Category Archives: Northern Ireland

Custom demised: Visiting Downpatrick’s wells on Midsummer’s Eve, County Down

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Midsummer is a time often associated with visiting wells. In the July 1817 Hibernian Magazine it is reported:

“At Struel, near Downpatrick, there is a ceremony commencing at twelve o’clock at night on Midsummer Eve. Its sacred mount is consecrated to St. Patrick ; the plain contains three wells, to which the most extraordinary virtues are attributed.”

The account continues:

“Here and there are heaps of stones, around some of which appear great numbers of people, running with
as much speed as possible ; around others crowds of worshippers kneel with bare legs and feet as an indispensable part of the penance. The men, without coats, with handkerchiefs on their heads instead of hats, having gone seven times round each heap, kiss the ground, cross themselves, and proceed to the hill ; here they ascend, on their bare knees, by a path so steep and rugged that it would too difficult to walk up. Many hold their hands clasped at the back of their necks, and several carry largo stones on their heads. Having repeated this ceremony seven times, they go to what is called St. Patrick’s Chair, which are two great flat stones fixed upright in the hill ; here they cross and bless themselves as they step in between these stones, and, while repeating prayers, an old man, seated for the purpose, turns them round on their feet three times, for which he is paid; the devotee then goes to conclude his penance at a pile of stones, named the Altar. “

The report concludes by stating:

“While this busy scene is continued by the multitude, the wells and streams Issuing from them arc thronged by crowds of halt, maimed, and blind, pressing to wash away their infirmities with water consecrated by their patron saint, and so powerful is the impression of its efficacy on their minds, that many of those who go to be healed, and who are not totally blind, or altogether crippled, really believe for a time that they are by means of its miraculous virtues perfectly restored.”

Image result for downpatrick stoole "st patrick's chair"

Francis Dixon Hardy in his 1840 Holy Wells of Ireland provides greater details;

“About one mile and a half to the east of Downpatrick, and within about half a mile of Slieve-na-Grideal, one of the most celebrated of the ancient Pagan high places is a hill of about 150 feet of perpendicular elevation, called Struel Mountain, which remains uncultivated, producing a little mixture of grass and shamrock, with a few hawthorns, and an abundant crop of furze. At the foot of this hill, which is looked upon as holy ground, at about two miles distance, a monastery, built, as it is said, by St. Patrick and St. Bridget, formerly stood; near which is a well, bearing the name of the former saint, and supposed to possess extraordinary virtues, both in healing the diseases of the body, and in cleansing the pollutions of the soul; a sacred stream, supplied by this spring, runs unpolluted by any other stream until it arrives at Struel. It then flows through the consecrated plain, by a channel covered over with flags and large stones, and supplies in its course two of the four wells which it originally fed. Two of these wells, which are in a higher situation, appear to have been formed by hollowing out a little ground near the course of the rivulet; while the water enters the other two by spouts, having a fall of three feet into one, and six into the other. To these there are coverings in the form of sentry-boxes; the covering of the third is of the form and size of a moderate pig-sty; and that of the fourth is a kind of little cottage, consisting of two apartments.”

He continued rather disparagingly:

“To this place about one thousand people resort every midsummer, for the purpose of doing penance. They come from all parts of Ireland, and even from England and Scotland. Besides these, there is always a large crowd of spectators, amounting probably to another thousand. For the comfort and accommodation of both, a number of tents are erected in the plain, where whiskey is sold, and entertainment of every kind is afforded. The ceremonies commence upon the Sunday preceding, and commonly end upon the Sunday succeeding midsummer-day. As it is not necessary, however, that each penitent should continue here during all this period, few remain longer than one half of the week. The latter half seems to be regarded as the more holy; for the place is, during that time, more frequented, particularly on the last day, which is for that reason called “big Sunday.” No one appears to act as a general superintendent, but the multitudes appear to be left to themselves in submitting to the penance, and performing the ceremonies with which it is connected.”

