From prayer and penance to a mad carnival of dancing, drinking and fun...

Like a 19th century form of social media trolling, the Skellig List aimed to exert pressure on bachelors and single women to tie the knot, reveals JO KERRIGAN
From prayer and penance to a mad carnival of dancing, drinking and fun...

A NIGHT OF CELEBRATION: The painting entitled ‘Skellig Night on the South Mall, Cork. 1845’ by James Beale, which hangs in the Crawford Gallery

AFTER our Throwback Thursday last week highlighted some of the old practices surrounding Lent, we had some entertaining replies.

Joan Healy in Ballingeary reminded us that the fasting imposed during this period involved “one full meal and two collations”.

Anybody like to enlarge on what exactly constituted a collation? Was that the “cup-of-tea-and-a-biscuit” now enshrined in Leeside folklore, for which the Connie Dodger was created? Or was the aforesaid cup of tea for those occasions when you thought you might pass out entirely if you didn’t have some sort of refreshment?

Anne O’Brien reminded us also that fasting from midnight before going to Mass was compulsory, and that even a glass of water was prohibited then.

So what was the “collation”? And how big could you make your main meal, so that it kind of lasted you for 24 hours?!

Several correspondents have mentioned the fascinating tradition of the Skellig list, which was circulated on Shrove Tuesday every year in Cork and Kerry, going back many generations.

There is some mystery about these rather scurrilous lists, which gave delight to everyone except those mentioned therein.

Basically, they were regionally topical poems in doggerel style, pairing up local bachelors and unmarried women, normally giving the subjects false names, but ensuring they were easily identified by their descriptions.

Always anonymous of course, and perhaps that was just as well...

The overall message of the poem to those thus featured was that they should stop delaying any longer and hie themselves over to the Skelligs to get married immediately.

Why the Skelligs? That’s another fascinating detail.

You couldn’t get married in Lent, everybody knew that. And Lent started on Ash Wednesday, immediately after Shrove Tuesday, right?

Well, not quite right. Over on the Skelligs in earlier times, the old Celtic Christian ways continued a lot longer than they did on the mainland where the rule of Rome had been adopted, however unwillingly.

The Celtic church held to a different way of calculating Easter, and by their reckoning, Lent didn’t start for at least another ten days.

Therefore, the reasoning went, you could still get married on Skellig while the rest of Ireland went into gloom and fasting.

Perhaps this really did happen at one time. The beehive huts and stark living conditions had been abandoned by the monks around the 13th century, when they moved to the mainland, but it is possible that a local parish priest did in fact go out with boatloads of those wanting to get married in later years.

The tradition of pancake tossing on Shrove Tuesday goes back many years, using up ingredients before the fasting days of Lent.
The tradition of pancake tossing on Shrove Tuesday goes back many years, using up ingredients before the fasting days of Lent.

Or is it linked to the custom of going out for a pilgrimage, a week of fasting and prayer, on this anciently sacred site? (Did you know that Skellig is held to be the westernmost point of a long chain of powerful places stretching from Greece, and known as the Apollo-Michael axis? Well you do now.)

If there were originally intended as pilgrimages, by the 18th century these had descended into extremely riotous celebrations, where young people enjoyed themselves thoroughly, having brought food and drink with them for a week of fun at a time of year when such gatherings would have been unthinkable on the mainland. Lady Wilde (Oscar’s mother) recorded this in the 1880s: “It became a custom for the young people of both sexes to make a pilgrimage to the Sceilig Rock during the last Lenten week.

“A procession was formed of the young girls and bachelors and tar-barrels were lighted to guide them on the dangerous paths.

“The idea was to spend the week in prayer, penance and lamentation; the girls praying for good husbands, the bachelors repenting of their sins.

“But the proceedings gradually degenerated into such a mad carnival of dancing, drinking and fun, that priests denounced the pilgrimage and forbade it to bachelors.”

