Monthly Archives: December 2017

New Year Customs in Ireland

It’s almost the New Year! The Irish word for New Year’s Day is ‘Lá Caille’ which sounds slightly different in various parts of the country – Connaught, Munster and Ulster each have their own pronunciations.  These can be heard here.

I was never aware of any particular New Year traditions when growing up in Ireland 60 years ago. A quick search on the Duchas Schools Collection* however found several references to customs that have now sadly died out. (In the Irish transcriptions the day is given as ”Lá Coille”)

 

ny5.jpgOne scholar in Kilcurry School in Dundalk tells us that church bells and fog horns of boats and ships would ring the old year out and the New Year in at 12 o’clock, whereas in another there was a practice of tolling a slow bell in the last minute of the old year before the joyful ringing in of the New.

ny1New Year memories of  Peadar Ó Cadhla  of  Ballytrisane Co. Waterford, as recorded by Maighread Ní Cadhla  (Duchas Schools Collection)

Here we learn from Peadar that the first person up that morning  makes three circuits of the house. On the first two rounds he stops at the door and says ”The Blessings of God in here”. On the final circuit he enters the house dispensing blessings to all inside who respond appropriately.

There are several references to the first visitor to the house on New Year’s Day from many parts of the country. They consistently say that if the visitor is male and dark haired there will be good luck in the house for the entire year. If the first visitor is female however there will be no luck during the year.

ny2Séan Ó Maolchaoine from Kilfenora Co Clare tells us that and if a red-haired woman is first to enter there will be no luck whatsoever in that house for the entire year. It seems that red-haired women are really bad news at this important time! The similar tradition of ‘First Footing’ (or the first foot in the house after midnight) is still common across Scotland, where the  ‘first foot ‘should be that of a dark-haired male, to bring good luck for the year.

A ‘folk belief’ or superstition is known as a ‘piseog’ or ‘pisreog’ in the Irish language. These are often associated with major events, such as May Day and many relate to farming and crops and are to do with adding to or bringing ‘luck’.  Many of these associated with New Year have now fallen out of use but they were in widespread use at the time of the Schools Collection in the 1930s.

In Kerry, Paddy Donoghue from Kilmurry school tells us that water must never be drawn from the well on New Year’s eve. It will turn to wine at 12 o’clock (which appears to be a bad thing?!) and anyone who stays up to watch the transformation will disappear! Water for the day after New Year’s Day was drawn from the well before midnight on January 1st, as anyone going to the well after this would be drowned.  It was also soin Donegal according to Hugh Cassidy of Drumbar,  who added that old people never threw anything out on New Year’s Day.  ‘All the leavings of tea’ were kept in a bucket by the dresser. Other accounts say that ashes from the fire or used dishwater must not be thrown away either as all your luck will be thrown away with them.  There was also a belief that you should never part with money on New Year’s day. These customs are associated with a wish to have a year of plenty and actions carried out on New Year’s Day would continue throughout the year.

Donegal cows and horses were given an extra sheaf of corn on the day to make them work harder and produce more milk in the coming year.

ny3There are many references to the belief that if you eat plenty on New Year’s Eve then you will have plenty to eat for the rest of the year.  In this extract, from West Waterford we learn that the doors were struck with a loaf of bread on New Year’s Eve in the belief that to do so would keep hunger away. Here too we see that the direction of the wind on the day itself was crucial..if it blows from the north Protestants will be favoured, from the south and Catholics will benefit. Also if you stay up til 12 o’clock you will see the man you will marry in the mirror. Imagine that!

One of my favourite customs was that of giving a ‘hansel’. This was a gift of money given to relations on the Monday after the New Year. It was usually a threepenny bit. The receivers of the hansel will have money throughout the year.

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The old threepenny bit – Hansel of days gone by

As 2017 draws to a close, I would like to thank everyone who has visited these pages  – over 50,300 this year. I look forward to welcoming you in 2018 and reading your own fabulous blogs. May you have a year of plenty in 2018!

ny4

 

References

More information on the Schools Collection, which is part of  the National Folklore Collection can be found  here

The manuscripts are in Englsh and Irish and are easy to search and use.

 

 

 

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Last Christmas Cards

Christmas Cards are said to have originated in 19th Century England when Henry Cole, who later became the first director of  London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, and his friend John Horsley designed the first one in 1843.  It had two outer panels showing the better-off bestowing gifts on the poor,  and a large central panel portraying a family  partaking of Christmas fayre. (Even the children enjoy quaffing the mead by the look of it!)

The First Christmas Card

The world’s first commercially produced Christmas card, designed by John Callcott Horsley for Henry Cole in 1843

By the 1880s the practice of sending Christmas cards had risen in popularity. The introduction of cheaper postage and development of printing technology meant that cards and postage were within the financial reach of many.  In the USA Yale anthropologist Micaela di Leonardo shows that the practice thrived amid postwar industrialization and the demise of the family farm. ‘‘As people dispersed geographically, women assumed responsibility for “the work of kinship” and became caretakers of extended family connections. Christmas cards were a convenient way for them to nurture relationships among their husbands, children, and distant relatives.”

