Category Archives: Irish Traditions

Games children played

Hurley burley trumpa trush
The cows are in the market place
Míle muc, Mála muc
How many horns stand up?

For decades I have been trying to trace the origins of this rhyme recited by our father to his small children and grandchildren. Perched on his knee he would drum out the rhythm on their backs; he would raise a  number of fingers behind their back and they had to guess the number. If they guessed incorrectly, he would say ‘five (or whatever number) you said, but three it was’ and off he would go again. If they guessed correctly the game was ended with ‘Two (or whatever number) you said, and two it was’. How the children loved it, even though neither they nor our father really understood what they were saying!! I asked him once what it meant and where he got it and he said he thought it came from Fanad, in County Donegal where he and his siblings spent much time visiting Aunts and cousins during their childhood. He never knew the meaning of it and he may well have been reciting it phonetically. There was always a plentiful supply of children about so perhaps he picked the verse up by watching adults acting it out with smaller children. Whatever the origins, I remember him playing this game with younger siblings and later with my own children and their cousins, his grandchildren. Interesting too to see that the next generation has continued the tradition! My own daughter set me straight on the wording as she remembers it, and she in turn has played it with her own children.

Maurice Leyden's Book 'Boys and Girls Come out to Play'

Maurice Leyden’s Book ‘Boys and Girls Come out to Play’ (Image thesilvervoice)

It was very exciting to find reference to a similar rhyme in a book I recently discovered called ‘Boys and Girls Come Out To Play. A collection of Irish Singing Games’ by Maurice Leyden. This book traces the origin of the rhyme to the 1790s. It was associated with an outdoor  game for several children. One is blindfolded while another ‘thumps’ out the rhyme on his back while reciting
“Hurly burly Trump the trace
The cows ran through the market place
Simon alley hunt the buck
How many horns stand up?”
The ‘thumper’ then holds up several fingers while the blindfolded child has to guess the number. A correct guess means the blindfolded child becomes the thumper, while an incorrect guess means that another child continues the thumping. All of this sounds potentially violent, but the version used by our father was gentle and fun for the child who insisted on having more!

I got to thinking about children’s singing games generally and wonder how long they have been in use and how they are faring in the 21st century electronic world. We did not learn these from books, this was oral tradition that had in the main, been passed down from older children to younger children, often over hundreds of years. Rhyming and singing games were and are an important part of childhood. Nursery rhymes remain popular but I wonder if the ‘playing’ element surv?

Most parents would probably still play singing  games with small babies. I remember our mother bouncing babies while reciting:

Gun Jack, Gun Jack
Who’ll buy fish?
Out with the money
In the wee wooden dish.
At which point the child,facing the mother and being securely held by the hands, is dropped through the mother’s knees! The resulting giggles were a thing to behold! I have not been able to find reference to this game anywhere and would be interested if any readers have heard of it?

After our ‘knee bouncing ‘ days we went on to use rhymes for our everyday street and schoolyard games. Everyone knows of ‘Ring a ring a roses’ recited by a group of children in a circle holding hands. For a number of decades we were led to believe that it was a shout back to the days of the plague when a rosey rash appeared on the face and by ‘ all falling down’ was meant all dead! (This theory is nowadays contested by folklorists)

Ring-a-ring o’ roses,
A pocket full of posies,
A-tishoo! A-tishoo!
We all fall down.

This game can be dated back to the 1790s and was extensively recorded in the mid 19th century so it has been passed on by word of mouth for a long time.

We enjoyed singing games in large groups such as ‘Nuts in May’ and ‘The farmer’s in his den’.  Both these games  required an outer moving ring of children holding hands,and someone in the middle of the circle who selects another person to join them in the centre, while the circle sang and danced around.

Nuts in May

Here we go gathering nuts in May,
Nuts in May, nuts in May,
Here we go gathering nuts in May,
On a cold and frosty morning.

Who will we have for nuts in May,
Nuts in May, nuts in May,
Who will we have for nuts in May,
On a cold and frosty morning.

We’ll have [name] for nuts in May,
Nuts in May, nuts in May,
We’ll have [name] for nuts in May,
On a cold and frosty morning.

Who will we have to take her/him away,
Take him/her away, take him/her away,
Who will we have to take him/her away,
On a cold and frosty morning.

We’ll have [name] to take him/her away,
Take him/her away, take him/her away,
We’ll have [name] to take him/her away,
On a cold and frosty morning.

This rhyme was first recorded by Alice Gomme in The Traditional Games of England, Scotland and Ireland (1894-8). It is a variant of “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush”, with which it shares a tune and closing line. (Wikipedia)

The ‘Farmer’s in his den’ was similar in format.

The farmer’s in his Den, the farmer’s in his Den,

Heigh ho, the derry-o, the farmer’s in his Den.

