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Easter Saturday and a Funeral for a Fish
by Bridget Haggerty

Pity the poor butchers in old Ireland during the Lenten season. Not one good Christian soul would buy their beef, or any other kind of meat. The main source of protein for the long days of fasting was herring, because it was cheap and plentiful. But, after eating it so often, people were delighted to see the back of it. So much so, they celebrated with a mock funeral on Easter Saturday.

In towns and villages all over Ireland, it was primarily the butchers who planned what was called the Herring Procession. In Dundalk, Co. Louth, a herring was hung on a long stick; then, it was paraded through the town. Following behind were all of the people who had suffered economic loss - the butchers, the workers in the slaughterhouses, the porters and the errand boys.

Each of them carried a stick and beat on the herring until by the time they reached a place called the Big Bridge, there was almost nothing left of it. What little remained was then hurled with insults into Castletown River. In its place on the stick, was positioned a quarter of lamb, festooned with flowers and ribbons.

The procession then triumphantly returned through the streets to the market place, accompanied by musicians and cheers from the spectators along the route.

In Drogheda, Co. Louth, the custom was called “Whipping the Herring.” Here, it was the butcher boys who assembled and tied dozens of herrings to a long rope. One of the boys would throw the rope over his shoulder and run, dragging the line of fish behind him. In hot pursuit, the other boys would follow with whips and sticks, constantly flailing at the fish until not even a fin was left.

In Cork, it was a single herring that was carried aloft by the butchers and, as they paraded through the streets, the crowd would jeer and throw insults. Similar parades were held in Dublin on Easter Monday - often with the participants dressing in fantastic garments. There, a donkey formed part of the procession, its back covered by a cloth decorated with a cross.

Many of these Herring Processions were organized to raise contributions for the participants to help compensate for Lenten losses. And certainly, the spectators, who had grown weary of their tedious Lenten diet, were more than happy to show their appreciation for the return of meat to their tables. But, it wasn’t only the butchers who put together a funeral for a fish.

In Carickmacross, County Monaghan, for example, these Last Rites of Lent took place right after the late Mass on Easter Sunday. Dressed in their Easter finery, the young people formed a procession. At the head was a young man or woman who carried a long pole from which dangled a herring. Accompanied by fiddlers, the gathering then marched to a lake just outside of town and, with laughter and cheers, they removed the herring from the pole and threw it into the water.

Besides ‘drowning the herring’, the Irish also observed another important Holy Saturday custom. In the Roman Catholic Church, water is blessed on Holy Saturday for use in special rituals. It was popular belief in the old days that this ‘Easter Water’ had the power to prevent illness and guard against danger, so one member of every household would be sure to bring some home.

Every person in a family drank three sips of the water in the name of the Blessed Trinity. It was also sprinkled on the house, its occupants, the outbuildings, livestock and growing crops. The rest of the Easter Water was safely stored away for future use, and, according to tradition, it would remain fresh for ever.

A turf cinder from the Paschal or Easter Fire was also believed to bring prosperity and to protect against the danger of fire if it was brought to the church and blessed.

Have you ever seen the sun dance? I explain this Easter Sunday morning miracle in The dance of the Sun at dawn and a cake dance in the afternoon.
With all this talk about fish, keep in mind that a trout in the pot is better than a salmon in the sea.

 

Mon, Sep 29, 2014


Ireland's Most Haunted Castle

South-east of Birr between Kinnity and Roscrea, in Co. Offaly are the remains of Leap Castle. Originally an O'Carroll fortress, it guarded the pass from the Slieve Bloom into Munster. Said to have more than 50 ghosts, its dark and mysterious past includes the murder of a priest by his brother in the "Bloody Chapel" and the slaughter by their Irish employers of more than 50 Scots mercenaries in order to avoid payment. It has always had a reputation of being haunted and locals have described seeing the windows at the top of the castle "light up for a few seconds as if many candles were brought into the room" late at night. For more details read our article Creepy Irish Castles & Houses.

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