The first Sunday in September – the seasons turn again.

Padraig Mannion (Galway), John Power (Kilkenny)

Padraig Mannion (Galway – maroon* shirt), John Power (Kilkenny – black and amber shirt) in the Allianz National Hurling League game earlier this year. (When first published, the colour given here for the Galway shirt was ‘burgundy.’  However, I have been advised that the official colour is maroon. I must have been thinking of the 16th century wine trade between Galway and Spain!)

When does the autumn (the Fall to you North Americans) begin? Traditionally in Ireland it started on the first day of August. A meteorologist would state 1st September is the scientific date. Parents would suggest it starts when the children go back to school (this year some schools opened during the last full week in August!). But more and more in Ireland it seems to be the first Sunday in September, that is 6th September this year. All because of a hurling match.

As noted last year, the first Sunday in September is sacrosanct in hurling circles in Ireland – it’s the date of the All Ireland Hurling Championship Final in Croke Park, Dublin. This year’s final will be contested between last year’s winners Kilkenny (known as the ‘Cats’) and Galway (the ‘Tribesmen’). Having shocked everybody by defeating Tipperary in a thrilling semi-final, Galway are very welcome contestants for Kilkenny – and I’m saying this as a Corkman! Much as I admire Kilkenny, I feel the time has come for somebody to snatch the Liam McCarthy Cup away from them, if only to keep them on their toes!.Besides they’ve won that trophy seven times in the last nine years. Galway are aspiring to prise Kilkenny’s grip from the McCarthy cup for their first title since 1988! For this match, neutrals will be as rare as hen’s teeth.

The nobleman Culainn had a ferocious guard hound (cu) that was killed by the boy Setanta who struck a sliotar (hurling ball) down the hound's throat. Setanta then offered to become Culainn's new guard hound. Hence the name he was given - Cu Chulainn, or Culainn's Hound.

The nobleman Culainn had a ferocious guard hound (cu) that was killed by the boy Setanta who struck a sliotar (hurling ball) down the hound’s throat. Setanta then offered to become Culainn’s new guard hound. Hence the name he was given – Cu Chulainn, or Culainn’s Hound. Hurling is still a game that creates near mythical heroes.

The weather forecast looks good – dry and sunny with some small risk of showers hater (hopefully MUCH later). We’re enjoying something of an Indian summer at present although the temperatures are not exceptional. It’s dry – that’s all that matters!

For anyone who has never seen a game of hurling, I’d say, if you’re visiting Ireland during the summer months – go and watch a local club game! You may not understand it, but someone will try (and usually fail) to explain it to you. Or better, watch a major championship match on television. It’s unlikely you’d get a ticket to the big games – they get snapped up instantly. And remember the players are ALL ‘amateurs’ – that is they are not on a salary of any kind and yet they boast fitness levels that would rival that of most professional footballers on six figure sums. They play for pride of club, parish or county and for the honour of being a hero – in the true Corinthian spirit.

Made of hair. The earliest dates from the later twelfth century - between 1150 and 1200!

Made of matted cow hair with a horsehair covering, these early sliotars (hurling balls) are very different from the modern cork and leather sliotars. The earliest dates from the later twelfth century – between 1150 and 1200! The English tried to suppress hurling but its modern revival dates from the spread of the Gaelic Athletic Association in the 1880s.

Our official national festival is St Patrick’s Day, but to see 80,200 intermingled fans in Croke Park screaming on their respective counties probably gives a better indication of Ireland’s entrenched localism. There is a very real claim that the game is some 2,000 years old, with the modern rules being formulated in 1881, But it seems that the passions aroused by the game  haven’t aged one bit – there’s life in this old game yet!

Hurley used by Pat Madden of Meelick in the 1887 All Ireland Hurling Final against Thurles.

Hurley used by Pat Madden of Meelick in the 1887 All Ireland Hurling Final against Thurles. The modern hurley is somewhat more ergonomic, but every bit as deadly on the field of play.

Kikenny won’t have the mighty Henry Shefflin, who has retired. Not that they missed him – they have so many good players. Galway have already beaten Kikenny in the Allianz Hurling League and will play the irrepressible Joe Canning. Who is likely to win? It’s genuinely difficult to say, but I’m rooting for Galway!

Bealtaine and the bright half of the year – with commemorations.

The white blossom of the hawthorn tree marks the arrival of summer in Ireland. The hawthorn or May Tree is associated with the festival of Bealtaine.  The tree shown here is growing in the Burren in County Clare.