Downpatrick Struell wells By Ardfern – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8104076

He continues:

“This portion of the penance being over, the penitents descend into the plain, where they move round certain cairns of stones, some crawling, and others running, as before. Each individual, however, must here carry a stone, which he adds to the heap. These cairns are in groups of seven and twelve, which respectively denote the days of the week, and the months of the year; or, as some will have it the seven churches and the twelve apostles. Around these they go seven times, or seven times seven, and twelve times, or twelve times twelve – measured as before by their various degrees of criminality. The next part of the ceremony is to proceed to the large well, termed the body-well, or, by some, the well of sins.  Before entering it, however, they approach with profound reverence a flag of freestone, which is placed in the wall, and is possessed of some peculiarly sanctifying powers. This they touch with their fingers, and then cross themselves repeatedly, and thus become prepared for the purifications of the holy wells. If they can afford a few pence of admission money, they may enter the larger well, where they have room to undress if not, they must content themselves with the second or limb-well, into which they are admitted free of expense, being obliged, however, to strip themselves in the adjoining fields. All modesty is here thrown aside. As they approach the well, they throw off even their undergarments, and with more than Lacedemonian indifference, before the assembled multitudes, they go forward in a state of absolute nudity, plunge in, and bathe promiscuously. After such immersion, they go through the ceremony of washing- their eyes, and conclude the whole by drinking from the fourth well, called by some the well of forgetfulness, and by others the water of life.”

Like many customs involving large numbers the side entertainments developed:

“Thus end the ceremonies of the day. Those of the evening follow, and form a remarkable contrast. The employments of the day seem to be considered as the labours of virtue, those of the evening are her rewards, by which they are amply compensated. Their eyes, after having been bathed in the sacred stream, instantly discover the flowery path of pleasure, which conducts them to the tents prepared for their reception, where they are supplied with copious draughts, of which the water of life was but a faint emblem. In these tents, and in the adjoining fields, under the canopy of a pure sky, they spend the whole night, quaffing the soul-inspiring beverage, and indulging in various gratifications to which the time and place are favourable; for it is understood, that while the jubilee continues, and as long as the happy multitudes remain on the sacred ground, they cannot contract new guilt.”

Sadly, no more, the springs remain but few people visit at Midsummer. They continued until the 19th century but a combination of a drop in water levels and prohibition of devotional exercises by the ecclesiastical authorities due to rowdy behaviour meant the custom slowly died out. People still visit the wells but perhaps the springs are now doomed as 2006 Environment and Heritage Service officials stated that the wells were drying up and two no longer contained water.

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Custom demised: Love divination on St. Faith’s and St. Luke’s Day

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On the eve of St Faith’s Day, a 3rd century Aquitaine resident, Virgin and Martyr,  being burned on an iron bed placed over a flame pit. Thomas Thistleton- Dyer (1875) British Popular culture records the procedure:

“On this day a very curious custom is observed in the North of England. A cake of flour, spring-water, salt, and sugar must be made by three maidens or three widows, and each must have an equal share in the composition. It is then baked before the fire in a Dutch-oven, and, all the while it is doing, silence must be strictly observed, and the cake must be turned nine times, or three times to each person. When it is thoroughly done it is divided into three parts. Each one taking her share, and cutting it into nine slices, must pass each slip three times through a wedding-ring previously borrowed from a woman who has been married at least seven years.”

He records that each one must eat her nine slices as she is undressing, and repeat the following rhyme:

“good St. Faith, be kind to-night, And bring to me my heart’s delight; Let me my future husband view, Aud be my visions chaste and true.”

Another source suggests that it consisted of:

“An egg-shell-full of salt, An egg-shell-full of wheat meal. An egg-shell-full of barley-meal. Water.”

