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.

Saint Manchan, his Miraculous Cow, and his Shrine

I was in the little two-horse train which labours west from Clara to Banagher and the outlook was desolate. There was another chap in the carriage. He sat hunched up in the corner with his nose to the window. One glance convinced me that it was useless to say anything and there the two of us kept on staring rather lovingly at a wilderness of bog stretching away to the Slieve Bloom Mountains. It seemed to me that there was a kind of promised land on the other side. On past a few scattered farm houses some grey boulders and the ruins of a church. I found myself thinking dismally enough of the tourists. After all what do they get? Just ruins, ruins and more ruins – the saddest ruins in Europe. Then suddenly I heard my friend of the opposite corner speak in a mournful kind of way with his nose still glued to the window – “That’s Leamanaghan, a quare kind of place, decent people, too, the best in the world, people who’d give you all the milk you could drink but wouldn’t sell a drop of it for all the gold in Ireland and it’s all by raison of a cow, Saint Manchan’s cow.”

 

(St Manchan By Tomas O’Cleirigh, Midland Tribune 27th April 1935)

Upper – Finola is featuring the work of stained glass artist George Walsh this week. We were fortunate to find his portrait of Saint Manchan and his cow in the  little church at Baher , Co Offaly, on our travels. Centre – The Church of Saint Manchan

(From Robert’s diary, 2012) – St Manchan had a Cow, a miraculous animal that was always in milk, and the people of Leamonaghan had the milk for free (and, to this day, will not charge anyone for a pint straight from the herd). We tramped through a field of cows as we searched for St Manchan’s holy well: they gazed at us with some disdain. The well is a curious affair – old stones, concrete and rather ugly. The water is alive with tadpoles. We were tentative as we sampled the rank, slow moving stream – but it gave us the gift of credulity!

This detail from the Harry Clarke Studio window at St Manchan’s Church (dating from 1931) shows the miraculous cow

I went through a storm of real Irish rain to see Leamanaghan that very evening. It is four miles from Ferbane in County Offaly and hidden away in a vast bog region which is dotted with scattered boulders of magnesian limestone. The general depression is summed up in the name – Liath Manchan – the grey land of Manchan. Aye! The grey, lonely, chill land of Manchan. Saint Manchan lived here and died in AD 664. That might have been only yesterday, however as far as the good neighbours are concerned because he is the one subject over which every man, woman and child can get really voluble. I was taken to see the ruins of his church and then down to his well and heard how when you are sick you should pray here, walk three times round it and then go back and leave a little present for the saint himself in the window of the church . . . I was told that on the 24th January when all the rest of the world works, the people of Leamanaghan just take a holiday and make merry because it would be the unpardonable sin to think of work on their Saint’s day.

 

(Tomas O’Cleirigh, 1935)

The twelfth century shrine of St Manchan securely displayed in the church today, with the Harry Clarke Studio window behind it

St Manchan died in a plague which he had asked God to bring on his sinning people. After his death, his herdsmen – Bohooly (from which the name Ua Buachalla – or Buckley – is derived) found it necessary to call upon the Saint to help recover the Community’s cattle, which had been stolen by raiders. Manchan duly appeared, but one of his faithful herdsmen was so overjoyed to see his old master again that he threw his arms around him. This he should not have done, as he was a mortal sinner: the Saint fell into a heap of dry bones, but the cattle were recovered. We learn that Manchan’s bones were gathered up and taken to Clonmacnoise, where a fine casket was made to house them, out of yew wood, bronze and gold. Nearly a thousand years later we stumbled on this same shrine in the little church at Boher which carries the Saint’s name, with a glorious representation of itself shining out from a Harry Clarke Studio window set behind it. It resided in a case of armoured glass, alarmed and watched by cameras  – incongruous…. and ineffective: the day after we saw it there the shrine was stolen in broad daylight, evidently after only a few minutes’ work. (Robert’s diary, 2012)

It’s wonderful that we can see the actual reliquary containing St Manchan’s bones returned to the church at Boher, Co Offaly, close to the ruins of the monastery at Leamonaghan which the Saint founded in the seventh century. Although it has suffered some damage over the centuries, the detailing is exquisite: it is one of Ireland’s finest medieval treasures 