The farmer wants a wife; the farmer wants a wife,
Heigh ho, the derry-o, the farmer wants a wife
(The ‘farmer’ picks a girl who joins him in the circle). The game goes on with
The wife wants a child; the wife wants a child,
Heigh ho, the derry-o the wife wants a child

(The wife chooses a child to join them inside the circle) The game continues

The child wants a nurse, the child wants a nurse

Heigh ho, the derry-o the child wants a nurse

( A nurse is chosen and goes into the centre group). The game continues with the nurse choosing a dog, and the dog choosing a bone. At the end everyone sings

We all pat the bone, we all pat the bone

Heigh ho, the derry-o, we all pat the bone

while patting the ‘bone’ on the back, (hopefully as gently as possible) and the bone then becomes the farmer and the game begins over again. Interestingly Leyden suggest that this rhyming game is of much more recent origin dating probably from the beginning of the 20th Century.

We also had chants – our sister believes solely for mocking people, such as

Skinny Malink Malodoen,
Big Banana Feet
Went to the pictures and couldn’t find a seat
When he found a seat, he soon began to eat
Skinny Malink Malodeon
Big Banana Feet!

Name-calling at its worst!

When we children’s were not at school we were  OUT, meaning we were away playing. In our case this could  mean that we were riding a bike or tricycle on the street, playing cowboys and Indians in the planting, away in a field hiding in corn, down by the shore looking for Fluke (a flat fish), playing shop in someone’s shed with old empty bean and pea tins, chasing Mrs Duffy’s hens; or playing marbles or horseshoes in the back lane.

Playing marbles

Playing Marbles. All we needed was a bag of marbles and a hole in the ground!  (Image: Manchester Daily Express)

Burling hoops, was another favourite. For this we had to commandeer an old bicycle wheel and a stick to have hours of fun and exercise trying to keep the wheel upright.

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Playing Hoops. Image Wikipedia

Often we would find a plank of wood and throw it across an old barrel or a stone and we had an instant see saw, with no thought of health or safety!

children playing seesaw

An improvised see saw (Image Wikipedia)

See-saw, Margery Daw,
Johnny shall have a new master,
He shall have but a penny a day,
Because he won’t work any faster.

This rhyme is said to date from the 1700s and is thought have origins in sawyers cutting wood and using the verse to keep a rhythm.The ryhme and the game have survived as children enjoy modern see saws in playgrounds and backyards.

Boys tended to play football while girls would play hopscotch, skipping or ball games. My favourite ball game required a smooth gable end and a small ball. Every time the ball was thrown against the wall an activity had to be performed before it was caught again.

To the best of my recollection (and happy to be corrected) it went something like this:

Plainey- ball thrown against wall and caught again

Clappy- clap hands before catching ball

Roley – Roll hands and arms forward before catching ball

Poley- Roll hands and arms backwards before catching ball

Backey – Hands are clapped behind the back before catching ball

Right Hand – Ball caught in right hand

Left Hand – Ball caught in left hand

Sugar Bowl- catch returning ball in open hands with fingers entwined

Basket – Catch the ball with fingers locked together and hands facing oncoming ball

Under the arch – the ball is thrown under the right leg

Round the back – the ball is thrown from behind the back

Tip the ground- the ground is touched before catching the ball

Burley round – the player spins around in a circle before catching the ball.

My grandchildren are not familiar with this simple and interesting game, so my next project is to show them how it goes and I am sure they will have lots of fun perfecting their skills!

How magical to think that these small girls have benefited from the ‘Hurly Burly Trumpa Trish’ Oral tradition that has spanned centuries and the miles from Fanad to Australia!  I like to think that they will check back with their Mother when they try to recall our father’s special bouncing game to share with their own children! What a fascinating link back to their past.

Do you have any favourite street singing games? I would be very interested to hear from anyone who has special recollections of them, so do please get in touch!

References

Boys and Girls Come out to Play.  A collection of Irish Singing Games. Maurice Leyden Appletree Press. 1993

Wikipedia.org

In researching this post I discovered a great website that deserves a look!

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Filed under Ireland, Irish Culture, Irish Heritage, Irish Traditions, My Oral History, Oral History

Schools Folklore Collection – A treasure trove for family historians?

Between 1937 and 1939, the Irish Folklore Commission set up a scheme in which over 100,000 schoolchildren collected local lore and history from older generations in their locality. Most of the topics are to do with local history, folktales, legends, proverbs, songs, customs and beliefs, games and pastimes, crafts and local monuments. These stories were collated by the local National School teachers in 5,000 schools across all 26 counties in what was then the Irish Free State. This material forms part of one of the largest Folklore Collections in the world, which is in the care of University College Dublin. The Schools Collection is now being digitized by Dúchas.ie and is being rolled out online. Although not all of it has been transcribed, it is searchable by place, family name, school, topic. Many of the entries are in Irish. (I hope that these can be translated in due course so that overseas researchers may reach the wealth of information on the heritage, culture and way of life in the parishes of their ancestors.)