Notes and Queries appears to record another less prescription method undertaken in October across Ireland:

“In Ireland, this season is celebrated by the making of the Michaelmas cake. A lady’s ring is mixed in the dough, and, when the cake is baked it is cut into sections and distributed to the unmarried people at table, and the person who gets the slice with the ring ” is sure to be married before next Michaelmas”

Of course, like many calendar custom allowed a second attempt to discover your sweetheart, this time without making a cake. Thomas Firminger and Thistleton Dyer in their 1884 work Folklore of plants.  On the eve of St. Luke. In this case it could be found by rubbing dry marigold flowers, a sprig of marjoram, thyme and a wormwood. These were sifting through a fine piece of lawn and simmer over a slow fire. To this honey and vinegar was added. After doing all this one anointed oneself before going to bed and recite the following:

“St Luke, St Luke, be kind to me. In dreams let me my true love see”

She must turn around three times and cast over their left shoulder. If on falling the mixture forms a letter this was your sweetheart and if it fell apart dead would happen! Was it worth doing I wonder…a cake would be better!

 

Custom demised: Borrowing Days from April

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Image result for april showers

A widespread tradition across the British Isles and indeed beyond for it is noted in France and Spain are that March borrowed its last three days from April. Brewer’s 1894 Dictionary of Phrase and Fable records:

“March said to Aperill,

I see 3 hoggs (in this case meaning sheep) upon a hill;

And if you’ll lend me dayes 3

I’ll find a way to make them dee (die).

The first o’ them wus wind and weet,

The second o’ them wus snaw and sleet,

The third o’ them wus sic a free

It froze the birds’ nebs to the trees.

When the 3 days were past and gane

The 3 silly hoggs came hirpling (limping) hame.”

Notes and queries of 1852 records:

“The three last days of March are called ‘the Borrowing Days’ in Scotland, on account of their being generally attended with very blustery weather, which inclines people to say that they would wish to borrow three days from the month of April in exchange for the last days of the month of March.”

As noted in an 1852 work North of Ireland:

“Give me (says March) three days of warmth and sunshine for my poor lambs whilst they are yet too tender to bear the roughness of my wind and rain, and you shall have them repaid when the wool is grown.”

However the above account appears at variance to the general believe of the bad weather, as John Brockett’s 1846 Glossary of North Country words records:

“March borrowed of April, three days and they were ill, The one was sleet, the other snow ad third was the worst that e’er did blow.”

It is probable that this association with bad weather begun with the 1548 Complaynt of Scotland which recorded that it ‘froze birds legs to trees’ as such:

“March borrowed of April Three days, and they were ill The one was sleet, the other of snow The third was the worst that e’er did blow.”

The bringing of bad weather may seem a little confusing at first but in Ireland a local legend was established to explain it. It is recorded that the old Brindled Cow or An tSean-bho Riabhach, made the claim that the bad weather of March could not even kill them and so it borrowed three days from April. And the month used these days to kill and skin the poor cow. using these extra days with redoubled fury, killed and skinned the poor old cow. Interestingly this time around it the first days of April which are seen to be unpleasant as a result!

However, I feel that the commentators are missing a point – April is famed for showers – and has a write this the days running up to the 29th are warm and fine, ironically rain and storms came in as the 29th came in…April weather!

Custom demised: Visiting wells and springs at Midsummer

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Many wells and springs were believed to increase in proficiency either Midsummer (Eve or Day). Often such wells would be dedicated to St. John the Baptist, the saint whose feast day would be on that date. Some such as St. John’s Well, Broughton, Northamptonshire or St John’s Well, Shenstone, Staffordshire, whose waters were thought to be more curative on that day.  This is clear at Craikel Spring, Bottesford, Lincolnshire, Folklorist Peacock (1895) notes in her Lincolnshire folklore that:

“Less than fifty years ago a sickly child was dipped in the water between the mirk and the dawn on midsummer morning,’ and niver looked back’ards efter, ‘immersion at that mystic hour removing the nameless weakness which had crippled him in health. Within the last fifteen years a palsied man went to obtain a supply of the water, only to find, to his intense disappointment, that it was drained away through an underground channel which rendered it unattainable.”

Now a lost site, it is possible and indeed likely that the site now called St. John’s Well in the village is the same site considering its connection to midsummer.

