Old Cavan customs


Some customs have pagan origins, some have Christian origins and some are a mixture of both, influenced no doubt, by the good Saint Patrick himself when he arrived on our God forsaken shore in the year 432. Customs, whatever their origin, arose for certain reasons, be they health, economic, fear of misfortune, or just to implore the heavens for good luck. By Brendan Murray

Wishing for money and health
The following wish/prayer made by Cavan women of the nineteen forties on first sighting a new moon was obviously a mixture of both the Christian and pagan traditions. -
I see the moon and the moon sees me,
God bless the moon and God bless me.
I wish for lots of good money and good health
In the name of the Father, and of the Son
And of the Holy Ghost, Amen.
A woman had to turn a coin, preferably silver, in her pocket, as she made her wish. If her children happened to be present, they gladly joined in this wishing game.

Lucky you - A Dark man knocks
A lucky year ahead was foreseen for a household if a dark-haired man was the first to knock on its door and cross its threshold on New Year’s Day. The woman of the house would be ecstatic if a dark haired man, friend or stranger, was the first to call. Of course, she might have to inveigle him with some excuse to cross the threshold. She’d probably invite him in for a drink. Some men, particularly strangers, unaware of the custom, found the invitation for an early morning drop of the hard stuff, a little confusing. Dark haired milkmen, fond of a drop, enjoyed the morning immensely and might be quite inebriated on reaching the end of their milk round. Women relatives who lived adjacent to each other, usually had reciprocal arrangements for dark haired male members of each other’s families to knock on each other’s doors very early on New Year’s morning. They concocted reasons, often flimsy, for their dark haired father, son, uncle or cousin to call to each others homes; of course on this occasion the man knocked before lifting the latch and walking in and as he raised his glass of refreshment he said “God save all here throughout the year.”Lucky chains of buttercups

- May day
On May Day, young girls gathered buttercups, and arranged them in chain fashion around the edges of the doorstep or the entrance flagstone as well as the windowsills of their parents and grandparents’ homes. This ensured good luck for the house occupants for the remainder of the year.

Bad luck antidote
It was considered very unlucky to spill salt. If you accidentally spilled salt, your immediate remedy to avoid future misfortune was to throw three pinches of the salt over your left shoulder and bless yourself three times.

A Fairy Tree
A lone hawthorn tree growing in a field was called a “fairy tree,” - it belonged to the fairies. On no account would a farmer even contemplate cutting it down, because not alone would he be unlucky for the rest of his life, but he would experience terrible misfortunes.

Seasonal Customs
Easter morning
Some parents and children arose from their beds at 6am on Easter Sunday morning to observe the rising sun dance to signify Christ’s ascension into heaven.
Eating a number of boiled eggs on Easter Sunday morning was also a custom of the time. “How many eggs did you eat on Easter Sunday morning,” was the challenging question children asked pals. Most kids couldn’t manage more than two, so the reply usually was, “Two, but how many did you eat yourself?” If a young lad’s egg devouring skills weren’t up to standard he’d respond, “Two but my father ate seven.” Including fathers’ or big brothers’ achievements in devouring enormous number of eggs for breakfast endeavoured to ensure no slippage of family pride in this old custom.

Christmas Decorations
On a weekend before Christmas, children combed the countryside searching for red-berried holly. They were very satisfied to bring home branches bearing at least some berries as this added to their Christmas home wonderland. Soon their mothers had two crossed twigs of holly growing up from behind every picture in the kitchen and parlour. In some homes the Christmas tree was a small holly which children helped festoon with strips of coloured crepe paper and balloons. Narrow twisted strips of coloured crepe paper were run from the corners of the kitchen ceiling to a large multi coloured bell decoration in the centre. The parlour ceiling was similarly decorated but with more upbeat multi coloured concertina type decorations, which together with the bell decorations, were carefully retained from year to year. Christmas cards were placed on the mantlepieces in both rooms and hung on looped strings around the walls.

On Christmas Eve night, mothers put lighted candles in every window, symbolically to light the way for Mary and Joseph and also to show the way to late travellers. No blinds were drawn.

Religious Customs
Trimmin’s on the Rosary
The Rosary prayer was ‘recited’ by the fireside in most Roman Catholic homes before bedtime each night, and “childer” including boys and girls in their late teens had to attend at an appointed hour for this prayer. Following the Rosary, additional prayers, jocosely called “Trimmin’s”, were led by a parent for a multitude of relatives and friends, some of them long gone to their eternal reward. Neighbours who happened to “drop in” unexpectedly had to kneel down and join in the responses. If, while the prayers were in session, one of the parents of a farming family, wished to check if an important urgent task, was done by a son or a daughter, the prayers were briefly interrupted and the question asked, such as “Mary! Did you close the byre door?” or “Johnny! Did you count the cattle in the far field and close the gate?” These interruptions were often humourously twisted when related by an exasperated neighbour inordinately delayed in a neighbour’s house by the length of the Rosary trimmin’s; his versions of the questions would be - “Mary! Did you put the cat out? And Johnny! Did you see any duck on the lake below?”

Offerings at Funerals
Friends and neighbours of a deceased person made contributions to the upkeep of the clergy in a parish immediately following the service when the decease’s coffin was brought to church. Two close relatives of the deceased, together with the priest and alter boy stood behind a small table covered with white cloth near the alter rails. All attendees at the service would come forward and place their contributions on the table. People’s contributions varied in amounts depending on how well they knew the deceased. Contributions were counted there and then, and the priest informed the congregation of the total amount.

Amounts of offerings at various funerals were often the subject of comparisons and in the minds of the public reflected the extent of the deceased’s popularity. This competitive element was of benefit to the beneficiaries.

Periods of Mourning
A widow dressed completely in black and did not attend any social functions for a period of a year following the death of her husband and then, spent a short period “coming out of mourning” - wearing one or two grey items of clothing before reverting to her usual fashion outfits.
A husband of a deceased wife wore a small diamond shaped piece of black cloth on the left arm of his jacket and coat as would the sons and daughters and close relatives of a deceased parent.

Budgetary Strategy
Some elderly people, in order to ensure that all their weekly essential financial liabilities were paid, put monies due for their rent, insurance, bread, etc in little jars or ornaments on their kitchen dressers. The insurance agent or rent collector knew which jar contained his payment and helped himself to it in the absence of the occupant(s), leaving his receipt on the table. Likewise, the bread van man left his two of three loaves on the kitchen table and took his payment from the “bread van” jar.

Keeping the home fires burning
Commercials fire lighters are a modern luxury; none existed in the old days, so getting the fire started on a morning with pieces of old newspapers and dried kippíns (little pieces of sticks) could be difficult and time consuming. To overcome this difficulty, many people, particularly farmers, covered the burning embers in their fires with ashes at bedtime each night, and “raked out the gríosaige” (the hot embers) in the morning to start their fires. The previous day’s ashes were taken out when the fire was lit.

Straw Boys (Men, disguised in clothing, hats, and false faces made of straw).

On the rare occasion when a couple got married and after the “dragging home” (the first day they “dragged” themselves home after the honeymoon and took up residence in their permanent abode), kind neighbours who had discreetly learned of the home coming, visited them and gave them a prearranged warm welcome consisting of refreshments, music and dance. During the merriment, proceedings would be dramatically interrupted when, with great pomp and ceremony and to everyone’s feigned surprise, straw boys called and entertained the couple and their self invited guests before joining in the merriment.

Taken from Breffni Blue
April 2004