I spend many hours idly browsing through this collection and recently was totally astonished to discover some members of our own family. Our uncle had gathered folklore and  his informants were none other than his parents, our maternal grandparents!

This was their story on Local Marriage Customs

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The original entry in the Dúchas.ie collection

Most marriages take place from Christmas to the beginning of Lent, which time is called Shrove. June was thought a lucky month for marrying in, and May, July and August were thought unlucky. Friday, Saturday and the 28th December were thought to be unlucky days.

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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:

 

 

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

Wren Boys An Irish Christmas Tradition

A Troupe of Wren Boys in Ireland (Image Creative Commons)

A Troupe of Wren Boys in Ireland (Image Creative Commons)

When I first came to live in Limerick some 30 years ago, I was totally astonished to have dozens of musicians and dancers arriving into my house throughout  St Stephen’s Day, 26 December. From about 10 am onwards, they arrived. The earliest were  small groups of local children with their musical instruments, often as young as 5 or 6 years of age. The great cultural network of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, active across much of Ireland, ensures that there are musicians in abundance of all ages to take part in events. In parts of Ireland, St Stephen’s Day,or Lá Fhéile Stiofán in Irish, is known as ‘Lá an Dreoilín’, meaning the Day of the Wren or Wren’s Day. Announcing their arrival by loudly playing the bodhran (an Irish drum) as they make their way towards the door, and with barely enough time to shut the startled dogs away, the door is opened wide and the musicians stream in. Dressed in old clothing, mostly in white, with assorted bits of tinsel, straw and holly attached to hats of all descriptions, they file in and proceed to entertain us with a few songs, some traditional airs expertly played on fiddles, bodhrans, accordions, tin whistles and flutes, and of course,Irish dancing. The entire performance lasts less than 10 minutes, and they play themselves out again, back into the(often very wet or sometimes snowing!) night! The last person to leave carries a bough of holly to which is attached some red and white streamers and an effigy of a dead bird, plus a bag or box for donations, singing as he goes

The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze,
although he was little his honour was great,
Jump up me lads and give him a treat (pronounced ‘trait’)

Up with the kettle and down with the pan,
And give us a penny to bury the wren (pronounced ‘wran’)

The Wren, (An Dreoilín) King of All Birds, depicted on Irish postage stamp.

The tiny wren has been prominent in legend and folklore for centuries. The story of the election of the wren as of King of the Birds is to be found all over Europe, first mentioned by Aristotle in the 4th century B.C as being one of Aesop’s Fables from the 6th Century B.C. The story goes that the title King was earned in a contest between all birds to see who could fly the highest. The eagle managed to soar highest of all, but then the wren, having concealed itself in the Eagle’s feathers and ‘hitched a ride’ flew out and soared even higher. And so the wren became king. Irish versions of the tale go on to say that because of the deceitful manner in which the title was earned, the wren was placed under a ‘geis’ or taboo and this is why it is hunted.

In the 1940s the Irish Folklore Commission carried out a survey of the rituals of St Stephen’s Day across Ireland from which it is shown that the wren was usually hunted on Christmas Day. The dead bird was tied to a bush, usually holly, and on the following day was paraded by the Wren Boys (usually bachelors) from house to house as they sang the wren song. Money and food collected was then used to put on a wren dance some days later at which it was hoped that young unmarried people might meet and find a spouse.

Other stories of the killing of the wren are to do with its role in betrayal –  whether betraying the Christian martyr, Stephen, or betraying Irish soldiers by alerting the enemy  in the Viking invasions of the 8th century or by warning the Cromwellian army of the approaching Irish in the 17th century. Whatever the origins, the Wren Boy tradition has changed down the ages – the wren is no longer killed, and the custom of visiting each home has died out in many areas, musicians now go from pub to pub to entertain larger crowds, and money is often collected for charity.

The St Stephen’s Day procession is alive and well in parts of Ireland, most notably in Counties Kerry, Clare and Limerick as well as in some other areas.

Dingle Wren Boys

Dingle Wren Boys. Dingle in County Kerry hosts a world famous Lá an Dreoilín’

Men, women and children of all ages now go on ‘The Wran’. In recent years the tradition was revived in the city of Dublin where troupes of musicians singers and dancers take to the streets to give traditional entertainment for the feast of Stephen. While  it is no longer a ritual  to ensure fertility and prosperity in the community for the year ahead, it adds a colourful and enjoyable diversion in the Christmas season.