Often these visits would become ritualised and hence as Hazlitt notes in the Irish Hudibras (1689) that in the North of Ireland:

“Have you beheld, when people pray, At St. John’s well on Patron-Day, By charm of priest and miracle, To cure diseases at this well; The valleys filled with blind and lame, And go as limping as they came.”

In the parish of Stenness, Orkney local people would bring children to pass around it sunwise after being bathed in the Bigwell. A similar pattern would be down at wells at Tillie Beltane, Aberdeenshire where the well was circled sunwise seven times. Tongue’s (1965) Somerset Folklore records of the Southwell, Congresbury women used to process around the well barking like dogs.

These customs appear to have been private and probably solitary activities, in a number of locations ranging from Northumberland to Nottingham, the visiting of the wells was associated with festivities. One of the most famed with such celebration was St Bede’s Well at Jarrow. Brand (1789) in his popular observances states:

“about a mile to the west of Jarrow there is a well, still called Bede’s Well, to which, as late as the year 1740, it was a prevailing custom to bring children troubled with any disease or infirmity; a crooked pin was put in, and the well laved dry between each dipping. My informant has seen twenty children brought together on a Sunday, to be dipped in this well; at which also, on Midsummer-eve, there was a great resort of neighbouring people, with bonfires, musick, &c.”         

Piercy (1828) states that at St. John’s Well Clarborough, Nottinghamshire

a feast, or fair, held annually on St. John’s  day, to which the neighbouring villagers resorted to enjoy such rural sports or games as fancy might dictate.”

Similarly, the Lady Well, Longwitton Northumberland, or rather an eye well was where according to Hodgon (1820-58) where:

People met here on Midsummer Sunday and the Sunday following, when they amused themselves with leaping, eating gingerbread brought for sale to the spot, and drinking the waters of the well.”         

When such activities ceased is unclear, but in some cases it was clearly when the land use changed. This is seen at Nottinhamshire’s Hucknall’s Robin Hood’s well, when the woods kept for Midsummer dancing, was according to Marson (1965-6)  in an article called  Wells, Sources and water courses in Nottinghamshire countryside states it was turned to a pheasant reserve, the open space lawn was allowed to grass over and subsequently all dancing ceased. In Dugdale’s (1692) Monasticon Anglicanum notes that at Barnwell Cambridgeshire:

“..once a year on St John Baptist’s Eve, boys and lads met there, and amused themselves in the English fashion with wrestling matches and other games and applauded each other in singing songs and playing musical instruments. Hence by reason of the crowd that met and played there, a habit grew up that on the same day a crowd of buyers and sellers should meet in same place to do business.”       

Whether the well itself was the focus for the festivities or the festivities were focused around the well because it provided water are unclear, there are surviving and revived midsummer customs which involve bonfires and general celebrations but no wells involved.

The only custom, revived in 1956, which resembles that of the midsummer well visiting is Ashmore’s Filly Loo.  This is the only apparent celebration of springs at Midsummer is at Ashmore Dorset where a local dew pond, where by long tradition a feast was held on its banks, revived in 1956 and called Filly Loo, it is held on the Friday nearest midsummer and consists of dancing and the holding of hands around the pond at the festivities end.

Another piece of evidence perhaps for the support of a well orientated event as opposed an event with a well is the structure of the Shirehampton Holy Well, Gloucestershire which arises in:

“‘A large cave … Inside, there is crumbling masonry – the remains of an ancient shrine or hermitage – and a pool fed by a stream which seeps through the floor of the cave. The rays of the midsummer sun are said to strike the centre of this pool, and seers used to read the future in its depths.”

It was suggested that the building was:

“duly oriented for midsummer day, so that it is clearly a mediaeval dedication to S. John Baptist.”

This unusual site may indicate the longer and deeper associations of springs and midsummer than is first supposed…or antiquarian fancy. Nowadays if you visit these wells at Midsummer you will find yourself alone…but in a way that may have been the way it had always been.