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 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).
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).
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).
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.
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.