A Patron Saint whose name being given to some well thousands of the Irish Peasantry resort to it, from distant parts of the kingdom on the day dedicated to him, and there combine penance and festivity.
Such assemblages of persons generally last three days, and it is much to be regretted that those who have influence over the lower orders of the people do not exercise it in the same laudable manner, that those in the County of Meath have done, by which they have not only checked superstition, but put a stop to the shocking licentiousness which generally succeeded the day.
On the last day of the Patron, I set out with a party from Athlone to visit the seven churches in the King’s County — in the latter end of Aug. 1814. The sun has dispersed the mists of night from the smooth bosom of the Shannon as we pushed from the shore. Scarce a zephyr swelled the lagging sails, and we were slowly borne along the current.
The flat shores of this noble river are destitute of that romantic beauty which renders the humbler Byrne so picturesque yet the numerous white-washed cabins had an air of comfort extremely gratifying to behold, and the ranges of tram-cocks1 of hay close to the margin of the river, ready to be shipped on board the long row-boats, showed that the soil was not unproductive, though by no means rich.
We had passed several islands and had some time lost sight of the largest, called Long Island, and which is more than a mile in length, when we heard the sounds of distant music.
The river had gradually widened, and its surface was smooth as a polished mirror. The light breeze had expired and the perfect stillness was only interrupted by the measured dashing of the oars, and gentle breathings of the distant music; it grew stronger on the air, and we at length overtook two boats lashed together, in one of which three persons were playing on the clarinet, the flute, and tambourine. The unclouded sky, the unruffled waters with their enamelled banks, the distant view of the seven churches, the masts of vessels moored near them, and the gay streams from innumerable tents — the hum of thousands of people assembled at the Patron with the softened music now left behind, gave to the scene a charm and interest beyond description.
We landed within a mile of the Seven Churches and ascending a bold hill had an extensive view of the Shannon, of the surrounding country, and of the ruins of the churches which were now the centre of penance and festivity.
Having slid down the almost perpendicular hill, we soon found ourselves in a footpath, in which men and women bare-legged were walking in succession. Conceiving this a part of the penance, we quitted the path for a lower one and then more attentively observed the ceremony.
Each person walked rapidly along, the men having handkerchiefs tied tightly around their heads instead of wearing their hats. They entered a burial place in which a small arch surrounded with elder bushes was the only remains of a church. Having walked thrice round the church yard, they knelt down in groups of three or four in silent prayer.
Proceeding farther on we entered an inclosure where extremely low tents were rang’d in regular streets. The Irish pipe, the violin, and sounds of merriment everywhere struck our ears. At almost every step we passed turf fires where eels were broiling. In every street was a crowd assembled round a party of lads and lasses dancing, and every tent was crowded with both sexes, eating eels and drinking the exhilarating spirit of Erin. The meridian sun, the numerous fires, and vast concourses of people, made the place so disagreeable and oppressively hot we soon quitted it, and entered the adjoining inclosure in which are the clusters of ruined churches. They are small buildings close to each other, and boast no remains of architectural beauty, either of design or ornament excepting one larger than the rest, which possesses some claim to dignity, particularly the arch of the entrance which though small is of good sculpture. This entrance at the moment was the scene of the most severe penance.
Four aged women and a man were advancing on their bare and bleeding knees!
The greatest torture might be seen through the resigned expression of countenance they endeavoured to assume at each agonized advance forward, by the hand which was not engaged in holding up her clothes.
These penitents, slowly and in succession, passed through the archway into the roofless church. I turned from the painful sight and found a group of persons assembled round a large stone cross of curious sculpture. Before it on a grave knelt three men in silent prayer, while the others who had not attended the Patron from motives of devotion, were successively endeavouring to clasp the upright stone of the cross.
A gentleman of my party alone succeeded, his fingers meeting when he embraced the cross. He was instantly congratulated and assured that no woman would die in child-birth, that he would visit during her confinement.
