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.

Blackstairs at Bealtaine

“Man is weary waiting, waiting for May,

Waiting for pleasant rambles,

Through the fragrant hawthorn brambles” – Walter Furlong, September 1954

Today, May 01st, marks the feast of Bealtaine, the arrival of summer and a day steeped in folklore. Many different traditions and customs were practiced in the past on this day. In a superstitious world full of balances, May split the year in half between two feasts of Samhain (Halloween). Given the beliefs associated with Samhain and the arrival of winter, it is no surprise that Bealtaine held a similar position of importance and folklore which has been lost in the last century. The following is some information recorded in the National Folklore Collection held in UCD relating to the feast day in the Blackstairs Mountains region. It was collected in September 1954 by the full time collector J. G. Delaney from two sources; Mrs. Elizabeth Byrne, Rathnure, Wexford who was 87 at the time (born 1867) and Walter Furlong, Carrigeen, Wexford aged 83 (born 1871). Mr. Furlong, whose information is much more detailed, noted that the feast was very important in his youth. By the time of collection many of the traditions and customs associated with Bealtaine seem to have died out in this region so it is not as rich a resource as in other regions. Information was also collected by P.T. O’Riain from John Long (70) and his wife of Rossard, Carlow in June 1940 (born 1870), J. G. Delaney from Patrick Leary, Rathnure, Wexford (71) in August 1973 (born 1902) and E. Mac Niocláis in the Bunclody region, Carlow/ Wexford in June 1947.  For more folklore and history of the feast elsewhere in Ireland, you can check out other blogs such as Irish Archaeology or Vox Hiberionacum.

May 03rd saw the arrival of the hiring season for labourers in Wexford so the feast of Bealtaine gave young people the chance to celebrate and relax for a few days before the busy summer. Workers on the Carlow side didn’t seem to get any break however as the Borris Hiring Fair was held on May Day. Cattle and sheep were also bought and sold at these fairs.According to E. Mac Niocláis, a fair was also held in Bunclody on May Day which was known as “Ladies Fair”. Here young women would dress in their best in anticipation for a June wedding (see below) just as occurred in the “spotting fairs” in the West.

May Day traditions from across the country and in the Blackstairs show that it was considered ill advised to give or throw away butter, fire, dew from the fields and many other objects on this day as to part with such objects was to part with luck. This did not seem to transfer to money as rents had to be paid by May 01st.

Despite their proximity, the tradition of having people on the land on May Day contrasted greatly between two sources which noted it. Mrs. Byrne in Rathnure noted how neighbours were invited over by farmers to walk the land. Mr. Furlong in Carrigeen, stated that it was very unlucky to have people on the land on this day. He also warned that wells had to be watched on May Eve and Day for fear of the local fairy women who “were able to work some divilment”. Unwary farmers could have the top of the well skimmed by this woman. In doing so she took their butter for the year through the magic of transfer and no matter how much the milk was churned it would not form butter. He recalled how his father and Jim Kehoe of Tomenine, Wexford were in a pub in Aughtiegemore (sic.) on May Eve one year. As they were “walking home they saw an old woman sitting beside a well. “What are you doing there this time of night” says Jim. “This is a fine airy place” says she. “Airy as it is” says he “we’ll give you a bath” and he thrun (sic.) her in body and bones”. John Long recalled how his family fell foul of such magic when his family lost their butter to a fairy woman who took grass from their field. His mother walked into the cowhouse one May morning to find what looked like butter with milk dripping from it hanging on the piece of wood where the cows were tied up to be milked. She threw it in the fire out of suspicion but in the coming weeks no matter how much she churned, she could get no butter from the milk. She went to the parish priest who told her to put only salt and water into the churn and to place the Gospel of St. John underneath. She did this and got the butter back!

Both Mrs. Byrne and Mr. Furlong noted that there were no traditions of moving cattle or sheep to the upland grazing pastures on this day specifically as in other regions. The Bealtaine tradition of driving cattle between two bonfires to ward off illness or bad luck found in other parts of Ireland was something Mrs. Byrne noted as having no memory of in her childhood either. What Mr. Furlong did remember was that cattle were brought into the cowhouse and sheep into the farmyard where they were blessed with holy water called “cattle water” which was specially blessed for purpose by a priest in the days preceeding. This act protected them from illness and harm for the year. Bonfires in the Blackstairs were reserved for St. John’s Eve (23rd June) according to Mr. Furlong however they are recorded as having once occurred in the Bunclody region by E. Mac Niocláis, the tradition long dead by 1947.

