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.