Now don’t go getting ideas about breaking the lockdown, however tempting the idea of a riotous party might be...

Only somebody temporarily devoid of all sense would venture out in a boat at this time of year to an island where, to put it mildly, creature comforts are rather scarce.

To get back to the Skellig Lists though, the whole point of them was to shame the confirmed bachelors and old maids of a parish into getting married.

Not to be married was to be avoiding your responsibilities, not playing your part in the general health of the community, and so the lampooning verses were composed each year and circulated locally.

There could be as many as 20 or more going around in different districts, and if you hadn’t seen it pinned to a tree or a notice board, then one of your neighbours certainly would have and would gleefully pass the information on.

In the 19th century, the ‘Lists’ were so popular that up to 15,000 copies of some of them are said to have been printed by a firm in Cork. Here is one city example. Rather lacking in scansion and metre, one feels, but probably fairly accurate in its aim:

I sing of old and young without a beau,

Who still, alas, to Skellig rocks must go,

I would not wish to criticise on any,

But of stale beaus and virgins there are many

Who still without companions must trudge on

Alas, I pity those who go alone…

Hanna Bolster and Tom are the next to dash on,

Those ladies that think they’re the pink of the fashion,

They say they’d ne’er stoop to move with the trash,

Who throng the Parade, Patrick Street and the Marsh,

But as proud and as stale as they are to be seen,

To Skellig they’ll drive in their own corn machine...

“Oh I remember these being circulated when I was young,” cries Breda Lucey with delight.

“There was this chap in Ballingeary was great at composing them, and he’d send them out too, to all kinds of people who weren’t too pleased at getting them, I can tell you!

“Mostly you had no idea who the author was, but I always knew it was this man who lived not far from us.”

The children who contributed to the Folklore Commission survey in the 1930s could recite a few too.

This one almost reminds you of the old skipping songs:

First comes Eileen Buckley,

That small red-faced girl,

She is courting Eddie Glavin,

Whose face is like a squirrel.

Next comes Danny Slattery,

That tall and saintly boy,

He’s all in love with Nora Callaghan,

He says for her he’ll die.

Next comes Charlie Egan,

That boy from Limerick,

He is all in love with Bridie Hanifan,

But I think he’ll let her down.

Next comes Mick Joe Slattery,

The pride of Laccamore,

He is all in love with Maggie Callaghan,

Who has pounds in scores galore...

There is a marvellous painting by James Beale in the Crawford Gallery depicting a Bacchanalian gathering on the Grand Parade and South Mall in Cork city in 1845 (above), when the statue of George II was still in place.

And this writer seems to remember a rather boisterous local custom in Cork where, on Shrove Tuesday, the local schoolboys chased girls, trying to douse them with water.

Eminent Cork folklorist Shane Lehane is of course the expert on such customs, and we would be delighted to hear more from him on this pre-Lent tradition.

Now to another topic. You all know by this time that the Cork City Hall has been set up as a mass vaccination centre for dealing with the Covid pandemic in the most efficient way.

But it has seen its spacious auditorium used for such purposes many times before, whether polio shots or dentistry, baby care or welfare.

Followers of our EchoLive Facebook page have already picked this up, and we would love to hear from more of you about your recollections of being taken there, often unwillingly.

Eoin Lydon, for example, recalls going there for medical and dental treatment in the 1970s. Also Donal Brady, who says: “I remember the doors. Open one door, close it, open another door, close it. And then long corridors. Lots of kids everywhere, and babies in prams.”

He had teeth taken out there, he recalls with a shudder, “and I can still smell the gas they used!”

Margo Mullins has vivid recollections too: “Oh God, it takes me back to the days when we had to go to the dentist there. Beds lined up like a dormitory — I still remember it, and it still scares the heck out of me!”

What are your memories of attending the City Hall for those unpleasant but unavoidable appointments of childhood? Email jokerrigan1@gmail.com.

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