Fairies and Saints, Weddings and Wakes

by Patricia McElhone

Bowmore on the Greenlands is a place of panoramic splendour looking across to the haughty grandeur of Benbulben, the soft woodlands of Lissadell and the distant probing finger of Raughley. It also has a place in fairy lore- having a fairy ring, and it was woe betide anyone who wandered into this ring at night, for out of it he would never get, going round and round the same circle which by daylight he would have deemed as familiar as the back of his hand.

If perchance enough of his wits survived the ordeal and the unwary wanderer remembered to take off his coat, turn it inside out and put it back on again, the way out was suddenly clear. This piece of lore is respected to this day.

Fairies and the other world were a very real feature of village life. No woman would leave her baby in her house without putting the tongs across the cradle to safeguard the child. Changeling babies were part of a lore that survived into this century and has been immortalised by W.B. Yeats in his poem "The Stolen Child":

Where the wave of moonlight glosses the dim grey sands with light
Far off by furthest Rosses we foot it all the night,
Weaving olden dances, mingling hands and mingling glances
‘Till the moon has taken flight;
To and fro we leap and chase the frothy bubbles
While the world is full of troubles and anxious in its sleep.
Come away, O human child
To the waters and the wild
With a fairy hand in hand
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

Away with us he’s going, the solemn eyed.
He’ll hear no more the lowing of the calves on the warm hillside
Or the kettle on the hob sing peace into his breast
Or see the brown mice bob round and round the oatmeal chest.
For he comes, the human child
To the waters and the wild with a fairy hand in hand
From a world more full of weeping than he can understand.

In that peculiar mixture of religion and superstition that seemed to be accepted by village peoples in the Ireland of those days, the women still remember a rhyme:-

Nine nights and a night without arguing,
From Hallow’en night to the night of St. Martin.

This rhyme accompanied the killing of a chicken by the woman of the house on the eve of St. Martin. The blood of the chicken would have to be spilled in the killing and then sprinkled around the house to guard against fever. A different safeguard against fever was the observance of St. Stephen’s Day as a day of fasting. Wren Boys were also part of St. Stephen’s Day.

The Brideog on February 1, the feast of St. Brigid, was a memorable day for village children. A straw effigy of ‘Miss’ Brigid was carried round the houses by revellers dressed up and carrying candles. Jam jars were used to collect money and the Brideogs would sing, dance or recite on the doorsteps or in the kitchens. Later the money would be spent on a party- one for the children and another for the adults. The feast would include batch loaf bread (a special treat), tins of Liptons Mixed Fruit Jam, basins of jelly and jugs of custard. A house dance would be the finale when the melodeons, fiddles and mouth organs marked the rhythms of jigs, reels and waltzes.

Weddings were celebrated by the whole village. The groom usually wore a new suit and the bride a ‘costume’ or dress. Local houses would take out their flags- pilots flags, and every flag and hang them on poles that once saw service as oars- or pieces of timber. When the Church service was over the couple would take off in a hired car with the bridesmaid and groomsman and spend the day in Bundoran or Dromahair. On their return there would be a lighted tar barrel on the road into the village and a party in the bride’s house for all and sundry.

I remember two weddings at which the brides wore white dresses and veils. For us children this was fairy tale stuff. I cannot remember confetti but do remember going to the shop to buy rice to throw on the brides. The shop woman poured the rice into paper she had curled into a cone. The chapel bells rang out, the harmonium played and the sun shone.

Wakes were an occasion for the elders of the village. The body would be laid out in the house and a night vigil was kept by family and neighbours. All the clocks in the house would be left unwound for the period between death and burial and all mirrors would be covered. On the bed would be a dish of cut tobacco, a plate of loose cigarettes, clay pipes for the men and snuff for the women. Tea was made all through the night and the men had something stronger to drink. A mass would be said in the house before the funeral. As the funeral left the house to go to the cemetery, which in those days was in Drumcliffe, the funeral cars were stopped and male members of the family would collect offerings from the mourners. Women wore black mourning clothes for a year after the death of a relative. Many widows never again wore coloured clothes. Dancing or going to places of amusement would be frowned upon for months, even a year after a family bereavement.