St Patrick’s Cabbage

In County Longford  the watercress plant was  traditionally known as St Patrick’s Cabbage.


Watercress  is  peppery tasting plant and was traditionally  an important food in Ireland.  It was also held to have medicinal properties.


Mac, Coitir, N. 2006.  Irish Wild Plands, Myths, Legends and Folklore.  Cork: The Coillins Press.

Some traditional St Patrick’s Day customs: Part 1

Tomorrow is St Patrick’s day, the feast day of Ireland’s National Saint.  This post will briefly look at some traditions and customs  associated with this day, such as the wearing of  symbols of the saint.

I have been reading  Irish Trees by Niall Mac Coitir, a wonderful book full of interesting folklore and mythology concerning Ireland’s native trees.   In the section on Sally or Willow trees , the author

Willow Tree (image Tree Council website)


refers to an old custom from  Cill Rialaig Co Kerry that relates to St Patrick’s Day.  On St Patrick’s day  the people would wear  a ‘cros cipín dóite’ or ‘cross of charred pin’.   The ‘cross’  was made  of burnt sally twigs and worn on the right arm.

Throughout the rest of the country it was and still is, a common practice for people to wear a plant called shamrock upon their person.

The wearing of a symbols for St Patrick on his feast day appears to be quiet an old tradition  Thomas Dinely in 1681 noted

The 17th day of March yeerly is St Patrick’s, an immoveable feast when the Irish of all stations and condicions  wore crosses in their hats  some of pins, some of green ribbons, and the vulgar superstitiously  wear shamroges[shamrock], 3 -leaved grass…. (Danaher 1972, 58).

Dinely provides the earliest accounts of  the wearing of the shamrock. According to folk tradition  the shamrock was used by St Patrick as a metaphor for the Holy Trinity during his missionary work.  The shamrock is not referred to in any medieval accounts concerning Patrick and the earliest written record of this tradition dates to the 18th century (Mac Coiter 2006, 38).

St. Patrick depicted with shamrock in detail of stained glass window in St. Benin’s Church, Wicklow, Ireland (Andreas F. Borchert [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (, CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 ( or GFDL (, via Wikimedia Commons )

In  1726 botanist Rev Dr Threkeld who identified shamrock as white clover and noted

This plant is worn by the people in their hats on the seventeenth day of March (Mac Coitir 2006, 38).



On St Patrick’s day the shamrock is normally pinned to a coat or jumper.


Dinely’s account also mentions the wearing of St Patrick’s day crosses. This is now an extinct tradition and refers to the wearing of homemade badge.  Mac Lir in 1890 gives an account of these  crosses  what they looked like and and how they were made

For a week or so preceding the National Festival, the grown members of the family are occupied in making “St Patrick’s Crosses” for the youngsters, boys and girls; because each sex have a radically different “Cross”. The  “St Patrick’s Cross” for boys, consists of a small sheet of white paper, about three inches square, on which is inscribed a circle which is divided by elliptical lines or radii, and the spaces thus formed are filled in with different hues, thus forming a circle of many colored compartments Another form of St Patrick’s Cross is obtained by drawing a still smaller circle, and then six other circles, which have points in the circumference of this circle, as their centre, and its centre as their circumferential point, are added; after which one large outer encompasses the whole, thus forming a simple and not inartistic attempt at imitating those circles or bosses of Our beautiful Celtic cross pattern. The many spaces, concave, convex or otherwise, thus formed are then shaded in; each a different hue and constitutes the “St Patrick’s Cross”….(Danaher 1972, 60)

He goes on to say that  little boys wore their crosses on their caps (Danaher 1972. 60).


St Patrick’s Day Cross , County Kildare (Danaher 1972, 61)


For the girls Mac Lir notes the cross

is formed of two pieces of card-board or strong thick paper, about three inches long, which are places at right angles, forming a cross humette. These are wrapped or covered with silk or ribbon of different colors, and a bunch or rosette of green silk in the centre…. (Danaher 1972. 60).

The cross was then worn pinned to the chest or shoulder  of the girl (Danaher 1972. 60).  Examples of these crosses are to be found in  collections of the National Museum of Country Life.


