provoked considerable debate and discontent among archaeologists and conservationists. Despite our own reservations, Finola and I went to watch the film in Vancouver and – although we had to wait until the very end (the Skelligs appear only in the last scene) – we were delighted to see one of the West of Ireland’s most magnificent seascapes on the big screen – and in 3D!

Shrovetide is nearly upon us. If you haven’t arranged your pre-Lent weddings yet don’t forget there’s always the Skelligs!

With thanks to mavek-cg (http://mavek-cg.deviantart.com) for the fine image on the header