Given that the month was considered magical and full of the supernatural there were many traditions associated with luck and prophesying some of which were recorded by Mr. Furlong. Farmers whose livelihood  depended on the weather, looked to the skies during this month as “A wet and windy May, fills the haggard with corn and hay”. May was the month people looked forward to and dreaded as it sealed the faith for some of those who might be sick at the time; “March will search, April will try and May will tell if you live or die” (“May kills and cures” recorded by E. Mac Niocláis. And for those who were considering tying the knot “Marry in May, rue the day” (no marriages in May also recorded by E. Mac Niocláis).

One of the few customs Mrs. Byrne did note was that a branch from a mountain ash was cut on May morning and placed over the cowhouse door for luck. She also recalled how fields were blessed and some farmers also had the priest bless their water. Farmers would also walk the land by walking diagonally across each field from one corner to another and then walking between the other two corners forming the shape of the cross in the field. Holy water was sprinkled with a feather as he did this. She noted that no prayers were said during this process but the farmer would bless himself as he entered each field. The blessing of the fields was done ten times a year on other feast days but Mrs. Byrne did not remember on which days the practice was carried out other than Bealtaine. Mr. Furlong stated that it was fairy butter that was placed at the cowhouse door on this day for luck.

Altars were set up in the house on this day devoted to The Virgin Mary as May was known as “Mary’s Month”. Children would pick primroses to be placed on the altar. A May Bush was also put up on this day by decorating a hawthorn with candles, ribbons, egg shells and flowers. Once evening fell the candles were lit and locals would gather together for music and dance. John Long stated that this hawthorn bush was cut and placed on a dung heap before being decorated. It was then carried around the fairs such as Borris by children who asked for money just as occurred on “Wren’s Day” (26th December). E. Mac Nioclais recorded how children would carry the May Bush from house to house collecting money in the Bunclody region. In the town itself every street had its own tree and holly formed an alternative for those who did not have access to a hawthorn tree.

And in a world full of superstition, what of the fairies? Mr. Furlong noted that as May saw the arrival of summer, poorer weather such as strong gusts of wind were considered the actions of “the good people” or fairies. He recounted how he was working one May day in a field with another man named only as Nick. Suddenly a north wind began to blow in from the Blackstairs Mountains above them which he referred to as a “hurl wind” which you could see plainly with the eye. “Here’s the shee-gee” says Nick. “What’s that” says I. “Never mind” says he “but stay away from it”. It was 30ft high and cone shaped with the point on top. The field they were working in had a gap in the middle of the hedge leading to a lane. The wind crossed the field and passed the gap but doubled back on itself and made its way out onto the lane. “If the divil is not in that” says Nick “he’s nowhere”.


National Folklore Collection Manuscript Collection 1063, p 7-8. Information collected by P.T. O’Riain from John Long (70) (born 1870) and his wife, Rossard, Carlow, June 1940.

National Folklore Collection Manuscript Collection 1097, p. 243-244. Information collected by E. Mac Niocláis in the Bunclody region, June 1947.

National Folklore Collection Manuscript Collection 1344, p. 178-179. Information collected by J. G. Delaney from Mrs. Elizabeth Byrne, Rathnure, 87 (born 1867), September 1954.

National Folklore Collection Manuscript Collection 1344, p. 262-263. Information collected by J. G. Delaney from Mr. Walter Furlong, Carrigeen, Wexford 83 (born 1871), September 1954.

National Folklore Collection Manuscript Collection 1796, p. 470-476. Information collected by J. G. Delaney from Patrick Leary, Rathnure, 71 (born 1902), August 1973.