Badge and St Patrick Gallery.jpg

An example of a badge on display in the National Museum of County Life



There are other  old customs associated with St Patrick’s Day and I hope to discuss them further in another post.



Danaher, P. 1972. The Year in Ireland.  Cork: The Mercier Press.

Mac, Coitir, N. 2003.  Irish Trees, Myths, Legends and Folklore.  Cork: The Coillins Press.

Mac, Coitir, N. 2006.  Irish Wild Plands, Myths, Legends and Folklore.  Cork: The Coillins Press.

Tobarnalt Co Sligo, images from the past and present

Tobernalt is a very popular holy well in St John’s Parish, in Carraroe townland, a short distance from Sligo town. The well is regard by many as being a place of healing and  is visited throughout the year.

Below is a drawing of Tobernalt by William Wakeman in 1882.

Wakeman illustrated the Holy Well at Tobernalt on 23 July 1882 when it comprised of the mass rock and well. At the end of the 19th century another altar was added by the convent of the Sisters of Mercy, which was made from stones collected from the edge of Lough Gill (1).


Below is a photo of the well  taken  in the early 20th century.  The image is part of the Lawrence Collection.  It was likely taken by Robert French  who was the chief photographer of the collection and  responsible for photographing three-quarters of the Lawrence Collection.

Tobernalt Co Sligo

Tobernalt Co Sligo from the Laurence Collection in National Museum of Ireland


Many alterations occurred in 1921 through the work of the locals and Fr Divine of Carraroe. The great storm ‘Debbie’ destroyed much of the site in 1961 when two large trees fell. Restorations, new shrines and the construction of the small bridge were made that year (2).

I visited the site in October 2014 . Below are some photos of the well  from my visit. As you can see the well itself is pretty much the same but  the area around the well has been landscaped over the years. With the inclusion of stone steps and paths and a large grotto behind the well.


Tobarnalt Co Sligo 2014

Tobarnalt Co Sligo 2014 Image taken in the same direction as the image from the Laurence Collection.


Tobarnalt October 2014


Grotto behind the holy well at Tobarnalt 2014







Shopping list from 1919

I recently came into the possession of a wonderful  little notebook.  The book was used by a shop in 1919 to record customer purchases  bought on credit.


Sample page from shop notebook recording credit purchases.

The notebook  which is an example of the wonderful penmanship, provides a list of the purchased and  cost of goods.  It also provides a glimpse into  rural life in 1919.

The main purchases were candles, matches, salt,  tea, bread, tobacco, cigarettes, snuff and pipes with occasional purchases of eggs, starch, pipes, and polish.

It’s easy to forget that people in rural Ireland  would not have had access to electricity  in 1919.  Although many  towns and parts of cities were supplied with electricity prior to Independence many people did not get electricity until the 1940s and some till the 1970’s  (Mac Philib 2011).  So its easy to see why candles were  on everyone’s shopping list.

In modern Ireland we all know the dangers of smoking tobacco, so I was surprised to see cigarettes , tobacco and snuff mentioned so often and purchased by approximately 99% of the customers.  Snuff a rarity today was especially popular and  turns up on almost every page of the notebook.  Some people purchased it along with cigarettes.  I wasnt sure exactly what snuff  was.  I remember an elderly neighbour who I used to visit as a child  taking snuff which she kept in a small tin in her apron pocket .  According to Wikipedia Snuff is a smokeless tobacco  made from ground  tobacco leaves. It is inhaled or “snuffed” into the nasal cavity and was very popular .

Reading this book also  made me realize how self-sufficient people were.  There is never a mention of  dairy products, vegetable or meat.  In rural Ireland  most people had access to milk and butter they produced themselves and they also would have grown their own vegetable.  No mention of  treats such as chocolate or coffee which I certainly couldnt live without.


Mac Philib, D. 2011. Rural Electrification. A changed Ireland.


A St Brigit’s Day Tradition from Tipperary: St Brigit’s Ribbon (ribín Bríghud).

