Redheads not invited…some bizarre Irish New Year customs.

Skyfest Limerick

Skyfest – the New Year fireworks over King John’s Castle in Limerick, 2014.

Growing up in Ireland, I was completely convinced that the passage of the old year into the new year was very much about the strokes of midnight, perhaps a bell or two ringing, and everybody singing Auld Lang Syne out of tune.  How very Anglo-American. Indeed, my favourite activity was watching the New Year Concert broadcast from the Vienna Philharmonic on New Year’s Day.  I was entirely unaware that we Irish had any traditions on a par with the Italian one of disposing of one’s unwanted crockery by chucking it out the window at midnight. (I can imagine the casualty figures for Italian hospitals on New Year’s Day.)  One custom did come to prominence in Ireland in the late 20th century – Dubliners gathered around Christchurch Cathedral to hear the bells ring in the New Year.  And that was it, until the Millenium, when fireworks began to feature in celebrations all around the country.

Christchurch Dublin

A custom developed in Dublin of gathering around Christchurch Cathedral to hear the bells ring in the New Year.

Today’s Irish Times newspaper has published an interesting article on the traditions surrounding New Year in Ireland.  The author of the article, Eilis Ni Dhuibhne, has focused on certain folk customs that I never heard of.  They are worth considering, even though there is nothing in her choice as bizarre as the Germans staying in to watch an old British black and white comedy called Dinner for One.

Eilis starts off by delving into the vast folklore archive in UCD to discover that the most popular activity on New Year’s Day was …… doing nothing.  Literally.  She notes a source from Cavan in the early 1940s saying that you couldn’t bring anything out of the house on New Year’s Day.  You couldn’t spend any money either.  Anyone entering the house had to bring something.  If they didn’t bring something on entering the house, the place would be empty (short of food, money, goods) throughout the year. But to complicate matters, people were afraid to give you anything on that day for fear that they were giving their luck away!  So you see, the safest thing to do was……nothing.  That way you avoided giving away your luck for the year, and nobody would want to do that, would they?

covered well in the Burren

A covered well in the Burren – water could only be brought into the house before sundown on New Year’s Eve, and after sunrise on New Year’s Day.

A storyteller from Donegal recounted that no water should be brought into the house after sundown on New Year’s Eve.  And no water, whether dirty or clean, could be removed from the house until after sunrise.  This custom arose because New Year’s night was the anniversary of the Marriage at Cana where Jesus turned water into wine.  Removing the water would remove the blessing of God upon the household.  We’ll come back to this.

maureenohara

Maureen O’Hara, the quintessential Irish red-head, welcome any time – but not on New Year’s Day!

Another warning was that red-haired women were not welcome in the house on New Year’s Day.  It seems tragic that the Maureen O’Hara type should be shunned in Ireland (!) at New Year, but there’s a reason for it. The thing is that until 1752, Britain and Ireland were out of step with most of Continental Europe which had switched to the Gregorian Calendar and the use of January 1st as New Year’s Day.  Until that year, Britain and Ireland continued to follow the Julian Calendar despite the fact that it was running several days behind the astronomical year.  And New Year’s Day was on 25th March, the Feast of the Annunciation.  But in that year, Britain and ireland conformed to the modern calendar and moved New Year’s Day to the beginning of January.  What on earth has this got to do with red-haired women on New Year’s Day?

ODeaCrozier

The best medieval Irish depiction of the Annunciation is in the volute of the O’Dea crozier from Limerick. Made by the goldsmith Thomas O’Carryd in 1418 (when Good Friday fell on 25th March – the same day as the Annunciation!). This wonderful treasure is still in the possession of the Diocese of Limerick and is exhibited in the Hunt Museum.

Now think about this.  The older tradition of celebrating New Year on 25th March was associated with the one of the first major feasts of the Virgin in the church calendar.  The Annunciation celebrates the Virgin’s virtuous acceptance of the word fo God leading to the conception of Christ.  Red haired women were associated with women of easy virtue – especially Mary Magdalene, who was wrongfully identified as a former prostitute by Pope Gregory the Great (died 604 AD).  If you celebrated New Year on 25th March the last thing you wanted in your house was a red-haired woman, who, whatever her virtues, symbolized the very antithesis of the Virgin Mary!  In short a red-haired woman might ruin any blessing emanating from the Feast of the Annunciation.  When New Year moved to 1st January, the custom seems to have moved too, although it was now rendered meaningless.

Piero_di_Cosimo Magdalene

Piero di Cosimo’s virtuous ‘Reading Magdalene.’ This poor saint has been wronged since the late 500s when Pope Gregory the Great identified her as a former prostitute – hence the red hair depicted by the artist. There is nothing in scripture to suggest that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. She was certainly the first witness of the Resurrection.

And what about the marriage at Cana.  This seems to have been associated with the Feast of the Annunciation so performing any funcition with water had to be done with respect on that day.  Once again this custom moved to 1st January, losing any point it may have originally had.

One other thing to keep in mind.  The Feast of the Annunciation often fell during Lent, a time of abstinence from certain foods (meat) and behaviour (sex).  Keeping oneself virtuous in anticipation of Easter was considered important, and good for the soul.  The abstinence from activity on New Year’s Day could fall into this.  Essentially one abstained from work (including much housekeeping) in honour of the Feast of the Annunciation.  This association was totally broken when the New Year moved to 1st January.

So you can see, we Irish are a bit confused about time – our New Year customs were designed to celebrated New Year on 25th March rather than on 1st January.    We urgently need to develop new ‘traditions’!

A happy New Year to you all!

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Twelve Christmas traditions in Ireland.

