Mountain Sunday Views

Blackstairs Mountain and its environs as they appear on ‘Mountain Sunday’ – the last Sunday in July – an important annual feast day in the 19th and early to mid 20th century (for more information see:

Images follow the route from Knockymulgurry, County Carlow along the ‘Wexford Road’ up to the ‘Meeting Point’ at the Cooliagh Gap before returning along the lower ‘Tower Road’

A paved start. A false hope.

The higher ‘Wexford Road’ and lower ‘Tower Road’ crossing the distant slopes

Tarmac is a distant memory now!

Price’s Stone with Brandon Hill in the background

The ‘Wexford Road’

Almost there

Fraughan picking formed part of the activities on Mountain Sunday

Cathiar’s Den and County Carlow

Heather in Bloom at the Meeting Point. Climbing to Cathiar’s Den in the background was another activity for some on the day

Returning via the ‘Tower Road’

The 19th century Barracks from which the ‘Tower Road’ receives its name

‘Price’s Stone’ a large Standing Stone close to the convergence of the ‘Gowlin Road’, ‘Tower Road’ and ‘Wexford Road’

Mount Leinster

There is growing interest in the revival of Mountain Sunday which has not taken place on any organised basis since the 1970’s. Despite this, several locals, hill farmers and hillwalkers have been walking up to the site over the years to mark the day in their own way

19th Century Poultry Keeping in the Blackstairs Uplands



Upland farmhouse and outhouses


Housing in the nineteenth century was reflective of class and social order. Large estates and houses were built by landlords while one roomed cabins and small houses were built by the poorest members of society. It is the latter which characterise most upland settlements, including those in the Blackstairs Mountains. Use of local resources, together with the absence of will to make architectural statements meant that the majority of these buildings blended into the surrounding landscape just as any natural feature. Similar cases across the country prompted the folklorist Ake Campbell to comment;

“Built of stone, clay, sods, grass and straw brought from the vicinity, the house harmonises with the landscape to which it belongs. Wherever the old building traditions are maintained its features are of a fine simplicity” (1937, 223).

Such resources included stone for walls, clay for floors, straw, reeds and grass for roofs (Aalen et al. 1997, 82).

Agriculture was central to the life in these upland homes, for which there is ample archaeological evidence. Cereal and vegetable cultivation is evident on many slopes where potatoes, turnips, crops and vegetables were grown for local consumption and to supplement the family income. Potatoes in particular were favoured as they could grow on the thinnest and poorest of soils. Field systems, enclosures and placenames indicate the presence of animals such as cattle, sheep, goats and pigs. Less obvious in the landscape however, is the evidence for fowl keeping.



Upland outhouse


Alongside larger livestock, poultry made up an important component of many upland farms. Analysis of the census records from the 1901 Census gives some indication of the frequency of dedicated structures built for the housing of poultry. For example, twenty seven records can be firmly identified on this census as relating to houses in the Blackstairs uplands (above 200m). Of these 16 recorded having a fowl house, making them the fourth most common outhouse type (after stables, cow houses and pig houses). A possible hen house was identified during survey work on Knockroe Mountain in the Blackstairs Mountains. While the stone structure was in a ruinous state, a low lintel suggests an east facing entrance in a small structure which may have been used by hens.


Folklore collected from the 1930’s gives greater insight into the management practices associated with fowl-keeping. For a start, chickens were the dominant species. Reared and tended to by the woman of the house, any monies raised from the sale of eggs or meat was either kept as her own income or used to cloth the children or fund their education. Other households kept them simply for general income. Upland fowl were sold at markets such as Borris and New Ross with people travelling from all across Carlow, Wexford and Kilkenny. Saint Martin’s Day was celebrated on the 11th of November in the Blackstairs region with the killing of a cockerel and the smearing of its blood on the lintel of the house for protection. Recordings made by Michael Fortune in the area around Ballymurphy, County Carlow on the western side of the range confirm the presence of this practice in the region into the 20th century. Other folklore also records the term “fortnales”; small eggs that were collected and placed in the thatch of the house for luck.


Saint Martin

Saint Martin


Apart from dedicated outhouses, archaeological evidence for fowl keeping in the Blackstairs uplands was identified during field survey on some surviving farm sites. Small grottoes were constructed in the walls of houses and outhouses in which poultry could nest and lay eggs. Their proximity to the house made it easier for the family to observe the bird and take eggs when they were laid. The styles of these varied across the range. For example, a grotto on Clorogue More consists of a triangular shaped hole made in the farmyard wall of the house, lintelled on all three sides by slabs. A second example in the townland of Crannagh on the opposite side of the range has two square holes built into the gable walls of an outhouse facing the house. Such features may have been more commonly found on house sites and cabins than is evident today as the current states of preservation of surviving structures has rendered them invisible.



Small grotto for nesting hens



Aalen, F. H. A., Whelan, K. & Stout, M. 1997 Atlas of the Irish Rural Landscape.
Cork; Cork University Press.

Campbell, A. 1937 “Notes on the Irish House”. Folk-Liv 1, 207-234.

