Festivals and Feast days in the Irish Calendar
"That which is called the Christian Religion existed among the Ancients, and never did not exist, from the beginning of the Human Race until Christ came in the flesh, at which time true religion, which already existed began to be called Christianity." St Augustine
February 1st - Saint Brigid's Day - 1st day of spring
Also the Celtic pagan feast of Imbolc which was dedicated to the goddess Brigid. Saint Brigid is the second patron saint of Ireland and the patroness of cattle and dairy work.
It is believed that she travels the countryside on the eve of her feast to bless the people and their livestock.
The direction of the wind on this day is said to predict the prevailing wind for the coming year. Also to hear the lark sing on Saint Brigid's Day is believed a sign of a good spring.
The making of Saint Brigid's Cross (brogha Bride). The cross is woven from straw or reeds with method and design varying around the country also varying in complexity.
The cross is to be hung either above the door or from the thatch for protection.
Saint Brigid's cross hung over door
Which did the house from fire secure
As Gillo thought, O power charm
To keep a house from taking harm;
And tho' the dogs and servants slept,
By Brigid's care the house was kept.
"'the "brideog' they used to call it, going round with the "brideog", you'd have a spud stuck on a stick you know, dressed up as a kind of a doll...But we used to make a doll out of it with a stick and a spud and put eyes in it and put a rag round it and it looked like a doll the "brideog", that was Saint Brigid I suppose. That was the ritual and you got a few pence for going to the door."
February 2nd - Candlemas
The popular legend of the origin of Candlemas is that Saint Brigid promised to help Mary by distracting the crowds, appearing with a headdress adorned with lighted candles, so that Mary could bring the infant Jesus to the temple.
This day is for the purification of candles; old candles and candlesticks must be thrown away. Also candles are donated to the church and new candles brought to the church for blessing.
to calculate Easter
Easter Sunday is the first Sunday after the first full moon following the northern vernal equinox (vernal: spring, equinox: night) which is March 20th or 21st (spring equinox).
Shrove Tuesday (Shrovetide)
This is the last Tuesday before lent, which is forty days before Easter Sunday. As Easter Sunday is calculated according to the northern vernal equinox which falls on either 20th or 21st of March, the earliest date that Shrove Tuesday can fall is 9th or 10th of February and the latest, a month after that.
No meat or milk products, including eggs could be eaten during lent so the celebrations of Shrove Tuesday have always involved an emphasis on food. Surplus eggs, milk and butter were used up to make pancakes, which were often cooked over a fire made with Christmas holly.
The tossing of the pancake held huge importance for those still unmarried. Usually the eldest unmarried daughter of the host was the first to toss. If the pancake landed unruffled on the pan her nuptial fortunes for the year were in her favour and she would marry within the year.
In 1563 the Decree on Matrimony prohibited marriage during lent. This led to the fallacious logic that it was good to get married before Lent, therefore, the day before lent began.
So, while the matchmakers work began on Little Christmas the fruits were reaped on Shrove Tuesday, it being the busiest day of the year for weddings.
Sprinkling of Salt
Salt was sprinkled on bachelors and spinsters 'to preserve them hale and hearty until next shrove!' In Dunmore this was done on the day after Ash Wednesday, Ballinrobe on the first Monday in Lent but for many it was on Shrove Tuesday.
"Shrove Tuesday was salting Tuesday, they'd be "peggin salt" that day. Did you ever hear of that? Well killing pigs and they had that coarse salt and they'd be throwing salt, but some of the women that would be getting married, 'twould cause a row, you shouldn't do that because they wouldn't be married that year."
Ash Wednesday-first day of lent
On this day many ate only one meal and drank only water, while many others fasted.
The restriction of diet or the black fast prohibited meat and most dairy product and was the most significant tradition of lent which lasted forty days, representing Jesus' forty days in the desert.
The most important part of the day was going to mass to be blessed and marked on the forehead with penitential ashes.
March 17th - Saint Patrick's Day
Saint Patrick is the first patron saint of Ireland and as testimony to his importance, although it is during lent, on Saint Patrick's Day the Lenten restrictions are set aside which is probably why it is a day for feasting.
