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Subject Cards - Ireland: Customs & Culture

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Character of the People

The Irish developed inwardness & stubbornness. Within the outlook formed by the rhythms of life on the land and the nearness of the sea, the narrower tradition of national defeat bred these enduring qualities in the Irish character. The repetitive nature of Irish political griefs, the collapse of the Gaelic nobility, & the many lost rebellions reared a tradition of hopeless gallantry & military failure. "They always went forth to battle, and they always fell," the poet wrote. The long losing battle against the English rubbed into every Irish mind a primitive tragic sense. From childhood, each generation learned of these old defeats & heard retold the tales of lost battles & fallen heroes. The grinding realities of economic exploitation by a foreign landlord class reiterated to each generation the painful meaning of that tradition... There grew among the Irish a sense of themselves as a fated race. A man at the bottom who knows he is at the bottom must conserve & endure, or crack up. The Irish did not break... They tried to hold onto what was theirs: their rights in the land, their family identity, their memories, their pattern of speech, their way of looking at the world. Rebellion had failed, social movement was blocked, individual talent brought no reward. Then let the outsiders, the government, and the world be damned, & let each man look to his own & his family's interest. The Irish became dedicated to holding together the family unit, & independent & "touchy" where their rights were concerned.
- Wm. V. Shannon, The Am. Irish, p. 9
The Church was a formative influence on the Irish character. At every time & at every place the Church formed the life of the people & interlocked the divergent elements of the national character; everywhere its influence was pervasive. The Church's mere survival affirmed continuity with the past. Its corporate existence, directed & sustained from Rome, made it the one national institution to persist unchanged through the terrors, miseries, & disintegration of defeat. It was the one Irish institution that the people could regard as peculiarly their own & in which they could invest their strength. Its dogmas made sense out of the legacy of national defeat. Its sacraments & rituals gave meaning to suffering.
- Ibid., p. 20
These experiences (the partnership of Church & [Daniel] O'Connell) bound together the Irish and their priests for generations to come. The Church of Ireland was a fighting church. Unlike the Church is France, Spain, Italy, it was poor & landless. It had no vested privileges & no stake in the old order.
- Ibid., p. 21
 

Community Ties

Despite all the disadvantages of life in these clachans (villages under rundale), their inhabitants were reluctant to leave them. It was stated in evidence before the Devon Com. that even if they were moving only half a mile away "they were crying as if they were going to America."
- E. Estyn Evans, Irish Folkways (1957), p. 10
First in importance is the strength of blood-ties in extended family groups, still maintained in many urban communities... In remote rural areas the blood-tie is a dominant force, governing economic as well as social relationships, its loyalties overriding the impartial administration of justice. A relative is a "friend," even if "far-out" - that is, remotely connected.
- Ibid., p. 10
 

Curses

As no race exceeded the Irish in religious invocations or terms of endearment, do did they take first place in their power - and use - of curses: like the saint of old, they loved cursing. There is none like Paddy for cursing, wrote Carleton. "His imprecations are often full, bitter, & intense. Indeed there is more poetry & epigrammatic point in them than in those of any other country in the world." He rose to the height of virtuosity of language in the evils he called down on the head of an enemy, believing that a curse, no matter how uttered, "will fall on something," & that it hovered for seven years over the head of the accursed. The Catholic Irishman showed an ingenuity of invention (and a flexibility of conscience) when he devised a curse that would bring bad luck without, at the same time, violating his religious scruples; a gymnastic moralist was he.
- G. Patton, To the G. Door, p. 1021
 
 

Curse of Columbkille

Three steps are left at the end of a cutting out the end of a bog to avoid the "curse of Columbkille," who was once trapped in a bog hole & laid a curse on all who did not leave three steps.
- E. E. Evans, Irish Folkways
 

Dancing & Sociability

(see also "Travelers" - Young)
1825 - Sir Walter Scott on a visit, "Their natural condition is turned toward gaiety & happiness."
 
Dancing was the universal diversion, & Lord George Hill, who owned property in Donegal, has left an account of removing a cabin. "The custom on such occasions is for the person... [seeremainder of quote under "Donegal - Agriculture, Land, & Houses"]."
- Woodham-Smith, Hunger, p. 24
(This is pertinent to the moving of the Mormon houses [on Beaver Island] to the new sites.)
 
