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Wednesday, August 16, 2017
Date Posted:

Rome harnesses folk superstition to revolutionise the religion of Ireland

The Enslavement of a Nation: the Romanising of Ireland
Dr Clive Gillis

An advertisement appeared in the Irish Catholic Directory for 1873 respectfully informing the “Roman Catholic Clergy of Ireland and Heads of Religious Houses and Convents etc,” that the advertiser:

          “is able to offer them a large and se­lected stock of Religious Goods such as Lace pictures for Prayer Books; Beauti­ful Emblems embroidered on rice paper, and others printed... sheets of hearts red, blue and purple, small and large Stations of the Cross in Oil Paintings ... Mortuary cards in sheets printed by the hundred ...Scapulars .. . The best incense of Jerusa­lem guaranteed to be of the same quality used in Rome ... Brass and Silver beads and medals; Pearl Crosses and medals for school distribution ... Pictures, Medals and Statues of Our Lady of Lourdes ... Handsome crucifixes in coppered bronze or gilt, also in plastic and ivory ... Altar lights, Cruets, Ornamental chapels carved in wood for private oratories, Holy Water fonts, Large Statues in plaster and terracotta, small statues in French plastic and biscuit, Candlesticks in bronze and sil­vered glass, Cribs in plaster and plastic of every size and price ... Infant Jesus in wax, hearts, crowns and monograms. Ar­ticles of Paris for Bazaars. N.B. Orders by post punctually executed and for­warded to any part of Ireland carriage free when amounting to £6. Large Statues and Heavy Bronzes excepted.”

It seems hardly surprising, at first sight, that such trappings of Romish superstition should be offered to such an intensely Roman Catholic population. Were Rome’s Irish holdings not saturated with them?

But there are a few puzzling features. Why French plastic? Why the Virgin from Lourdes, still a new French phenomenon? Why articles from Paris? And why should the advertiser, operating from East Quay Dublin, be supplying the whole country, even transporting large bronze statues over hill and dale? Were there not local suppliers everywhere?

The supplier was French, Monsieur Gueret of Maison Francais in Rue Duguay Trouin in Paris. He was set to make a fortune from his new Dublin enterprise because Roman Catholic Ireland had only just awakened to such superstitions and the demand was immense.

Only one candle

The truth is that Ireland is not a venerable Roman Catholic country. Before romanising Archbishop Cullen appeared on the scene, in 1850, the largest party among the RC hierarchy were happy to live under British Rule from Dublin Castle, and they had very bare and unornamented churches. A few more decades and Protestantism would have rendered them inconsequential. When Cullen took possession of his RC cathedral in Armagh in 1850 he ranted, “It is a miserable hole, and no provision made for anything,” with only one candle at each altar for low masses.

The new devotion

However what we may call a Devotional Revolution took plae after 1850.  The result was that, “within a generation of the great famine (1847) the great mass of the Irish people became practising (Roman) Catholics”.  Another expert says, “During this period (1850-1880) … the repertoire of Irish Catholics was extended to include such novel elements as retreats, benedictions, the forty hours, stations of the cross … sodalities, confraternities ... medals scapulars, beads”. The culmination was the appearance of Our Lady at Knock in 1879.

Sissy Fogarty

Where did this sudden explosion of converts to Roman devotional practices come from? Mary Carbery toured Limerick in 1904. There she engaged farmer's daughter Mrs Fogarty, nee Sissy O'Brien, in conversation. Sissy described the amazing superstitions of her childhood, the banshee Aine and her brother Fer Fi the dwarf, the fairies inhabiting hollow hills, the drowned city in the enchanted lake and much more. Mary was amazed at the belief system of “old Ireland” and urged Mrs Fogarty to publish her childhood recollections.

Mrs Sissy Fogarty was a socially privileged person and for her, “holy days (were) when all but necessary duties were excused and we flocked into the world of faith which to Catholics is almost as real as the earthen world in which we live ... the Paradise of Saints and Angels is a wonderful and beautiful country,” entered, “by way of the Church, to keep a feast day with the people of that land”. The saints, were, “people like mother and father ... of whom we could ask favours in our prayers and to whom we could talk in our minds ... this was a place of no fear ... of heavenly sunshine where we picked ... invisible small flowers, feathers from the breasts of birds of paradise, a downy plume from Gabriel’s wing”.

The Old Irish world

But Roman Catholicism meant little to the ordinary farm workers, who were the majority of the people. The maids could not get out into the world like Mrs Fogarty could. She recalls that they, “were thankful for the holy days and went to mass,” but otherwise they inhabited, “the old Irish world where fairies, witches and banshees took the place of our angels and saints”. Mrs Fogarty adds, “We children were forbidden to pry into that magic place ... a third world fraught with danger was going on all round them ... God be between us and harm was ever on their lips ‑ if a red haired stranger came to the door, a cock crowed during the day, a heedless girl swept the floor towards the door or forget to nip (break a small piece from) the cake”.