Christmas bauble

All too often today in Ireland the complaint about Christmas is that there is too much pressure – to spend, to drink too much, to eat too much, to ‘be merry’ when inwardly you are suffering from loss, to outdo one’s relatives/neighbours/friends in extravagance and originality. Indeed one of the maddest phenomena in Ireland is the stampede to the grocery stores in the days leading up to (and including!) Christmas Eve. A visitor from Mars (or anywhere else for that matter) would be forced to concluded that all the shops were closing – FOREVER! Much of this is a relatively new phenomenon in modern Ireland.  And the real point of Christmas so often gets lost in the bustle that leads up to it. The truth is that we’ve bought into the whole Anglo-American version of the commercial Christmas, with a few twists of our own.

What are the traditions of Christmas in Ireland? The original traditions are very few and rather simple. But we’ve added some new ones!

Shopping fast

Can’t stop, must shop! A frantic way to spend Christmas Eve.

The first ‘tradition’ is fairly new, It’s the Christmas Eve panic. Panic shopping for ‘essentials’ that you already have or really don’t need! This is coupled with the last minute shoppers – they felt there was enough time to go shopping for gifts especially that they forgot the sheer scale of the endeavour in the first place! There are people who swear that it isn’t Christmas unless they’ve had their adrenalin rush of panic or last minute shopping on Christmas Eve. I am reliably assured this is not a uniquely Irish phenomenon. It’s very much an Anglo-American-Irish er, ‘tradition.’

Share collectors

Bishops Buckley and Colton join the SHARE collectors in Cork. Charity fundraising is VERY big in Ireland at Christmas.

For a second tradition I select charity. This is BIG in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Honestly you can hardly move on the Main Street in Midleton without having to pay tolls to the collectors every hundred yards – on both sides of the street!  Okay, I’m exaggerating, but only slightly. Charity collections at Christmas are serious matters for the fundraisers. Cork City has an important and wonderful collection for Advent call the ‘SHARE Collection,’ SHARE is a body set up by secondary school children in Cork in 1970 to help elderly people with their basic needs. They have funded the repair of houses, the provision of foodstuffs, meals and, for many people this is most important, the youngsters provide company through regular visits to simply sit and chat, run errands, even cook meals for the senior citizens of Cork. The presence of the yellow-jacketed fundraisers on Patrick’s Street is a fixture of Christmas in Cork.

Adi Roche and Chernobyl Children

Adi Roche greeting some of the Chernobyl Children who will spend Christmas in Ireland. Roche’s charity has brought thousands of children to Ireland from Belarus, Ukraine and Russia to give them respite and healthcare in a different environment. They may not be Irish emigrants, but some of them have been to Ireland so often that they see the place a second home. (Published in the Evening Echo, Cork.)

The third one on my list is rather new. This is the welcome at the airports for returning emigrants. I have no idea how much money Aer Lingus (our national airline) makes at Christmas, but their business at this time of the year must be the envy of other airlines around the world. The news broadcasts usually cover the scenes at the airports as emigrants are greeted by family and friends. It seems to be compulsory to hold up homemade ‘Welcome Home’ banners and for everyone to wear a red Santa hat. The scenes are both heartwarming and heartbreaking, but sometimes the broadcasts get a little too maudlin. I suspect that only the Chinese have a similar movement of population for their New Year. ‘Coming Home for Christmas’ is the theme song of this ‘tradition.’ Although this tradition is rather new, it is linked to the long-standing idea that Christmas is a time for family gatherings. It may be the only time of the year in which the whole family gathers together to have a meal and catch up on the ‘sca!’  ‘Sca’ is not ‘scat’ or scandal, it’s derived from the irish word ‘sceal’ or ‘story’….hence the immortal phrase ‘what’s the story, Rory?’ Tell us what you’ve been up to and leave NOTHING out, especially the embarrassing bits! (‘Rory’ does not mean Mr McIlroy, it just rhymes with ‘story.’)

Spiced Beef

Spiced Beef is traditional fare on Christmas Day in Ireland, but it has lost out to the turkey. It’s still popular with families in Cork, and there are attempts to revive its popularity.

Fourth, the lunch or supper on Christmas Eve and dinner on Christmas Day. Traditionally in our house it was a fish day. Fish in Ireland was seen as something of a penance mainly because we really didn’t know how to cook it properly, and this in a country surrounded by rich fishing grounds! By long standing tradition fish was eaten on Fridays (it certainly was in our house). This was a hangover from the medieval Church law that ruled out consuming meat on Fridays in honour of the crucifixion. Later, Wednesday became a ‘fish day’ too….and don’t even mention Lent and Advent! (Curiously, Queen Elizabeth I legislated for the retention of Wednesday and Friday as ‘fish days’ despite the Reformation – remember, she really wanted to restore her daddy’s liturgy – polyphony, smells, bells, vestments….the whole works. Now you know why the Puritans fled to New England during the reign of her successor! The Established Church was a bit too fishy for their tastes.) So the fourth tradition of Christmas in Ireland is fish for a light dinner or lunch on Christmas Eve – except today it is no longer a penance and we (usually) have learned how to cook it properly. Add to this the tradition of having spiced beef on Christmas day. Once widespread, this custom is now generally confined to the area around Cork, although other areas are reviving it as an alternative to turkey. Beef was an expensive dish into the late nineteenth century or even the early twentieth century. So it was only eaten by many families on special occasions, such as Christmas. Despite my Cork heritage, I’ve never had it for Christmas dinner.

Harry Clarke Nativity

Harry Clarke stained glass window of the Nativity in Castletownbere, West Cork.

The fifth tradition among Irish Catholics is confession – the churches were busy with people slipping in to confess their sins (or repeat them ad nauseam as if they’re not certain that God REALLY forgives!).  You have to remember that until recently Christmas was a distinctly RELIGIOUS occasion in Ireland. And despite the claim of one bishop recently that shopping has become the new religion in Ireland, people will go to Mass/Church even if only to meet old friends and neighbours afterwards.  Furthermore, on Christmas morning after Mass it was the custom to visit the graves of loved ones and place a wreath or flowers there. This is still a very widespread custom, especially in parishes where the cemetery is next to the church. There is nothing morbid about this custom, it’s our way of including the whole family, living and dead in the festivities. We Irish can be a bit more forthright about this than some cultures that shy away from any mention of death at Christmastide.

