Saint’s feast days are still celebrated around the country in the form of pattern days. These revived religious festivals still draw high numbers of people such as the patterns at Gougane Barra, Ardmore, Ballyvourney and of course, one of the most well-known, Croagh Patrick. When we look at them now we see strictly serious, sombre, sacred affairs but if we cast our minds back to the 18th and 19th centuries we see a different story arising from the historical accounts. Here we see a very odd mixture of the sacred and the profane side by side. We see heavy drinking, dancing, music, trading and even faction fighting. To the uninitiated observers, to whom we owe most of the accounts, this behaviour was appalling, barbaric and savage and this is reflected in the language they use throughout their documentation of the events. Being reserved Protestant gentlemen, the multifaceted aspect made a lasting impression. In this essay, I will be looking at this eclectic mix of the sacred and the profane and how it was perceived by these outsiders. While even today viewing these narratives through a modern lens, many of the events carried out may seem alien. We should at least appreciate the fact that this was occurring at a liminal time. As a result of this liminality, a kind of anti-structure can be found. Turner explains this in terms of the people involved being “neither here nor there, betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom and convention” (Turner,1995:95). Bakhtin coined the term “the two lives of man” to describe the difference between this liminal time and carnival-esque atmosphere where “a special form of free and familiar contact reigned among people who were usually divided by the barriers of caste, property, profession, and age” (Bakhtin, 1984: 10) , and everyday life.
As I mentioned above, we see the massive impression that the events the authors witnessed made on them through their choice of language throughout the accounts. Many share the impression that the rituals were uncivilised and backwards. William Makepeace Thackeray referred to them as “dismal and half savage” (Thackeray,1842:208), a thought backed up by Mr & Mrs Hall when they said that “The most ignorant and savage tribes of Africa have few ceremonies more utterly revolting” (Hall,1841:282) than the Irish peasantry. We see numerous attempts to make the belief system of the Irish seem backward which by proxy essentially attempts to elevate not only the morality but also the civility of the observer. Máire MacNeill refers to them as the accounts of “hostile and supercilious observers” who were shocked at the mixture of the “piety and boisterousness” of the peasantry (MacNeill, 1982:83). Philip Dixon Hardy mentions that the “superstitious and degrading practices” of the common people are “A disgrace to the time and country we live in” (Hardy, 1840: iii).
Gougane Barra is the supposed site of the hermitage of St. Finbarr and was the site of pilgrimage for centuries. The pattern there was recently revived, albeit without many of the more profane activities for which we have accounts. Thomas Crofton Croker gives us a fine example of the mix of sacred and profane goings on at this pattern in his book Researches In The South Of Ireland. He is clearly shocked by how “drunken men and the most depraved women” are side by side with the pious pilgrims and how an “uproar of prayers and oaths, of sanctity and blasphemy” (Croker,1981:280) could be heard simultaneously. In most of the other accounts, the observers tend to draw a line between the sacred aspect taking place during the day and gradually giving way to revelry as the night progresses. In Croker’s account, he places them side by side and shows no end to the religious aspect, which continues through the night alongside the secular activities. Here he tells us that both the holy well and chapel are still crowded at midnight while the dancing, drinking and fighting were happening (Croker,1981:281). He likens the tents set up to a gypsy camp, an interesting choice of language no doubt to point out its wild, secular nature. He also tells us how “intoxication becomes almost universal” at these tents and goes to great effort to point out the hedonistic nature of these encampments where people are singing “rebellious songs” and have pipers in every tent. We can see clearly that he doesn’t agree with dancing being compatible with a religious event and claims it is an “amusement of which the lower orders of Irish are immoderately attached” (Croker,1981:280). The most profane aspect he mentions in his writing is the lighting of bonfires on the hillside in the evening which he says has nothing to do with the pattern or the saint but instead harkens back to a bygone era with origins in pagan sun worship (Croker,1981:281). In terms of how shocking many of the supposedly sacred practices were to the uninitiated observers, one can only imagine how striking it was to witness the hillside littered with fires reflecting on the lake below.
