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Religious Practices
Religious Practices past and present
“Religion is the opium of the people” is a quote accredited to Karl Marx. If that is so, then a reflection on some of the religious practices common throughout the whole of Ireland up to perhaps 30 or 40 years ago would give an impression of a race of happy and contented people. The Island of Saints and Scholars is another pointer to the importance religion and education played in the lives of the Irish people from the time of St. Patrick, and a reminder too of the struggles endured by our ancestors for equality of opportunity and freedom in those two spheres.
When pondering on change and modern trends we often preface our remarks with “This was before television became part of our lives!” Indeed many of the practices which I will mention here were very prevalent in pre-T.V. days but the Vatican 2 Council of the early 60’s had a major influence on change in aspects of liturgy and sacramental experiences.
Many of us of the older generation remember when New Year’s Day was a holy day of obligation. This is no longer the case but lots of people would still feel that attending mass on that day is a good start to the year ahead
February 1st. is of course the feast of St. Brigid, and we still weave the cross of rushes, take it to the church to be blessed and placed in a prominent place in our homes or in stables, as a protection against illness and disease. This cross is really the Christian expression of the Swastika, which of course is forever associated with Hitler and the Nazi regime in Germany. He likened the symbolism of the brightness of spring after the darkness of winter to the freeing of Germany from the ignominy of defeat in World War 1 .Those of us old enough to have gone out on the Breegogues (Bríd Ogs)may not have realised that we were celebrating the Celtic festival of Imbolc, honouring the goddess Brigitta. The Brideogs of this era were dressed in white, and danced in a circle round the field holding a small image of Brigitta or a flame from the fire.
 This also could be the origin of the feast of Candelmas(The Presentation of Our Lord) which we celebrate on February 2nd. We take candles to be blessed and then take them home to be lit in times of trouble or distress or indeed at a wake. People still donate candles for church use. Feb. 3rd. is the day when we have our throats blessed and St. Blaise is implored to protect us” from all diseases of the throat and every other disease”.
Lent often begins in this month too. Ash Wednesday heralds the beginning of this season of self-mortification and prayer as we have the cross of ashes imprinted on our foreheads, reminding us of our frailty and mortality. This day is also one of just two days of both fast and abstinence, the other being Good Friday. We are asked to abstain from eating meat and to observe the fasting rule which is one full meal and two lesser ones or collations. Actually, in pre-Vatican 2 times everyone between the age of 14 and 70 was expected to observe the church fasting law all through Lent. But every Friday was a “fish day” until probably 40 years ago and every calendar had the fish sign across each Friday, just in case we forgot! Another feature of this period of penance was that no dances took place (St. Patrick’s night being the exception); the opinion of church authorities was that it was inappropriate to indulge in such revelling during those six weeks. Consequently, it was a time when all the Irish showbands left the country to tour the UK and the USA. Lent too was a time when no marriages took place and in times when matchmaking was in vogue, the Sunday preceding Ash Wednesday was traditionally known as “Domhnach na bPus”, or “Pus Sunday” .Ladies who had not received an offer of marriage by then were expected to wear sour and discontented expressions!
St. Patrick’s Day on March 17th, the feast of our national apostle, is both a church holiday and public holiday. We wear the shamrock, organise parades and holy wells dedicated to St. Patrick are visited, The Holy Week ceremonies would still appear to attract major gatherings worldwide but the tradition of a Holy Hour and Benediction on Palm Sunday and the practice of visiting Seven churches on Good Friday have long since died out.
As May approaches, we are reminded of the four great festivals held in Ireland in ancient pagan times, in February, May, Midsummer and November. May was the most memorable and superstitious of them all because on May Eve the Druids lit the Baal-Tine, the holy fire of Baal, the Sun-god, and drove the cattle on a path between two fires. They cut them to spill their blood which they then offered as sacrifice to the Sun-god. However St. Patrick was determined to break the power of the Druids so he lit his fire on May Eve, to celebrate the Paschal mysteries and from then on Easter, or the feast of the Resurrection, replaced the Baal festival. We associate May too as a time of devotion to Mary and the May altar would be present in many homes still. That same altar in school was a reason to loiter along the roads in the morning to pick cowslips, primroses, and bluebells while I think it is true to say that all of us are moved and energised on hearing our church choirs sing the sweet strains of Queen of the May.
Ascension Thursday (40 days after Easter) and Corpus Christi (3 weeks after that), were two holydays of obligation up to a few years ago when it was decided to celebrate them on a Sunday. We honour the feast of Corpus Christi by holding a procession in honour of the Blessed Sacrament and walk through the town or village reciting prayers and singing hymns. This procession was held annually in Garrafrauns up to 1954. Also in June, we celebrate the feast of St. John by lighting a bonfire on St. John’s Eve (June 23rd.) and the neighbours and friends gather round. This is another Christian festival whose origins can be traced to the pagan festivals of our ancestors- coinciding with the Summer Solstice or the festival of the Oak King. It was customary to take some dying coals from the bonfire and throw them into the fields to ensure a good return from the crops.