For protection from the Little People “the maids strewed primroses on the threshold of back and front doors, hung bunches of rowan in the cow byres while the head dairy woman sprinkled holy water in mangers and stalls … The milkmaids at the end of evening milking stood to make the sign of the cross with froth from the pails, signing themselves and making a cross in the air towrds the cows.”

All visitors were feared, “for who could tell they were not witches or Little People in disguise … to weave an evil spell around house and family”.

Sean O’Suilleabhain’s book Irish Folk Custome has a set of grainy photograph of once commonplace features of this other world.  Spades are crossed over a new grave to Protect it from Little People, cursing stones lie ready to repel enemies like eggs in a box, single trees stand untouched in the middle of fields because the Little People live beneath them and would brook no disturbance.  Most terrifyingly the Little People could steal a child or adult and leave a spirit replacement, the changeling, destined to pine away. Any ill child particularly, but adults also, were at risk of ill treatment or even having their life taken, “to chase out the changeling,” or, “put the fairy out”.  As late as 1895 Bridget Cleary was burnt as a changeling by her concerned husband’s family.

The Pattern

Despising and mocking Rome, such workers clung to their own customs particularly the Pattern and Wake. Pattern is a corruption of Patron, whose name was bestowed upon a site considered to have magical or “holy” powers usually a well or ruin. Three thousand of these still survive. Thought to possess supernatural powers, Pattern Day drew folk from far and wide.  The well was circled by barefoot or kneeling pilgrims reciting prayers or incantations. Crosses and marks were scratched on nearby rocks and votives, such as pins and other small objects, were deposited at the well or bits of cloth were tied in festoons to nearby trees.  Sometimes cattle would be brought to drink, to protect them from disease.  English travellers in County Cork described the Pattern’s riotous social aspect: “their devotions over . . . they retired to tents ... some to eat and drink, others to wrestling, yelling, dancing ... with noise, merriment and boxing bouts”.  Another in 1829 described the “strong beer and maddening whiskey for wranglers and busybody open‑doored booths filled with lovers, bagpipes and fiddlers making music,” while the pilgrims had not even finished “making their stations around the well”. Sissy’s head dairywoman would have certainly got her holy water from the Pattern, not from a church.

The Wake

The wake was similarly riotous. The deceased remained prominently in the room to which all relatives, neighbours and friends were invited. Vast quantities of whiskey were drunk and tobacco smoked. Fear that neglect of the deceased would lead to subsequent revenge from the grave, ensured that the corpse remained guest of honour to be lavishly entertained and heartily mourned by ‘keening’ ‑ sung verse interspersed with repeated indescribable wailing and shrieking. The corpse was given a pipe of tobacco in the mouth, a glass of whiskey in the hand and was even dealt a hand of cards or dragged on to the dancing floor. “Contests of agility and strength, taunting and mockery of individuals, mischief making, booby traps, rough games and fighting,” were all intended to please the corpse. There was also “an explicit assertion of sexuality,” with, “games to pair off young people”. In frimsy‑framsy, “a chair, or stool is placed in the middle of the flure and the man who manages the play sits down ... and calls ... the prettiest girl.  She comes forward and must kiss him. “Come now fair maid – who’s your fancy? She then calls them she likes best and when the young man comes over he takes her place,” and so on until all the young are paired.  Mock marriages at which couples would “sing songs and coort were numerous as were older pagan games such as Making the Ship, which involved grossly immoral miming. Other games mimicked and mocked the priests and even Christ’s passion.


Rome had formerly railed against these practices, repeatedly anathematising participants. The Diocese of Cashel and Emly was informed in 1800, “it being our indispensable duty to suppress by every means in our power the very indecent practices…. at wakes... we condemn and forbid plays and amusements against modesty ... which are in mock imitation of the sacred rites of the Church ... especially the (mock) celebration of marriage ... from spiritual communion with the Church. We cut off or declare cut off all persons who shall assist at, promote or be guilty of immodest plays at wakes or of amusements wherein the ceremonies of the Church ... are Profaned ... All heads of families ... encouraging such abominations ... as scandalous obstinate sinners are to be publicly reprimanded from the Altar and deprived of the sacraments”. But as the Devotional Revolution swept these alienated folk into Churches, Rome had to discreetly absorb these practices or wink at them.

Rome the great talisman

So what caused the Devotional Revolution?  Undoubtedly the Great Famine of the late 1840's decimated the world of “old Ireland”.  Feared, malevolent forces were perceived to have triumphed. The old superstitions had proved themselves ineffective. A new talis­ man was needed for the future ‑ and Rome stepped into the breach. Sire was a gigantic good luck charm. Also the world of “old Ire­land” was not exportable to the Irish ghettoes in the world’s great cities where the huge Irish diaspora was mushrooming. Further­more the priests promoted the belief that the British, at best by negligence or at worst by malign intent, had sought to exterminate a whole people. This kindled a desire for a new unmistakable Irish identity ‑ the complete reverse of Englishness. A Dominican monk said in 1872, “Take an average Irishman – I don’t care where you find him ‑ and you will find the very first principle in his mind is I am not an Englishman because I am Catholic!”

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