St. Bridget’s Day in the Blackstairs

Today, St. Bridget’s Day/ Lá Fhéile Bríd or Imbolc, is traditionally the first day of spring although winters bite is still definitely in the air and snow lies on the mountains. Given the importance of the calender event, the day and night was steeped in custom and tradition in the past. The following information from the National Folklore Archive was mainly collected by Cáit Ní Bolgubhair, Rathnure, from the people of the village in the foot of the Blackstairs in June 1942 (as the Battle of Midway took place on the opposite side of the world) along with smaller accounts from Rossard and Bunclody:

A Novena was begun in the households of the locality on January 23rd in preparation for the day. By 1942 the day was only marked by a mass in honour of St. Bridget however; the oldest man in Rathnure at the time, Mr. William Graham (86 [born 1856/7]) had a number of stories about St. Bridget’s Day eve which were told to him by his father who died 50 years before [1892] aged 93 [born 1799]. According to Mr. Graham’s father, St. Bridget’s Day was celebrated in every household in the district. Just after sunset on the 31st of January, the man of the house went out and cut a bunch of rushes with a reaping hook and hid them outside the house until feast time that night [time unspecified]. When the feast time arrived he would go back out and collect the rushes and walk around the house clockwise – the direction of the sun. When he reached the open door, the family inside knelt and listened to his petition: “Go down on your knees, open your eyes, and let St. Bridget in”. The family would respond with “She is welcome, she is welcome”. He repeated his circuit, petition and response twice more. On the third circuit he entered the house, put the rushes under the table, said Grace and invited his family to dinner. After they ate, the rushes were put in the middle of the floor and the family sat around making crosses.

When the family went to bed, the man of the house collected a garment of clothing for each person in the house and hid them outside. This was done so that St. Bridget and her holy women would find warm wraps on their journey to visit all those who honoured her. The door of the house was also left open that night so they could come inside and warm themselves by the fire. (The version of this custom is slightly different to that recorded elsewhere in the country. See Pilgrimage in Medieval Ireland’s post for example)

The following day, St. Bridget’s Day, the crosses were blessed and hung in each room and outhouse. P.T, O’Riain noted that in the Rossard area, the garments that had been hung out the night before, were known as the Brat Bríd or St. Bridget’s Day ribbons and were used to cure any pains.

According to C. Mac Niocláis, Bunclody (Feb. 1942) the tradition of making Bridget’s crosses had died out at that stage also. The crosses that had formally been made were diamond shaped and made from straw with a grain of corn set in the middle. These were then hung from the rafters with a nail. When sowing of the crops started on the land, the grain was taken from the cross and placed in the first bucket of seed. The crosses were never removed and you could establish the age of a house by counting the number of crosses in the rafters.

Another old custom remembered in the Bunclody district at this time was that of the “Brídeóg”. These were made locally from a large turnip like a jack-o-lantern. The eyes, nose and mouth were blackened with soot or shoe polish. People would dress in old clothes and go from house to house asking for money “for the Brídeóg”.

The Birth of Spring

The Dandelion and the delicate anenome were believed to be Bridget’s flowers. The linnet was commonly known as “Bríd’s little bird” as it is one of the earliest spring songbirds. The year’s agricultural work was started on this day as the farmers turned the sod in preparation for sowing crops. It was believed that starting on this day would make the crops prosper. Fishing also started in the rivers, in Rathnure’s case, the River Boro, which continued until October.

A St. Bridget story told in the Rathnure locality

There are many stories and traditions associated with St, Bridget which most of us will remember from school or our families. The following was one such story told to the children in the locality at the time:

St. Bridget was a dairy maid in her youth to a druid who had 12 cows. When she made the butter, she split it into one large and twelve small parts in memory of Christ and the Twelve Apostles. She gave the large part to the poor or strangers as she believed Christ was in every beggar and wanderer. The druid found out and suprised her one day by demanding the butter he knew she had given away. She told him she would get it from the kitchen and went in alone and shut the door. She began the following prayer, “O my sovereign Lord, Thou who give increase in all things, bless O God of unbounded greatness, this storehouse with they right hand. My storehouse will be a storehouse of bright testimony; the storehouse which my king shall bless; a storehouse in which plenty shall abound. The son of Mary, my beloved one, will bless my storehouse; this is the glory of the whole universe, may that glory be ever multiplied and be given unto Him”. She carried the butter to the druid and there was so much that “if the hampers which all the men of Munster had possessed had been given to her she would fill them all”. The druid said to her “Both the butter and the kine [cow] are thine, thou shouldst be serving not me but the Lord”. She gave the cow to the poor and the druid and his wife were Bridget’s first converts.