National Folklore Collection Main Manuscript 577, p. 373. Information collected by Máire Ní Dhonncha from Mrs. Maddock (77), Drummond, Carlow in 1938.

National Folklore Collection Main Manuscript 1063, p. 10. Information collected by P.T. O Riain from John Long (70) and his wife, Rossard in June 1940.

National Folklore Collection Main Manuscript 1829, p. 36. Information collected by John Moriarty from Patrick Hendrick, Ballycrinnigan, Carlow in January 1967.

National Folklore Collection Main Manuscript 1829, p. 54. Information collected by Edward Whinger, Graigunemanagh in January 1967.




Newtown, Dublin


Mount Leinster (2)

View of Mount Leinster from Knockroe, County Carlow

When we visit archaeological sites in many of our upland landscapes today, it is easy to fall into the trap of projecting modern views on to the past… almost literally in this case. There can be an element of “why did they bother”? The climb is often steep, the landscape is stony and overgrown for half of the year and the soil is damp and peaty. Such landscapes offer something of a mystery or other-worldness for religious practices and ideas but what were people up to bringing animals and crops here either seasonally or permanently. Sheep, cattle and goats graze the uplands today, but even then it is largely rough grazing on the higher slopes.


Hut Site under Blackstairs Mountain

What we see today however, is our view of the uplands, the product of agricultural practices in the last century or so. 150 years ago, population expansion amongst the poorest in society  pushed the limits of enclosure and cultivation much higher upslope in many areas; something we can re-imagine today from historical records, maps and paintings as well as the physical traces in the landscape. But the very presence of peat, blanket bog, heather, gorse and bracken etc is a product of much longer term agricultural practices combined with climate change. More research is needed in many places such as the Blackstairs to understand the vegetation history but what we can infer from elsewhere is that the landscape in prehistory and even the medieval period would have been much more of a patchwork between grassland, cereal crops, forestry as well as rough vegetation. Most of the settlement and agricultural sites however, would most likely have been surrounded by the former habitats and not how they are found today often densely overgrown.

Enter Newtown in Co. Dublin. I had the pleasure of being brought on a tour here a few weeks ago by Ivor Kenny and Red Tobin. Located on a south facing slope; over 300m above sea level in Glencullen; is a complex of sites which appear to date from prehistory through to the post-medieval period. Under grazed pasture with pockets of scrub vegetation, this area gives a better impression of the landscape character of many of these upland sites during their use thousands of years ago, at least in their immediate surroundings.


Pasture Vegetation at Newtown, Dublin

Copper was one of the first metals to be used in Ireland and the discovery of a flat copper axe in nearby Ballyedmonduff (Ní Lionáin and Davis 2014) indicates activity here from at least the late Neolithic- Early Bronze Age (c.2500BC) .

Atop one of the wide, flat summits along this ridgeline is a ringed topographical feature which may indicate an enclosure or even more excitingly, the last remains of a cairn possibly containing a passage tomb; a Neolithic feature.


Circular feature at summit

Nearby is a large standing stone with a barrow next to it. Barrows consist of a central mound of earth with a surrounding ditch and mainly date to the Bronze Age and sometimes Iron Age (2500BC-400AD). Often a primary burial was placed under the mound with secondary burials dug into and surrounding the site. What is more interesting about this example is that it appears to have been added to and heightened in a second phase of construction.



Barrow in left background, standing stone in right foreground

Barrow in central background



Barrow. Note standing stone in left background

Profile of the Barrow showing drop into the surrounding ditch on left and slope up to right indicating mound. Note the terracing possibly indicating a second phase of construction

As well as prehistoric features there is also an early medieval ringfort which is classed as a cashel meaning that it is enclosed by a stone wall rather than an earthen bank and ditch (rath). These sites were generally constructed between 500-1000AD however, many continued in use into later periods both as settlement sites as well as animal enclosures.

Newtown Enclosure.png

Ringfort (cashel) with associated field system

The surrounding field system is also littered with cultivation ridges and lynchets; earthen terraces on hillslopes caused by build up and ploughing over several generations.

Relict field boundary

Two further denuded circular enclosures are located upslope from the cashel surrounded by lynchets with what appear to be the remains of hut sites, animal enclosures or structures inside.

One of two neighbouring circular enclosures

Glencullen was a major granite quarrying site in the post-medieval period, evidence for which is scattered all across this area in the form of quarries, stone sockets and cleaved stones. Such was the level of activity in this area that Samuel Beckett, while staying in Stepaside, wrote in his short story First Love (1946): “from morning to night I’d hear nothing but the wind, the curlews, the clink of the stone-cutter’s hammers” (Kenny 2016, 1)

Split stone

Ivor interprets the meaning of this site. Stone inforeground has been split with “plug and feather” technique

Even the nearby graveyard has some interesting headstones as well as a ruined church.

Headstone in Glencullen Cemetery




View of Dublin City from the summit


Kenny, I. 2016 Stone-Cleaving in the Dublin Mountains. University College Dublin; Unpublished Thesis.

Ní Lionáin, C. and Davis, S. 2014 The Dublin Uplands – Past, Present and Future. Dublin; South Dublin County Council and Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council.

