Emerald Isle

Sunwise Patterns

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Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales tales of Ireland

Round and round we go

The people of Ireland before the time of Saint Patrick had many strange customs, and some of these survive even to this very day, often mixed and combined with Christian rites and beliefs! One of those traditions was the sunwise walk.

What this meant was, in order for good luck to attend an event, you had to walk around it sunwise or deiseal, pronounced “jay-shall”, that was clockwise, from east to west.

The old druids used to proceed in this manner when they prepared their magical spells, keeping their temples always to their right hand side. Some suggest that the carven spirals on druid stones represent the number of times and the number of people who were meant to walk around the stones in order to use them, or perhaps the number of times they were circled during their creation!

When boats would set out on a voyage or for a day's fishing, they would always do one turn deiseal for good luck, and the sunwise walk around a bullaun stone or holy well can still be found in many places in Ireland today. At funerals, the procession would go in the same direction.

Farmers would walk around their fields sunwise carrying a blazing torch, to protect the crop from fire, witchcraft, evil spells or disease, and they would do the same for their house and cattle as well. Newborn babies and young women would be likewise circled, to protect them from the unwelcome attentions of the Sidhe.

Going in the other direction was considered very unlucky, and might have been used when casting the mallacht, the word of the curse or the evil eye.

Pattern days in Ireland were the remains of several different kinds of ancient customs, most of which arose from the Aedh, or festivals of old. Pattern was a corruption of patrún, or patron, and they celebrated saints during the day, and held wild revels during the night!

But the word also meant the pattern you were to walk around holy wells, an activity often assigned by priests as penance for sins, a deiseal known as “paying rounds”, reciting a rosary during each round, and stopping at stations like a Celtic high cross in the correct order. Tales from the 19th century tell of the extraordinary lengths people would go to during these penances, crawling on their knees until they were bloody, throwing pebbles into wells, plunging their heads or diseased body parts into the wells, and more!

This was the liminal time, as it is known today, the time when people tried to reach through the veil that separates our world from others, seeking redemption and healing.

Of course you could be forgiven for thinking they may have missed the point of their earlier prostrations, since when the sun set they would go drinking heavily, dancing, gambling, racing, faction fighting and getting up to all sorts of carry-on with shameless abandon! Bonfires were lit on hillsides in rituals more akin to ancient pagan sun worship than anything to do with Christianity.

Their cudgels were first notched with prayer before they were raised at the faction, which were in such cases more ritualistic re-enactments and different groups of men sought to bring “the luck” back to their own parishes.

Even divination was practised, something forbidden by the Church, and there were rumours of other strange things happening at these feasts!

This wildness, descended from the earliest Gaelic festivals, along with the disturbing belief that most seemed to have in the power of holy wells and ancient sacred sites, inspired the Bishops to forbid patterns and festival days, which most people ignored. It wasn't until the days of the great hunger that these events truly began to decline, along with the language and many other Irish customs, although some did last a bit longer, like only taking a drink over the left thumb, sunwise.

Ireland was and Ireland is a place of between times, a place where the law and customs are often at odds, and the old and new walk side by side, not always harmoniously,

St Declan's Pattern was celebrated in Ardmore, County Waterford for centuries, and is marked on the map below.


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