While on the subject of sacredness we will turn our minds to the sacred aspects of the pattern as recorded by Crofton Croker. Here he gives us detailed accounts of the religious side of pattern similar to the much more sombre side that we see today at these pilgrimages, albeit with much more rigorous observances. The extreme nature of the rounds are a common feature throughout multiple accounts with many obscure practices being recorded. In relation to Gougane Barra the most obscure ritual the author provides to us is the placing of a rusty iron object by the devotees on the head of the person next to them three times while reciting a prayer. Beyond providing a sketch of the item and telling us that it was of “considerable importance” and that it was passed around with “much ceremony”, we are told no more about this object (croker,1981:278). We do however get the impression that this was a very sacred object and a crucial ritual in relation to the pattern. When speaking of the sacred aspect of pilgrimages, or indeed of pattern days, one cannot fail to mention the importance of the holy well. In terms of pattern rounds it is oft a central, if not the most important aspect of the observance. Of the sacred waters at the well in this instance, we are given a very graphic account of how people with “the most disgusting sores and shocking infirmaties” (Croker,1981:279) washed themselves and thrust their arms or legs into the water to obtain a cure. He also tells us of how people eagerly drank this “polluted water” in hopes of receiving a blessing. Rigorous prayer is another common feature of pattern accounts. In regard to praying Croker tells us that an “immense concourse” of people were involved in a number of different acts of devotion. Many prayed on their knees with their arms uplifted with “considerable gesticulation” (Croker,1981:278). Just as in modern patterns, a certain number of prayers had to be said at each ‘station’ as part of the ritual. Here Croker tells us how people kept track of these prayers. Some “counted their beads with much apparent fervour” or used small pebbles as a substitute. He also notes how men notched their cudgel or a piece of stick (Croker,1981:278). Here with the mention of the cudgel we most likely see an intersection of the sacred and the profane. Men first mark the number of prayers on the cudgel that they possibly use as part of the faction fighting that was often found at pattern days. I will speak more on faction fighting later but first I will move on to another popular pattern, Croagh Patrick, and to the accounts of it given by different observers.
When one thinks of pilgrimage in Ireland, Croagh Patrick is probably the first thing that comes to mind. Multitudes of people still flock here on ‘Reek Sunday’, that is the last Sunday in July, to climb the mountain as a form of penance. The climb and pattern now take centre stage but in the past we see a much more varied event featuring both the sacred and the profane. Christian pilgrims have come here for centuries, the earliest recorded pilgrimage being recorded in 1113 ( Corlett,1997:9) but veneration of the mountain seems to even predate Christianity and is mentioned by Máire MacNeill as being a possible site in the celebration of the festival of Lughnasa (MacNeill,1982:83), a factor which may have influenced the more profane aspects of the pilgrimage here. Her evidence for this lies in the fact of the date of the pilgrimage and also the fact that it is only one of many mountains climbed on the last Sunday in July. In the case of Croagh Patrick I will be looking at the accounts of two writers and their opinions on the pattern observances.
In relation to the account by W.M Thackeray, he is even appalled by the sacred aspect. He likens the priest who reside over the proceedings to “worshippers of Moloch or Baal” due to them allowing people to perform what he terms “disgusting penances” (Thackeray,2005:207). He gives details of what the stations involve (i.e. the number of prayers to be said at each station, usually a prescribed number of Aves, Paters and Credos along with a ritual such as kissing a cross etc.) and tells of how the people were “suffering severe pain, wounded and bleeding in the knees and feet”. He can’t fathom how a God would want people to do this to themselves or how his representatives, i.e. the priests, would allow this to happen or encourage it (Thackeray,2005:208). As one could imagine with how shocked and disgusted he was with the religious aspect, he was just as descriptive and appalled by the more secular activities, what he describes as the “pleasures of the poor people”. Unlike Crocker he does not mention that the religious and profane are happening side by side. He also tells us of all the tents set up on the foot of the mountain and the revelry attached to them. Here he tells us how when the praying is done up the mountain then the “dancing and love making” commenced at the foot of the mountain. A scene he describes as “dismal and half savage” as he had ever seen (Thackeray,2005:208). The carnivalesque atmosphere he describes at the foot of the mountain is more akin to a fair than a religious affair with people shouting and screaming to sell their wares and crowded, smoky tents filled with people. A stark contrast to the goings on up the mountain where people were “dragging their bleeding knees from altar to altar, flinging stones and muttering endless litanies” (Thackeray,2005:209).