The white blossom of the hawthorn tree marks the arrival of summer in Ireland. The hawthorn or May Tree is associated with the festival of Bealtaine. The tree shown here is growing in the Burren in County Clare.

As I noted at the end of October last, the ancient Irish divided the year in several ways, but one of the main divisions was between the dark half of the year and the bright half of the year.  Samhain, at the end of October and beginning of November, marked the beginning of the ‘dark half’ of the year. Bealtaine, usually celebrated around the beginning of May in the modern calendar, marked the beginning of the ‘bright half’ of the year. It also marked the beginning of the peak period of production of milk – this was the festival that marked the annual booleying, the movement of cattle into the outer or upland pastures for six months.  Milk was a critical addition to the ancient Irish diet, giving a crucial boost to the intake of protein before the cereal harvest and annual slaughter of excess livestock in the autumn.

Bonfires were lit at Bealtaine to celebrate the arrival of summer and protect cattle from disease before they were moved to their upland summer pastures.  This image is from the Midleton-based company

Bonfires were lit at Bealtaine to celebrate the arrival of summer and protect cattle from disease before they were moved to their upland summer pastures. This image is from the Midleton-based company

Symbolically, just as at Samhain, the denizens of the underworld were particularly active at Bealtaine and to protect the cattle from any ailments, or fairy mischief, they were driven between two bonfires. This ritual bonfire was a key part of the festival. It is likely that this bonfire tradition has mostly died out, but I recall that sometimes there were bonfires in some communities in Limerick city – this is unusual because such traditions are normally thought to survive in rural communities!

(It should be noted that the bonfire tradition on St John’s Eve (23rd June) is linked to the summer solstice. It can be difficult to light a bonfire in the depths of a wet Irish winter, so ‘bonfire night’ is more likely to be a summer celebration in Ireland, although there is no guarantee of any co-operation from the gods who control the Irish weather!)

The flowering of the hawthorn tree is a very visible reminder that we have entered the brighter and warmer half of the year.  The tree usually blossoms around Bealtaine.

The flowering of the hawthorn tree is a very visible reminder that we have entered the brighter and warmer half of the year. The tree usually blossoms around Bealtaine.

The white blossom of the hawthorn tree is the floral equivalent of the bealtaine bonfire.  Because it usually blossoms around the beginning of May, it is also called the May Tree.  It is considered unlucky to bring the haw blossom into the house, but some people still decorate locally regarded hawthorn trees, decorating them with ribbons or other amulets. Nowadays in Ireland, Bealtaine has been transformed into a month-long festival of creativity as we age – it is a festival for our senior citizens to get out and do something different!  Mullingar in County Westmeath has a Festival of the Fires – given that Mullingar is near the ancient site of Uisneach a site that was anciently associated with the festival of Bealtaine..

The Festival of Fires is a modern attempt to celebrate Bealtaine in Mullingar and at the ancient site of Uisneach in County Westmeath.

The Festival of Fires is a modern attempt to celebrate Bealtaine in Mullingar and at the ancient site of Uisneach in County Westmeath.

Sadly, Bealtaine in 2015 was marked by a very cold wind and outbreaks of rain – indeed, for the first day of summer, in traditional parlance, 1st May 2015 in Ireland was a day to be indoors beside a roaring fire!  But then, ‘summer’ in Ireland means that it gets bright around 5.30 am and stays bright until after 9.00 pm.  It has nothing to do with clear dry and warm sunny days – these should be regarded as a bonus! The week just gone was one of showers, winds and sunshine – a very Irish mix!

Lusitania Memorial in Cobh (formerly Queenstown).

Lusitania Memorial in Cobh (formerly Queenstown).

The first week of May this year saw events linked to the centenary of the sinking of the Lusitania.  Courtmacsherry, the Old Head of Kinsale, Kinsale itself and Cobh (formerly Queenstown) all saw events to commemorate the dead of the Lusitania.  President Higgins was joined by the ambassadors from Uk, USA, Germany and France for the commemoration in Cobh on Thursday 7th May. Last Wednesday I attended a day long conference organised by Gabriel Doherty of the School of History of UCC.  Starting at 9.10 am, it drew a full crowd.  By lunchtime it was standing room only. The questions addressed to the various speakers from the audience were indicative of the enormous interest that people had in the subject. This Decade of Centenaries is a welcome addition to the social life of our communities, especially since it gets people asking questions about the history of their communities and families a century ago. Hopefully it will lead to new discoveries as more information is uncovered.  It is worth remembering that only a fortnight ago we recalled the landings at Gallipoli – a reminder that various events in World War I overlapped. .