They have all kinds of stories about the good saint but the best one of them all explains why Leamanaghan people don’t sell milk. Here it is: Saint Manchan had a cow – a wonderful cow that used to give milk to the whole countryside – good, rich milk for which no charge was ever made by the saint. Then, the people of the neighbouring Kil Managhan got jealous and watched for their chance. One fine day when Manchan was absent they came and stole the cow and started to drive her along the togher through the bog back home to Kil Managhan. The good cow, suspecting something was wrong, went backwards and most unwillingly, fighting, struggling and disputing every inch of the way. Now she’d slip designedly on the stones: again she’d lie down but every where she went, she managed to leave some trace of her rough passage on the stones of the togher. The marks are there to this day, – hoof marks, tail marks – every kind of marks and the chef-d’oeuvre of them all has a place of honour at the entrance to the little school. Alas! In spite of that very gallant resistance, the cow was finally driven to Kil Managhan. There, horrible to say, she was slain and skinned.

 

(Tomas O’Cleirigh, 1935)

The shrine wonderfully depicted in the Harry Clarke Studio window at St Manchan’s Church, Boher

Prior to being housed in the church the shrine had rested in an ancient chapel. This burned down, but the shrine was rescued and then was kept in a thatched cottage nearby: legend has it that the ruin of this cottage became the unprepossessing holy well that we had found . . . Miraculous cows; plagues; holy wells; a modern theft – St Manchan’s bones do not rest lightly in his casket. The stories tell that Manchan was a tall man with a limp. When the shrine was sent to the British Museum some years ago for refurbishment, the experts examined the bones and proclaimed that they belonged to a tall male who had suffered from arthritis. (Robert’s diary, 2012)

Remarkably, St Manchan’s Shrine has been exactly replicated. This full-sized copy of the reliquary is in the National Museum of Ireland: all the ‘missing’ figures and details have been restored. The drawing dates from 1867, and is a plate in a book titled The Towers and Temples of Ancient Ireland by Marcus Keane MRIA. In that book it is said that the copy belonged to Sir William Wilde, and it may well have been commissioned by him. It is likely that the Harry Clarke Studio modelled their version of the shrine on the replica, rather than on the original

In the meantime, the saint returned, missed his cow, and straightaway started in pursuit. He succeeded in tracing the thieves by the marks on the stones and arrived just at the moment when she was about to be boiled. He carefully picked the portions out of the cauldron, pieced them together, struck at them with his stick and immediately the cow became alive again. She was every bit as good as ever, too, except that she was a wee bit lame on account of one small portion of a foot which was lost. She continued to supply the milk as before, and, of course, no charge was made by the saint. Ever since the famous custom still lives on, and good milk is given away but never gold by the loyal people of Leamanaghan. Now, can any lover of the grand faith of Medievaldom beat that?

 

(Tomas O’Cleirigh, 1935)

A detail of the original Shrine in St Manchan’s Church

There’s one more piece to this Saint’s story: the fame of his miraculous cow grew and the people of neighbouring Kilmonaghan were jealous, and sent out some rustlers to drive the cow over into their own parish. The cow proved reluctant and stalled and slipped all the way, leaving hoof marks on the many stones that lay on the road. Those marks are still on the stones to this day (they say) and the Saint was able to follow her tracks and recover her. (Robert’s diary, 2012)

Saint Manchan, depicted in stained glass: Harry Clarke Studio (left) and George Walsh (right). Both can be seen in the church at Boher, Co Offaly

The very old vellum books state that Manchan of Liath was like unto Hieronomus in habits and learning. I can well believe it. Some distance away from the church is the little rectangle cell which he built for his mother – Saint Mella. Cold, austere and with no window, you get the shivers by even looking at it. There is also a large flag-stone on the togher leading from the well, and they say the saint and his mother used to meet here every day and sit down back to back without speaking a word because the saint had vowed never to speak to a woman!

 

(Tomas O’Cleirigh, 1935)