Bridget – The Name

In the three accounts of St. Bridget’s Day all refer to the widespread use of the the name Bridget in the locality. Girls with that name were often nicknamed Bridgie (pronounced “Brudgie” in the Bunclody district)Breda, Bride or Bridie.


Information collected by C. Mac Niocláis, Bunclody (Feb. 1942). MS 907, p. 162-165.

Information collected by Cáit Ní Bolgubhair, Rathnure from children and people of the district (June 1942). MS 907, p. 166-181

Information collected by P.T. O’Riain from John Long & his wife from Rossard (Jan. 1940). MS 1063, p.5-7

“God bless the work”

“If a person visited during the [butter] churning, they had to say ‘God bless the work’ and help for even one turn”

The above was stated by John Long and his wife (unnamed) of Rossard, Bunclody, Co. Wexford in conversation with P. T. O’Riain in June 1940. Here now in January 2015 you find yourself visiting this site as I churn out a thesis and hopefully this old custom of support and wishing for divine intervention still survives.

The visitor was also required to help even in a very small way in order to bring the job to fruition. Over the last number of years desk-based and field survey have identified a huge number of features on the ridges, peaks and slopes of the Blackstairs that have previously been unrecorded, which are altering our understanding of this and similar landscapes elsewhere in Ireland. Mountains (and certainly the Blackstairs) are not the product of nature going unchecked and left to its own devices, Instead they are fragile landscapes with thousands of years of human impact which has fluctuated between intensive use and abandonment over time to give us the patchwork landscape we see today. The deep scars left by centuries of turf-cutting, the ruins of former homes and temporary shelters, the network of trackways in various states of visibility and the myriad of field walls across the slopes which enclose areas of dense heather and gorse and have themselves become overgrown with peat are testament to this. Most of these are post-medieval in date and and probably pre-date the Famine period and the ensuing rural depopulation. As these sites are so late in date, there is still a social memory attached to many of them even right down to the names of those who occupied or used them.

Collage 2.jpg

Some of the features you might see in the Blackstairs. Field walls and sheep passes (example Knockroe); standing stones (example Dranagh; Megalithic tombs (example Knockroe Portal Tomb); Hut Sites (example Blackrock Mountain); Cairns (example Knockroe summit); House Structures (example “The Tower” Barracks, Knockymulgurry)

I reiterate my earlier call for assistance with any information on the Blackstairs Mountains in the past that you might have. Themes that have been identified so far include:

– agricultural activity (crops, potatoes, sheep, cattle

– settlement (where houses were located, who lived in them)

– any traces of transhumance/ booleying the seasonal movement of livestock up to the mountain for the summer months where they were tended to by herders who would build shelters for themselves (Documented and recorded in many uplands but unidentified so far in the Blackstairs except in one possible case)

– Quarrying activity

– turf-cutting activity

-movement (and the methods) and the mountains as a facilitator of traffic and communication rather than a barrier

-the Famine, relief schemes and their effects.

Ballycrystal 1839

Field walls (red lines) and houses (blue dots) recorded on the First Edition Ordnance Survey Maps overlain on modern satellite imagery in Ballycrystal to the south east of Mount Leinster give an idea of the former extent of settlement and agriculture in the uplands

Similarly the Blackstairs is a landscape which is under constant alteration; in the short term due to sudden events such as fires; the seasonal with vegetational growth patterns; and the long term with forestry management and changes to land use or erosion. These changes both mask and reveal archaeological features and in some cases only for a very short window of time. So if you find yourself in the Blackstairs, keep your eyes peeled for anything that may be of archaeological significance from small artefacts such as clay pipes right up to prehistoric field systems that may appear out of eroding peat.


Clay pipe stem identified on turf-cutters trackway on the slopes of Knockroe during Carlow Walking Festival 2014

Without recording this information it will either be lost or become confused over time. A huge amount of information and leads have been provided already and I wish to thank all those who have provided these. The people on the ground are the key to understanding the past and without that this project would have hit a dead end a long time ago. Hopefully now you can help see it through to the end.