Wexford carols

The Wexford Carols are probably the remnant of an older carol singing tradition in Ireland – fortunately they have been recorded and are gaining a wider recognition as a uniquely Irish contribution to the Christmas carol repertoire.

Carols are the sixth tradition. Yes, I know, EVERYBODY sings carols. But in Ireland Catholics limit themselves to a very narrow selection of carols from the vast number available. Better to be a member of the Church of Iireland – the congregations use hymnbooks with lots of carols, and EVERYBODY sings!  We actually have our own carols here in Ireland. One of the finest of all carols (and not just because it is Irish) is the Enniscorthy Carol, usually called the Wexford Carol. This starts with the words ‘Good people all this Christmas time….’ Check out Louis Mahon and the Palestrina Choir from the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin singing it on Youtube (see below) – exquisite!  And, still in County Wexford, the fishing village of Kilmore Quay has a fine collection of thatched houses and a special tradition of unique local carols going back at least to the seventeenth century. The local custom is that a six man schola sings the carols through the twelve liturgical days of Christmas. The carols were effectively preserved for three or more centuries by a single family who make up the schola. These are local fishermen, not professional choristers. There is a different carol for each day, usually sung during Mass in the local church. A few years ago Tom Jones (yes, THE Tom Jones!) joined a group of other musicians to record these carols for popular publication by Heresy Records. It is thought that the distinguished Irish Franciscan friar Luke Wadding OFM composed or redacted the lyrics in the seventeenth century. You know, I am convinced that we Irish really don’t realize how wonderful our native carols are. We should make it compulsory to sing at least one of the Wexford carols in every carol service or concert – perhaps people would get to know them better.

Feeling stressed out at Christmas?  Just listen to this and you’ll be put right again. Louis Mahon and the Palestrina Choir singing the Enniscorthy Carol: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Em3xPQvC8PI

Ballintotis Church

I once attended Christmas Day Mass in St Colman’s Church in Ballintotis (Midleton parish). It was remarkably short – the sermon was ‘Happy Christmas, and be sure to make it a happy one for somebody!’ Sums it up really.

Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve is the seventh tradition. Now I know this is universal but there is an Irish twist. Usually packed, this can sometimes provide unexpected entertainment if a member of the congregation has come straight from the pub and starts singing aloud at the wrong moment. I’m not necessarily talking about singing hymns or carols either! Or maybe he (it’s usually ‘he’) likes/dislikes a point the priest has made in his sermon and broadcasts his opinion to the whole congregation. Excruciating embarrassment ensues for his nearest and dearest, or for those seated next to him. It certainly isn’t pleasant for any children allowed to stay up after bedtime in order to attend Midnight Mass. This is one reason why so many parishes brought forward ‘Midnight Mass’ forward to about 9.00 pm – the pubs don’t close on Christmas Eve until 11.30 pm. The drunks would still be ‘filling up’ whilst the congregation could celebrate Mass without interruption or embarrassment.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Uniquely Irish and  lovely, simple tradition, and no need to go overboard with it.

The eighth tradition which is distinctly Irish, is the candle in the window – just the one, mind!  Nowadays some people have EVERY window in the house lit. But the whole point of the candle in the window is not to show off, but to offer an invitation to the Holy Family (the Christ Child, Mary, and Joseph, presumably the donkey would be along too!).  It was an act of charity, since the idea was to invite the Christ Child to lay his head in a warm bed rather than a cold manger. Some claim that the tradition was intended to light the way to Bethlehem for the Holy Family, but I suspect this is a misunderstanding. But why only one candle? Well, candles were once quite expensive. Most people got by with home made rush lights or tapers.  Rush lights were strands of rush dipped in tallow (pig fat) in imitation of a beeswax candle. They smoked terrifically, and someone had to constantly tend them so that the flame did not get extinguished by the melting fat. Tapers were a wick dipped in animal fat. Smokey and requiring constant care, they melted fairly quickly. Candles proper, of wax or paraffin, were shop bought and were more expensive. Thus only ONE candle was lit to guide the Holy Family into a warm house. There are people alive today who recall Christmas Eve before rural electrification in the late 1940s. The most delightful thing was standing on a nearby hill and watching as, one by one, the neighbours lit their candles. When President Mary Robinson lit a candle in the window of her official residence Arus an Uachtarain, she gave the most distinctive Irish Christmas tradition a new secular twist, since her candle represented a welcome home to all the Irish emigrants (and their descendants) around the world.

Christmas day swim

Brave or brazen? Well, it’s fun in a good cause.

Although not unique to Ireland, the tenth ‘tradition’ is also rather new but increasingly popular. So much so that the Irish Water Safety Board issued a health warning to prospective participants. It is, of course, the Christmas morning swim! This takes place in the open sea – not in an indoor heated swimming pool, which would completely miss the point. If you live in the middle of the country, a trip to a local lake or river might suffice, but this is really a coastal tradition. The Irish catch is that the participants usually do it for charity – notice how this theme keeps cropping up!  I really don’t know how many Christmas Morning Swims are taking place in the beaches and coves of East Cork, but there seem to be quite a few. The essential requirements are a bathing costume and an ability to swim a few strokes (that’s all you need do).  Zany costumes are strictly optional. It’s a heck of a way to wake up on Christmas morning, especially if the night before had been somewhat indulgent! Oh, and the health warning from the Irish Water Safety Board – beware of hypothermia! They suggested wearing a wetsuit. Very sensible, in my opinion. In Dublin, some people are so sensible that they prefer to stay warm by running the Goal Mile. This is a run, not a race – think vigorous morning jog – around an athletic track to raise funds for the third world charity Goal.

Pub

On Christmas Day? Don’t. Even. Think. About. It.