The Irish have always been a highly-social people. ...At home, though their lives were isolated, it was the isolation of small settlements, primitive admittedly, but in close proximity to each other. Lord Geo. Hill found in tenants in Donegal unwilling to accept a new & better house if it meant separation from their neighbors. A successful Irish farmer in Missouri who had worked in Ireland for 6 pence a day now "rejoiced in land & stock, no rent, light taxes, whiskey without government inspection, free shooting, and, above all, social equality;" yet he looked regretfully back to the days in Ireland, where, after work, "I could then go to a fair, a wake or a dance or I would spend the winter nights in a neighbor's house, cracking jokes by the turf fire. If I had there but a sore head I would have a neighbor within every hundred yards of me that would run to see me. But here everyone can get so much land, that they calls them neighbors that lives 2 or 3 miles off - och the sorra take such neighbors I would say. And then I would sit down & cry & curse him who made me leave home."
- Ibid., p. 266-67
 
 

Funerals & Wailing

Mrs. Mikolson, Co. Kerry -

"The loud wail for the dead soon sounded from the mountain... I went on to the gate 'till the multitudinous procession arrived, bearing the coffin on a couple of sheets, twisted so that four men could take hold on at each end, and carry it along. Women were not only howling, but tears were fast streaming from many an eye. When they reached the abbey, the grave was not dug, & here was new and louder wail struck up. While the grave was digging, 8 women knelt down by the coffin, & putting their hands upon it, and beating with force, set up a most terrific lamentation. The pounding upon the coffin, the howling, and the shoveling of earth from the grave, made together sounds & sights strange, if not unseemly. ...when all was done, they knelt down to offer up a prayer for the dead, which was done in silence."
 
"In the islands off the west coast of Ireland, where the most ancient superstitions still exist, they have a strange custom. No funeral wail is allowed to be raised until 3 hours have elapsed from the moment of death, because, they say, the sound of the cries would hinder the soul from speaking to God when it stands before him, & waken up the 2 great dogs that are watching for the souls of the dead in order that they may devour them - & the Lord of Heaven himself cannot hinder them if once they waken...
...The sound of the Irish keen is wonderfully pathetic. No one could listen to the long-sustained minor wail of the 'Ul-lu-lu' without a strong emotion & even tears & once heard it can never be forgotten... There is something indescribably impressive in the aspect of the mourning women crouched around the bier, with shrouded heads, as they rock themselves to & fro & intone the solemn, ancient death song with a measured cadence, sometimes rising to a piercing wail."
- Lady Wilde, in her introduction to Ancient Legends of Ireland, p. 9-10 (1888)
 

Sir William Wilde prepared a report on Death Tables of the 1851 census. - Antiquarian