This is an edited version of a post from 2011.

References

An Cumann Le Béaloideas Éireann/The Folklore of Ireland Society

The Irish Wren Tales and Ritual. To Pay or Not to Pay the Debt of Nature, Sylvie Muller, Béaloideas  pp131-169 1996/1997.

Comhaltas

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Filed under Celebrations in Ireland, Ireland, Irish Culture, Irish Heritage, Irish Traditions

An Irish Christmas from 60 years ago

‘There’s something about Christmas. There’s something about it that creeps inside and finds the child in you.’ These are the opening words of the magical Barry’s Tea ‘Train’ radio commercial. It is back on the airwaves so Christmas must be near! You can listen to it here.

Christmas in our Donegal home almost 60 years ago is a world away from Christmas in the early 21st Century. My mother used  to begin the Christmas baking in late October when she made two rich fruit cakes. The whole process seemed to take days as she assembled sultanas, raisins and currants, chopped the mixed peel and the glace cherries, soaked whole almonds in boiling water so the skins would slip off, then chopped them finely. This scrumptious mixture was placed in a huge basin, doused in whiskey and covered with a clean cloth to soak overnight. During the evening the cloth was lifted when there was no adult in sight, so we could inhale the beautiful aroma of liquor and fruit. Tins were lined first with buttered greaseproof and then buttered brown paper – an art in itself, akin to Origami as it took a lot of expertise to line a round tin!

The following day the serious business of baking took place; flour and raising agent were sieved; the exotic mixed spice, nutmegs, cinnamon, ginger and mace were measured out; eggs were beaten, butter was softened and black treacle was measured out of the tin. An argument would then ensue as to who  would get to lick the sticky black syrup from the spoon. This entire process took some hours as there was nothing mechanical in my mother’s kitchen — only a wooden spoon and an egg whisk with a wheel on the side. After all the beating, folding and mixing the tins were filled. We got to clean out every last bit of the mixture that still clung to the sides of the big cream coloured baking bowl, then we were banished  from the kitchen and had to whisper for the rest of the day. Any loud noise or banging door might result in the cakes ‘sinking’! A good cook’s worst nightmare!

The following day the cooled cakes were stripped of the paper, pricked all over with a knitting needle,’fed’ with whiskey and placed in an airtight tin. Over the following weeks  we had a weekly ritual of ‘feeding the cakes’ and replacing the greaseproof paper!

Similar preparation of fruit took place some weeks later when the Christmas puddings were made. A stale loaf was laboriously made into breadcrumbs. A bottle of stout was added to the mixture which made mixing easier for smaller people and we all ‘had a go’. The well-stirred mixture was placed on double layers of  large  squares of cotton –  old sheets  made excellent pudding cloths the corners were gathered up and tied securely for boiling, resulting in a beautiful round pudding!   Christmas was forgotten about then until about a week before when the Yule Log was baked as were my mother’s speciality – ‘Snowballs’. These were rounded balls of cake mixture, baked, then covered in jam and  rolled in shredded coconut – they always looked wonderfully tempting!   The two rich fruit cakes  were iced (two cakes as my younger brother had a birthday on Christmas Day and he was the only member of the family to have a birthday cake)  and decorated.  Then there was the marzipan to make – we smaller ones could not help with this as it was a very stiff mixture of ground almonds and sugars, but it looked lovely when done! About three days before Christmas we had the Royal Icing  that was spread all over the marzipan-ed cakes  and we enjoyed placing lovely little silver balls and little snowmen and  tiny Christmas trees into the icing. The Birthday cake usually had  less seasonal characters stuck into the royal icing, but always had NOEL piped on the surface, for that is my brother’s name .

Some days before Christmas the turkey arrived – alive. It  had to be dispatched and hung for several days then ‘cleaned’. Our next door neighbour Katie Ward did the plucking and it was great to watch her do it as she expertly pulled out all the feathers and then singed the skin with a taper to get rid of the very last signs of a feather. On one occasion, when I was quite small I was given the job of carrying the turkey to her house. Carrying it  by the legs with the long neck and head trailing down, wings flapped open, I  was followed by a dog who wanted to eat it.  He got hold of the head as I went in the gate. I climbed onto the wall and tried to hold the turkey up high so the dog could not reach my precious cargo. I was rescued when my roars for help were heard!

Excitement was now really building and we knew it was close when a strangely costumed man with face covered would burst into our kitchen (front doors were always open) and frighten the lives out of us. He was closely followed by a troupe of Mummers all well disguised, who rhymed their way through a performance  in which there was a narrator, two bragging men who  took part in a fight and various other characters.  One of the protagonists dies as a result of having a sword plunged into him, but is revived by a Doctor who demands money. Most of the characters are long forgotten , but I do recall a few. There was  Belzebub) and there was Jack Straw – ‘Here come I, Jack Straw, Such a man you never saw! and my favourite ‘Here comes I, Wee Divil Doubt, The biggest wee divil that ever came out’

Also in the days just before Christmas Carol Singers would arrive. They stopped outside the door, sang a few carols and hoped they might get a few pence in appreciation..they usually did!