We also get an account of the Croagh Patrick Pattern from Philip Dixon Hardy in his book “Holy Wells of Ireland”. Like Thackeray, he takes a very hard-line approach in his opposition to the behaviour of people at the gatherings. He refers to them as being the sources of “much of the irreligion, immorality and vice” that proliferate the country (Hardy,1840:iii) and to him are the antithesis to proper Christian teachings and morals, especially considering that they are presided over by priests. He gives us a similar account to Thackeray in relation to the praying on bare knees but gives us a few more unusual rituals involved in the pattern. Interesting that these rituals fall well outside the Christian parameters. He tells us of how people throw bait into the well in an attempt to see fish in the well, for luck (Hardy,1840:59). This of course brings to mind the native, non-Christian tradition of the Tobar Segais (well of knowledge) and the Eo fios (fish/salmon of knowledge), so to see the level of syncretism of native and Christian tradition must have made quite the impression on the observer. He also records that people leave offerings of cloth, among other things, tied to a tree (clootie tree/ rag bush) as well as the practice of leaving offerings of butter to the saint in the bog (Hardy,1840:60). Similar again to Thackeray he makes special note of the pipers, fiddlers and excessive drinking when referring to the profane facet of the pattern. We are told of “how all manner of debaucheries are counted and young people are corrupted” (Hardy,1840:60). He also includes an account from the work of Rev. James Page, entitled “Ireland: Its Evils Traced Back to Their Source”. Here we are told how people “jumped around like mad folks to the sound of the instruments” and people were “rolling around drunk and cursing as if there was no God” (Hardy,1840:62). This observer also mentions witnessing a practice that one would not think to find at a religious event, divination. He tells us of how women are in the corner reading tea leaves “deciding on the destiny of their daughters at home”. In fact, he is so shocked by it that he believes it to be “fostered by the father of lies himself” (Hardy,1840:62).
Faction fighting was a common occurrence at pattern days, especially in contested areas, i.e. bordering parishes. Máire MacNeill argues that this was not just a fight for the sake of fighting but instead served a ritualistic/symbolic function. She postulates that the combat could be a re-enactment of the fairy battles of the otherworld on the mortal plane (MacNeill,1982:408) or especially in the case of pattern days, gaining the favour of the local saint, the ‘Deus Loci’ so to speak. This was in aid of bringing the ‘luck’ back to the winners’ parish. These events did not escape the notice of the outside observers and provide us with a good example of the profane manifesting among the sacred activities. It was noted that “bloody knees from devotion and bloody heads from fighting were not uncommon (Croker, in Hall & Hall,1841:284). Hardy tells us how “parties come to fight and quarrel” (Hardy,1840:57) at Croagh Patrick while Croker, when referring to the pattern at Ardmore, tells us how “a scene of rioting and quarrelling” periodically ensued (Croker,in Hall & Hall,1841:284). He seems to believe that fighting is endemic to the Irish peasantry as he says “without which Paddy cannot live long in good humour” (Croker, in Hall & Hall,1841:284). Of course if we look at it from the view of MacNeill’s argument of it being symbolic fighting it makes a lot more sense than it would have to eyes of the uninitiated observers to whom we owe these accounts.
The above accounts are by no means an exhaustive collection of that which has been written by what we have termed “uninitiated observers” but for the sake of brevity I chose to focus mostly on the accounts from Gougane Barra and Croagh Patrick as both contained good examples of the eclectic mix of sacred and profane activities found at the pattern days of yore. Looking at these events through a modern lens, despite how strange some still appear, we can at least appreciate through the work of people such as Turner, Van Gennep , Bakhtin and MacNeill that the pattern was a liminal time (If fact the term liminal was coined by Van Gennep in his work “rites of passage”. This was later expanded on by Turner). This time out of time allowed people to act outside of the norm. This allowed people to give up their worldly cares during this time of ambiguity, a time where anti-structure reigned and all were equal. Looking at it in this way helps us understand it in a better light, unlike how shocking it appeared to the ‘outsiders’ who recorded these events. It is also interesting to see the syncretic nature of the Irish belief system, the melding of non-Christian tradition with Christian beliefs and how it survived for so long. Despite the colourful descriptions and use of derogatory language in an attempt to make the Irish look like savages, we can at least appreciate the very vivid accounts passed down to us of the pattern days of the past.
Bakhtin, M (1968), Rabelais and His World, M.I.T press, Cambridge, pp.101845885384
Corlett, C (1997), Prehistoric Pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick, Archaeology Ireland, Vol.11, No.2, Wordwell Ltd, pp.9
Croker, T.C (1981), Researches in the South of Ireland, Irish Academic Press, pp.278-281
Hall, S.C (1841), Ireland: Its Scenery,Character etc, How and parsons, London, pp.282-284
Hardy, P.D (1840), The Holy Wells of Ireland, Hardy and Walker, Dublin, pp.59-63
MacNeill, M (1982), The Festival of Lughnasa, Comhairle Bhéaloideas Éireann, University College Dublin, PP.88-408
Thackeray, W,M (2005), Sketchbook of Ireland in 1842, Nonsuch Publishing, pp.207-209
Turner, V (1995), The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (Foundations of Human Behavior). Reprint Edition. Aldine Transaction, pp.95