Among the poor, the "keen," or human lamentation by the living, for the dead, contained the poetry and music that was every Irishman's heritage (Geraldus Cembrensis in the 12 th century said that the Irish always expressed their grief musically)... Those who have never heard the keen must satisfy themselves by imaginative re-creation & find in it poetic drama of a high order: a poor cabin, the only light the steady glow of candles, shadowy people sitting in obscurity beyond their range, and an old woman, usually a professional "keener," but sometimes the wife or mother of the dead man, rocking to & fro & pouring forth in cadenced shrieking voice an improved oration reciting the virtues of the man stretching in death on a table or rude box covered with a sheet.
"Cold & silent is they bed. Damp is the blessed dew of the night; but the sun will bring warmth & heat in the morning, & dry up the dew. But my heart cannot feel the heat from the morning sun; no more will the print of your footsteps be seen in the morning dew, on the mountains of Ivera, where you so often hunted the fox & the hare, ever foremost among young men. Cold & silent is now thy bed.
My sunshine you were. I loved you better than the sun itself... He who was everything to me is dead. He is gone forever; he will return no more. Cold & silent is his repose."
This is part of a keen composed by the illiterate mother at the waking of her son, Florence Sullivan, hanged at the beginning of the 19 th century in Cork for the singing of treasonable songs. Its simple dignity was not unusual: the generality of keens followed the pattern; the character of the Irish language lent itself to expressive & poetical words & phrases.
It was considered disrespectful not to attend a funeral, even though the dead person was unknown to those who joined the procession. An English commissioner in the 1830s saw several funerals of common laborers or their wives followed to the grave (3 or 4 miles distant) by from 12 to 20 farmers on horseback & 200 or 300 laborers or others in cars (carriages) or on foot, "scarcely one of whom had any connection with the deceased & many did not know him or her. As the funeral passed some of the inmates of most of the cabins on the road sallied out to join us, although they could not tell the Ass. Commissioner who it was they were thus following to the grave." - G. Patton, To the G. Door, p. 97-99
"Ceremonies differ in various districts, but only slightly. The body is laid out on a table or bed & covered with white linen. Close by are plates of tobacco & snuff, around the body are lighted candles. Usually a quantity of salt is laid out (an ancient symbol of friendship). The women of the household range themselves on either side & the keen (caoene) begins. They rise with one accord and, moving their bodies slowly to & fro, keep up a heart-rending cry. This cry is interrupted for awhile to give the 'ban caoenthe' an opportunity to commence. At the close of every stanza of the dirge, the cry is repeated; the woman then proceeds again with the dirge, & so on to the close... The keener is usually paid for her services - the charge varying from a crown to a pound, according to the circumstances of the employer. It often happens, however, that some friend or relative, rich in the gift of poetry, will give an unbought eulogy. The Irish language is peculiarly adapted for either praise or satire - its blessings are singularly touching, and its curses wonderfully strong, bitter, & biting. The rapidity and ease with which both are uttered generally bring tears to the eyes of the most indifferent spectator. The dramatic effect of the scene is very powerful; the darkness of the death chamber, lit only by candles that glare upon the corpse, the sobs of the mourners, heightens the effect of the keen. In the open air, winding around some mountain pass, when a priest, or person greatly beloved is carried to the grave, and the keen, swelled by a thousand voices is borne upon the mountain echoes - it is then absolutely magnificent.
The keen is very ancient; there is a tradition that its origin is supernatural, to have been first sung by a chorus of invisible spirits over the grave of one of the early kings of Ireland. The keener, having finished a stanza, sets up a wail in which the mourners join. Then there is a momentary silence before keener commences again, and so on - each stanza ending in a wail. The keen usually consists of an address to the corpse, "Why did he die?" etc..; or a description of his person, riches, etc... It is altogether extemporaneous.
The lamentation is not always confined to the keener; anyone present who has the gift of poetry may put in his or her verse.
The keener is almost invariably an old woman; or if she be comparatively young, the habits of her life make her appear old.
  • The Halls, Vol. I, p. 222-229
 
The wake lasts 2 days, sometimes 3, occasionally 4. Where the survivors are "poor & proud" the body is consigned to earth within 24 hours because of expense. When the corpse is about to be taken out the wail becomes most violent... Funerals are invariably attended by a numerous concourse; some from affection to the deceased, others as a tribute of respect for a neighbor, and a large proportion because time is of little value... On coming to a crossroads it was customary in some places for the followers to stop & pray for the soul of the departed; and in passing through a town they always make a circuit around the site of an ancient cross. - note - Thus a corpse passing through _ethard in Tipperary, is always carried around the pump, because the old cross stood there in former times; there is a certain gate of the same town through which a corpse is never carried, though in their direct course, because it was through that gate that [Oliver] Cromwell entered the town.
- Ibid., p. 231
 
 

Gaelic Language

Use of -

The Irish before 1848 had adopted the English language as their own. There were no native schools that could perpetuate the Gaelic language in written form. The Irish picked up what learning they could in the Hedge Schools. The schoolmaster often punished students who clung to Gaelic, & he did so with the cooperation of the parents. Gaelic was of no use to the farmer dealing with his English landlord: "It would not sell the cow." The politicians encouraged this trend, for their political vision in that era was an Ireland that could take equal place with England within the Kingdom.
A partial survey showed that by 1841, 4/5s of the people knew both Gaelic & English and only 1/5 knew only Gaelic... Later nationalists mourned the loss of the language but for the future emigrants it was an unforeseen asset. The Irish were the only immigrants in the U.S., other than the English themselves, who spoke the language of their new country.
- Wm. V. Shannon, The Am. Irish, p. 162
 
Before 1845 one-third to one-half the people spoke Irish in the home.
By 1865 death & emigration had reduced the proportion to 1/5 th.
- Inglis, S. of Ireland, p. 1943
 