Sites and Monuments Record :


Note: This area is in private ownership and not publicly accessible














Well, well St. Patrick!

For the weekend that’s in it, below are the two holy well sites associated with St. Patrick in the Blackstairs Mountains townlands.

St Patricks Wells

“St. Patrick’s Well”, Templeludigan, Wexford

St Patrick’s Well, Templeludigan

Located close to the centre of a tillage field in the south-eastern foothills of the range, this site is currently in a poor condition. A hawthorn tree which previously grew on the site has fallen over and the site is currently presented as a slightly overgrown mound of grass and stones. It is marked as “St Patrick’s Well” on the two editions of the Ordnance Survey Historic Maps which are available online

St Patricks Well Templeludigan 6inchSt Patricks Well Templeludigan 25inch

The Sites and Monuments Record describes it as: “A passage with a few steps… which is a corbelled and lintelled drystone walled structure (diam. 1m) with another well structure (diam. c. 1m) off it to the N. The well is often dry, but retains water in winter. According to John O’Donovan writing c. 1840 the pattern was held on March 17th until c. 1820 (O’Flanagan 1933, vol. 2, 346). There is no evidence of veneration”

St. Patrick’s Well, Kiltealy, Wexford

Former location of well site with the Blackstairs Mountains shrouded in cloud behind

Located on the left hand side of the road on the southern approach to Kiltealy Village. No traces of this site survive today however, it is marked on the 25″ edition Historic Map as “St Patrick’s Well”. A well is also marked on the first edition OS maps from 1839, albeit unlabelled or named. A stream is located  c.3om to the West at the base of the sloping field.

St Patricks Well Kiltealy 6inchSt Patricks Well Kiltealy 25inch

The Sites and Monuments Record states that: “It is listed by Ua Dubhgaill (1925, 94), but the well does not survive and there is no evidence that it was ever venerated”

The sites name and association is preserved locally today in a nearby house name.

For more in depth information on Saint Patrick himself check out the entertaining and informative blog Vox Hiberionacum 

And for information on pilgrimage and holy well veneration from the medieval period to the present day see Pilgrimage in Medieval Ireland

Mountain Sunday

Just as Reek Sunday comes to Croagh Patrick, the last Sunday in July saw “Mountain Sunday” arrive in the Blackstairs; the most celebrated annual gathering in the region. Records from the National Folklore Collection in UCD attest to its former importance. No less than ten accounts refer to the day in varying degrees of detail and that’s just from the townlands in the immediate foothills. It is one of most heavily described topics with only The Great Famine and the Fuel and Light questionnaire surpassing it in number of responses. The date suggest that it may be the remnants of a Lughnasa tradition carried out since the Iron Age. Interestingly, the only scientifically dated archaeological artefact in the Blackstairs was dated to the Iron Age, found on the summit of Blackstairs Mountain to the northeast of the gathering site (see Blackstairs deer trap post here).

Unlike all the other summer communal gatherings (see earlier posts), this gathering was solely held in the Blackstairs uplands at a place called the Cooliagh Gap, known locally and in some folklore accounts as “The Meeting Point”. The site is an important pass almost 400m above sea level situated along the Blackstairs and White Mountain chain of mountains and used as a communication route at least since the medieval period as documentary accounts suggest. Other events were generally done on a localised level, however, this one saw people coming from Wexford, Carlow and Kilkenny to the same site. From here, there are extensive views on a clear day across Southeast Ireland. Informants to the National Folklore Collection described many of the days customs. Despite their closeness in recording times, some of these accounts contradict one another highlighting localised customs and even issues surrounding memory. These accounts relate to the late 19th-early 20th Century although the custom appears to have been much older.

Cooliagh Gap Location

Location of the Cooliagh Gap or the Meeting Point

Weather on the day was noted for being particularly wet and thundery. Despite this, it was a day that was looked forward to for weeks before by most as the hungry summer months were brought to an end with the digging of the first potatoes after mass. A common saying in the region at the time was “The potatoes won’t be fit until Mountain Sunday”. People would have a large dinner of spuds, cabbage and bacon before they left home for the gathering. In contrast, one account from Carrigeen under the shadow of the gap stated that there was no tradition surrounding potatoes on this day.

People travelled to the base of the mountain by foot, horse and cart and into the 20th Century by bicycle. An account from the Killanne region in 1942 even notes people travelling from great distances by motor-car; such was the fame of the site! “Tourists” were noted in another account, again hinting at the gatherings fame. Carts were described in one account as being driven to the summit but most stated that these and bicycles were left in the farmyards of those in the foothills below. Huge crowds climbed up along the rough and weather beaten roads to the flat saddle where they would spend the afternoon. Boys were noted in one account as carrying girls over some of the rougher and rockier parts of the paths. The time of day varied between the accounts given; some said it was after first mass, others at 12pm. Issues of home security are not a recent thing as an account from 1942 states that at least one person had to stay home and mind the house.