Today is the eve of St Brigit’s feast day.  There are many folk traditions associated with the saint  feast and the eve of her feast some of which are still carried out.  This post is about a St Brigit’s day tradition  that was carried out in my home  when I was a child. This tradition called the St Brigit’s Ribbon (ribín Bríghud).

When I was small each year on St Brigit’s eve my mother would hang a ribbon out the window.  The ribbon would be taken in the next morning and put somewhere safe to be used when needed as a cure for headaches.  It was in big demand as migraine seems effect a lot of my family.

Brat Bride on bush

St Brigit’s ribbon (image taken


Traditional used for the ribbon

My mothers had learned this ritual from her  mother and the Schools ’ Folklore Scheme (1937-38)  for our parish  records the tradition being practiced  in the area in 1930’s.  I can vaguely remember the  ribbon being laid across my head as a child when I had a headache but nowadays we stick  to painkillers.

Danaher  in his book The Year in Ireland. Irish Calendar Customs  also records the St Brigit’s ribbon custom.

Traditionally to cure a headache the ribbon

First, it is rubbed [the ribbon] or drawn around the patient’s head three times, saying  each time the invocation, ” in the name of the father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Amen,” after which it is knotted around the head.

The custom was widely documented around Ireland but with some local variations.  In other parts of the country the ribbon was known as Brat Bríde or Bratóg Bríde (St Brigit’s Mantle) (ibid.).

The power of the ribbon came from the general belief that the saint was out and about on her eve traveling around the country and  would touch the ribbon and endow it with its healing powers.  It was acceptable to use  a piece of linen, cloth, a sash or handkerchief or other garments.  Men would often leave out their belts, a tie or braces

to be worn if the wearer was engaged in any hazardous pursuit or journey to a  distant place; it is often thus worn by fishermen and many stories are told of how this fishing boa or that escaped the perils of the sea and storm because one of the crew wore the Brat Bríde (Danaher 1972, 33).


Although my family hung the ribbon out the window others laid theirs on the doorstep, window sill, a garden hedge or even over a low roof of a shed.  In some places in Munster  the ribbon/cloth was tied to the latch of the door so the saint would touch it when entering the house.

In my home the ribbon was used only for headaches but in other places  and in times past it was said to cure  sore throats earache,  bareness, help women in childbirth, ward of  the evil eye and protect children from  fairies.  It could also be used for  farm animal that  became ill the sign of the cross was made with the brat and it was then  laid on the animals back to ensure the saints intervention on its behalf.  It helped animals to give birth and have a plentiful supply of milk (Danaher 1972, 33).

This is just one of many customs that were carried out all over the county on St Brigit’s eve or day.


Danaher, K 1972.  The Year in Ireland. Irish Calendar Customs.   Cork : Mercier Press, 32-33.

Upcoming talk on St Brigit and Pilgrimage at the Triskel

Next Sunday is the feast day of St Brigit. On Friday  30th of January the Triskel Christchurch in Cork city will host   Free Lunchtime Public outreach talks  about different aspects of Brigit.  I will be giving a talk about St Brigit and pilgrimage  so if  anyone is about  call in.

Triskel 2

A pilgrimage for farmers : the blessing of water at St Dominic’s holy well at Esker, Co Galway.

Yesterday I attended a very unique pilgrimage  at Esker, Co Galway.  Each year on the 5th and 6th of January vast numbers of people from east County Galway attend the blessing of the waters at St Dominic’s holy well.

Unlike many other holy wells, St Dominic’s well is not associated with healing or  penance.  The pilgrims who come here  do not come say prayers or to leave offerings they come to collect the holy water from the well to take home to bless their fields, farmyards, homes and  animals.  The water is taken because it is believed to have special powers of protection and healing through its connection with the saint.


St Dominic’s holy well is located beside the Redemptorist  monastery in the townland of Esker a few miles east of the town of Athenry, Co Galway. The Redemptorist are  very much involved with the  pilgrimage and I have no doubt their interest and support over the years has done much to promote the continuation of this tradition.