Christmas Eve was a busy day –  my father would bring home  a Christmas tree that would be put up in the upstairs sitting- room and decorated with tinsel strips and tinsel ornaments.   He also brought lots of  berried holly and sprigs would be pushed in behind hanging pictures in every room.  Paper chain decorations were hung from the ceiling in the kitchen.  Stuffing for the turkey(or goose)  would be made to be ready for Christmas morning – more grating of a stale loaf to make breadcrumbs! This delicious mix of breadcrumbs, onions, butter and parsley  would have to be put out of reach  so we would not eat it all up!

It was impossible to get to sleep with excitement and we were under constant threat if we did not go to sleep Santa wouldn’t come – this only added to the angst and ensured that we would not get to sleep for hours! But on Christmas morning we woke very early  to find that Santa had in fact called and there would be something either on the bed or on the floor by the bed. A doll, a meccano set, a toy train, a button accordion, a jig saw – usually one toy each plus an annual or a book and a red net stocking filled with Cadbury’s chocolate bars. Bliss!  The discovery was usually made in the early hours, and needless to say we had to run and wake the entire house to announce what Santa had brought!

Then it was up for 8 o clock morning mass . We walked the mile or so to the Church and one of the loveliest memories I have is of a house at the end of the village street with a tall candle burning in every window – a magical site on a dark morning. And so to the chapel to hear the choir accompanied by the big organ give an almighty rendition of Adeste Fideles and Silent Night! It was Christmas!

Lunch was served about 1 o’clock and consisted of a delicious clear turkey soup made from the neck and giblets of the turkey, that had bubbled away all morning on the Stanley No. 7  Range!

Our Christmas dinner was served much later at about 4.30 pm. On the menu was roast turkey (or goose)  delicious  parsley and onion bread stuffing, brussel sprouts (cooked in true Irish tradition for the best part of an hour, with a pinch of bread soda until they  fell apart- not to be recommended in these modern ‘al-dente’ times!) and mashed potato. In north Donegal our name for the rather genteel sounding ‘mashed potato’ was in fact the very descriptive ‘poundies’!  The entire meal was enveloped in my mother’s absolutely fabulously delicious white sauce, made with cornflour and milk and butter and parsley.  After our meal we tucked into the Christmas pudding that was always served with hot milk poured over.  Yummy!

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My 3 year old brother blows out the candles on his birthday cake,Christmas Day 1955

 A little while later it was time for cake – big triangles of beautifully moist cake topped with hard sweet icing were served – how we managed to eat it is a wonder in itself!

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Tucking into the huge box of chocolates. The Christmas tree in the background is decorated with tinsel

Later in the evening we had a huge box of Cadbury’s Milk Tray chocolates. The big box had a beautiful scene on its padded cover – a snowy mountain scape or a Santa scene. What luxury!

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The Christmas guests 1955, in front of the fire, with my father in the centre. I think that the man on the left may be O’Donnell, possibly John? and the man on the extreme right may be Ward from the south of the County.

On some Christmases  we had guests at our table – people who worked locally perhaps and who could not get home to their families for Christmas  for many reasons – they may have not had the transport and there was no public transport to speak of, and they may only have had one day off work, so would have had to make the round trip in one day.

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My father, just a few days after his 34th birthday, enjoying and sharing the poetry of Robert Service on 25 December 1955.

After dinner my father would sit in his chair and recite from The Collected Works of Robert Service  and transport us to the snow-covered wilderness of the Yukon. He laughed heartily  as he read his two favourite poems:  The Shooting of Dan McGrew  (featuring a lady  that’s known as Lou!)  and The Cremation of Sam McGee

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
      By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
      That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
      But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
      I cremated Sam McGee.
The only Christmas of my childhood for which we have pictures is this one in 1955. We have 5 photographs in all, and 4 of them are shown here. (the remaining one is of my 3 year old sibling trying to light up a cigarette in behind the sofa!)
This post was inspired by Pauleen at Family History Across the Seas who  in her blog invited her readers to join in with the Christmas Geneameme. It sent me off delving into my family traditions and I am delighted to have had the chance to record a typical Christmas for my family.
There is indeed something about Christmas…

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Home thoughts at Midsummer 2015

Many decades have passed since I was last able to call Donegal ‘home’ in the physical sense, of having a house and an address and family and siblings there. Since those distant days in the 1950s and 1960s I have lived in various places, all of them a long way from Donegal. Yet when people ask,’Where are you from’? I reply without hesitation ‘Donegal’ even though I spent less than one-third my life there.
But this is where I grew up, where I walked to National School, where I progressed through the then important life’s rights of passage, such as communion and confirmation. This is where I learned to read, learned to play, learned to ride a bike, went to collect the milk in a can from Wee Rodgers in Tirlaugan or from McKemeys out the road. This is where I was terrified of Mary Tammy’s geese who chased me, and where Charlie Ward’s donkey once bolted down Figart with myself and my older  brother on board.