One of the numerous paths leading to the Cooliagh Gap. This one faces towards the Carlow side

Competitive games were a major feature of the day especially athletics, pitch & toss, high jumps, long jumps, weight throwing and wrestling with great rivalries noted between those from the Carlow and Wexford sides of the mountain. The only account to mention football or hurling stated that these two games were not played. Faction fighting was noted in accounts from Kilkenny and Wexford mainly between groups of men from Wexford and Carlow however, other accounts state that it simply was not done.

As in most other gatherings music and dancing formed a major part of the day; first set dancing, then step, reels, hornpipes, double hop-step and then jigs. When people grew tired they would sit on the surrounding rocks and call on each other to sing. Ballads such as Kelly of Killanne were sung in unison and their “voices nearly [shook] the mountains”. Travelling musicians were always in attendance in its later years with fiddles and melodions removing the need to hire fiddlers something which was done up until c.1910. Some of the musicians were named in particular; “John Breen the fiddler” was noted as making an absolute fortune around the year 1890 from being hired for that day alone. “Dicks the Fairy” was another who was also a healer and a finder of lost things. “Old John Whitmore of Clonroche” was another fiddler with two sons, one who played the banjo and another the bones. Mickey Kiely was a poet and singer and a popular song of his was “A Lament on the Death of my Favourite Cat”:

“Poor Tom, he was a faithful cat and very full of tricks,

He’d throw himself upon his back and play with little sticks,

He’d sit all day upon the boss for fear I’d be alone,

And when I’d chance to go to Ross, he’d meet me coming home”.

Dancing boards were brought up to the site on the day also. People would take turns by region. The example was given as such: “people from Graiguenamanagh could be dancing first. A man from Ballygibbon would walk up, put money on the fiddler’s box and say “Hurrah for Ballygibbon”. Graigue people would then have to vacate the board and let Ballygibbon take the floor. Then a man from Graigue might throw money in the box and shout “Hurrah for Graigue”. Then Ballygibbon people would have to vacate and so on for Tomenine and Rathnure and whoever else would be dancing”.

People never brought food with them as travelling pedlars set stalls up on the site and along the route up selling fruit (apples & oranges), lemonade, ginger cakes and sweets (“Peggy’s Leg” was noted as a favourite by one informant from Borris). Children would save up any pocket money they had for the day. Some of these came from as far away as Enniscorthy and Graiguenamanagh and were noted for making lots of money and going back with empty carts. Orpen’s of Grange House, Wexford at the foot of the mountain told one informant that people used to ask for gooseberries on the way to the gathering which they would eat at the summit. It was not just legitimate vendors who sold their wares. “Smugglers” from Graiguenamanagh were also noted with plenty of poteen, beer and whiskey for anyone that wanted it. Of course the police and clergy didn’t mind any of this… they drank it too!

Some climbed up to Caher Roe’s Den the first spur to the northeast of the site. A great game was to search for the highwayman Caher na gCapaill’s treasure said to have been buried in a mythical cave at the site. While most of the sources state that the origins of the day were completely unknown, an account from Graiguenamanagh in 1943 stated that it was to commemorate Caher Roe and his execution in 1735.


The Cooliagh Gap today facing towards Caher Roe’s Den. A century ago this view was filled with people

Courtship and match making were important parts of the day. A great search was conducted by some lovers for an elusive white heather flower to be presented as a token. Young potential couples also used fraughan picking as an excuse to be alone. Many marriages were arranged as a result of this day especially between Wexford and Carlow boys and girls. A (possibly biased) account from Killanne, Wexford noted that Carlow girls were always on the look out for Wexford boys which often led to scuffles between them and Carlow boys but of course the Wexford lads always won! The Fenlon family were particularly noted for fist fights although they had died out by 1942.

Fraughan picking was another important activity especially for children. These were gathered in baskets and eaten on the spot or brought home for jam making. One account from Borris, Carlow describes how “mothers often raised their hands in despair when they saw their children’s clothes- summer suits and pretty frocks ruined by fraughan juice” (MS 890, p. 403).


Image from Hurley Binions (1997). Caption reads; “Girls day out, probably taken on Mountain Sunday c. 1937. L to r Lizzy Blackburn, Bridie Quigley, Eileen Murphy, Peggy Murphy, Cathy Morrissey. The man hiding in the backgrond is Jack Cooney, father of Sonny Cooney, Rathnure”

The mountain festivities ended (depending on which account you read) between 5:30-7pm or dusk but that was not the end of the day. People travelled downhill to the farmhouses at the foot of the mountain where talking, singing, dancing and games continued until the following morning.

There were no religious parts to the day apart from Sunday mass that morning although it was noted that the clergy very clearly approved because they mingled with the crowd and attended the house parties.

This centuries old event began to die out in the mid 20th Century. Indeed folklore from 1942 noted that the crowds were nowhere near the size they used to be. Another from 1954 stated that it was dying out over the previous 30 years and mainly kept by children who went fraughan picking. The Irish summer may have been a factor as in 1941 a group of boys and girls from Kilkenny passed through Borris on their way to the gathering but got soaked through. The last gathering at the Cooliagh Gap was held in 1977 at which there appears to have been a very small group (see image). Perhaps it is something that could be resurrected into the future?


