The Festive Tradition
The pattern or
pátrún was celebrated in practically every parish
in Ireland from the middle ages to the mid19th century. Essentially a
religious event associated with holy wells, lakes or high ground,
pattern day was also an important social occasion in the rural calendar.
It has its origins in pre-Christian times and its festive aspect bears
many similarities to the aenachs or assemblies of the old Gaelic order.
History of the Patterns
In 1834, English author
Henry Inglis left us a vivid account of a large pattern at Maumean in
the Connemara Maamturk mountains:
"It fortunately happened, that on the second day of my sojourn at
Ma'am, a very celebrated pattern was to be held, on a singular spot,
high up amongst the mountains, on a little plain ... on an elevation of
about 1,200 feet ...
"The ascent to the spot where the pattern was to be held was
picturesque in the extreme, For up the winding way, for miles before us
and for miles behind too, groups were seen to be moving up the
mountainside - the women with their red petticoats, easily
distinguishable; some were on foot, some few on horseback, and some
rode double. About half way up, we overtook a party of lads and lasses,
beguiling the toil of the ascent, by the help of a piper, who marched
before, and whose stirring strains, every now and then prompted an
advance in jig-time, up the steep mountain path."
(At a gathering north of Lough Allen in Co Leitrim in more recent times
people also marched up a mountain to the playing of musicians -
melodeons, fiddles and flutes, according to folk historian Maire
MacNeill in her book The Festival of Lughnasa).
On arrival at the summit Inglis was invited into one of the scores of
tents ..."and the pure poteen circulated freely." However, one word led
to another and a faction fight developed between the Joyces and others.
Inglis is less judgmental in his account than others. He describes the
fight, how five or six "were disabled: but there was no homicide".
After the "scrimmage" which lasted ten minutes "some who had been
opposed to each other, shook hands and kissed; and appeared as good
friends as before".
Maire Mac Neill quotes from a local Maam song composed by a Joyce:
"And with no thought of it on the morrow
But to have a return bout on that day next year."
Donnybrook Fair shared many of the festive elements of the patterns.
However it was a fair after the Anglo Norman tradition, closer to St
Bartholomew Fair in London than the Irish pattern. Frowned upon by the
authorities, condemned by middle class writers for its "drunkenness and
debauchery", it did share with the patterns the dancing, music,
courtship and drinking which, in the growing moral climate, led to its
abolition in 1855.
One of the earliest references to music at assemblies is contained in
the old Gaelic poem, Dindsenchas. Describing Oenach
Carmain in the 11th century, the translators comment that the
amusements included music on instruments, tales of all kinds and
displays of various kinds of knowledge. According to one widely
distributed translation, there were references to "trumpets, harps,
hollow-throated horns, pipers, timpanists unwearied ... fiddlers,
gleemen, bone players and bagpipers." The crowd "noisy, profane,
roaring and shouting." (Before the invention of the violin at the end
of the 17th century, European gypsies were sometimes called "fiddlers").
But soon the Gaelic order was in retreat. The erosion of Gaelic culture
was given legal force with The Statutes of Kilkenny in 1366. As time
passed the English establishment was to by joined by the increasingly
Romanised Church in discouraging popular peasant festivals.
According to Kevin Danaher, "Ecclesiastical authorities tried to keep
these matters under control. For instance the Synod of Tuam in 1660
decreed that dancing, flute-playing, bands of music, riotous revels and
other abuses in visiting wells and other holy places were forbidden,
especially at times of indulgence."
A pattern at the chapel of St Eyen on the side of a hill overlooking
Loch Derravaragh, Co Westmeath, was described by Sir Henry Piers in
"For ale sellers in great numbers have their booths here as in a fair
and to be sure the merry bag-pipers fail not to pay their attendance.
Thus in lewd and obscene dancing, and in excess drinking, the remainder
of the day is spent as if they celebrated the Bacchanalia rather than
the memory of a pious saint or their own penetentials; and often times
it falls out that more blood is shed on the grass from broken pates and
drunken quarrels when the pilgrimages are ended than was before on the
stones from their bare feet and knees during the devotions."