The eleventh tradition will probably surprise you. No pubs. Yes, that’s right, the pubs are shut by law on two days of the year, Good Friday and Christmas Day. The law does not say ‘no alcohol’, it says you may not drink alcohol in a pub. And the pubs may not open on those days. There are rare exceptions. In 2010 the publicans of Limerick won an argument in the local district court to be permitted to open on Good Friday for a major European Cup Rugby match.  By all accounts they did a roaring trade! But that was a unique exception. This does not mean that every pub actually obeys the law – for years it was rumoured that on one of the Aran Islands the pub served alcohol on Christmas Day, because there wasn’t a single Garda (a policeman) on the island to enforce the law. Their excuse? The pub wasn’t really open and the place was full of family friends around for a drink. And everybody kept quiet about the festivities. Now you know why patrons ‘filled up’ at the pub on Christmas Eve before staggering in to Midnight Mass. Closing the pubs on Good Friday is, perhaps, still understandable, but why close the pubs on Christmas Day? Simple, to allow the staff to celebrate Christmas at home with their families. There IS a point to the immortal barman’s query ‘Have you no homes to go to?’

Wren Boys

Once a frightening tradition, the Wren Boys now perform for charity on St Stephen’s Day.

The final tradition (well it had to be twelve!) is one that happens on the day after Christmas Day.  Many people use the English term Boxing Day for the 26th December. In Ireland it is popularly called St Stephen’s Day, being the feast of the first Christian martyr. And no, we didn’t get the idea from the carol ‘Good King Wenceslas’ – it’s a genuine feast of the church going back well over a millennium. The custom in Ireland was for the Wren Boys to call around on this day. These were local youths in disguise, accompanied by a musician. They wore costumes made of straw and carried a bush with a dead wren tied to it.  This recalled the tradition that Stephen was betrayed by a wren and so the wren was killed to avenge the saint’s death.  It’s possible that the custom had a pre-Christian origin. The reason the ‘wren boys’ wore disguise is that they expected a warm welcome in every house and if they felt the welcome wasn’t good enough (not enough drink or food) they would upset the house by overturning furniture, letting animals out of their byre/stable and opening the gates of the farm. People were often quite perturbed if they heard that the ‘wren boys’ were approaching.  I suspect the whole business may be linked to the idea of the Lord of Misrule – a medieval Christmastide custom of appointing a ‘lord’ of the household to the person who drew the longest straw. This person organized the revels and nobody was permitted to disobey his instructions, not even the real master of the house. Some cathedral choirs appointed a ‘boy bishop’ as their Lord of Misrule. The ancient Roman feast of Saturnalia had similar customs. The Wren Boy tradition almost died out in Ireland because it got out of hand. Except in the extreme south west (West Cork and Kerry), but it is now being revised in parts of Dublin and elsewhere. The good news is that the ‘wren’ used today is a fake bird, or maybe even a toy, and the ‘Boys’ (grown men, mostly) usually perform a song or dance and collect money for charity (there’s that theme again!).

Christmas market Cork

The Glow Christmas Market in Cork – a new ‘tradition’. We borrowed this from the Germans…just like our Christmas trees!

Like everybody else, we have a the Christmas tree, Christmas cards, and the presents and Santa (or Santy, as he is often called here in Ireland – it’s a diminutive). But the list I’ve given above is my twelve traditions of the Irish Christmas.  It’s good to see new ‘customs being added to the list. And they say tradition is dead? Not in Ireland, at Christmas!

A Happy Christmas to you and your nearest and dearest!

The Winter Solstice and Newgrange – a new old approach to Christmas in Ireland

Newgrange about 1880

The entrance to Newgrange about 1880 – not a ‘window’ to be seen.

Some people in Ireland start their Christmas celebrations with an ancient pagan ceremony – if they can get tickets!

Over five thousand years ago the inhabitants of the Boyne Valley in modern County Meath built a great passage tomb to contain the bones of their ancestors.  Curiously the remains of just five individuals were found inside the burial chamber when it was excavated by Professor Michael J Kelly in the 1960s.  Perhaps these individuals were especially significant to the community that built Newgrange and the mound was actually a temple to the ancestors. During the excavation, Kelly and his team made a bizarre discovery. There was an unusual ‘window’ over the entrance to the tomb and they speculated what its purpose was.  Suspicion fell on the alignment of the ‘window,’ or lightbox, as it is now called.  It seemed to be facing the direction of sunrise on the winter solstice.  There really was only one way to test it…..

Newgrange entrance

The reconstructed entrance to Newgrange, with the lightbox above the doorway. The superbly carved stone can be seen in the previous image from the 1880s.

On December 21st 1967, Professor Kelly and some colleagues were the first people in modern times to witness the sunlight enter the lightbox and illuminate the entire interior of the tomb right to the very back of the passage.  The whole event lasted just seventeen minutes but it confirmed the extraordinary skills available in Ireland five thousand years ago.  More recently it has been noted that the Newgrange alignment with the solstice sunrise appears to be more precise than similar alignments elsewhere, such as at Maes Howe in the Orkney Islands.  Our ancestors valued this moment because it marked the turning point of the year and the assurance that spring was not far off.

Newgrange Solstice

A five thousand year old phenomenon restored – the light entering the passage at Newgrange at sunrise on the winter solstice.

Clearly our ancestors valued the winter solstice.  The reason is not difficult to discern – they were farmers and the solstice marked the point of the year when the sun stopped slipping further and further down towards the southern horizon with each passing day.  It would now begin to climb higher in the sky.  This heralded the promise of spring and the new season for planting crops. Today the winter solstice in Ireland gives us a bare seven and a half hours of daylight!  So the increasing brightness and (hopefully) warmth of the sun is still a welcome sight.

Today, if you are lucky, you can enter a lottery to obtain tickets from the Office of Public Works Heritage Service to enter the passage at Newgrange before sunrise on 21st December and wait expectantly for the eerie and spectacular event.  The space inside the passage is very limited so only a small number of people are admitted on the winter solstice.