Ember Days or Quarter Tense now come to mind as I mention the relationship or connection between pagan festivals and Christian celebrations. Ember Days are, or more correctly were, four separate sets of three days within the same week set aside for prayer and fasting. Wednesday, Friday and Saturday were the specified days in each week and when we note the timing of these weeks we can see how the Christian church sought to co-opt pagan feasts and re-invent them for different purpose. The first Ember week was held between the first and second Sundays of Lent; next one occurred between Pentecost and Trinity Sunday; the third one came on the week following the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, September 14th and the last one came between the 3rd and 4th Sundays of Advent. The great pagan festivals of Imbolc, Bealtaine, Lughnasa and Samhain would have been observed around these dates. As well as setting time aside for prayer and fasting, it was recommended to attend the Sacrament of Penance during these weeks. It would seem that the observance of Ember Days ceased after Vatican 2.
The fourth Sunday in July is still known as Garland Sunday or Reek Sunday. The annual pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick is undertaken by thousands who, for reasons ranging from penance to thanksgiving to adventure or a fitness challenge, climb the rough and stony mountain, some in bare feet. On the way they recite certain prayers and on reaching the summit usually attend mass. Indeed many people from this area often did the journey on bikes, did the climb and cycled home again, maybe on time to milk the cows! This Sunday is also associated with the Pattern in Tobar na Croise Naofa in Cappagh. August is the feast of the Assumption of Our Lady and is forever linked to crowds of pilgrims visiting her shrine at Knock. Indeed, as with the Reek, this was a journey often undertaken by foot or bike and groups would do it by night –and many still do so -as a form of penance and maybe for a special intention.
November was a month specially dedicated to remembering the Holy Souls in Purgatory and I suppose we still visit the graves of our loved ones and graveyard masses are often celebrated during this month. Doing church and graveyard visits on All Saints’ Day (Nov.1st) and All Souls’ Day (Nov.2nd), was common practice and strongly recommended by the Church up to 20 or 30 years ago. By doing these visits and reciting certain prayers, indulgences could be earned for the suffering souls in Purgatory. And what or where is Purgatory?
Our catechism from our Primary School days stated: “Purgatory is a place where souls suffer for a time after death on account of their sins”. On those two special days there was a plenary indulgence to be gained, once a day, which we believed would give full remission of punishment due to a soul in Purgatory. A partial indulgence could be gained many times a day and shortened the time of a suffering soul in Purgatory We learned from our catechism that “It is a holy and a wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins” Incidentally, it was usual for a priest to offer 3 masses, one after the other, on All Souls’ Day; Christmas Day was another occasion on which the three masses were offered.
Doing the 9 Fridays was a devotion to the Sacred Heart which involved going to mass and Holy Communion on the first Friday of each month as was doing the 5 Saturdays in honour of Our Lady. When mentioning the reception of Holy Communion the rules of fasting in pre- Vatican 2 times were quite strict. All food and drink was forbidden from midnight the night before- only water was allowed. Later on, the fasting time was reduced to 3 hours, while now it has been shortened to 1 hour. No wonder then that it was very unusual to see somebody receive at last mass. Indeed the reception of Holy Communion was a well regulated practice and the word Sodality now comes to mind.  There was one Sunday set aside each month for men, women and children. The adults were enrolled in a guild, usually named after a saint. To observe the rules of the sodality you went to confessions on the Saturday, went to first mass on Sunday morning and received Holy Communion. The head of the guild had an attendance book and members were marked present or absent as appropriate. Each guild had a specially assigned seat for that morning and there was a banner to mark each guild’s seat. There was a membership fee of maybe one shilling and members wore a sodality medal. The children didn’t belong to a guild but sat together in the front seats on their assigned Sunday. Those were the days when mass was in Latin, the priest had his back to the congregation most of the time and the servers-all boys then- made the responses with amazing competence and speed.
 Speaking of the Latin mass one is reminded of the Solemn Requiem High Mass, celebrated at a funeral, if the bereaved family could afford the £5 stipend. Four priests, in black vestments, were present at the altar, the celebrant, deacon, sub-deacon and the master of ceremonies. They sang or chanted certain parts and responses, usually without musical accompaniment and to us children, it sounded rather monotonous, boring and sometimes even funny!
The sharp decline in priestly vocations has meant that many other customs and practices are quickly disappearing. The parish mission and the village stations instantly come to mind and, apart from their religious aspect, were times and opportunities for wonderful togetherness and community bonding. The shortage of priests also means that we, the laity, are expected to participate more fully in the running of our parishes and the existence of Pastoral Councils gives us that opportunity. One’s identity is defined by name, village and parish, and now with the plans for clustering of parishes we hope that that uniqueness of parish will not be lost. The words of John Paul 11 can be the spur for all of us now: “The parish is not principally a structure, a territory, a building. The parish is first of all a community of faithful- that is the task of the parish today, to be a community. Make yourselves builders of communities in which, after the example of the first community, the Word lives and acts.”