A significant festival today, the wearing and drowning of the shamrock are the only two traditions, which can be said, have been passed down from older traditions. The wearing of shamrock by adults and green badges by children has replaced the tradition of wearing crosses.
As with Saint Brigid, crosses were made in Saint Patrick's honour with differences of design and material between the sexes, i.e. men made crosses with twig of sallow, while women's were made with straw. These crosses were also hung over the door of a new house and for subsequent festivals were hung anywhere in the thatch.
There is some discrepancy on whether the drowning of the shamrock was on Saint Patrick's Day or the following day, Sheelah's Day. The shamrock, which was worn on the coat, was put in the bottom of the glass. When the glass is empty the soggy shamrock is thrown over the left shoulder for good luck.
March 25th - Feast of the Annunciation - Lady Day
This day had little significance in popular tradition or for feasting as it held legal importance regarding contracts, leases and rents. Until Britain accepted Pope Gregory's calendar in 1752, March 25th was the official beginning of the year.
Palm Sunday - Sunday before Easter Sunday
A commemoration of Christ's entry into Jerusalem. Mass was usually attended and each person brought a piece of palm to be blessed which the men and boys would wear for the day. Often farmers would shred a small amount of palm and mix it through the seed to bless the crop.
For Palm Sunday to fall on Saint Patrick's Day meant that something unusual would happen, probably concerning weather.
First Sunday after the first full moon following the northern vernal equinox, March 20th or 21st
Traditionally everything was cleaned and whitewashed in preparation for Easter Sunday. No work was done on Good Friday other than cleaning.
Men and boys would cut their hair as a prevention of headache for the coming year. If a child was born on Good Friday and baptized on Easter Sunday it had the gift of healing.
If a person died on Good Friday and was buried on Easter Sunday, he/she was guaranteed immediate entry into Heaven.
Easter Sunday Second in festive importance, only to Christmas, this day began with the Dance of the Sun on Easter morning. Many would gather on hill tops to watch the sun rise, or often a bucket would be filled with water to prevent children looking directly at the sun, and the side tapped to make the reflection of the sun dance on the water for the excitement of the children.
The meal on Easter Sunday was of huge festive importance, after a lent of deprivation. Eggs were painted and copious amounts eaten and meat, often lamb or goose, held the centre-piece of the festive table.
In the evening, often at a cross-road the Easter Dance or 'pruthog' would be held with a cake of barmbrack for the prize. This is where the saying "That takes the cake!" originates.
Favourite day for fairs and markets.
April Fool's Day
This was a heathen custom in honour of Venus. The custom of playing pranks was to do her veneration.
May 1st - May Day
Celtic feast of Bealtaine during the celebration of which huge fires were lit and cattle driven through them to be purified.
"They would give out milk on May Day and if you washed your face in the dew, if you did, you wouldn't have sunburn for the rest of the year." (Kathleen Horan, Claremorris)
".the little pink flowers that grow in Springtime..cowslips. They'd get little bunches of those and to the neighbours they were very friendly with, little bunches and tie them and leave them on the doorstep for the May Day." (J.J.Kelly, Kiltimagh)
"May Day was a wonderful day. People got up at six o'clock on a May morning, the first thing to do was to wash your face in the dew... Now you had to go to the river now as well, when you went to the spring well with that can, you came back again to the mearing river and you took a can of that and keep it... May morning at six o'clock you had to go, you had no business taking it out of your own land. It had to be a mearning river between two holdings of land...that would cure anything that would be wrong with you." (Mae Glynn, Claremorris)
Stealing the butter: If someone visiting didn't take their turn with the churning of the butter that would steal the luck of the butter, or the fairies would steal the butter. Likewise to go into a field of cows on May morning would steal the butter of the milk.
June 23rd - Eve of Saint John's day - Bonfire night
Saint John was a cousin of Jesus.
John the Baptist preached: "There will come one greater than I the latchet of whose shoe I am not worthy to loose." On this night people make a fire to commemorate John's birth.
They say their prayers around it, play music and have a feast, usually boiled bread and milk with a few raisins added.
A coal would be taken home from the fire and throw it into their potato and crop fields for protection from disease.