Carrigart in the 1960s. (Image Wikimedia Commons)

Carrigart in the 1960s. (Image Wikimedia Commons)

This is where my younger brother’s dog was killed one Sunday morning by a car speeding to get to Mass on time. This too is where I collected water from the well out at the back of Figart or from the ‘spoot’ (spout) in later years. This is where Patrick McElwee dropped dead one summer evening when bringing his cow down from Figart to be milked. This is where I went to see him slumped against the rectory wall.

This is where my friend Norah and I, each armed with ninepence on a Friday night,went to the visiting cinema or what we then called ‘the pictures’. This is where we sat patiently on hard benches waiting for Keeney to load up the reels – and sometimes a reel ran out and the next one had to be rewound before the show could continue. This is where I first saw Laurel and Hardy,The Three Stooges, lots of Westerns and and my first 3D film.

This is where I learned to polish brass, loving  Mrs Duffy’s beautiful brass kettle; learned to knit at Mary Mandy’s fireside as she made very exotic and delicious vegetable marrow jam; this is where I learned to churn butter out at Shelia McBride’s in a big old wooden churn. This is where my baby brother died on a warm June afternoon. This is where I bought my first pop record, had my hair back-combed by Meta and went to dances in the North Star Ballroom, with a gold waspie belt and my dress resting  on stiff petticoats. This is where I first fell in love and bought my very first pop record.  This above all is where I learned to love nature, the sky and the stars, the pounding Atlantic Ocean, fabulous scenery.

It is Midsummer and invariably thoughts turn to Donegal and those long, long summer evenings when we stayed up late. Days of 17 and a quarter hours were for living and playing. The sun will stand still at the summer solstice this year at 16. 38 pm. UTC on Sunday June 21st. But this year we have an extra treat to mark Midsummer, in the form of an unusual Planet Dance. Tonight, June  20th just after sunset the dazzling Venus will form a triangle with Jupiter and the crescent Moon in the western sky, I like to think, to help us celebrate Midsummer!

In Donegal sixty years ago, our midsummer celebration was held on the 23rd of June, St John’s Eve. This is a post from my archive in 2011, about what happened in our village then, in those long, happy hazy crazy days of summer!

June 23rd: Midsummer Irish Style

This post is one of a series looking at ancient traditions in Ireland.

Midsummer, or St. John’s Eve (Oiche Fheile Eoin) was traditionally celebrated in Ireland by the lighting of bonfires. (The word ‘bonfire’, according to my Etymology dictionary is a word from the 1550s meaning a fire in the open air in which bones were burned). This custom is rooted in ancient history when the Celts lit fires in honour of the Celtic goddess Queen of Munster Áine. Festivals in her honour took place in the village of Knockainey, County Limerick (Cnoc Aine = Hill of Aine ). Áine was the Celtic equivalent of Aphrodite and Venus and as is often the case, the festival was ‘christianised’ and continued to be celebrated down the ages. It was the custom for the cinders from the fires to be thrown on fields as an ‘offering’ to protect the crops.

Midsummer bonfires are also a tradition across Europe. In Latvia, for example, the celebration is called Jāņi (Jānis is Latvian for John); in Norway they celebrate ‘Sankthansaften’.

Growing up in the northern part of Donegal in the 1950s, Bonfire night was surely the highlight of our year! To us, it was Bone- fire night. For days we piled our fire high down on the shore, with every bit of flotsam, jetsam, old timber and rubbish we could find. We did actually use a lot of bones on our fire as on the verge of the shore was a slaughter-house (an abattoir in more genteel circles) so naturally there were many cattle bones lying about… from horned cows heads to bits of legs and hip bones etc. They made welcome fuel for our great pyre!

Midsummer in Donegal was wonderful with the sun not setting until very late at about 10.15 pm.  We were allowed to stay up late, waiting for the sun to set so that we could enjoy the lit fire. An adult would light it at the proper time, as dusk was setting in, and we were thrilled by the intense heat and the crackling sound of the splitting timber as the flames leapt joyfully high into the still balmy air.

