Every Shrove Tuesday until very recently in the towns of Co Cork, Blarney and Cobh, the girls ‘school closed about an hour before the boys’ school, to give the girls a safe chance to return home. Sometimes you would even see the local Guard Sergeant standing out outside the school gates, in an attempt to temper the chaos that was about to unfold.
It was Skelliking Day – aka Skelliging or Skeleton Day – when, as far back as we can remember, boys were allowed to chase girls, encircle them with ropes, tie them up and possibly tie them up. sprinkle with water.
The day was a response to the prohibitions of Lent, for which 40 days not only meat and dairy products but also sex were outlawed. Such religious austerity has resulted in a particular concentration of marriages, or shrove marriages, in the few days before the start of Lent, allowing the necessary consummation of unions. You’d think any couple who missed the deadline would have to wait until after Easter – but, as always, there was an Irish solution to an Irish problem.
Easter and Lent always fell later in Skellig than on the mainland, opening a window of opportunity for couples wishing to marry before 40 days of austerity
The unlikely solution was linked to the medieval hermitage of the Isle of Skellig Michael, 8 miles off the coast of Co Kerry, whose ascetic monks calculated the date of Easter differently from the rest of Christendom.
The whole of Ireland initially used a different calculation table from that adopted by Rome; it seems that while the rest of the country eventually complied, Skellig Michael has somehow maintained the old system.
It is also possible that the Skellig time difference arose when Ireland adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752. That year, Wednesday, September 2, was followed by Thursday, September 14.
Whatever the cause, Easter and Lent always fell later on Skellig than on the mainland, opening a window of opportunity for couples wishing to marry and entrenching in the popular imagination the association between the court, the marriage and the rock of Skellig.
From the beginning of the 17th century, when large seines made passage possible, Skellig became a Lent pilgrimage site. According to an 1895 account: “All the young men to be married, men and women, in any parish, who did not come of age at Shrovetide, would be obliged to walk barefoot to the rocks of Skellig, in the south of France. off the Kerry coast on Shrove Tuesday evening.
Rather than being characterized by prayer and godliness, the trip became an occasion for courting, drinking, and savage debauchery.
Skellig lists – sheets of caustically mocking and extraordinarily defamatory poems – were written and distributed throughout Munster around Shrove Tuesday.
From this mix of associations and traditions arose the Skellig Lists, anonymous slips of doggerel verse, pairing and listing the virtues (and others) of various men and women in a locality who supposedly wanted to go to Skellig. to get married. These caustically mocking and extraordinarily defamatory poems were written and distributed throughout Munster around Shrove Tuesday. Their anonymous authors have often included themselves in the mocking verses, to defer suspicion.
Their outrageous claims were avidly consumed. Reading a collection of 19th century Skellig printed lists from Cork City one cannot help but be struck by how damaging they must have been.
“Next comes Maurice Egan, this man with the tail,
Which protrudes from its nest like the head of a snail,
With Miss Nancy Drinan he will go if he can,
But Nancy won’t get it because he’s not a man.
Miss Puffmuffin Callaghan then heads for the shore,
With his neighbor in wax, the shoemaker Hoare.
As Kate Lynch arrives after, dressed in black silk,
On the dark rocks of Skellig to skim his curds.
The lists show no mercy. People were identified by the street they lived in, their dress sense, their profession and their appearance.
“We made fun of women for their smoothness and their fashion:
From rue Dominick, Hanna Barret left,
With an old cow’s tail slung,
Oh my God, what a boa the lady is wearing!
The men didn’t fare much better, didn’t care about their drinking and lack of morality, and were generally seen as miserable leeches seeking to marry a wealthy widow:
“J-ck Re – comes next, like a bear from Lapland,
Her strawberry phiz all wrapped in hair,
While he growls something in the form of a song
At the handjob Widow Hg-es, whom he kisses all the way. “
Skellig’s lists contained details that many people knew but few would normally say in public, making them deeply offensive to victims and their families, and particularly damaging to any potential union. This is clear from a typical Glannagilliagh, County Kerry example taken from the school’s folklore archives:
“The nasty few pints that ‘Paddy’ was holding
To win the heart of ‘Sheila the Wood’
Will remain a real heart breaker for a long time
And thwart his way to ‘Cáit the Raker’ “
The activities of Skellig Night are clearly evoked in a magnificent painting, by Cork artist James Beale, of the heart of the city in 1845. Singles and singles are unwillingly ridden on donkeys and in wheelbarrows through the streets from the South Mall and the Grand Parade – the papers strewn in the foreground are clearly Skellig’s discarded lists – towards the scene of their ultimate humiliation: their watering under a large water pump, to the amusement of the spectators.
Skellig Night was an Irish carnival event. The eve of the 40 days of church-dictated fasting and austerity was a time to embrace food and drink, loud violence and sexual promiscuity, just as it did during the Mardi Gras carnivals of the Middle Ages. , and even as is still the case, symbolically if not literally, at the modern carnivals of Rio de Janeiro, New Orleans and Venice. In 19th-century Ireland, after the slaughter of chickens, the gluttonous consumption of eggs, in the form of rich, sweet pancakes, was the order of the day. Large amounts of alcohol added to lawlessness.
Medieval carnival involved people reversing their normal roles: peasants dressed as priests and nuns, and kings dressed as beggars and laborers. Costumed and torchlight parades were common; Beale’s painting depicts a well-run procession, with barrels of tar lit and participants dressed in fancy clothes and paper hats.
The parades were often accompanied by “raucous music,” with participants banging on old pots and kettles with hammers and sticks. The abuse of single men and women, often paired up and paraded in humiliating ways before their final watering under the pump or in the horse trough, was physically violent.
The Skellig lists were furthermore a violent and emotional affront to single men and women and their celibacy. They were thus reported as unproductive and inconvenient for the reproductive system and the continuity of human life.
Shane Lehane teaches archeology, folklore and history at CSN Higher education college, in Cork, and conferences in the df apartmentolklore and eethnology at University College of Cork. He is always interested to hear about local customs and folk traditions; you can send him an email at [email protected]