Irish military and naval personnel at the official ceremonies commemorating the sinking of the Lusitania on 7th May.

Irish military and naval personnel at the official ceremonies commemorating the sinking of the Lusitania on 7th May.

St Elvis and Christianity in Ireland before St Patrick.

Patrick baptizes King of Cashel

Propaganda by the scribes of Armagh gives us the story of St Patrick baptizing the King of Cashel. Patrick’s crozier pierced the foot of the king, who thought it was part of the ritual, so he didn’t cry out. This tale was designed to claim that Armagh had primacy over Cashel and the province of Munster.

Down here in the deep south of Ireland we celebrate St Patrick’s Day like all Irish people around the world….including elsewhere in Ireland. But there is a very strong tradition in Munster that four saints introduced Christianity to the province before St Patrick arrived.  These four were St Ailbe of Emly, St Ciaran of Saigir, St Abban of Moyarny and St Declan of Ardmore. Saint Ibar or Iberius in Latin is sometimes included as a pre-Patrician saint.

St Ailbe

Window depicting St Ailbe in the Honan Chapel in University College Cork. Each of the windows depicts a saint from Munster.

St Ailbe, considered the most important of these, is known in Pembrokeshire as St Eilfyw or Eilfw. The smallest parish in Britain, just four miles north west of St Davids is named after him. He is credited with founding the monastery of Emly, which was later erected into a diocese at the Synod of Rath Breasail in 1111. In the eighteenth century the see of Emly was united with the Diocese of Cashel, the see of the Archbishop of Cashel. Ailbe is said to have been a Irish foundling taken back to Wales by some Britons who raised him as a Christian. On a journey to Rome he was ordained by St Hilary, the pope at the time. Ailbe is said to have baptized St David of Wales and then returned to Ireland to set up his monastery. It is ironic that his name is so well known worldwide for the Latin version of Ailbe is…..Elvis!  So you now know that the king of rock and roll was named after an Irish saint! But I have no idea if the saint was as good as the king with a guitar.

Elvis Presley

They call him the king, but he’s named after a saint! And an Irish saint at that!

Ciaran of Saigir was a nobleman who converted to Christianity and went to Rome on pilgrimage, where he was ordained a bishop by the pope. Returning to Ireland he became bishop of Ossory – a diocese that didn’t exist in the fifth/six/seventh century. He’s called Ciaran the Elder to distinguish him from the St Ciaran who founded Clonmacnoise.

St Abban's Church Killeagh

The now disused church of St Abban in Killeagh in east Cork. What is baffling is that Killeagh is named after a local woman, St Ia (known as St Ive in Cornwall). Nobody knows how Killeagh got a church dedicated to a Leinster saint. Killeagh lies on the main road from Midleton to Youghal.

St Abban was from the area around New Ross in Wexford – a town that was founded in the early 1200s by William Marshal. Abban’s claim to fame is his sister – St Gobnait of Ballyvourney.  Abban is said to be buried in Ballyvourney which marks the western outpost of the diocese of Cloyne. The abbey of Abingdon in England claimed to be named after him, but I suspect they were simply making that claim in the hope of acquiring relics. They actually had nothing to do with Abban. Come to think of it, the village of Killeagh in east Cork – on the road from Midleton to Youghal has a redundant Anglican church dedicated to St Abban – despite the fact that the village takes its name from St Ia (a woman) who gives her name to St Ives in Cornwall.  We’re still baffled by the St Abban connection.


The lovely ruined cathedral and superb round tower at Ardmore, a site dedicated to St Declan. The man had an eye for good scenery. Ardmore is still a popular holiday resort and remains a virtually unspoiled village in County Waterford. The twelfth century sculpture cycle on the west gable of the cathedral is one of the most important in Ireland.

St Declan of Ardmore had the best eye for scenery – Ardmore is a lovely seaside village in the western part of County Waterford which still preserves its tiny ruined Cathedral and its complete round tower.  Declan too went to Rome and was ordained by the pope – and met St Ailbe there. St Declan was considered the patron saint of the Deisi – the people who inhabited western County Waterford. In the modern Catholic parish of Midleton there is a site called Caherultan – said to be the church of St Ultan, a pupil of St Declan. There was certainly a parish church there in the medieval period, but the parish was abolished after the Reformation and the church has vanished.