In Thomas Flanagan’s book, ‘The Year of The French‘, set in 1798, mention is made of the midsummer bonfire:

”Soon it would be Saint John’s Eve. Wood for the bonfire had already been piled high upon Steeple Hill, and when the night came there would be bonfires on every hill from there to Downpatrick Head. There would be dancing and games in the open air, and young men would try their bravery leaping through the flames. There would even be young girls leaping through, for it was helpful in the search of a husband to leap through a Saint John’s Eve fire, the fires of midsummer. The sun was at its highest then, and the fires spoke to it, calling it down upon the crops. It was the turning point of the year, and the air was vibrant with spirits.’

In Ireland, Bonfire night is still celebrated to an extent in Cork and in counties west of the Shannon as well as in northern counties. Cork city council has stepped in, in recent years to provide a safe environment for children and families and this year is organizing 15 events across the city. Ráth Carn in the Meath Irish-speaking district (Gaeltacht) also celebrates Bonfire night with a huge fire, feasting, music and dancing.

The old traditional Midsummer bonfires  seem however, to be a thing of the past now in Ireland. If you have any recollections at all of having attended one, or you know of someone who has attended one, please do let me know – I would love to hear from you!

References

Flanagan, Thomas 1979. The Year of the French

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Filed under Ireland, Ireland Seasons, Irish Culture, Irish Heritage, Irish Traditions, Life in the 1960s, Living in Ireland, Oral History, Social History Ireland

Face to face with ‘Penal Crosses’

On a recent unscheduled trip to County Donegal, I was honoured to be shown a pair of 18th Century ‘Penal Crosses’. I had not seen anything like these ‘up close’ and was totally intrigued by these fascinating  pieces of Irish folk art.

So what are ‘Penal Crosses’? The ‘Penal Laws’ referred to  a series of  statutes aimed at diminishing the power and influence of religions other than the established church, and were enacted in various forms from 1695 on. In England the established church was the Anglican Church, while in Ireland it was the Church of Ireland. Presbyterians for example were also subject to the  Penal Laws, but in Ireland it was the Catholics who were most oppressed by the laws that covered almost every aspect of life including employment, ownership of weapons, intermarriage, education, religious practices and clergy. The practice of the Catholic religion continued during these ‘Penal Times’ with priests saying Mass in safe houses and in discreet places, with few devotional objects on display. The ‘Penal Cross’ was a carved crucifix, with short cross arms, evolved it is said, to enable a priest to hide it in his sleeve.

1-IMG_0883The crosses were often crudely carved, yet there is a remarkable similarity between all known examples with the figure of Christ always carved in high relief.  The ‘head’ below the feet is often carved in high relief as well. All of the crosses have carved symbols of the Crucifixion on front and back. On the example above to the right (as we look at the photograph) of the figure, is a representation of the ladder used to take down the body of Jesus from the cross, and on the opposite side is  the spear or lance.

2-IMG_0882On the reverse is carved the year 1766, with the insignia IHS (a symbol for the name of Jesus) on the transom, and a  cross rising from the centre of  the letter ‘H’. These two features are typical on the reverse of the majority, (if not all) penal crosses, the date being the year in which the cross was carved. Penal crosses of this type have suspension loops at the top to allow for hanging or possibly wearing.

3-IMG_0884The second cross is more sophisticated than the first, and bears much more of the iconography of the passion and crucifixion than the other. The carved figure of the crucified Christ is quite shiny  (possibly from being touched?), and as is usual, is in high relief. The top of this cross  has the acronym INRI, meaning Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.

I have had to research the remaining symbols, and found that there are about a dozen images of medieval iconography that appear on penal crosses, some having a few, others having all the images. Some of these images date back to early Christianity, but many appeared originally on tombs and on religious artifacts such as chalices from the 15th century on.

On the cross above a number of symbols are carved on the front.  1) Above Christ’s head are three stars, indicating the sun, moon and stars,representing the total eclipse that took place at the time of the Crucifixion. 2. On the left arm of the cross(left of the photograph) is the Vinegar Jug. 3)Attached to the opposite arm of the figure are the cords which were used to tie him to the pillar 4) Below this, the pincers used to extract the nails.  5)To the right of the torso is the hammer used to drive the nails. 6)Below that is the ladder used to take down the body. 7) On the opposite side is the spear used to pierce Christ’s side. (These latter two  are also depicted on the simpler penal cross above) 8) A carved  head below the feet, which may be either a skull or a cherub – in this case it appears to be a skull; below the skull are crossbones; and 9) at the bottom is a cock. This cock is interesting – could it be the cock that crew three times at Christ’s betrayal? The cock that is most often depicted at the bottom of Penal crosses is a cock above a pot, known as the ‘Cock and the Pot’ and is a reference to a story in the  apocryphal gospel of Nicodemus.

