THE Aenach or Assembly has its origin in pre-Christian Ireland. The earliest accounts relate to the Ard Fheis at Tara, also known as the Aenach, held at Samhann, the beginning of November. Later the assembly had a role in the inauguration of the Ui Neill kings, who ruled the northern part of Ireland. The Feiseanna are described in the Book of Leinster and The Book of Ballymote which also refer to festivities, which we may assume were enlivened by the personal bards, harpists and athletes the chieftains brought along with them. In writings during the early Christian era the words Aonach and Feis become interchangeable.
As well as being an opportunity to pay tribute and dues to the king, the Aenach was a festive occasion of entertainment and athletic contest which, with the arrival of the Christians, also took on a religious role. Livestock was traded, but the village or town fair as we understand it today dates from Norman times.
The ceremonial installation of kings is specifically documented for the provincial kings of Tara, Eamain Mhacha and Cruachan. The term for this ceremony (feis ‘festival’) alludes to a pagan fertility rite: the king ’slept’ (foaid) with the tuath (earth).” Assemblies also had a role in interpreting laws and settling disputes. Bealtaine and Lughnasa festivals were common to Ireland and those areas in Britain and the Continent which had a common Celtic culture. French assemblies were recorded by Roman writers who, however, concentrated on their role in electing military leaders.
In his ‘History of the Celtic People‘ (1934), Henri Hubert, describing the political societies of the Celts, says: “there were hierarchies, hegemonies, assemblies.” In a footnote, quoting Livy and Jullian, he adds: “The first general assembly of Gaul was held at Bibracte in 58 BC, after the departure of the Helvetii.” Commenting on the four chief Irish feasts (the seasons): “These feasts were fairs, political or judicial assemblies, and also an occasion for amusement and games, some of which, such as the races, were of religious origin (the horse races at Tailtin and Eamain Macha, the races of women at Carman). Above all, they were religious assemblies.”
Two of the great Gaelic assemblies were known as Oenach Tailten (Tailtiu) and Aenach Carmen (Carmain). They coincided with harvest celebrations and were held around the beginning of August and are known as Lughnasa festivals. Both were held at the grave of a mythological goddess.
According to Máire MacNeill in her book The Festival of Lughnasa, Oenach Tailten was held at Tailten in Co Meath by a king of the north and west who claimed to be king of Ireland. Its history begins with entries in the early Annals and ends with the Norman conquest. It is believed to have survived as a peasant assembly until about 1770. In 1836, the people of Teltown, as it is called today, told John O’Donovan that games were staged there down to 1806.
In mythology, Tailten was also founded by Lugh, in commemoration of his foster mother Tailtiu.
Oenach Carmain was associated with the kingships of Leinster but its site is not known. “They were occasions for horse racing and many other diversions … but our knowledge of them comes from Christian times when they were given ecclesiastical sanction,” according to Maire MacNeill. Herbert commented: “Carman the sorceress, who came from Greece like the Fomorians, the people of the other world…” Peter Beresford Ellis (‘A Dictionary of Irish Mythology’) describes ‘Carmán as “a goddess who came to Ireland from Athens with her three ferocious sons – Calma (Valiant), Dubh (Black) and Olc (Evil). They laid Ireland to waste but were eventually overcome by the Tuatha De Danaan. Carmán died of grief and it is recorded that death ‘came upon her in an ungentle shape.” (Author’s note: As the people of Leinster celebrated Oenach Carmain up to the 11th century, is is possible she suffered a bad press from early Christian scribes).
Other assembly sites included Eamhain Mhacha, the principal site of the Ulaid which became deserted around the middle of the fifth century. Hubert adds: “in Conchobar’s time the goddess Macha, who had beaten the king’s horses at the races, died in giving birth to two children.”