The Glendalough pattern, celebrated on June 3, was made famous by
Joseph Peacock's 1813 painting, a detail of which is shown above,
courtesy of the Ulster Museum. But it is best known for Sir William
Wilde's description of the scene in the 1820s as the festivities were
about to be broken up by faction fighters:
"Dancing, drinking, thimble-gigging, prick o' the loop and other
amusements, even when the bare-headed venerable pilgrims, and
bare-kneed voteens were going their prescribed rounds, continued.
Towards evening the fun became 'fast and furious': the pilgrimages
ceased, the dancing was arrested, the pipers and fiddlers escaped to
places of security, the keepers of tents and booths looked to their
gear - the crowd thickened, the brandishing of sticks, the 'hoshings'
and 'wheelings', and 'hieings' for their respective parties showed that
the faction fight was about to commence among the tombstones and
The Glendalough pattern was revived on one occasion. In 1951 Eamon de
Buitlear, Diarmuid Breathnach and others organised a one day 'pattern'
there and among the musicians playing there was the late Willie Clancy.
What went on inside the large tents erected at patterns can be gleaned
in this piece by Crofton Croker writing about Gougane Barra in 1813:
After dining on Kerry salmon "we whiled away the time by drinking
whiskey punch, observing the dancing to an excellent piper, and
listening to the songs and story-telling which were going on about us.
"As night closed in, the tent became crowded almost to suffocation, and
dancing being out of the question, our piper left us for some other
station, and a man, who I learned had served in the Kerry militia, and
had been flogged at Tralee about five years before as a White-boy,
began to take a prominent part in entertaining the assembly, by singing
Irish songs in a loud and effective voice. These songs were received
with shouts of applause, and as I was then ignorant of the Irish
language, and anxious to know the meaning of what had elicited so much
popular approbation, I applied to an old woman near to whom I sat, and
found that these songs were rebellious in the highest degree. Poor old
King George was execrated without mercy; curses were also dealt out
wholesale on the Saxon oppressors of Banna the blessed (an allegorical
name for Ireland); Buonaparte's achievements were extolled, and
Irishmen were called upon to follow the example of the French people."
The Gaelic diarist Amhlaoibh O Suilleabhain visited his local pattern
at St James Well, close to Callan, on July 26, 1829 with his three
youngest children. "There were gooseberries, currants and cherries for
children; ginger bread for grown girls; strong ale and maddening
whiskey for those who wanted a row, and for those who tried to make the
peace; open booths full or courting couples: bag-pipers, and fiddlers
playing music there for the young people: and pious people doing the
rounds at the well. I left with my children at six o'clock. There were
respectable, well-dressed crowds coming from every direction."
(Translated by Tomás de Bhaldraithe).
W St J Joyce describes a pattern at Tallaght in Neighbourhood of
Dublin: "St Melruan's patron or 'pattern' was every year celebrated
here from a remote period on the 7th July, but in later years the
original saint's name was lost sight of altogether, and replaced by the
corrupt form 'Moll Roonay', under which title the 'pattern' continued
to be annually held, until it came to be such a nuisance, owing to
drunkenness and debauchery, that it was suppressed in 1874. The
proceedings consisted in making a kind of effigy, supposed to represent
the saint, and carrying it about from house to house in procession,
headed by a fiddler or piper. The occupants of each house then came out
as they were visited, and danced to the music after which a collection
was made to be spent on drink. Few went to bed that night; many slept
in ditches on the way home, and drinking and dancing and fighting went
on intermittently until morning. Another item in the performance in
recent times was to visit the grave of an old village piper named
Burley O'Toole, who had expressed a dying wish to that effect, and to
dance and fight around his grave.”