The varying modern and historic extents of field systems in the uplands


National Folklore Collection, MS 1063, page 27. Information provided by John Long and his wife of Rossard, Bunclody, Co. Wexford to P. T. O’Riain. June 1940

Thanks and Happy New Year


Another New Year is upon us but before we hurtle into it I want to first say thanks to everyone for following this site. The wordpress stats were released recently and they put it into perspective by saying that:

“A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,200 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 37 trips to carry that many people.”

So thank you for making those 37 trips possible and hopefully there will be even more this year!

IMG_4697Also a special thanks to Vox Hiberionacum and Greenside Up for being the top referring sites after facebook and twitter!

Christmas in the Late 19th/ Early 20th Cen. Blackstairs

Wishing everyone a Happy Christmas and all the best for the New Year.

As you settle into the rhythm of the Christmas customs, here are some that were carried out in the Blackstairs region around 100 years ago. Some you might recognise while others you may not.

The following information was submitted to the National Folklore Commission in February 1945 by Cáit Ní Bolgubhair of Rathnure. She notes how some of the customs were still in use at that time but others were not and she got her information on these from Mr. Myles Doyle (85), Ballygibbon, Rathnure and Mrs. Elizabeth (Eliza) Forrestal (87), Grange, Rathnure. It is interesting that some of the traditions she notes as having died out (decorating the outside of the house, Christmas candle in the windows) have been revived today.

Dates and Days

The days leading up to and following Christmas were given titles to mark their importance: “Christmas Eve”, “Christmas Eve Night”, “Christmas Day”, “Christmas Night”, “St. Stephen’s Day”, “The Children’s Christmas” (28th December), “Women’s Christmas/ Little Christmas” (06th January), “Twelve Days of Christmas” (26th Dec-06th Jan).

Most of these are self explanatory and still in use today but Children’s Christmas is not a term in common usage anymore. This day was so called as it was believed that this was the date on which the “Holy Innocents” were massacred by Herod and so they were celebrated, remembered and prayed for. Little Christmas was so called as the feasting ended that day.

Superstitions on Sickness and Death at this time

It was believed that sickness and disease waned on the approach to Christmas due to the power of the feast and the weather. There was an old saying: “A green Christmas makes a fat churchyard. A white Christmas makes a lean churchyard”. It was also believed that anyone who died around Christmas went straight to heaven as it was open to all souls from noon on Christmas Eve to New Years Day.

Decorating the House

People worked until midday on the 24th of December. The remainder of the day was then spent decorating the house both inside and out. The custom of decorating the outside had died out by 1945 beyond whitewashing and cleaning the yards. Inside was cleaned, whitewashed and all the surfaces were scrubbed down. Pictures were cleaned and replaced and then decorated. Holly with berries was put around the pictures and on dresser tops. Ivy was wound around a piece of cord and holly was pushed through this and tied with ribbons. The cord was then fastened to a nail and hung from one corning of the ceiling diagonally to the other. The same was done in the opposite direction making the shape of the cross on the ceiling. Mistletoe was formerly used but its use had died out by 1945. Boys procured the plants and girls made them into decorations. Everything was taken down the day after Little Christmas. Plants were burned and the ribbons were kept for the following year.

Christmas Shopping

People visited the local towns for their Christmas shopping where they bought currants, raisins, flour, apples, beef, ham, tea, sugar, whiskey, wine, biscuits and always asked for their “Christmas Box”. This contained sweet cake and a bottle of either whiskey or wine. Toys were also bought for the children of the household.

Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve was a fast day at this time when people abstained from meat. In its place butter and eggs were eaten or ling fish.

The man of the house went out and procured a Yule Log on Christmas Eve and put it behind the fire. This was a thick branch or a piece of the trunk of a small tree (no tree in particular was favoured). This was then lit on Christmas Day (see below).

Local men and boys gathered in the pubs on Christmas Eve Night and “got merry”. There was drinking and singing throughout the night and their shouts and laughs could be heard across the countryside as they made their way home.

The women of the house would spend the night at home by the fireside staying up until well past midnight. Men always returned to their own homes rather than neighbours houses as Christmas was a night for home. There was no tradition of a midnight mass in this district as there was in many other areas at this time.