In 575, Colum Cille attended an assembly at Druim Cett where, according to later legend, he prevented plans to expel the filid (poets) from Ireland. It is believed that there were also assemblies at Lough Gur, Co Limerick, at the O’Connor royal seat of Rathcroghan (Cruachain), Co Roscommon, and Oenach Téite, now Nenagh (still known as Aonach Urmhúmhan in modern Irish). At Uisneach in Westmeath the Bealtaine festival was held annually on May 1.
We know from the Brehon Laws that local chieftains or kings were also obliged to hold assemblies and according to historian Roy Foster, up to the beginning of the 17th century, in places where the tuath system still prevailed, “the great gatherings (were) held twice a year to transact business.”
From 1169 the aenach was only able to exist wherever the old Gaelic order held out, but in a much attenuated form. “Because of the overlap of venues – wells, lakes or high ground – calendar dates, customs and the willingness of the early Christian church to integrate Celtic festivals into religious ones (the feast of St Bridget is an often quoted example), there is wide acceptance that these festivals gradually became patterns, parish religious ceremonies with associated ’secular amusements’.” (Maire MacNeill).
In addition, old pilgrimage sites such as Mount Brandon on the Dingle peninsula Croagh Patrick and Glendalough were popular venues for patterns. “After the pilgrims had climbed to the summit of Mount Brandon (on Crom Dubh Sunday), they descended on the eastern side of the mountain to assemble for a great patron at Cloghane on Brandon Bay where games, athletics, vaulting over horses, dancing, singing and courtship took place, accompanied by feasting and faction fighting.” (Pilgrims in Ireland, Peter Harbison.)
By the 16th century the festivities were a major aspect of the patterns, so much so that by 1660 the Catholic church was bringing them under its sphere of control.
In the early 18th century a drive was under way in the diocese of Killaloe to suppress the pattern. “A statute of 1703 imposed a fine of 10 shillings or in default of payment the punishment of whipping, upon every person ‘who shall attend or be present at any Pilgrimage, or meeting held at any Holy Well’. It also imposed a fine of £20 upon every person who shall build a booth or sell ale, victuals or other commodities at such pilgrimage or meeting. And In 1777 the bishops of Cashel province decided that patterns, “along with wakes and night-time dances” were to be hindered by exemplary punishments and exhortations.” However it was not until the 1820s that serious action was taken against the patterns in Killaloe diocese.” (‘The Diocese of Killaloe in the 18th Century’, by Ignatius Murphy). The Penal Laws of the early 18th century further legislated against patterns.
One account, by Sir Arthur Chichester, in a letter written to the Privy Council in 1609, talks of 15,000 people foregathered on the island (of Clonmacnoise) “and some say there were many more”. Incidents such as occurred at Inis Cealtra on Lough Derg and recorded in O’Donovan’s Survey in 1838 probably didn’t help. At the annual pattern held at Whit weekend “three brothers of a family of O’Briens, who resided in the county of Clare, within view of the island, used to frequent the patron at which they conducted themselves, it is said, in a most disgraceful manner. On one occasion, one of them carried off a young girl by force from it; whom he afterwards detained till he had three children by her.”
But it was the faction fighting of the 19th century that gave the excuse to the church and the crown to outlaw the pattern. This phenomenon is described in ‘The Faction Fighters of the 19th Century’, by Patrick O’Donnell, Anvil,1975.
Faction fighting lasted from the beginning of the 19th century to the Famine. What started out as cudgel contests and sporting rivalry ended up in brutal animosity. (The fondness for cudgels most likely stemmed from the times recruiting officers from the French army roamed the country selecting men for foreign service. As swords were banned, sticks were used for fencing practice.)
Favoured venues for faction fights were race meetings and fairs, in fact anywhere large numbers of people assembled, which included the patterns. The fights became a social valve for anger and aggression at a time when the Act of the Union had left the people leaderless and powerless. But they also led to scores of deaths and condemnation by the British establishment, the Church, Daniel O’Connell and the Land League.