There was another cross of the same description to which a similar superstitious belief is attached. At a little distance cries of grief attracted my attention, and approaching the sound I found a woman kneeling on a grave and in loud sorrow lamenting the relative buried beneath. A younger woman was endeavouring to pacify her, and at length with a mixture of anger and kindness she forced her from the grave.
I now observed several females, either prostrate or kneeling on graves in different parts of the church yard, some weeping, others looking with a fixed sadness of expression on their countenances, and others again praying for those who slept beneath the green turf, unconscious of the lasting remembrance of their friends. I ought perhaps to remark that this vivid recollection of departed friends was alone displayed by the women.
We now quitted the church yard for the contiguous shore of the Shannon when round a small spring several men and women were kneeling, to whom the water was handed by a female. This was the last act of the routine of penance, which when performed the parties put on their shoes and stockings and walked away; and being cleansed from their sins hastened to join the joyous groups in the encampment.
There are several places said to possess miraculous powers, one a river which if you enter and believe in its efficacy will cure you of the headache, and prevent your ever having it. Around Halloween a stone near the largest church will cure the toothache by putting the head into it and entertaining a similar belief.
In a field belonging to these churches are the ruins of a small castle which have a very picturesque effect.
Returning to the inclosure of tents, which had the same appearance as the booths at a fair, and the people equally joyous and uninfluenced by the neighbouring scene of penance, we for a while observed a group of dancers, where if there was not much grace and elegance to be seen, there was no want of muscular exertion.
Suddenly the pipe and violin ceased, and the whole party rushed to the upper end of the inclosure, to which we now saw crowds of people hastening from all quarters. Impelled by curiosity I followed, and now heard two men in angry altercation, but which, but which soon gave place to upraised shillelaghs.2 Instantly hundreds of oaken cudgels were seen above the heads of the crowd, when a stout athletic man uttered some words in Irish, flourished his shillelagh over his head, and in a dancing step, from side to side, moved down one of the streets of the encampment, followed by numbers of men shouting and waving their oaken sticks. On enquiring the meaning of this, I was informed the leader was the champion of a party to which one of the men who had been quarrelling belonged, and that he was now gone to muster his friends which when assembled they would offer battle to the opposite party, who were in another direction also beating to arms. However threatening these appearances of an approaching conflict were, no actual engagement took place, which a countryman told me he supposed was from the meddling interference of some of the friends of both parties, but added had I been there the preceding day, I should have seen more sport, as there were at least six hundred shillelaghs rattling at the same moment against as many skulls. On enquiry what casualities had taken place, he replied that “though many were kilt never a limb was broken or life lost.” What particularly struck me during this tumultuous scene was the perfect indifference in the crowd who seemed by their laughter and jest to think a fight fine sport.
Recollecting the sanguinary scenes which had taken place at some fairs, from the endeavours of small parties of the yeomanry to preserve the peace, I figured to myself thirty or forty yeomen with their fire arms attempting the same at the Patron where I have little doubt they must have been driven into some place capable of defence, and then there must have taken place one of those tragedies so greatly to be deplored in Ireland. But happily a more efficacious mode had been adopted, and not many years hence when conflicts of parties are talked of, as the tales of times that are past, the Patriot will bless the name of that statesman3 who introduced a revolution so desirable.
The crowds assembled at the Patron had for the time driven from his retreat a venerable hermit who has for some years made the ruins of the Seven Churches his abode. His figure and dress was described as perfectly characteristic. Some silver hairs gracing his high forehead, and a beard reaching almost down to the girdle that binds his long dark coat. He is said to be learned and intelligent as well as devout. Who his is is unknown of his motive for thus secluding himself.
In some parts of England called Pikes. ↩
It may be observed that a quarrel between two of the Irish peasantry at a fair, or other festive assemblage, is not determined as in England by a boxing match between the parties, but is immediately taken up by their respective clans as in the instance here described. ↩
Mr Peel’s peace preservation bill. ↩