Esker 3

Location map of St Dominics Holy well and the Redemptorist monastery (taken Google Earth)

History of the well and nearby monastery

Like many holy wells  we know very little about the history of  St Dominic’s holy well.  The well is dedicated to St Dominic the founder and patron of the Dominican order.  The Dominican’s first came to Ireland in 1224 initially they founded monasteries in Leinster and Munster and they establishment of their  first house of the Order in Connacht at Athenry (dedicated to St Peter and Paul) in 1241 . The Athenry priory

… escaped suppression in the Dissolution of Henry VIII, thanks to the Intervention of Deputy Anthony Sentleger who in a letter dated the 7th of July 1541 stated that as it “is situated amongst the Irishry … our saide sovereign lord shoulde have lyttle or no profit”, despite which the custos of the friary Adam Copynger, and his fellow-friars had to agree to change “their habit and wedes of a ffriar into a secular habit”. In 1574, however, Queen Elizabeth 1 granted the friary buildings and lands to the provost and burgesses of Athenry for 26/6 (£1.35) yearly.

In 1627 Charles I granted the priory to four Galway merchants as assignees of Sir James Craig (a Scotsman associated with the Plantation of Ulster) to hold it for the king. These merchants, however, were well-disposed towards the friars and the Dominicans were therefore able to re-establish themselves in Athenry in 1638. There followed a brief period of restoration work, the sacristy and perhaps the hagioscope/’leper squint’/ penitent’s cell’ in the south wall of the nave apparently being additions dating from then. In 1644, during the period of the Confederation of Kilkenny, the priory of Athenry was erected into a University for the Dominican Order by the decree of a General Chapter held in Rome.

Disaster befell the monastery in 1652 when Cromwellian soldiers wrecked the buildings, a record of which is to be found on a carved stone plaque dated 1682, now mounted in the north wall of the church (Rynne 2000).

Following the destruction  of the priory by  Cromwell’s forces the  surviving Dominicans left Athenry and came to Esker. While in hiding here they continued  to minister to the local people of the area.  Following  the relaxing of the penal laws  they built a monastery a short distance from the holy well.  The monks were gifted land by local landlord Daly of Dunsandle of 150 acres to help support them and their charitable works.

Stratford Eyre, of Eyrecourt, wrote a letter dated 3rd March 1731-2, to Primate Boulter which stated

“The friars of Athenry live at Esker near two miles from the Abbey on the estate of Thomas Power Daly, a Papist… The Protestants of this County are in by means of the power, influence and strength, the number and intolerable insolence of Papists who possess entire parishes and not one Protestant family in some of them” (Anon. no date).

The Dominicans remained here at Esker until 1896 and the monastery passed to the Diocese.



Dominic’s Hill Esker.


The Dominican’s were only in the area for 300 years but  the  townland of Esker  was often refereed to as Eiscir na mBrathar- Esker of the Friars and a hill overlooking St Dominic’s holy well  and the monastery is known locally as Dominic’s Hill.

In 1903  monastery was granted to the Redemptorist and  by this time the modern traditions of the well were firmly established.  Through the years the Redemptorist have continued to support the well as the  Dominicans did before them, and  today they still providing blessings of the waters both the 5th and 6th of January.


View of the Redemptorist monastery from St Dominic’s holy well.

The well is a small spring  and surrounded by a circular stone wall. The interior  is accessed by  a number of steps and two walls extend beyond the entrance.   In the 1930’s a doomed roof was added to the top of the earlier structure.  A large stone trough sits in front of the well.


St Dominic’s holy well Esker.


It is possible there may have always been a holy  well at Esker and when the Dominicans arrived  it  was rededicated  to St Dominic.  It is also possible that the well may have only come into existence following the arrival of the Dominicans.  While many wells  have medieval and prehistoric origins this is not the case for all,for example Fr Moore well in Co Kildare came into existence in the 19th century. So could the well date to the time of the Dominicans or has it more ancient origins?   We many never know the answer to this.