Words, vocabulary -

Ban - white (bawn)
Beg - small (also Beag; in this the "Veag"
of Hannah)
Bog - soft
Bogach - a bog
Brog - a shoe
Caidh (kee) - blind
Cam - crooked
Ceo (keo) - a fog
Ciar (keer) - black
Claymore - a sword
Clog - a bell
Con Bacco - the lame
Con More - Con the Great
Cro - a hut
Dall - blind
 
Gaelic words -
Dearg (darrig) - red
Dian (deean) - strong
Donn - brown
Dubh (daiv) - black
Eag - death
Fear (far) - a man
Fearann (farran) - land
Finn, Fionn - white
Galloglach - foot soldier
Galloglases - a kind of mercenary; soldiers armed with edged axes & coats & mail; who
being formerly invited over by the Rebels, were rewarded with lands among them
(p. 1383).
Geal (gal) - white
Go - the sea
Liath - gray
Mor - great
Muir - the sea
Murbholg - sea inlet
Nan - a diminutive termination
Odhar (ower) - brown
Og (oge), occ, or oc - diminutive
Or - gold termination
Orc - a pig
Palas, pailas - a fort, a fairy palace
Port - a bank, a fortress, a landing-place
Ri, righ - a king
Riabhach (reeagh) - gray
Rioghan (reean) - a queen
Rod - a road
Ruadh (rua) - red
Sail - salt water, brine
Scoil - a school
Scudal - a fishing net
Sean (shan) - old
Shan - John
Sid (Shade) - a cow, a jewel
Seid (Shade) - to blow
Sin (sheen) - a storm
Spionan (speenawn) - a gooseberry bush
Tir - land
Tonnach - a mound or rampart
- P. W. Joyce, Irish Place Names, Vol. 2 (Mil. Lib.)
 
Agh - a field
Anagh or Ana - a river
Ard - an eminence
Ath - a ford
Awin - a river
Bally, or Ballin - a town
Ban, or Bane - white or fair
Beg, or Beag - little (is this the Veagh? of the Island?)
Ben - a mountain
Bun - a bottom or foundation
Car, or Cahir - a city
Carrick, Carrig, Carrow - a rock
Cork, Corcagh - a marsh
Clara - a plain
Croag, Croghan - a peak
Clogh, or Clough - a great stone
Curragh - a moor
Clon - a meadow
Col, or Cul - a corner
Derry - a dry spot in a swamp
Don - a fastness
Donagh - a church
Drom a hill-range
Inch, Inis - an island
Ken - a head
Kil - saint, or burying ground
Knock - a hillock
Lick - a flat stone
Lough - a lake
Magh - a plain
Main - a collection of hillocks
More - great
Rath - a mound (also given as fort)
Ross - a headland
Shan - old
Shebh - a range of mountains
Tack - a house
Temple - a church
Tom, or Toom - a bush
Tra - a strand
Tobber, Tubber - a well or spring
Tullagh - undulating ground
Tully - a place subject to floods
- from Black's Guide (1860)
 
Bally - homeplace or town
Booley - where flocks spend the summer
Ballybeg - little town
Clachan - cluster of houses
Flath-innis - Isle of the Noble (Heaven)
Knock - a hull
Shanachie - story-teller
- Evans, Irish Folkways
 
Aine - ring or circle
Bonneens, Boneveens, bonnifs - young pigs
Brian Boru - Brian of the Tributes
Coom Duv - Black Valley
Cromleac - stone of Crom (altar)
Lobhar - leper
Tirconaill - land of Connell
Torg - wild boar
Tyrone - land of Owen
Ui Neill - childen of Neill
- Halls
 
Nior - big
Beag - little
Doighte - burned
- according to T. H. White
 
Mahane - myself
Mor - big
Veag - little
Rua - red
Og - young
Ropa bashia - means burned rope (Pat)
 

Ancestral Names -

About 950 [A.D.] the leaders of the two great clans adopted the practice of calling themselves O'Neill & O'Donnell. This use of surnames was soon rendered universal by a law of Brian Boru passed in 965, that every family should take a surname from some distinguished ancestor; & so from that day begins the era of the Mac's & O's. Sons of Donnell, sons of Mall, sons of Brian & the rest.
- Stephen Gwynn, Highways & Byways in Donegal & Antrim, p. 24 (M. Lib.)
 
