Lenten Traditions in Ireland: Black Fast days and Salted Women!

In the late 1930s in Ireland the Irish Folklore Commission set about enlisting National Schools (Ireland’s Primary level schools) to help gather folklore. The idea was that the schoolchildren would get stories from parents, grandparents and neighbours about traditions, legends, superstitions, pastimes, trades, cures and any aspect of life in the local area. The children recorded these stories on exercise books. Schools all over the island (all 26 counties) took part in the project that lasted several years. Over 50,000 schoolchildren from 5,000 schools took part,resulting in over half a million pages of manuscript, known as The Schools Collection, or in Irish,‘Bailiúchán na Scol’. This wonderful collection is online at http://www.duchas,ie/en. Although not yet fully transcribed, and with much of it in the Irish language,there is a wealth of information here, including some stories highlighted today by Duchas on Twitter. (@duchas_ie).

Since Lent began yesterday, Duchas has highlighted some references to the penitential Lenten season. The day before Lent is Shrove Tuesday, known as Pancake Tuesday or Mardi Gras in other cultures, then we have Ash Wednesday, Chalk Sunday and Salting Monday. Ash Wednesday, Spy Wednesday (the Wednesday before Easter) and  Good Friday were known as’ black fast days’. In other words only a small amount of food was permitted.  I had not heard of the Chalking Sunday mentioned below,  and love the idea of being salted to be preserved! After all we preserve  fish by salting, so why not women too! Here is an extract from The Schools collection on Lent, beautifully written in the hand of a pupil in Tubbercurry, County Sligo.

Lent School collection

Lent Schools2The actual entry can be seen here.

More about The Schools Collection

The Schools Collection has an extensive amount of information on traditions and social history. Looking at my own County Donegal village, I found three schools that had submitted material to the collection. Manor Vaughan school right in the  village has contributions describing the number of houses in a townland, how many houses were thatched or slated and common names as well as nuggets of information long since forgotten. This record is one such and is an invaluable snapshot of the townland of Aughalatty in the late 1930s.

Not all were in English however. Mulroy School, where my grandfather was the teacher, also participated. The Mulroy transcripts are in Irish. My grandfather seems to have written the stories collected himself, so we don’t know if he merely transcribed them or if he actually collected them from the contributors. He has several contributions from a Mary Vaughan then aged 67 and I wonder if she might be the old woman I  remember in a black shawl when I  was growing up in Carrigart in the 1950s.

Schools collection 3

My grandfather James Gallagher (Séamus O Gallchobhair) recorded this story about Landlords as recounted by Máire Ní? Bhaughan, Mary Vaughan , aged 67.

The Schools Collection can be searched here and some patience is required. It can be explored by county and by name and by topic. It is a work in progress, but even at this stage it is a rich treasure trove of social history and may even be of help to people trying to trace family history. It is a site that this blog will return to as often as possible, as I continue to explore my own social history through these fascinating pages. In the meanwhile, as I am single and the first Monday in Lent approaches, I am hoping that someone might consider throwing salt on me to preserve me a while longer!

Further information:

Visit the Duchas website at http://www.duchas.ie/en:





Filed under Ireland, Irish Countryside, Irish Culture, Irish Traditions, Living in Ireland, Social History Ireland

18 responses to “Lenten Traditions in Ireland: Black Fast days and Salted Women!

  1. I was fascinated to read old stories from family when I first heard about this site. Unfortunately neither of my parents stories featured but my aunts did. The one thing which struck me was the perfect handwriting.
    Thanks for the reminder, I’ll be sharing this with my own kids over the next few days (whether they are interested or not!)

  2. I’d happily throw the salt to preserve you, but I suspect that it may not quite reach … so, please eat some salt to do the same job.
    Love reading these. I was fortunate enough to be a little involved with Ennis National School thanks to a wonderful teacher there, and she kindly shared some of the children’s gathering of folklore.. loved it all.

    • Aww thanks Chris! I don’t think I saw Clare in the list so it isn’t up yet? It’s a great way to gather all these little tales, mostly if times gone by. The scarey thing is that we think of these old stories as being worthy of preservation, yet the way of life that we ourselves experienced when growing up may not be recorded. Oral History is so important! I will throw some salt in your direction on Monday!

  3. What a wonderful resource!

  4. An invaluable source of memories–what gems there are, even in these few entries! I love the idea of Salt Monday! Ha!

  5. My mom recalls her mother speaking of the Black Fast- one meal and two collations. I’ll have to take a closer look at this and try to jog her memory some more.

    • She has a good memory…I think it was one SMALL meal and two collations! Changed times, yet in Cork city on Wednesday last, Ash Wednesday there were dozens of people with black ashes on their foreheads.

  6. SV, that handwriting is so different to what we get today. No doubt, they practised with those lined copies with the letters printed above. They left their mark on me, thanks to my father with his nib pens and bottles of ink all set out for me on Sundays!!!!

    • Ah Transcription Copies! What a wonderful idea they were. You can see how effective they were by looking at the almost standard children’s writing in these pages! Your Dad was smart to encourage your transcription skills!

  7. What a wonderful project! So many of the customs will be lost if no one writes them down. The Lenten days were interesting I didn’t know how Pancake Tuesday compared to our Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday. So nice to connect with your Irish culture!

  8. What an enlightened project, especially in a time when awareness of our heritage was not so prevalent. (Though maybe it was in Ireland?) These memories often die out with the old folk and I’m delighted they have been preserved in this manner.
    In my young days (50s/60s Birmingham) we’d give up sweets etc. for Lent and save them up in a tin for a pig-out after 12 midday on Easter Saturday.

  9. I’ve been interested in reading these for some time so I’m pleased they are online and being translated. I wonder if I’ll find any from my ancestral places.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.