Image from Hurely Binions (1997). Caption reads: “The Last Mountain Sunday, Ballybawn 1977. Included in this group are Mikie Ryan, John and Ann Creane, Mary Teresa, Sean, Patrick and Mark Creane, Nuala, Larry and Heidi O’Grady, S. Quigley, M. Doyle, D. Fenlon, C. Forrestal, W. Doolan”


Hurley Binions, G. 1997 1798-1998 Killanne Rathnure; A Local History. Killanne.

National Folklore Collection Main Manuscript 890, p. 401-405. Information collected by Máire Ní Lionáin in the Borris region in August 1942.

National Folklore Collection Main Manuscript 890, p. 413-431. Information collected by Tomás Ó Riain in the St. Mullins region in December 1942.

National Folklore Collection Main Manuscript 890, p. 495-510. Information collected by Cáit Ní Bolgubhair, Enniscorthy in September 1942.

National Folklore Collection Main Manuscript 890, p. 511-517. Information collected by C. Ó Ciarda from Séan Ó Murcada, Baile Cuisín in August 1942.

National Folklore Collection Main Manuscript 890, p. 537-543. Information recorded by Thomas Ryan based on information from his mother Bridget Murphy (nee Ryan) & Uncle James Murphy, Knockymulgurry in May 1943.

National Folklore Collection Main Manuscript 890, p. 577-579. Information collected by Laboise Nic Liaim from Bean Uí Matúin, The Rower in October 1942.

National Folklore Collection Main Manuscript 1344, p. 141-145. Information collected by J. G. Delaney from Walter Furlong (83), Rathnure who collected it from his mother when he was 23 (c. 1894) in September 1954.

National Folklore collection Main Manuscript 1344, p. 180-182. Information collected by J. G. Delaney from Mrs. Elizabeth Byrne, Rathnure (87) in September 1954.

National Folklore Collection Main Manuscript 1565, p. 81-82. Information collected by Ann C. Whelan from Mr. & Mrs. Richard Orpen, Grange Wexford in August 1958.

Saint Mullins Pattern Day

Saint Mullins, Co. Carlow is one of Ireland’s most picturesque and hidden gems. Named after St. Moling the founder of the a monastic settlement here in the 7th Century, the valley has been drawing people for both religious and secular reasons for over a thousand years. One of these draws was “The Pattern”, an annual gathering on the Sunday before the 25th of July which was known as “Sum-a-lins” Sunday. This tradition continues to the present day and a description of the range of activities carried out can be found over on the Pilgrimage in Medieval Ireland blog. Accounts from the National Folklore Collection describe similar activities a century ago as well as some differences.

Just as today the gathering was known as “The Fair” when people assembled on “The Green”, the area in front of the monastic settlement. They would then proceed either individually or in groups to the holy well where they would wash their heads and drink the water. Some recited the rosary stopping at each of the five stations around the well, one for each mystery. Water was also taken home in jars to be administered to sick family members or animals in the coming year. The well was noted for curing toothache’s headache’s and all head related ailments.

An old mill race said to have been dug by St. Moling himself is located near the site. An account from 1942 describes how people used to walk barefoot along the stream in the bottom of this mill race but that the tradition had died out by the time of recording.

A stroll around the graveyard within the church enclosure today shows that people have been buried here for centuries and is still in use. A century ago, visiting the family grave was a major part of the pattern day. Weeds were trimmed and flowers laid.

Children were treated on the day with sweets and fruits from special stalls. Those with a toothache were instead washed at the holy well for a cure. Dancing was a major part of the day as well as competitions like weight throwing. Some people went down to the River Barrow where they went boating or crossed the river to pick fraughan’s on the Kilkenny side (see some of my earlier posts for more traditions on fraghaun picking in the Blackstairs region). That night country dances were held all across the region with large crowds attending and staying up until morning.

There must have been a lapse in the activity at some stage in the 19th Century as one account collected in The Rower, Kilkenny (1942) stated that it had not taken place for at least 60 years. Weather on the day was renowned for being particularly wet and misty and noted in all accounts.

The last Sunday in July (tomorrow) was known as “Mountain Sunday” in the Blackstairs region. This was a hugely important festival in the Blackstairs region with many detailed accounts given to the National Folklore Collection, a post on which will appear tomorrow.


National Folklore Collection Main Manuscript 890, page 413-431. Information collected by Tomas O Riain in December 1942.

National Folklore Collection Main Manuscript 890, page 577-579. Information collected by Labaoise Nic Liaim from Bean Uí Matúin, The Rower, Co. Kilkenny in October 1942.

National Folklore Collection Main Manuscript 946, page 95-98. Information collected by P. O’Leary, Graiguenamanagh, Kilkenny from Cormac O Riain, Newtown Borris in February 1943.