In 1558 - Hugh Boy O'Donnell (the fair - boy means yellow)
Hugh Duv O'Donnell (the dark - duv or duvh means black)
Manus O'Donnell
- Ibid., p. 117
 
Mac - means son of
O - means grandson of
- Stephen Gwynne, Place Names
 

Nicknames -

Among the rural population in many parts of Ireland, almost every 3 rd man is known by some other name besides his ordinary surname & Christian [name]. Sometimes these epithets are hereditary & commemorate some family peculiarity or tradition; but more often they describe a personal characteristic of the individual.
On this subject Sir Henry Piers wrote in 1682, "They take much liberty, & seem to do it with much delight, in giving of nicknames: if a man have any imperfection or evil habit he is sure to hear of it in a nickname. Thus, if he is blind, lame, squint-eyed, left-handed, to be sure he shall have one of these added to his name; also from the color of his hair, as black, red, yellow, brown, etc..; & from his age, as young or old; so that no man whatever can escape a nickname who lives among them, or converses with them."
But this is obviously only a remnant of what was anciently the general custom. Originally personal names were descriptive; the people who now designate a man by a nickname do exactly as their ancestors did thousands of years ago.
- Joyce, Irish Place Names, Vol. 2, p. 159
Given in this chapter:
Phil - son Caech - partly blind
Sagart - priest Bacach - cripple
Dall - blind Bodach - clown, churl
Amadin - fool (male) Oinseach - fool (female)
Rath - fort Cabog - ill-mannered fellow
Ard - height Ruaidh - red
Fall - enclosure or hedge Crom - crooked man
Ciotach - left-handed Kilty - [also means] left-handed
Mullen - mill Spag - club-foot
 
Ibid., chap. 1:
Erin (Iar-in) - western land Sean (Shan) - old
Caiseal (cashel) - stone fort Cill - church
Magh - a plain Muc[?] - a pig
Broc - badger Os - fawn
On, onmit - fool Gall - foreigner
Ban - green field Coill - wood
 
Ibid., chap. 2:
Blog, blogan, bolcan - pale face Ferg - anger
Blar - field Og, occ, oc - young
Teach - house Dur - stupid, obstinate
Cath - battle
 
The farms rarely carry any names other than those of their owners (Mulligan's place, Thomson's farm, or merely O'Brien's), and since there may be a dozen O'Briens in a particular townland, various nicknames & patronymies are used to distinguish between them. Thus one farm may be Kilty O'Brien's (from its left-handed owner), another Patsy Kate O'Brien's (from the owner's mother), & a third Yank O'Brien's (a returned emigrant, this).
- E. Estyn Evans, Irish Folkways (1957), p. 28
 
 

Hospitality

"Irish civility & hospitality to strangers have been proverbial for ages - existing even to a fault; strangers will find, wherever they go, a ready zeal & anxiety, among all classes, to produce a favorable impression on behalf of the country; & in lieu of roguish ____iers, insolent d__niers, dirty inns, & people courteous only that they may rob with greater certainty & impunity, they will encounter a people naturally kind & intelligent."
- Halls, Vol. I, p. 253
 
Good manners & hospitality were universal among the poorest Irish.
"The stranger finds every man's door open, and to walk in without ceremony at meal time & to partake of his bowl of potatoes is sure to give everyone in the house pleasure," wrote John Carr, a Devonshire gentleman who toured Ireland in the early 1800s. Twenty years later Sir Walter Scott found, "perpetual kindness in the Irish cabin; buttermilk, potatoes, a stool is offered, or a stone is rolled in that your honor may sit down."
- Woodham-Smith, Hunger, p. 25
 
Irish dignity, hospitality, & easy good manners which still charm the modern traveler have an historical explanation. Three times at least the native aristocracy was conquered & dispossessed; many fled from Ireland to exile in France or Spain, but many others remained, to be forced down by poverty & penal legislation to the economic level of the peasantry.
Until the famine, it was by no means uncommon for poor peasants in mud huts to make wills bequeathing estates which had long ago been confiscated from their forebears, & that figure of fun in Victorian days, the Irish beggar who claimed to be descended from kings, was very often speaking the truth.
- Ibid., p. 26
 
(the O'Donnell [on Beaver Island] who claimed to be the "heir of
the castle of Donegal")
1 George W. Potter, To the Golden Door: The Story of the Irish in Ireland and America. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1960.
2 William V. Shannon, The American Irish. New York: Macmillan, 1963.
3 Brian Inglis, The Story of Ireland. London , Faber and Faber, 1956.