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Easter Saturday and a Funeral for a Fish
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 wasnt 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.
There are hundreds of islands around the Irish coast. Achill is the biggest, the Arans the most romantic; Skellig Michael the most dramatic and Tory the most menacing - at least in legend. The Blaskets offer the most fertile ground for literature and Clare island is the most meticulously studied. But, whichever island you may visit, you can be sure each of them has its own superlative. For example, Little Skellig off St. Finian's Bay in Co. Kerry, is known for its gigantic colony of white seabirds called gannets.
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March 4, 2011
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