Meanwhile a German immigrant to the United States, Louis Prange produced affordable cards for the mass market and then in 1915, John C. Hall and two of his brothers created Hallmark Cards, who are still one of the biggest card makers today.

In recent years the Christmas tradition of sending greeting cards appears to be succumbing to the instant and free communication platforms of social media.  I can recall having a list of 120 or so to write and dispatch perhaps 5 years ago.  It was an ‘excuse’ to greet those who had touched our lives, yet who were no longer in our immediate circle.  It was lovely to hear from them and to know all was well. Now, however,  the cost of postage has become a major consideration, while at the same time the cost of cards continues to decrease with 3 for 2 offers.  We can now purchase Christmas cards for charitable causes dear to our hearts, such as for dogs for the disabled, cancer charities, the homeless and so on, yet in spite of the reduction in the cost of cards, the increased cost of postage has become an issue in continuing the tradition. Who doesn’t love to receive a handwritten envelope containing good wishes?  Christmas cards lined up on the mantel are as much a part of Christmas as the Christmas dinner, but more than that, they are a link with friends and family who and may be far away and may be treasure for family historians.

Two of my most valued possessions are ‘last’ Christmas cards from both of our grandfathers.

For as long as I could remember we each received an individually addressed Christmas card from our maternal grandfather, Gaga Clinton.  He had beautiful handwriting that we recognized so well and inside each card was an eagerly awaited fortune – a Postal Order for ten shillings.

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A ten shilling postal order like this was a ‘lotto win’ for us children

Our Gaga Clinton dropped dead in his kitchen on Saturday December 19, 1959. He had posted the Christmas cards that morning so their arrival at our house in the following week was particularly poignant.

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One of the cards sent by our grandfather on the day he died in 1959

This card was the one sent to our mother by her father  59 years ago and it has become a family treasure.

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Christmas wishes in the 1959 card

Unfortunately the wishes in the card went unrealized as the sorrow of our grandfather’s passing cast a huge cloud on our Christmas.

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Memorial card for our Gaga Clinton

Many years earlier 74 years ago, during the second World War our paternal grandfather posted a Christmas card from Ireland to his eldest daughter, our Aunt May, who was a nun in England.  The card, from Christmas 1943,  was particularly sombre.

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Front of the 1943 Christmas card

The message was particularly apt for the time.

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When our Aunt May died in May 2007, this card was found in her prayer book. Her much loved father died unexpectedly in November 1944, at the age of 59, having contracted Typhoid Fever, so this was the last Christmas card she ever received from him. She must have had the habit of saving Christmas cards for a year, which in this case paid off as she would never receive another.

Christmas cards have a special place in our family history and I have the last cards written to me by my mother and by my father as well as those from aunts. They give a unique insight into the times that were in it, and they are greatly treasured. I for one regret the demise of the personal Christmas card, a card chosen, written, addressed and posted by those who cared about us.  A loss to family history for sure.

References

https://daily.jstor.org/history-christmas-card-holiday-card/

The Female World of Cards and Holidays: Women, Families, and the Work of Kinship.  Micaela Di Leonardo University of Chicago Press
Prang’s Christmas Cards

 

 

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Patrick Kavanagh, Poetry and Grave Matters.

In August of this year when visiting a school friend from decades ago, Kathleen introduced me to the gravesite of one of Ireland’s better known poets, Patrick Kavanagh, in the very pretty County Monaghan village of Inniskeen, just up the road from her own home.

imageThis disused church houses the Patrick Kavanagh Centre where Kavanagh’s memory is preserved and honoured.

November 30 2017 marked the 50th anniversary of his death. Revered as of one of Ireland’s better known poets the date was marked yesterday with special ceremonies at the Patrick Kavanagh Centre.

Patrick Kavanagh was born in the village of Inniskeen on October 21, 1904. For some decades he worked the land here –  a place that informed some of his best writing.  His novel ‘Tarry Flynn’ could almost be autobiographical as it tells the story of a young fella not unlike himself, constrained and frustrated by his rural existence – hard-working with a lack of romantic affiliations in a clerical repressed Ireland. One of his better known poems also follows these themes.

Stony Grey Soil

O stony grey soil of Monaghan
The laugh from my love you thieved;
You took the gay child of my passion
And gave me your clod-conceived.

You clogged the feet of my boyhood
And I believed that my stumble
Had the poise and stride of Apollo
And his voice my thick tongued mumble.

You told me the plough was immortal!
O green-life conquering plough!
The mandril stained, your coulter blunted
In the smooth lea-field of my brow.

You sang on steaming dunghills
A song of cowards’ brood,
You perfumed my clothes with weasel itch,
You fed me on swinish food

You flung a ditch on my vision
Of beauty, love and truth.
O stony grey soil of Monaghan
You burgled my bank of youth!

Lost the long hours of pleasure
All the women that love young men.
O can I still stroke the monster’s back
Or write with unpoisoned pen.

His name in these lonely verses
Or mention the dark fields where
The first gay flight of my lyric
Got caught in a peasant’s prayer.

Mullahinsa, Drummeril, Black Shanco-
Wherever I turn I see
In the stony grey soil of Monaghan
Dead loves that were born for me.

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Kavanagh on the Stony Grey Soil of Monaghan in 1963. (Image Wikimedia Commons)

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