Feature Friday: Upland Cultivation

Visit the Blackstairs and many of the Irish uplands today and what are the sorts of vegetation cover you see; gorse, ling heather, bracken, grasses, briars and mosses to name but a few. These vary in extent and colour with changes in seasons and intensity of land use. Step back into the 19th Century however and not only would you still see many of these species in their various cyclical stages but others also; potatoes, crops and vegetables, the products of cultivation. Population and economic growth in the late 18th-early 19th Century led to upland push in settlement and agriculture with more and more land being drained and cultivated either by small farmers, improving landlords or cottiers and labourers. Uplands provided plenty of space for over-populated communities to expand, especially where holdings were less than an acre and could not be sub-divided between children. Such a case favoured the landlord as it provided maximum profits from the poorest lands. In many cases a tenant cleared and improved the land which they farmed for a few years before being evicted and new tenants found, the most infamous Blackstairs case of which occurred at Coonogue in 1839.


Digging for Potatoes. Image:

The potato was the primary source of food for small farmers and labourers in pre-Famine Ireland grown by families for their own consumption rather than being bought. As conditions improved towards the end of the century, cereals and other crops were also grown along with vegetables such as turnips, peas and beans either for personal consumption or for sale at markets or to mills. Evidence for cereal and potato cultivation in the 19th Century Blackstairs come from a variety of sources; the landscape, folklore and documentary records.

Location of relic cultivation ridges in the Blackstairs Mtn.'s today

Location of relict cultivation ridges in the Blackstairs Mountains today. Many areas of former agriculture are now either covered with forestry, overgrown or ploughed out and removed during evictions or later land improvements

Linear parallel lines indicative of former cultivation are visible across many of the slopes, either enclosed within field systems and gardens or on the open mountain. Sods were dug with spades and turned to create a low ridge with a channel or furrow on either side for drainage. Seeds were planted in these ridges and manure and loose soil from the furrows piled on top. The following year the sod was turned again making the previous years ridge, into the furrow. Many of these cultivated fields were organised and worked on a communal basis. Strips of ridges were divided amongst the various households which then rotated every few years allowing each family the chance to have the best parts of the field as well as the worst. In many cases this prohibited improvements to the land as one families work could be lost to a less hard working family in the future.

Digging and turning the sod to form mounds of earth, allowed for crops to be grown on even the thinnest soils. Manure was sometimes provided by landlords in exchange for labour or by animals such as pigs or cows which were kept by some small farmers. This highlights the physical work that went into producing food for the household as manure would have to be transported from the lowlands. Some bigger farmers, especially towards the end of the century, had the luxury of ploughs pulled by horses, an example of which is found beside a ruined farmhouse in the townland of Coonogue.

Plough beside house ruin in Coonogue (230m above sea level)

Plough beside house ruin in Coonogue (230m above sea level)

Examples of these traces of cultivation are found across the range. Formerly cultivated field systems are found up to the limits of enclosure on the southern slopes of Tomduff, the area known as Shannon’s New Fields on the eastern slopes of Knockroe, the northern slopes of Blackrock Mountain and on the southeastern slopes of Mount Leinster in  the townland of Clorogue Beg suggesting communal work. A small garden enclosure next to the ruins of two cabins in the townland of Rathnageeragh contains the traces of ridges clearly visible in the differential heather growth indicative of personal consumption. Another example is found on the southern slopes Clorogue Beg, this time in a small field attached to a cabin site. An example of open mountain cultivation is found in the townland of Slievegar on the eastern slopes of Knockroe.

Subtle traces of cultivation ridges on Knockroe Mountain revealed after burning

Subtle traces of cultivation ridges on the open mountain in the townland of Slievegar revealed after burning

Ridges in the northern slopes of Blackrock Mountain (300m above sea level)

Ridges in the northern slopes of Blackrock Mountain (300m above sea level)

Ridges o

Ridges on the southern slopes of Tomduff (330m above sea level)

Census information gathered at the turn of the century also hints at crop cultivation with potato houses recorded on many farms. Numerous references are made in folklore from all around the mountain range to potato growing and cereal and vegetable cultivation. One reference even describes “mountain men” seen on the roads on market days heading to places like Borris and New Ross with kishes full of vegetables slung over their backs.

For another example of upland cultivation in the Cooley Mountains see the Louth Field Names Blog post here


Aalen, F. H. A., Whelan, K. & Stout, M. 1997 Atlas of the Irish Rural Landscape. Cork; Cork University Press.

Bell, J. & Watson, M. 1986 Irish Farming: Implements and Techniques, 1750-1900. Edinburgh; John Donald Publishers.

Daly, M. E. 1994 The Famine in Ireland. Dundalk; Dundalgan Press.

Ó Gráda, C. 1993 Ireland Before and After the Famine: Explorations in Economic History, 1800-1925. Manchester & New York; Manchester University Press.

Ó Gráda, C. 1994 Ireland: a new economic history, 1780-1939. Oxford; Clarendon Press.

Ó Gráda, C. 1995 The Great Irish Famine. Cambridge & New York; Cambridge University Press.

Póirtéir, C. 1995 “Introduction”. In C. Póirtéir (ed.) The Great Irish Famine. Cork & Dublin; Mercier Press, 9-18.

Whelan, K. 1995 “Pre and Post-Famine Landscape Change”. In C. Póirtéir (ed.) The Great Irish Famine. Cork & Dublin; Mercier Press, 19-33.

