I love me an auld folklore mystery. Especially when it involves the folklore of the west coast of Ireland. Throw in the possibility that it may contain enshrined elements of past ritual activity associated with surviving archaeology and I’m all yours. So when DrBeachcombing of Beachcombing’s Bizarre History Blog recently sent notice of a fantastic nugget of folklore concerning an 1830s Bathing Mystery at Lahinch (Co. Clare) which was classified by stuffy antiquarians as a ‘Pagan Observance on the West Coast of Ireland’… needless to say, he had me at ‘WTF’.
For the main event and details you should read the original post by DrB, which involves anonymous nineteenth century correspondence, a presidential address to the Folklore Society and the mysterious and scandalous bathing habits of the local population of nineteenth century Lahinch. These appear to have involved naked males, wooden implements of mass destruction, ceremonial procession, obscured rituals shielded from profane eyes and wild pagan delight along the lines of the Wicker Man afterwards. What are you still doing here? Read it.
“A sort of horror seemed to hang over everything until the bathing ceremony was completed, and everyone, particularly the women, seemed anxious to keep out of the line of procession, while the ceremony was strictly guarded from the observation of the ‘profane’. As soon as it was over, all the rabble rout, both male and female, of the village flocked about the performers, and for some time kept up loud shouts.”
Laurence Gomme, Presidential address to the Folklore Society, 1892
Now, as has been pointed out by others on the blog, the 1830s saw Lahinch beginning to cash in on the rising fashion for seaside bathing, so it was ample opportunity for many outside eyes to be treated to strange insular customs and traditions. The events concerned are reported to have occurred during hot summer weather, so presumably July or August. The main elements were: a ceremonial procession, male bather(s), a bathing spot a little distance from Lahinch, high water time, the presence of a hatchet and a saw and some sort of ritual performance, the completion of which being acclaimed by wider observers. The rest of the ‘witness’ details are rather fanciful and ‘interpretative’.
I decided to have a poke around and headed immediately for anything by Thomas Johnson Westropp, a notable antiquarian, folklorist and archaeologist of Connacht, with a particular interest in Co. Clare and came across the following:
“Other less famous patterns were held on the sandhills near Lehinch in honour of St. MacCreehy. The celebration got shifted to ‘Garland Sunday’ (Domhnach cruim duibh, the last in July), and to the honour of St. Brigit of Kildare. It was finally replaced by races, which at Kilnaboy and elsewhere may also represent degenerated patterns.”
T.J. Westropp, A Folklore Survey of Co. Clare
So that would certainly explain such ceremonial shenanigans, at any rate – the remnants of a traditional pattern associated with the medieval church site and graveyard of Kilmacreehy (CL015-083001-).
Elsewhere I found a nice little site summery from Clare Co. Council/OSI:
“The church is associated with St. Mac Creiche, who is credited with several church foundations, and is said to have been eighty years old when he founded this one. Although the details of his life are very uncertain, stories about his activities abound. One of the legends tells of his having killed a great eel which rose from the sea and desecrated the graveyard.”
Kilmacreehy Church, Rian Na Manach (2003), 27-28.
The presence of an eel like monstrous head on the architectural hood moulding of a tomb within the church no doubt played a part in local (re)imaginations. Perhaps more interesting concerning matters at hand, was this…
“The Saint’s bed is located to the south of the church in a cluster of rocks on the strand. Sand from here is known locally to quell any storm or gale when thrown in its path and, today, many householders keep Mac Creiche’s sand for this very purpose. His well, which was once much revered for its curative powers, has now fallen into disuse.”
Kilmacreehy, Rian Na Manach (2003), 27-28.
And then, upon looking up the site in the Archaeological Survey of Ireland Database, I came across a very interesting redundant record (once thought to have archaeological potential) concerning same:
“Named ‘MacCreehy’s Bed’ on the 1916 OS 6-inch map and lying some 200m offshore and 350m SE of Kilmacreehy Church (CL015-083001-), this was revealed on inspection in 1998 to be a natural area of rock outcrop and shingle and not an archaeological monument. Folklore regarding St Mac Creithe holds that his coffin was to be placed on the shore within reach of the tide and thereafter buried at its next resting-place”
M. Tunney, (2014) Redundant Record Note (CL015-084—- ), ASI Database
And so, bearing all that in mind, I’m quite confident we can now put this mystery to (saints!) bed…
The local saints hagiographical lore carries associations with, and of, the sea and some sort of coastal inundation – not surprising given the ecclesiastical sites proximity. Surviving local folklore and tradition contains enshrined elements which seem to involved ceremonial activities concerning the removing of sand, or the placing of a makeshift, or token coffin at the perceived location of the ‘saints bed’. The witnesses to nineteenth century ceremonies seem to have misunderstood what was apparently local ritual involving remnants of some or all of the above. The timing of the reported activities matches the timing of the annual pattern to the saint (variously recorded as late July/Aug 1st, 2nd and 11th).
Altogether then, we have a hilariously misconstrued but nonetheless valuable eye-witness account to local religious ritual & tradition at Lahinch, Co. Clare – which would be important in its own right any day – but in this case, especially so, being from the early to mid nineteenth century – i.e. a rare pre-famine folklore attestation. My only wish is that the ‘Saints Bed’ was an actual submerged archaeological feature – the remnants of a medieval Leacht, or Leaba. Despite not being material culture, it apparently was believed to be so by the local population at one time or another.
And so, for whats it worth – here’s to Saint Mac Creiche/Macreehy… and to the locals in Lahinch (past and present)…and to ‘swimming with saints’. Just be very careful of where you’re putting that saw, ok?
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