Back when it was built, the light entered the lightbox at Newgrange at exactly sunrise, but today, because of a wobble in the earth’s axis (called precession), the sunlight enters about four minutes after sunrise.  The whole phenomenon is fraught because the weather in Ireland does not always guarantee a clear sunny morning – cloud does obscure the whole sky in some years.  However the phenomenon is so popular that large crowds gather outside the mound to witness the sunrise.  When you live this far north of the Equator, the assurance that the sun has stopped sliding towards the southern horizon is something we look forward to!  The Newgrange experience is now part of the run-up to Christmas for many people in twenty-first century Ireland.

Happy Winter Solstice everyone!

A celebration in Longford – with a Midleton link.

Longford Cathedral Fire

St Mel’s Cathedral, Longford, burned down on Christmas Day 2009.  The cathedral’s museum was located in the former presbytery built into the back of the structure (on the right side of the photo).

In the early hours of Christmas morning 2009 the people of Longford woke to the horrific sight of their cathedral on fire.  They had celebrated Midnight Mass just a few hours before in the grandest building in the town, and now it was violently consumed by flames which left the building a gutted shell by daybreak.

Longford Cathedral Fire 3

Not the famous Roman basilica of Leptis Magna in Libya, but the devastated interior of St Mel’s Cathedral, Longford. The heat from the fire was so great that the blue limestone columns seen here were structurally weakened and every single one of them had to be replaced!

Apart from the loss of the liturgical space, Longford also lost its important diocesan museum which was located in the former presbytery.  Such diocesan museums are an extreme rarity in Ireland.  The presbytery was built into the back of the structure according to the original plans.  Among the treasures damaged and there were items of national importance – the so-called ‘crozier of St Mel’ and the Shrine of St Caillin.  The thousand year old crozier was severely damaged but the Shrine of St Cailin survived despite considerable damage.  The collection of historic vestments was completely lost. For genealogists, there is some relief in that although the old church records were destroyed, they have been microfilmed.

St Mel’s Cathedral in Longford was begun in 1840 under the direction of Bishop William O’Higgins.  It was designed by John Benjamin Keane, a Dublin-born architect who had worked as an assistant to Richard Morrison.  Morrison’s father, John Morrison, also an architect, was based in Midleton in the 1770s and 1780s.  But that’s not the real Midleton connection with St Mel’s Cathedral in Longford.  (Note: John B Keane is the name given by the Irish Architectural Archive, but recent news reports give the name as Joseph B Keane!  I’ll stick with the IAA version until I am reliably corrected!  And, no, I’m not aware of any family connection between the architect and the more recent Listowel publican and author, John B Keane.)

Anyone who knows their Irish history will be aware that 1840 was not the most auspicious timing for starting such a large project, much of it financed by the pennies of the poor.  From the autumn of 1845 to 1850 Ireland was stricken by the Great Famine caused by widespread potato blight, and the money for building the cathedral was diverted to more urgent causes.  Once the famine ended, the work resumed, but Keane had long left the scene and died in debt in 1859.  His successors included John Bourke who designed the cathedral’s belfry that has presided over over the town since 1860.

Longford Cathedral

The pride of the Irish midlands, Longford Cathedral took from the 1840s to the 1890s to complete. The tower was added in 1860, and Ashlin’s grand portico was added thirty years later.

Then in the 1880s it was decided to embellish the rather plain front, and the architect of the fine portico was none other than George Coppinger Ashlin (1837-1921). From 1888 to 1893 the portico was built and some interior furnishings such as altars were designed and supervised by Ashlin. This is where the Midleton connection comes in.  Ashlin was the third son of John Musson Ashlin JP (of Rush Hill, Wandsworth, Surrey, England) and Dorinda Coppinger, who came from Carrigrenane House in, Little Island near Glounthaune, County Cork.  Sadly this house no longer exists.  Dorinda was part of a clan of very influential Catholics who supplied a Bishop of Cloyne in the person of William Coppinger, and the curate of Midleton, Stephen Coppinger, who introduced the Presentation Sisters to the town.  And, yes, Dorinda Coppinger was related to the Joseph Coppinger discussed in a previous post.

George Coppinger Ashlin

George Coppinger Ashlin (1838-1921), Augustus Pugin’s son-in-law, and prolific church architect, had a brother living in Midleton. George went on to design two prominent buildings in the town.

George Ashlin became apprenticed to Edward Pugin, the son of the more celebrated Augustus WN Pugin (the man who designed the interiors of the Palace of Westminster and its clock tower (also popularly called the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben).  Primarily considered an architect of the gothic revival, it turns out that Ashlin was accomplished enough to work in the classical style too.  He went on to become Edward Pugin’s business partner, and even married Edward’s sister, Mary – so he was the son-in-law of the more celebrated Augustus Pugin, who had died in 1852. With Edward Pugin and Thomas Coleman, Ashlin designed St Colman’s Cathedral in Cobh (then Queenstown), one of the last sights Irish emigrants saw when they left the country from Cork Harbour.

GC Ashlin’s mother held property in Midleton, where she had several relatives living.  Indeed the Coppingers were the wealthiest Catholics in the town in the early and middle nineteenth century.  Ashlin’s oldest brother was John Coppinger Ashlin, who lived at Castleredmond House on……Ashlin Road (!).  I walked to school along that road every day!  It was these family connections to Midleton that led Ashlin to be commissioned to design Holy Rosary Catholic Church in 1893, and to supervise its construction from 1894 to 1896, and then again when the spire was completed in 1907-1908  Between these dates GC Ashlin designed the finest bank building in Midleton – the redbrick Dutch renaissance style Munster and Leinster Bank, now the Allied Irish Bank at the northern end of Main Street.

Holy Rosary Church Midleton after 1908

Ashlin’s Holy Rosary Church in Midleton, shortly after the completion of the spire in 1908.