1901 Census Form B2

National Folklore Collection Main Manuscript 1669, page 8. Information collected by Thomas Ryan from the Knockymulgurry region in March 1959 from his mother Bridget Murphy (nee Ryan) & Uncle James Murphy.

Fraughan Sunday/ Coonogue Wood Pattern, Blackstairs Mountains

Following on from last weeks post on St. John’s Eve Festival events, today’s post marks the annual June 29th gathering in Coonogue Woods in the Blackstairs Mountains based on an account to the National Folklore Commission in 1942.


Fraughan berries

The pattern held at Coonogue woods took place either on June 29th or the first Sunday after that date. Crowds of young people would gather in the woods in the Scullogue Gap near the Carlow Wexford border. Fraughan’s, more commonly known as bilberry’s, the small black berries of the bilberry shrub, were picked giving the day the name of “Fraughan Sunday”. It was widely renowned for the fine weather which always came with the day. Games such as “Pited and tors” were played. Cans of fraughan’s were carried home for those who could not attend and for the older generations of the household as well as turf for the evening festivities

As night fell, bonfires were lit using the turf collected earlier at crossroads and boreen ends. Many farmers would light their own fires in the farmyards before the cows were brought in for milking. As the cows passed the fires, they were provided with protection from bad luck to themselves or their milk and butter. Dances were held near the communal bonfires by young people, the older generations sitting around the fire looking on. Many took a burnt stick from the fire home for luck. Crowds often walked from one fire to another often engaging in singing or pranks along the way The informant finished the account lamenting the loss of the event due to “The Tan War” (War of Independence).

The Blackstairs Mountains was renowned for its resource of fraughans throughout the 19th-early 20th century the subject of which was exhaustively researched by Michael Conry in his 2011 publication much of which was based on local interviews. Some of the most frequented sites were Coonogue Wood, Brandon Hill, the area south of Blackstairs Mountain, Cloroge, Blackrock Mountain on both sides of the range. People of all ages crossed the mountain range to their favoured picking sites collecting the berries in tins, cans and buckets. Graiguenamanagh became an important hub for the industry, exporting berries along the River Barrow to the fruit markets of London, Manchester and Wales (Conry 2011, 95).

If anyone knows what the game “Pited and Tors” refers to by a different name or how it was played please get in touch.


Conry, M. 2011 Picking Bilberries, Fraocháns and Whorts in Ireland- The Human Story. Carlow; Chapelstown Press Ltd.

National Folklore Collection, Manuscript Collection 890, p. 428-429. Information collected by Tomás Ó Ríaín, Knockymulgurry, Carlow & Graiguenamanagh, Kilkenny in the Coonogue region, December 1942.

June 1845: Famine strikes the Blackstairs

28th of June 2015.

The 170th anniversary of the date on which the potato blight, which brought about the Great Famine in Ireland, was first noted in the Blackstairs region outside Bunclody. So stated Phelim Kavanagh, Bunclody in 1946, 100 years after the event when providing information to the National Folklore Commission. Most other accounts in the National Folklore Collection refer to the Autumn 1845 although these were collected in the area on either side of the Blackstairs ridge further south. It is the Bunclody accounts on the northeast side of the range which are presented here.

First identified by black spots appearing on the leaves, heavy rain that year was blamed in the region for washing “the black into the spud”. In order to secure seed for the following year, potatoes which appeared to be safe were buried under beds in cabins. Many who opened the store the following spring discovered that these had turned black in the meantime. Blight returned to the crop in subsequent years also. Seeds from new potato varieties were imported from France called “Beldrums” which were similar to the Shamrock variety in the hope that these would be resistant to the disease. One day a man was digging in his field outside Bunclody when a passer-by hailed him asking him if the potatoes were good. The farmer replied;

“They’re small and round,

and scarce in the ground,

And very hard for to find ’em.

And they’re bitter and wet,

and hard to eat,

and the divil himself wouldn’t boil ’em”

The account also describes people dying in the ditches watching the crop fail especially malnourished children. Many of these were buried in graves with no coffins. Another account records the suddenness of the blights arrival; “It all happened in one night, one night the farmers were all laughing and the next day they were sitting in the ditches crying”. Kilmyshall was noted in particular for taking the remains of the dead. One Bunclody man, Martin Murray had the job of carting them for burial. Soup kitchens and yellow meal stations, opened across the country in an attempt to cope with the hungry, were also opened in Bunclody. Porridge made from the yellow meal was known as “Skilly” in the region. During the summer months praiseach (cabbage) and turnips were also added to the mixture. As things grew more and more desperate, people began to raid fields of turnips so large farmers began to set traps in gardens and hired gunmen to protect their fields. When disease struck the population, Dormer’s Mills on Mill Lane in Bunclody was used as a cholera hospital. Emigration to America was a fate for others in the Bunclody region, where ships were taken from New Ross. It was mentioned that some landlords payed the fares however a number of accounts from the south of the range state that this never happened. A Deacon living in Kilbrannish in the uplands to the west of Bunclody gave twenty places on a ship to America to assist the poor in their escape to new lives. Relief schemes on which the poor in the area worked included the construction of Barker’s Bridge, the cutting of Bunker’s Hill for the Chapel Road and the construction of the road to New Ross. Stewards on these schemes were noted as being particularly savage. People were paid 4p a day for their labour on these schemes whether they worked hard or did nothing.