The most vicious faction fighting took place around Tipperary, Limerick and Kerry. The most violent fight took place in 1834 at Ballyeagh, near Listowel, when 20 men were killed. But they were not always vicious affairs, as evidenced in an account of a faction fight or cudgel contest in Connemara published also in 1834. The author, HD Inglis, is regarded as a hostile writer on Ireland, but his account of the pattern of Maumean, in contrast to Thackary’s derisive account of Croagh Patrick, serves as the best account of an 18th century pattern.
On arrival at the Maumean 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.” 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 in1855.
Decline of the Pattern
While faction fights and drinking were given as the reason for the clergy abolishing the patterns – or those patterns with a festive element – in the first half of the 19th century, a certain amount is due also to growing popularity of devotional Roman Catholicism. Brought to Ireland by the Jesuits in 1598, Children of Mary, for example, had become “one of the largest lay religious organisations in the world.” In mid 19th century Ireland its female members were not to be associated with the unrespectable courtship rituals of fairs or Sunday dances.”
Kevin Danaher observed: “Although it is true that many of these local celebrations had degenerated into debauchery, it is also unfortunately true that in the course of the 19th century, when ‘Victorian’ respectability had for many of both clergy and laity assumed the sanctity of moral law, many quite harmless customs were discouraged or forbidden because they offended the sanctimonious.
In ‘The Faction Fighters’, Patrick O’Donnell wrote: “The bishops eventually forbade patterns as being occasions of sin rather than holiness, marked by orgies of drinking, sexual laxity and faction fighting. But the factions continued to fight elsewhere.”
but perhaps Kevin Whelan, writing in Irish Popular Culture, 1650-1850 (Irish Academic Press, 1998), comes closest to describing the decline of the pattern:
“Throughout Europe in the late 18th century élite groups began to distance themselves from popular culture. In Ireland the sharpening political divides sundered the links, especially in the late 18th and early 19 centuries. the old allegiances – to calendar custom, hurling, cock-fighting, horse-racing, hunting, patterns, wakes, traditional music, dancing and poetry, public drinking, abduction – fade and wither in the face of (this) modernising thrust. In a way, once the Catholic big-farm families had disengaged themselves from this culture (oral, local, archaic and pre-modern), it inevitably withered and died or disintegrated into disorder and riots without the social discipline and patronage to regulate and replicate itself.”
Religious patterns continued in Ireland up to the middle of the 20th century. The pattern survives today in few instances: St Bridget’s Well, Liscannor, Co Clare, holds its pattern in mid-July, continuing its religious and festive tradition. An entirely religious pattern is attended by thousands in August at Lady’s Island near Carne in south Wexford. Revived patterns include the religious one at Maumean and one on Inis Mór which has a largely festive element.
* A folk memory account of the Maumean pattern in Connemara was given in Irish by Micheal O Tuathail, Leenane, in An Timire 1985:
“There’s every likelihood that there was a ceremony there in pre-Christian times and this was adapted to a Christian format. It seems there was a connection between Maumean and the pagan god Crom Dubh because the day was called Domhnach Chrom Dubh.”
In any case Maumean was one of the largest patterns in the area from the middle ages to the start of the present century. It was the custom for people to make a “Turas”, a pilgrimage. (There are written accounts elsewhere of people walking to the Maumean pattern from as far away as Spiddal and Moycullen). It must be remembered that there was no church, priest or religious structure in Conamara at that time. So that if people or their livestock had an ailment, or they came safely through danger or famine, they would make the journey out of gratitude to God.
“Often they would make the pilgrimage by night or at the break of day. when that was complete the pattern would commence with music, “scleip” and dancing. It wasn’t all festivity. The men of the highlands and lowlands would trade furs, carrageen and fish for oil, knitwear and other such items. Matchmakers were present and many a marriage was made there.”
See Also: The Festive Tradition
© Ronan Nolan. 2000-10.