Midleton Main Street 1900-1918

Completed in 1902, the Munster and Leinster Bank (on the right) marks the northern end of Midleton’s Main Street. It is a distinctive red brick building in Dutch renaissance style, by George Coppinger Ashlin. Holy Rosary Church overlooks the other end of the street. I can assure you that Main Street is not this quiet today!  The point of grass in the foreground is part of the Goose’s Acre, a plot where the townspeople set their geese out to graze.  The site depicted here is now occupied by the Clonmult Monument designed by the sculptor Seamus Murphy.    

Today, Saturday 20th December 2014 will be long remembered in Longford town as the day the people of the town were allowed to enter and view their newly restored cathedral.  Five years after the fire, the Cathedral of St Mel also saw the celebration of its first Mass.  Although the interior was damaged, Ashlin’s great portico seems to have suffered only minor damage.  It now welcomes the people of Longford back into their resurrected cathedral.

Longford Cathedral Restored

The ‘Longford Phoenix’ after five years of restoration. The interior of St Mel’s Cathedral has been superbly restored and new works of art have been installed.  Prior to the fire the plaster ceiling had been painted in various colours to ‘add interest’ but I think the plain white stucco looks splendid.

 Well done to everyone who contributed to the restoration of the ‘Longford Phoenix!’

Joseph Coppinger ‘of Midleton’ and two American Presidents

Sometimes it really pays to simply snoop around on the web.  And a couple of nights ago I came across something that astonished and surprised me.

The US National Archives has published online four letters from a correspondence between a Joseph Coppinger and President Thomas Jefferson and two letters in a correspondence with President James Madison.  Jefferson and Madison were, of course, two of the Founding Fathers of the United States as well as holding the office of President.  In the notes to the correspondence, Joseph Coppinger is described as having ‘immigrated to the United States in 1802 from Midleton, County Cork, Ireland.’  As you can imagine, this intrigued me and I decided to explore a little further before letting you in on the whole mystery.

Great fire of Pittsburgh 1845

The Great Fire of Pittsburgh in April 1845 destroyed the city that Joseph Coppinger had moved to in 1803. He entered into a partnership to run a brewery there, but did not get on with his business partner, James O’Hara.

The US National Archives commentary says that Joseph Coppinger settled first, for a very short while, in  New York.  Then in 1803 he moved to Pittsburgh where he entered into a partnership with James O’Hara to  set up the O’Hara, Reed and Coppinger Brewery (or the Point Brewery as it later became).  With his twelve years of experience in the business, Coppinger was the master brewer in the firm.  Sadly, issues with his partners and with the brewery’s financial backers led to his resignation and he quit the city and went to Lexington, Kentucky.  After that he went to St Louis (1807), Washington DC and Baltimore (1809), South Carolina, Georgia and New York City (1810).  In 1810 he tried to get James Madison to take an interest in the establishment of a national brewery in Washington DC, seemingly to no avail.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson corresponded with Joseph Coppinger whilst President and later when in retirement in Monticello, Virginia. His advice to Coppinger was always practical.

Joseph Coppinger’s correspondence with President Jefferson (as he then was) began early, in 1802-03.  Coppinger had come up with an invention he wished to patent, but US law required that patents be registered by US citizens and Coppinger wished to know how to go about this.  President Jefferson gave him some straightforward advice – and it was probably cheaper than consulting a lawyer!  Clearly Coppinger became a naturalized US citizen because he went on the patent several devices or inventions of his own design.   These included machines for splitting shingles, planing wood, threshing and cleaning grain, and many others.

James Madison

James Madison was solicited by Joseph Coppinger whilst President with a view to setting up a national brewing company in Washington DC.

Although unsuccessful in his 1810 correspondence with Madison, Joseph Coppinger went on to solicit the retired Thomas Jefferson to take an interest in his ‘national brewery’ project in 1815.  Thomas Jefferson again offered Coppinger some sound advice, but again nothing came of the project.  However, Jefferson WAS interested in a book that Joseph Coppinger was proposing to write on the subject of brewing, which the author hoped would improve the brewing of beer in America, even among the pioneers in the Louisiana Purchase territories.  Jefferson asked Nicholas G Dufief, a French bookseller based in Philadelphia, to acquire Coppinger’s book for him as soon as it was published.

The book eventually surfaced in New York in 1815 where it was published under the title ‘The American Practical Brewer and Tanner.’  Clearly Jefferson’s advice about the practical nature of Americans had struck home, hence the title.

Coppinger Brewing book title

The title page of Joseph Coppinger’s book The American Practical Brewer and Tanner (New York, 1815). The book is still in print as a classic of American brewing literature. This copy was obviously acquired directly from Coppinger in 1820.

Joseph Coppinger finally settled in New York City in 1817, where he published a book on flat roofed buildings and another on Catholic doctrine and principles (presumably to combat any anti-Catholic feelings among the Nativists, a political movement with a strong anti-Catholic stance.   In 1819, he published a book on whiskey distilling. The US National Archives suggests that Coppinger died in New York around 1825.  Needless to say he is unknown in Midleton, but his book on brewing is still considered a classic in brewing circles in the United States.

Coppinger Brewing book

One of the woodcut illustrations from Joseph Coppinger’s book The American Practical Brewer and Tanner.

If you examine Pigot’s ‘Directory of the County and City of Cork’ (1824), you will find a group of Coppingers named as inhabiting or doing business in Middleton (as they still wrote it).  Under the heading of ‘Nobility, Gentlemen & Clergy’, we find Edmund Coppinger, Esq, of Rosmore.  The others are listed as ‘Merchants’. These are John and Joseph Coppinger, brewers and maltsters, and Thomas Stephen Coppinger, merchant.  Now I’ve mentioned John and Joseph Coppinger in the context of brewing in an earlier post.