July 15th - Saint Swithen's Day
The pisreog around this day is that if it rains on Saint Swithen's Day it will rain for forty days.
August 1st - Lughnasa
The Celtic feast of Lughnasa which was celebrated in honour of the God Lug, in the hope of a good harvest.
October 31st - All Hollows Eve
On the eve of all Saint s Day it was believed that the fairies, ghosts and spirits arose with many superstitions attached to this day. When throwing water out it was customary to shout "Seachain!"(beware) to give ghosts and fairies a chance to avoid being splashed. Children were protected with holy water or by putting iron or a dead ember from the fire into the cradle.
Fairies were infamous for causing people to become confused and getting them lost at night, turning your coat inside out was believed to confuse them instead and free you from them.
If you met a fairy on All Hollows Eve and throw the dust or dirt from under your shoe at them, they will release any captive human being in their company. Hallowe'en masks were known as wizards and were made and worn by the children.
Barmbrack was a favourite food which would have a ring baked in it. Whoever got the slice with the ring would be the first to marry. Nuts were also a popular and seasonal food for this night and the shells were burnt for divinations to be foretold from the ashes.
Bobbing for apples in a basin full of water with hands tied behind back. There may also be money in the water which had to be picked up with the lips. Whatever was retrieved was kept. Apple hung on a string, hands again tied behind the back; the game was to take a bite from the apple while it was swinging.
Taken from schools collection 1937-39:
"Young grown up girls and sometimes boys play several games relating to marriage. They get four saucers and put into them, clay, water, a ring and a Rosary Beads respectively. In turn they are blind-folded and led to the vessels. The person who puts his (or her) hand into the water will go across water in the clay will be the first to die; on the ring will get married the first; on the Beads will be a nun or a Religious. Each in turn then tries to peel an apple without breaking the skin, and throw the skin over his or her shoulder when it makes the initial of the Christian name of his or her future spouse."'(Josephine Hopkins, aged 14 years old)
'The "pookies" are supposed to be out that night and it is dangerous to travel alone. They dirty the blackberries, sloes and haws which of course cannot be eaten after that night. "Cally" or mashed potatoes used be cooked on Hallow Eve and any portion remaining till next day was similarly made unfit for use by the pookies. In some houses the unused cally was left outside for the pookies and it was generally found that it was eaten by morning by the pookies of course.'(Annie Egan, 12 years old)
November 1st - Samhain
This was the Celtic feast of Samhain which was the beginning of the Celtic year when animals were gathered in for winter and sacrifices were made to the God Dagda.
November 11th - Martinmas
".. there would be a goose killed for Saint Martin's and usually the blood would be sprinkled. The goose would be killed, she was brought in here, cooked and the blood sprinkled on the doors. The back door and the front door and in some cases the blood was put into jam pots and taken with a quill and shook around by the walls, I saw that done."(Mae Glynn, Claremorris)
Saint Martin was said to have arrived at the house of a poor woman looking for food. Having none to give she sacrificed her baby and cooked him for Saint Martin. After his departure the woman went to the crib to mourn her child to find the child alive in the crib.
This is the origin of the sacrificial tradition. Every family was to kill an animal which was done to exclude every kind of evil spirit from the house or dwelling where the sacrifice was sprinkled until the following Martinmas. No wheels should turn on this day.
Saint Stephen's Day - Mummers Day
The wren, the wren, the king of all birds
Saint Stephen's Day was caught in the furze.
Up with the kettle and down with the Pan,
Give us some money to bury the wren.
I follow the wren from rock to rock
I followed him into a public shop
I dipped his head into a barrel of beer
And I wish you all a happy New Year.
From the Schools Collection 1937-39
"The day following Christmas day is Saint Stephen's and on that day most of the boys of about between the ages of seven years to sixteen years go about from house to house playing music and dancing. The flute is the most instrument they use. Long ago they used to go out in crowds, one or more playing the violin or melodion and the rest dancing but now they go in pairs and when they go home they divide the money which they have gathered evenly between them." (Pearl Salmon)
The bird was cursed for giving away the hiding place of Saint Stephen while being chased by the Romans and as a reprise to Saint Stephen it is believed that one should be killed every year.
Researched and written by Rachel Quinn and Margaret Joyce.