St Declan's Well Ardmore

Early twentieth century pilgrims at St Declan’s Well in Ardmore. People still go there to take the water. ‘Doing the rounds’ of the holy sites was a way of imitating the pilgrims Rome who visited the seven basilicas there – not everybody could go to Rome on pilgrimage.

Now I don’t expect you to believe all the above stories, for many of them originate as anti-Patrician propaganda written to counter the claims of the church in Armagh to primacy over the whole of Ireland in the 7th and 8th centuries. But there is an interesting grain of truth in several of them. However, the most important detail to remember is that the south of Ireland had a lot of connections with Britain, especially Wales and with Gaul (now France). The evidence for this comes from both ancient Irish sources and ancient Welsh sources, as well as the presence of Irish inscriptions in ogham script on stones in Wales and Cornwall.   Indeed the Ui Liathain and their neighbours to the east, the Deisi even colonised parts of South Wales as the Roman Empire began to contract in the late 300s and early 400s. The Ui Liathain ruled the area that corresponds to south-east County Cork from the Blackwater to the sea and from the Glanmire River to the lower Blackwater. It is ironic that their lands were later settled by Milo de Cogan and Robert FitzStephen and their followers from Wales – the Barrys, the Carews and the FitzGeralds. The Deisi territory in Waterford was colonized by the Powers and the FitzGeralds.

What these stories of the saints suggests is that there was much interchange of goods,persons (including slaves) and ideas between the south coast of Ireland and Wales. Christianity was one of the imports into Ireland – it survived in Wales after the collapse of the Roman Empire and the colonization of England by the Angles and Saxons.

Indeed, when we consider that the Laigin (or peoples of Leinster) even colonized the Lleyn peninsula in north-west Wales, giving their name to the place, we must wonder if the southern half of Ireland was heavily Christianized before the arrival of St Patrick. Modern scholars now believe that Patrick operated north of a line from Galway in the west to Dublin in the east. He didn’t come south of that line because Christianity was already well established in the south, with bishops supervising the church there. A stray bishop would NOT have been welcomed by the southern bishops!


Palladius was appointed the first bishop to the Irish believing in Christ in 431 – clearly there were enough Christians in Ireland by this date to warrant the appointment of a bishop. St Patrick is traditionally said to have arrived in 432, but modern scholars reckon he came later and that 432 marked the arrival of Palladius. The scribes of Armagh may have appropriated details from the life of Palladius and attributed them to Patrickd whilst at the same time ‘disappearing’ Palladius from Irish history.

And then there is the reference in Prosper of Aquitaine’s Chronicle: in 431 Pope Celestine sent Palladius as bishop to the Irish believing in Christ.  The crucial thing about Prosper was that he was a contemporary of the two men mentioned in that statement. He was an eyewitness to these events. Prosper wrote his Chronicle to tell the story of how the Pelagian heresy was put down by St Germanus of Auxerre, and others. This heresy had flourished in Britain, alarming the Catholic Church and it probably prompted the decision to appoint Palladius to minister to the Irish Christians as their first bishop.  This was an extraordinary decision because Palladius had to leave the jurisdiction of the Roman Empire to take up his new post. It is very likely that Palladius (a Gallo-Roman) was indeed the first bishop in Ireland, preceding St Patrick by several years.

St Declan's Way

Modern pilgrimage in Ireland. There is now a walking trail from Ardmore to Cashel, linking St Declan to St Ailbe. It’s a sort of secular Camino – Irish style. Instead of sun, sangria and tapas, you get rain, Guinness and Tayto crisps!

Poor Palladius! He was condemned as a failure and almost entirely written out of Irish history centuries later when the scribes of Armagh were trying to claim for St Patrick the credit for converting the Irish to Christianity. The real goal of these scribes was to make Armagh the paramount church in Ireland. But you have got to hand it to them – it was brilliant propaganda! Now the whole world believes that Patrick was Irish and nobody has heard about Palladius, who probably did much to consolidate Christianity in the south of Ireland.  Even Stalin, with his retouched photos during the purges, was a mere amateur by comparison.  And at least nobody died in Ireland!

Ah well, A Happy St Patrick’s Day to you!

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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.


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?


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!