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A Folklore Survey of County Clare by Thomas Johnson Westropp


Calendar Customs

Most of these customs are so widely spread as to require only brief notice, and were noted, before 1816, by the Rev. James Grahame, the curate of Kilrush. They comprise the eating of pancakes on Shrove Tuesday and of eggs at Easter; playing tricks and ‘fooling’ on April 1st; setting May bushes before houses on Old May Day; lighting bonfires on Midsummer Eve, dancing round them, and driving cattle through them; beginning hunting on Michaelmas Day; Hallowe’en practices on October 31st; midnight processions, with music, on certain nights in the week before Christmas, (which had just been discontinued in 1816); and mummers, wren boys, and bull-baiting on St. Stephen’s Day.[139] The May bush died out, I believe, during the dark years of the Great Famine; I never heard of any limit, other than the clearance of the crops, for beginning hunting; but, except the bull-baiting and the waits, all the rest still exist.

It is well to have to record the dying out of the custom of killing the wren on St. Stephen’s Day, even if it springs from laziness rather than from humanity. ‘Who cares for the birds but God!’ was once retorted when I ‘put in a word for’ the wren. There is probably a very old prejudice against it, for the ‘droleen’ stood confessed as a ‘little druid’ among birds, and the ‘druid’ of Irish tradition was not the majestic white-robed priest of the oak grove, but a sorcerer who injured meanly by spells, a foe of God and of His servants, but a contemptible and impotent one. This feeling was expressed in the contemptuous term shandruee (‘old druid’) for a worthless old man, in use in my boyhood. How far the wren rites have orthodox ritual or etiquette is doubtful. Formerly the youth of a whole district combined as wren boys, but now they go in bands of from two to six, and the wren bush is often a mere branch with a few rags and no wren. A structure of evergreens, in general design like a crux ansata, covered with streamers and with the dead bird hung up or in a sort of cage,[140] was till lately carried around. There is still sometimes to be found tolerable dancing and singing, as a break in the weary succession of small begging parties, shuffling and playing stupid buffoonery. The verses usually begin:—

‘The wran, the wran, the king of all birds,
On Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze.’

but the next lines are greatly varied:—

‘Although he is little, his family is great,
And (or So) I pray you all ladies (or good Christians)
to give him a treat.’

I noted the following haunting lines on Stephen’s Day in 1909:—

‘Put your hand in your pocket and take out your purse
And give us some money to bury the wran.’

Equally melodious were lines in vogue some thirty years ago:—

‘We broke his bones with sticks and stones,
And give us some money to get us a drink.’

There was another form, evidently from an ‘artificial’ source, heard by my elder brothers about Carnelly, perhaps sixty years ago or more:—

‘Landlady, Landlady, give us some cheer,
Landlady, Landlady, give us some beer.
If you give us of the best,
We’ll pray your soul in Heaven may rest.
If you give us of the worse,
We’ll pray it will (or may) be quite the reverse.’

It was generally believed that St. Stephen had hid in a cave, and that his retreat had been betrayed to his enemies by the wren. Mummers are now reappearing, after a long lapse of time, among the wren boys.

Another practice which my predecessors often saw before the Famine was the carrying of a sort of scarecrow figure, to represent St. Brigit, by women in August about the Clare Castle district. St. Brigit’s rites in some places take place on Lady Day (August 15th).

Killing an animal, or goose, at Martinmas and a goose at Michaelmas are of recent occurrence. On St. John’s Eve I have, as a child, leaped over or passed between fires, and been told of cattle being forced to do the same. About 1895 very few bonfires were lighted, and the custom appeared likely to expire, but of late the fires have been more numerous. Formerly bones were saved up to crackle as they burnt in the fires, and even when this ceased the pronunciation ‘bone-fire’ continued. Magical rites connected with milk and butter were, very recently, performed secretly at wells on May Eve (April 30th) as described later.

Other annual observances were sports which first included, and then lapsed into, mere races. The iraghts, or gatherings, at the mound and inauguration place of Moy Eir (Magh Adhair) lasted down to 1838, and were still very faintly remembered by old people in 1890 as having died out in the Famine years, with so much of the social brightness of the people. I may note that this place,—the reputed seat of Adhar, a Firblog prince, about the beginning of our era,—became the place of inauguration of the native princes of Thomond from before 877, and continued so down, at least, to 1570. The name Magh Adhair (phonetically Moy Eir) at first covered the whole central plain of east Clare, but steadily shrank to that of a small tribal territory, and then, in 1584 and 1655, to the two townlands of Corbally and Toonagh (Tuanagh-moyree). By 1838 it was attached only to two fields,— ‘Moyross, or Moyree, parks,’—in the former, and is now confined to a single field, ‘Moyars Park,’ and to the ‘rath’ or mound in Toonagh, across the brook. Notices of the inaugurations are numerous from 1275 to 1311, and occur sporadically from 877 onwards. Other and less famous gatherings were at Creganenagh (‘Fair or Assembly Crag’)[141] on the bare hill over Termon in the Burren, and at a field in Caherminaun near Kilfenora. The latter probably gave the name Ballykinvarga, (Baile-cinn-mharghaidh in 1380), i.e. ‘head of the market,’ to the adjacent townland, and may have been connected with the remarkable ring wall, girt with a wide abattis of pillar stones, not far distant. Some forgotten assembly is commemorated at Eanty (‘Fairs’ or ‘gatherings’) in the east of Burren. Other assemblages will be dealt with later under XVI. Patterns.


Chapter 12


Chapter 14