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.
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.
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.
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).
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?
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.