The information here is from just two of numerous accounts of the Famine in the Blackstairs region collected in the early twentieth century by the NFC from the children and grandchildren of those who witnessed the event. These both compliment and contradict one another on a number of issues but the general trend that can be gleaned is that the Famine struck the area with greater impact than is often traditionally perceived for the east and south-east, often overshadowed in the literature by worse conditions in the west.


National Folklore Collection, Manuscript Collection 1159, p. 216-221. Information collected by Séamus S. De Bhál, Bunclody from Phelim Kavanagh (75), Bunclody (born 1871) in 1946.

National Folklore Collection, Manuscript Collection 1159, p. 221-223. Information collected by Séamus S. De Bhál, Bunclody from Paddy Thorpe (75), Bunclody (born 1871) in 1946.

Bonfires in the Blackstairs


The summer solstice, the longest day of the year is just behind us. An important festival in the northern-European calendar, it was often overshadowed in Catholic Ireland by the feast of St. John the Baptist. Noted as being born 6 months before Jesus, the date of John’s birth was set as the 24th of June. Bonfires were lit across the country either on the day itself or “St. John’s Eve” (23rd June). Folklore collected by the Irish Folklore Commission refers to a number of gatherings on this night in the Blackstairs region.

Known as “Bonfire Day” in the St. Mullins region, locals young and old would gather on the green on the evening of the 24th of June As night fell, a pre-prepared bonfire was lit by the young people on top of the Norman motte (not advisable for anyone considering resurrecting the festival!) fueled with bushes, branches and in later years, rubber tyres. The origins of the tradition were unclear to the participants although it was noted as having died out by the time of collection (February 1973). No special traditions such as singing or dancing were noted by the informant although they may well have taken place as they are noted at every other festival in the region for which there is information. The tradition was also noted at the northern end of the range in the area around Myshall and Rossard. Burnt sticks were taken from the bonfire the following day and placed in crop fields to “keep away the blast”.

The Blackstairs ridgeline from the summit of Slievebawn

The Blackstairs ridgeline from the summit of Slievebawn

A more detailed account was gathered from the Ballygibbon region in Wexford. Since the potato digging and hay harvest was coming the following month, people were in a celebratory mood making St. John’s Eve and Day the perfect excuse. As well as Ballygibbon, bonfires were lit on St. John’s Eve at the Grange Crossroads, Gurraun, Rathduff, Killanne, Ballybawn, and Monamolin. Walter Furlong was noted as having lit the biggest fire every year on top of a lime kiln in Monamolin.  Inhabitants of the slopes of Blackstairs and White Mountain also lit bonfires beside their own dwellings where they were visible from the surrounding area resulting in contests every year to build the biggest fire. Branches and bushes were burnt just as at St. Mullins as well as tar and oil barrels. John Breen, a timber cutter, was noted as being paid for supplying fuel. The oldest resident of the locality lit the bonfire at 9pm and dancing began with music provided by a fiddler. Around 10pm the older members of the community went home leaving the younger people (who would not leave until the early hours of the morning) to carry on the celebrations. Singing was another custom and as the fire died down, people would jump over the embers. Ashes from the fire were scattered over crops the following day. The custom was noted as dying out in the late 19th/ early 20th Century, first the communal crossroads and village gatherings followed by the longer lasting Blackstairs fires. The custom was also noted as having been carried out in the Bunclody region although no further information was provided.

St. John’s Eve and Day celebrations were not isolated instances as the summer was filled with gatherings and festivals probably helped in part by the increased number of travelling labourers in the region for the harvests as noted in a number of folklore sources. A pattern was held at Kiltennel, Carlow on the second sunday in June and another at Clonygoose on the third Sunday. After St. John’s Festival, June 29th and the following Sunday saw a gathering known as “Fraughan Sunday” in Coonogue Woods, Carlow. A pattern held at St. Mullins on 25th of July was followed by a Lughnasa festival gathering at the Cooliagh Gap on the Blackstairs ridgeline on the last Sunday in July, details of which will follow in future posts.


Collected by P.T. O’Riain from John Long and his wife of Rossard, Carlow in June 1940. Irish Folklore Commission Main Manuscript Collection 1063, p. 5.

Collected by Cáit Ní Bolgubhair from Mr. Myles Doyle, Ballygibbon, Wexford (85 years old) in August 1943. Irish Folklore Commission Main Manuscript Collection 959, p. 143-149.

Collected by C. Mac Niocláis in the Bunclody, Wexford region in August 1943. Irish Folklore Commission Main Manuscript Collection 959, p. 157.

Collected by John Moriarty, Glynn, St. Mullins, Carlow in the St. Mullins region in February 1973. Irish Folklore Commission Main Manuscript Collection 1855, p. 128.

Collected by Tomas O Riain in the St. Mullins region, Carlow in December 1943. Irish Folklore Commission Main Manuscript Collection 890, p. 413-431.