There was no such debauchery near Lahinch in west Clare, where on the
last Sunday in July, a pattern was held at St Bridget's Well. According
to an account published in 1814 by Archdeacon James Kenny. "When the
ceremony is over they amuse themselves until morning by dancing and
singing etc. They then (on Sunday morning) repair to Lahensey, distant
from this well at least three miles, to conclude their merriment"
That well, known as Dabhach Bhríde is situated about 250
feet above the sea, on a slope which stretches up from Liscannor Bay to
the Cliffs of Moher. Islanders from Inisheer, known locally as
Aranachs, would row their currachs to nearby Doolin to attend and their
singing throughout the night was one of the features of the
In the earlier part of this century, Sean MacMathúna
recalled that in earlier times pilgrims from Connaught used to come to
St Bridget's Well - they were nicknamed "The Red Petticoats". "And
often there would be a dance in one of the houses nearby". People would
go to the Cliffs of Moher "where there was a great day of dancing and
music and great festivity for the tourists who came there on the "Long
Cars" from the Spa and from Lahinch." On the beach at Lahinch there
would be horse-racing on the sand and carnival games.
In her summary in Festivals at Lughnasa, Maire
MacNeill wrote: "In most accounts, the religious ceremonies complete,
fiddlers, pipers and later on melodeon players performed. Dancers
competed while others formed dancing circles. Songs were sung,
sometimes by balladeers, other times a circle of young men and women
took turns to sing a verse. On many occasions, people returning from
the pattern would go to house dances in local farmhouses.
“The pattern was also an occasion for young people of both
sexes to make acquaintance, the young men showing off their athletic
prowess and the young girls colourfully dressed."
She also had this unusual custom from Gortahork, Co Donegal. An old
lady told the Folklore Commission in 1942 that she had heard
descriptions of old patterns where, after bilberry picking, "a man or
maybe a girl would be picked to sing a song. The melody would begin
then and would go around from one to another, and anyone who had a note
of music at all in his or her head would have to keep the fun going.
After the singing they would begin the dancing. According to the old
talk, they had no instruments for music at all; they had to make do
with lilting. "
At another Donegal pattern, Rosguill Peninsula, "Young men competed in
dancing and the one adjudged the winner could then choose any girl he
wished to be his wife. The decision often led to fighting..."
At Myllyash, Co Monaghan, where the pattern still existed in the early
1940s: "Sports were held ... There were dancing decks there too for
jigs and reels. Dancing at these hill-top gatherings were usually, it
would seem, a performance by one, two or three dancers at a time." One
old person added: “And the best dance of all would be a three
part reel. A boy would go out in the middle and dance two girls time
about and together. He’d birl them one way then another and
make figures of eight out of them.”
At Corleck Hill, Co Cavan, “factions backing champion dancers
were liable to fall out and fight.” (MacNeill).
At Carrickbyrne Hill, Co Wexford. “After the day’s
outing, a dance was always held in one of the farmhouses near the Rock.
One farmer gave the dance one year, another the next.”
Carrickbyrne maintained its appeal right down to the middle of the 20th
century. A verse from a local ballad draws the picture:
And Jimmy King the fiddler
How we gazed on him with awe
When he'd take his ancient fiddle
And the bow across it draw.
The girls and boys in patience
Would sit awaiting for their turn
To dance 'The Star of Munster'
on the Rock of Carrickbyrne.
Michael G Crawford gave the
Folklore Commission this account of the Ram Fair, Greencastle, Co Down,
towards the end of the last century: "The famous Shillelagh Dance was
executed to the music of the Irish bagpipes by a number of men armed
with sticks, who crossed and re-crossed them, placing them in different
positions relative to each other, and presenting the most complicated
figures imaginable. (Maire MacNeill comments: "As described, it
resembles the traditional dance still performed in County Wexford, one
of the areas most thoroughly dominated by the Norman invaders and their
The great piper John Cash for many years played at the pattern in the
barony of Scarawalsh in north Wexford. A certain class of horse race is
still referred to in Ireland and Britain as a "pattern race." Finally, The
Pattern Day is a double jig listed in the Roche Collection. © Ronan Nolan. 2000.
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