This interesting explanation of the Cock and the Pot comes from anamchara blog:

Based on an anecdote in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus or Acts of Pilate, a famous story of Judas gets tweaked in Irish folklore as related in the Irish Leabhar Breac.

In the darkened streets stumbled a weeping Judas, distraught at betraying Christ.  Wracked with guilt, he had returned the 30 pieces of silver to the temple officials and now was going home.  Opening the door to his house, he smelled his wife’s cooking; she was roasting a cock over the fire.  Food was the furthest thing from his mind, however, and he asked her, “Wife, get me a rope so I may hang myself; my Lord, my friend, Jesus of Nazareth is betrayed by me!”  The woman had no love for Jesus; she was as cynical as her husband toward the Galilean.  “Do you hear me?” he shouted.  “Get me the rope, for I am sure he will rise as he said in three days.”

“Nonsense,” said his wife.  “There’s as much chance of Jesus rising from the dead as there is of this dead, plucked, and cooked rooster jumping out of this pot.”  At this moment, the cock jumped from the pot, clapped his wings–all refeathered now– and crowed three times crying “Mac na hOighe Slan–The son of the Virgin is safe/risen!”

And that is why on the Irish crucifixes, particularly those made in penal times when the Irish were persecuted for their Catholic faith, underneath the crucified body of the Lord is a pot with a rooster standing over it, announcing the resurrection.

4-IMG_0881

On the reverse, this Penal Cross is dated 1725, and again bears the IHS symbol with a cross rising from the letter ‘H’. The triangular configuration below the IHS symbol is a representation of the three nails used in the  crucifixion. This triangular representation of the three nails is quite common on penal Crucifixes

Dr Tony Lewis (1911 – 1986) carried out a study of penal crosses, examining the 129 specimens recorded by the National Museum of Ireland. His conclusions are interesting:

Firstly he dismissed as ‘historically naive and factually baseless’ the romantic notion that the arms were made deliberately short in order to be concealed in a sleeve, stating that the real reason for the shortness of the arms was because each crucifix was carved from a solid piece of wood.

Pilgrims at Lough Derg Station Island c.1890. Image Wikimedia Commons
Pilgrims at Lough Derg Station Island c.1890. (Image Wikimedia Commons)

Secondly, he concluded that these crucifixes formed part of the ‘ritual of pilgrimage’  between the 15th and 18th centuries, and that such crosses were for sale in the locality of the Lough Derg Pilgrimage Island, County Donegal, up to the mid 19th Century. He found that the uniformity of style and technique indicated a single centre of manufacture, and that centre was Lough Derg in County Donegal.

He further  found that the crucifixes were consistently dated over a period of one and a half centuries, and the date represents the year in which the crucifix was bought, used in devotional exercise and taken home as a dated souvenir of pilgrimage.

Pilgrims being rowed to Lough Derg in 1876  by W.F . Wakeman. (Image Wikimedia Commons)

Pilgrims being rowed to Lough Derg in 1876 by W.F.Wakeman. (Image Wikimedia Commons)

Research by P.O’Gallachair, published in 1965 adds weight to the Lewis theory by examining the 1792 O’Donnell Crucifix. On July 12 1795, 90 pilgrims out of a total of 93 on a boat crossing Lough Derg to the Penitential Island drowned  when their boat sank. A Miss O’Donnell’s body was recovered with a ‘penal cross’ tightly clasped in her hand. The Cross was dated 1792, the conclusion being that she was revisiting the Penitential Site carrying a Cross that she had purchased on an earlier pilgrimage.

It was a very special experience for me to see and touch objects that were revered and treasured in my local area between 250 and 290 years ago, the like of which I  had not seen before. I cannot help but wonder: Who carved them? Who owned them? What stories could they tell? What lives did they comfort? What tragedies did they witness?  What homes did they protect? And of course, were they ever hidden in a sleeve?

We will never know.

I am very much indebted to Moira Hughes, Raphoe Diocesan Archive, St Eunan’s, Letterkenny  for the  kindness, patience and generosity shown to me on my recent visit. 

Sources/Further reading:

”Penal” Crucifixes, A.T Lucas & H.G Tempest , Journal of County Louth Archaeological Society, Vol 13,No 2, (1954), pp. 145 – 174

Pilgrim Crucifixes of Lough Derg, P.Ó Gallachair, Clogher Record, vol 5, No 3, (1965) pp. 296 – 306 Clogher Historical Society

Penal Crosses found in Co. Carlow: the significance of 18th and 19th century devotional crucifixes in early modern Ireland. Nugent, L. 2013.  Carloviana Vol 65 pp 84-88

anamchara.blogs.com

National Museum of Ireland

National Science Museum,Maynooth

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August 26, 2014 · 12:37 pm