It is interesting that despite it dedication devotion at the well  takes place not  on the feast of Dominic  the 8th of August but  the feast of the epiphany.  No one is sure why the devotion at the well takes place in January or when it first began  but having spoken to a number of people in their 80’s  on my visit here on the 6th of January of this year,  they remember their parents and grandparents having  come to the well at this time of year.  This suggests the well and its current tradition was  established at least the middle of the 19th century,  if not well before (excuse the pun).  One lady I spoke with told me that local folklore told to her as a child,   stated that the famine had not been as bad in the area as elsewhere  and that the people believed that the  water from the well had kept them safe.

Modern Pilgrimage 6th of January

The traditional time  for visiting St Dominic’s well is any time from 12 midday on the 5th of January until midnight on the 6th of January.   Very few people venture here during the rest of the year.

On the morning of the 5th  additional troughs are placed beside the well  and along with the original stone trough  they are filled with water from the well.


Troughs of water at St Dominic’s well on the morning of the 6th of January.


On both pilgrimage days a mass is held at the church in the Redemporist monastery at which many people attend.  Following mass  there is a procession from the monastery to the holy well.


Church at the monastery

The procession heads out of the monastery and  along the main road for a couple of hundred metres.  This year  the procession was lead by Fr Michael O’Flynn.


Fr Michael O’Flynn leading the procession to the holy well.

The procession then turns in to a large field  were the well is located and  along a gravel path to the well.


Pilgrims walk along the path to the holy well.

Having arrived at the well the people wait until everyone has gathered.  A number of short prayers are said and the well and its waters are blessed by the priest. This year the blessing was performed by Fr Seamus Devitt.  As there were so many people present I was not able to  get close enough to photograph the blessing of the well.359All the pilgrims present brought plastic bottles and containers with them and following the blessing they  filled these container with the blessed water from the well.



Photo of the pilgrims taking water from the troughs in front of the well immediately following the blessing of the waters (photo take Redemptorist website)

A number of people I spoke with told me they had brought extra bottles with them to  distribute between  friends and neighbours who could not come along on the day. Many pilgrims do not attend the masses  or blessing of the waters and turn up in there own time during the day.


About half an hour after the blessing the  crowd  dispersed and  the  large stone trough in front of the well was all but empty.


The trough was full of water before the blessing of the water.

This  troughs  and some of the others, had to be refilled several times during the day.  This shows the volume of people and  the amount of water taken throughout the day,  luckily  the monastery has organised the water levels to be monitored and refill the troughs as needed.


The troughs being refilled in the afternoon of the 6th of January.


The 6th of January was an exciting day for this years pilgrimage as the  television station  TG4 attended and recorded the event  which  featured that night on Nuacht at 7pm.


Máire Ní Dhuibhire  being interviewed about the well  by TG4

It is difficult to know how many people came to the well over the two days but they must have been in their high hundreds.  I noticed a constant stream  of people come  and go  on the 6th.  As soon as one car left another arrived.


Pilgrims arriving in the afternoon for water from the well.

Having collected the water many go straight home but a sizeable  number of people drop into the church to say some prayers and visit the crib.

I was very luck to speak with a large number of people during the day  and to  discover how people use the water when they get home.

On returning  home the water is sprinkled in the farmyard and fields,  in cow sheds, much like Easter water is  spread on the fields on May’s eve.  The remainder of water is kept  throughout the year and used for sick animals  and for  cows  and sheep during calving and lambing.   A number of people told me of what they believed were cures of animals due to the waters of the well.  Others sprinkled the water during planting and harvesting of crops. Many people will use the water on farm machinery, cars, out buildings and homes.  One elderly gentleman I spoke with  told me  when he was young  he remembers people using the water to protect their farm/land and animal from curses.

I would just like to say a big thank you to everyone who took the time to share their stories of the well and to all in the Redemptorist monastery especially Fr Seamus Devitt and Patricia Wade for their kindness, generosity with information and  very welcome cups of tea.



Anon. (no date) Esker  (accessed 7/01/2015).

Maguire, S. (no date) ‘Athenry’ (accessed 7/01/2015).

Rynne, E. 2000. ‘Dominican Priory History’, (accessed 7/01/2015).

Redemptorist website

Link to the TG4  player containing  film of the blessing of the waters Link will only be live for the next 30 days