But I’m baffled by the Joseph Coppinger in the United States.  He clearly had plenty of experience in brewing before he went to Pittsburgh. It is very likely that he acquired this experience in Ireland prior to emigrating to the United States.  So where exactly did he fit in a family that spread from Cork to Midleton?  The answer seems to come in Burke’s Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Landed Gentry of Great Britain and Ireland.  If we look at the entry under Coppinger of Midleton, there is no Joseph Coppinger mentioned in the lineage.  But if we look under the entry for the principal stem of the family, we find that Coppinger of Ballyvolane (and Barryscourt!) produced TWO Joseph Coppingers. The first of these was Joseph Coppinger who married a Miss Arthur of Limerick. They had six sons and four daughters.  The sons were: Stephen, William (who became Catholic Bishop of Cloyne), Thomas, Peter, Joseph (our naturalized American) and John (who died in Sainte Croix in the West Indies).

The first Joseph Coppinger, being a third son, is likely to have been the brewer in Midleton in partnership with John Coppinger.  The brewery building still stands but is much altered. The business was sufficiently successful to allow Joseph to have a son educated abroad as a cleric, to give two of his four daughters into good marriages (two others became nuns), and to permit two of his sons to make good marriages.  What is revealed here is the usual pecking order in such families, the eldest son getting the lion’s share and the portions meted out to the rest of the family getting smaller and smaller. it also explains why two sons emigrated.

Old Brewery Midleton

Part of the surviving buildings of Coppinger’s Brewery in Midleton. The business had closed by the early 1840s. Now the premises is divided up into individual business units, such as these restaurants.

So there we have it – Joseph Coppinger of New York almost certainly learned the craft of brewing from his father in the brewery at Midleton.  Isn’t it a pity that Americans don’t have a choice between Budweiser and Coppinger beer?  Perhaps they could buy a copy of the book on the bicentenary of its publication – a nice little gift for Christmas!  Now, if anyone in New York could tell me where Joseph Coppinger was buried, I’d be grateful.

Note: There was another Joseph Coppinger from Midleton in the US about half a century later.  He was Lt Col John Joseph Coppinger of the US Army.  He’s buried in Arlington National Cemetery as a hero of the US Civil War.  But that’s another story.

Links: The US National Archives has the following link to items pertaining to Joseph Coppinger and his correspondence with Jefferson and Madison:

http://founders.archives.gov/search/Author%3A%22Coppinger%2C%20Joseph%22.

Joseph Coppingers book The American Practical Brewer and Tanner can be bought:

http://www.amazon.com/The-American-Practical-Brewer-Tanner/dp/0554399520/?tag=midwit1d-20

Midleton’s Brodrick Street gets a History Board

Brodrick street c1900

Brodrick Street, Midleton, also called Coolbawn by the locals, seems to have been laid out around 1800. The fine terrace of five late Georgian town houses were owned by the Callaghan family in the first half of the nineteenth century. The second house from the right is now undergoing restoration. This photo was taken sometime between 1900 and 1918 and is the view eastwards towards the Main Street. The view is somewhat more cluttered now, with electric cables and buildings closing the view on Main Street. The motor car was a rarity at the time, but the more common ‘car’ is the tipped up covered jaunting car seen in the distance. I love the way the motor car has complete freedom to drive in the middle of the roadway!

Please note:  I just did a quick update on this post by including the early twentieth century photo from the National Library of Ireland’s collection.

On the very sunny morning of Friday 5th December 2014 I joined Monica and Tony Moore for a press photocall at our new history board recently set up in Brodrick Street, Midleton.  The Moores have very kindly sponsored the production of this history board, which originated from an idea proposed by and encouraged by Anne McCarthy, who runs a gift shop on the street.  She really wanted to tell something of the history of the street to go along with the advertising that is so common in Midleton.  Anne told Tony and Monica Moore, who promptly offered to sponsor the history board.  I offered to do the text – which required some research, amendments and corrections until all parties were satisfied.  Mrs Mary Cott and Tony Moore contributed their own knowledge to the research. The photos and text of the history board were published in a local newsheet, Midleton and District News on Wednesday 10th December.

Coolbawn History Board

The Brodrick Street/Coolbawn history board in situ. From left to right are: Monica & Tony Moore, sponsors, and, squinting into the low winter sun, yours truly as the author of the text.  (Photo courtesy of Midleton & District News.)

Brodrick Street is also called Coolbawn by the locals – it must be very confusing if a visitor to the town stops to ask were to find a certain premises and the locals say ‘Coolbawn‘ when the correct address is Brodrick Street!  The title of the history board text was Brodrick Street/Coolbawn: one street two names?  I put forward the idea that the name Coolbawn was original name of the area stretching from the Roxborough River (or Dungourney River) in the south to the wall of St John the Baptist churchyard in the north and from Main Street in the east to the Owenacurra River in the west.  Coolbawn may mean ‘back meadow’ and the area is still liable to flood when the two rivers are high and the winds are right.  The opening of Brodrick Street into this area around 1800 was designed to provide a fine residential address in the middle of the town, as indeed it must have been in the early years.

Brodrick Street overhead full

A relatively short street, Brodrick Street didn’t actually lead anywhere until it was linked to the Bailick Road in the 1890s. The mast is part of the electrical grid system. The Midleton Gasworks were based on Brodrick Street from the 1850s to the 1950s. (Image courtesy of Midleton & District News)

One of the families associated with the street were the Callaghans – the descendants of a successful woolen draper, Mathias Callaghan, and his wife, Charlotte Fitzgerald, who married in 1815.  They had some thirteen or fourteen children, the eldest of whom, John Callaghan, became a major figure in the commercial life of Midleton.  The construction of the terrace of five late Georgian town houses is attributed to him by some authors.  However, although he was the immediate lessor of nine properties on the street in Griffith’s Valuation (1840s -1850s), it is not confirmed that he or his father built these.  Certainly the last of John Callaghan’s descendants to live on the street, Richard John, died in 1935 and the house was sold to the Coffey family, members of the biggest building firm in the town.

The firm of JJ Coffey & Sons operated from Brodrick Street in the latter half of the nineteenth century.  This firm built much of late nineteenth and early twentieth century Midleton, their masterpiece being the large Holy Rosary Catholic Church (1894-96).  They also built the spire of Holy Rosary Church in 1907-08.  I have reason to believe that my great grandfather worked for JJ Coffey as a stone cutter.  One of his descendants still lives in the house purchased after the death of Richard John Callaghan in 1935.

