The pattern or pátrún was celebrated in practically every parish in Ireland from the middle ages to the mid-19th 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. See 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 1682:
“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 monuments …”
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 festivities.
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 followers.”)
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. 2000-10.