Christmas Candle

Cáit notes that the tradition of lighting a Christmas candle had died out in the Rathnure area by the time of her recordings but that it had been practiced up until 80 years previous (c. 1865). People would make their own candles from mutton fat. They were around 2 foot long and yellow in colour and one was placed in every window of the house. They were then lit by the woman of the house at 11PM on Christmas Eve Night. They were left burning until 3AM Christmas morning Their purpose was to honour the birth of Christ at that time. (I wonder were they also useful to guide the merry boys and men home!)

Animal Traditions

A lamp was formerly lit in stables and cow houses on Christmas Eve Night but this tradition had died out by 1945. The purpose of this lamp was to light the stable for the Holy Family in case they decided to stay for the night. Donkeys were believed to kneel at midnight in honour of the birth of Christ. (It was not in Cáit’s account but we were told as children that cattle speak to one another at midnight and praise the birth). It was lucky to hear a cricket chirping on this night. It was also said that cock’s crow before midnight on Christmas Eve Night. Cáit notes how she herself heard cock’s crow at 8, 9, 10, 11 & 12PM on this night and at other unusual times during the day before 6PM. (check the post on St. Martin’s Day traditions to see the fate of cock’s crowing at unusual hours).

Cards, Presents and Santa Claus

Gifts were given to neighbours on Christmas Eve. These would include butter, eggs, fowl, toys in Christmas stockings and books. Children would hang a stocking at the foot of their beds in the hope that Father Christmas or Santa Clause would pay them a visit.Thankfully he did seem to visit without fail as he still does today bringing sweets, cakes and toys. At that time he came in through the window and left through the chimney.

People used to send cards on Christmas Eve s that they would arrive on Christmas morning but changes in the postage rules brought a stop to this. Instead they began to be sent in the days and weeks before.

Religious Observances

The first mass Christmas morning was at 6AM and then at different times during the day from district to district. In the Rathnure area, people went to first mass which was immediately followed by second mass and then third a few hours later. Each was slightly different. Adeste Fideles and other songs were sung at first mass. The Benediction of the Blessed Sacrements was held after third mass. The sounds and conversations outside churches on this day would not be unfamiliar to us today. Before and after mass, people would greet one another with “Happy Christmas” which was responded to with “And many happy returns”.

Food and Christmas Dinner

Breakfast was eaten after mass and as it was a special time of year it consisted of sweet cakes and tea.

Pig’s head was formerly eaten for Christmas dinner followed by a  bowl of tea for dessert. By 1945 turkey, goose or chicken and plum pudding had become the main menu. Biscuits were eaten as an evening meal during the entertainments (see below).

A cake was made in the days before by the woman of the house with currants and raisins. In some houses a ring was put into the cake and the person who found it would be the first to be married. Poitín was extensively made in the region and every house was sure to have a bottle for Christmas but by 1945 this was replaced by whiskey or wine.

The Yule Log

The Yule Log which had been procured and placed behind the fire on Christmas Eve was taken out and put in the fireplace Christmas morning. Lots of turf was placed around it and a big warm fire was built. It was not allowed to burn away entirely as a piece was kept to light the Christmas log the following year. Cáit notes this as being a very old custom by 1945 and that the log was always lit with a piece from the previous years log. Burning the log was believed to keep evil spirits away from the house for the year. The ashes from a yule log fir were very lucky and they protected the house from lightning or fire. If they were put on crops they would not decay or rot. They were also seen to have curative properties and were rubbed on swollen glands and chilblains.


In a time before televisions and the widespread availability of board games, people had to look to other forms of entertainment to brign their families and neighbours together. Football and hurling were played during the day especially by boys. Games of cards were then played in the evening along with music, singing and dancing in rooms lit by fire and candlelight.

It appears that Christmas Eve was a time for family only while Christmas day was spent with neighbours and friends.


National Folklore Collection, Main Manuscript Collection MS1085, Pages 357-364. Information collected and compiled by Cáit Ní Bolgubhair, Rathnure for the National Folklore Collections Questionnaire on Christmas traditions 1944-45. Based on customs still being carried out at that time. Accounts of earlier traditions were provided by Mr. Myles Doyle (85), Ballygibbon, Rathnure and Mrs. Elizabeth (Eliza) Forrestal (87), Grange, Rathnure.