Brodrick Street overhead

The terrace of five late Georgian town houses is still inhabited, with the fourth house getting a much needed restoration. The small two story house next to the terrace was a local ‘taxi’ service (pony and trap) before motor cars became commonplace. This photo is taken from the multi-story carpark located behind Pugin’s pair of houses! (Image courtesy of Midleton & District News)

Another family that flourished on Brodrick Street were the Moores.  Two entrepreneurial sisters, Marie and Nora Moore ran a paid parking garage for bicycles and motorbikes next to the cinema during the 1950s.  For good measure, the Moore sisters also ran a sweet shop to satisfy the cravings of cinema patrons.   But more seriously the two ladies also stored coal (brought up by horse and cart from the port at Ballinacurra via the Bailick road) and raw wool from Australia for the Midleton Worsted Woolen Mills.  And they say that Irish women were repressed in the 1950s!  Not these two!

Sadly, I was obliged to be suggestive rather than totally prescriptive in my text for the history board, because, despite the valiant work of a very few individuals, the full history of Midleton has not yet been properly researched and published.   Hopefully the Brodrick Street history board (and the publicity about it!) will get people interested and we’ll be able to put up more such boards around Midleton.  Maybe then the demand for an accessible history publication will generate the momentum for research.  Signs are hopeful since I’ve had one comment about the history board – ‘I never knew there was so much history on the Coolbawn!’

I would like to thank Anne McCarthy for proposing the idea, Monica and Tony Moore for sponsoring the history board (and sharing some memories of the street),  Mrs Mary Cott for sharing her memories of the street – and showing me the original photograph of her formidable grandfather, the builder JJ Coffey.  Furthermore I should record my thanks to Ms Becky Grice at Midleton & District News for the publicity and for the images shown on this post. 

Link:  midletonnews.com

Midleton – why only one ‘d’?

One of the matters discussed by John Fenton during his lecture on Thursday night last was the spelling of the name of MIDLETON – why only one ‘d’?  The solution is remarkably recent – and not as obvious as might first appear.

If you do an internet search for towns called Middleton or Middletown, you will get a nice long list of towns located mostly in England, the United States, Canada, Australia and other English-speaking countries, usually former British colonies.

Here in Ireland we have Middleton in County Armagh.  But until the 1840s there was a Middleton in County Cork.  In 1685, Sir Richard Cox wrote a manuscript account of the county of Cork for the benefit of William Molyneaux who intended to publish a modern description of the whole of Ireland.  He calls the town Midleton – the date of this account is important, for the town was only named in 1670.  Dr Charles Smith, in The Ancient and Present State of the County and City of Cork (vol 1, 1750), calls the place Middletown!  A slight variation of this name, Middle Town, is also used by John Rocque in his Map of the Kingdom of Ireland (1760).  Samuel Lewis in his Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837) calls it Midleton.  The Ordnance Survey’s first edition map (c.1840) names the town as Middleton, and this is repeated in the second edition of c.1897.  So which is it?  Middleton or Midleton?

The source of the town’s name lies in the Charter of Incorporation issued by King Charles II in 1670.  But, sadly, the original charter document with its florid writing and royal seal does not survive.  What does survive is a leather-bound manuscript verbatim copy completed by the Rev. Verney Lovett on Saturday, 7th February, 1784. The embossed cover states that it contains the Charter of Middleton.  Two ‘d’s.  But the text of the charter on the inside starts off using the spelling ‘Midleton‘ – only ONE ‘d’.  The pages towards the end of the document spell the name ‘Middleton‘ – TWO ‘d’s!   But we must make allowance for seventeenth century spelling – you pretty much made it up as you went along and only in a Latin text did you dare to employ consistency of spelling! The text of the Charter of Midleton was in English.  Bizarrely, Samuel Lewis (see above) illustrated his account of the town with an engraving of the seal of the corporation, and the seal itself contained an original inscription which read Corporation of Middleton 1670.

When Sir Alan Brodrick was made Baron Brodrick of Midleton in 1715, the title employed only ONE ‘d’ in the town’s name.  Then he was promoted to Viscount Midleton in 1717, and the name of the town was still given with one ‘d’. Consistency had arrived at last, but only for the title in the peerage!

The matter of the town’s name was resolved, at least for the Post Office, by George Alan Brodrick, 5th Viscount Midleton (of Midleton in County Cork), in a correspondence with the Postmaster General in London on March 12th 1845.  Lord Midleton commented that there was some confusion in the delivery of letters to the correct destination (presumably letters to Middleton in Armagh or Middleton near Birmingham in England were misdirected.  The local historian Richard Henchion states that a letter addressed to someone in Middleton in County Cork was forwarded by the postmaster in that same post office to his colleagues in Middleton near Birmingham in England. That post office sent it back with the comment – ‘This is for YOUR office.‘  And they were right!  I do wonder if this misdirected latter was actually addressed to Lord Midleton himself, for there was also a Lord Middleton with a seat at Middleton, Warwickshire, England!  In his letter, Lord Midleton admitted that there would be some expense in getting the steel stamps changed for Midleton Post Office, and was prepared to accept this as a valid excuse for not changing the name.

(I suspect that Lord Midleton didn’t refer back to the charter of 1670, perhaps he was aware of the variable spelling in that document.)

The Postmaster General’s reply was written on 26th March, 1845.  He said he had looked up the title of his correspondent and found that he was the ‘Viscount Midleton of Midleton in the County of Cork!’  He directed that the spelling on the stamps be changed to MIDLETON to avoid further confusion.  So it was Viscount Midleton’s title in the peerage that confirmed the name of the town – Midleton with ONE ‘d’!    So, by direction of the Postmaster General in London we have our name spelled as it is today!  The new spelling of MIDLETON didn’t catch on for several years, but now it is clearly fixed. And no, we’re NOT changing it!