In its most general term, a pattern is a religious devotion that usually occurs around the feast day of a patron saint in Ireland. These days, the practice is nowhere near as popular as it used to be but you can still find places where the ritual takes place if you make the effort to look. In the attached photo, you can see one such site based on a small lake island in West Cork where St Finbar (Cork’s patron saint) is celebrated. On the right hand side of the photo, are a number of white crosses which have been etched into the gateway stone over many years. This marks this area as one of the ‘prayer stations’ in the pattern.
The word ‘pattern’ is actually a derivation of the Latin word patrun (or patron – as in ‘patron saint’). Despite the use of the Latin term, the ritual is very much older than that. In fact, patterns usually take place in sites that were sacred for pre-Christian Irish religious rituals (predominantly around holy wells and springs). When the Christian church came to Ireland – as with many other places – it simply incorporated the existing religious festivals and rituals such as the deiseal (walking a circle of patterns that followed the movement of the sun) and adopted them as Christian events. Any of the magical elements traditionally associated with these sites (such as healing powers) were subsequently attributed to Christian saints.
Patterns were a very popular rural tradition in Ireland not because of the religious element but because of the very powerful social element. Pattern Days’ attracted huge crowds of people who, having completed their religious devotion, would immediately partake in activities such as drinking, singing, dancing, and horse racing. Some of these ‘patterns’ could last for days. From the early 1600s (and possibly before), the patterns’ started to lose support from the Church (who didn’t appreciate the earlier pagan rituals or the non-pious behaviour of the festivities after the pattern). This was why, at the Synod of Tuam in 1660, a decree was announced as follows:
“Dancing, flute-playing, bands of music, riotous revels and other abuses in visiting wells and other holy places are forbidden….”
The English administration who, essentially ran most of the country from the 1600s onwards, also saw ‘patterns’ as a potential threat to their authority in that the gatherings provided a hotbed of opportunity for rebellious incitement. As a result, they instigated specific clauses in the Penal Laws to forbid such activities.
For the most part, both the Penal Laws and the Synod of Tuam decree were pretty much ignored. This was noted by Thomas Croften Croker (who visited this particular West Cork site in 1813) in a fascinating description of the Pattern Day festivities from his book ’Researches in the South of Ireland’:
“After having satisfied our mental craving, we felt it necessary to attend to our bodily appetites, and for this purpose adjourned to a tent where some tempting slices of curdy Kerry salmon had attracted our notice. In this tent, with the exception of almost half an hour, we remained located from half-past seven in the evening, until two o’clock the following morning, when we took our departure from Cork.
After discussing the merits of this salmon, and washing it down with some of “Beamish & Crawford’s Porter” we whiled away the time by drinking whiskey-punch, observing the dancing to an excellent piper, and listening to the songs and story-telling which were going on about us.
As night closed in, the tent became crowded almost to suffocation, and dancing being out of the question, our piper left us for some other station, and a man, who I learned had served in the Kerry militia, and had been flogged at Tralee about five years before as a White-boy, began to take a prominent part in entertaining the assembly by singing Irish songs in a loud and effective voice. These songs were received with shouts of applause, and as I was then ignorant of the Irish language and anxious to know the meaning of what had elicited so much popular approbation, I applied to an old woman near who I sat, for an explanation or translation, which she readily gave me, and I found that these songs were rebellious in the highest degree. Poor old King George was execrated without mercy; curses were also dealt out wholesale on the Saxon oppressors of Banna the Blessed (an allegorical name for Ireland); Bonaparte’s achievement were extolled, and Irishmen were called upon to follow the example of the French people.”
Although the dissolution of such activities was a goal that both the Irish Church and the British Colonial Administration were keen to achieve, in the end, it was the Famine and subsequent emigration that did for the ‘patterns’. With entire regions laid waste by starvation and ‘pestilence’, survivors had neither the energy nor inclination to celebrate or venerate the saints who were meant to be protecting them. Although, over time, the country recovered, the subsequent emigration and pressure from Crown and church authorities continued to force its decline.
These days when I visit the pattern sites, I’m always impressed by the overlap of Christian and pre-Christian elements I find there. The crosses and rosary beads are always easy to find but the water rituals and blessings for the dead are anything but Christian. It’s as though, even after all this time, the local communities are reluctant to relinquish the old – the very old – ways.