Pattern Mass: a centuries-old tradition carved in stone

The annual pattern Mass at Kilmakilloge on the Beara Peninsula – part ancient spiritual ritual, part secular knees-up – brings people in their hordes each year. What keeps them coming back?

Fr Martin Sheehan distributing Communion at the annual Kilmakilloge pattern Mass. Photograph: Frank Miller

Fr Martin Sheehan distributing Communion at the annual Kilmakilloge pattern Mass. Photograph: Frank Miller

Thu, Jul 18, 2013, 11:08

There is no sign along the twisting coast road on the northern Beara Peninsula that indicates the significance that lies in a field about half a mile from Kilmakilloge Harbour. Yet the high mound of stones woven together with grass that is on farmer Eoin Downing’s land in the parish of Tuosist has attracted believers to it for hundreds of years.

This is where people come to make a pattern in honour of St Kilian, their local saint, on July 8th each year. People make five “rounds” of the mound, which is believed to be the ruins of an old oratory. They pause when they have completed these rounds to add their infinitesimally small double strokes to the two flat stones that lie partially buried on either side of the mound. Over the generations, a cross has been carved into each stone by people doing rounds, who make the shape with a sharp pebble.

In this field also, there used to be a small lake with “floating tussocks” in it: lumps of vegetation that came adrift from time to time and moved around the lake, to the mystification and respect of locals. This lake was reputed to have healing powers, and rounds were done of that also, on pattern day. Today, time has knitted the vegetation together, and while water remains, you could no longer describe it as a lake, and the former floating tussocks are now firmly fixed in place.

‘Our parents did it. It’s tradition’
And yet, local people of Tuosist parish, such as Helen and Jeremiah McCarthy, still come each year and do their ritual pattern-day rounds. Helen struggles to explain why. “Our grandparents did it. Our parents did it. It’s tradition,” she says. She keeps searching for other words to describe what pulls her to pattern day each year, but “tradition” is the only one that keeps recurring, mantra-like.

Kilmakilloge is a tiny place, overlooking a pier and harbour. Its focal point is Helen Moriarty’s charming old bar, with rooms above, a landmark premises that has been there for generations. The bar, the pier and the road that leads to the harbour have always been important parts of pattern day, in what used to be called the “secular” part of the pattern.

Celebrating the pattern of St Kilian used to be a three-day event. People set up stalls selling food and porter along the pier, and musicians came from the Iveragh peninsula by boat to play on the pier, where people danced in their best clothes.

There is a photograph dating from 1917 that show throngs of people outside what is now Helen Moriarty’s bar, with tents in the background, at the secular pattern. There is another showing elegant women formally dressed in hats and long skirts dancing on the pier: they look as if they could be in a ballroom.

Both these photographs come from Tuosist 6000, an anthology of local history, published in 1999 by the Tuosist History and Newsletter Committee. The book also contains several period accounts of pattern day. One of these is by John O’Donoghue, and thought to date from some 70 years ago.

After O’Donoghue had done his rounds and made his mark with a sharp stone on the “big stone on which countless generations of people before me had cut the Sign of the Cross”, he cycled down to Kilmakilloge. Tents were serving food and porter.

“I could hear the pleasant hum of music as I came near the pier and when I got there the dances had already started on the road. I saw the heads of young people hopping up and down as they tripped it out together . . . Further out on the pier were groups of young people dancing to the music of melodeons and concertinas.”

Back in the present, Jim O’Sullivan is sitting by the pierside where, decades previously, hundreds had gathered to dance on this date. O’Sullivan recalls the excitement of his childhood, in the days leading up to the pattern, when fairground-style attractions were set up. “I remember wanting to get out of school to go on the swingboats,” he says. “People used to come over from Sneem by boat for the pattern.”

A pattern Mass has now become part of the modern-day rituals, with people doing their rounds either before or after the Mass.

This year the pattern Mass takes place at 8pm, at the picturesque site of the old ruined church at Kilmakilloge, a mile or so inland from the pier.

An audience of hundreds
From 7pm onwards, hundreds come; on foot, by bike, in cars. Under blue, hot skies that glaze the landscape with haze, two stewards direct traffic, with cars parked three-deep in the small carpark, and all along the road either side.

In the beautifully kept Kilmakilloge cemetery, people wait for the Mass to start. They quietly line the walls, and stand or sit companionably beside the graves of deceased family members. Half a dozen names are repeated on headstones, over and over: O’Sullivan, O’Shea, Healy, McCarthy, Sheehan, Harrington.

Children lie on rugs on the lawn. The strata in the distinctive red sandstone mountain of Knockatee curves like petrified waves in the distance.

This year, the pattern Mass is concelebrated by Fr Martin Sheehan, parish priest, and Fr Ted Harrington. Starting the Mass, Fr Sheehan says: “Heaven and Earth meet here in our graveyard.” He pays warm tribute to what he described as “our lovely community”.

The unofficial custodian
Eoin Downing is 85, and he is the unofficial custodian of the pattern sites, as both the mound and what remains of the lake are on his land. In his farmhouse after the pattern Mass, over ham and tomatoes, he recalls his earliest memories of the stories he heard about doing a pattern of the lake. He remembers when the lake was the “size of quarter of an acre”. Now, it is the size of his small kitchen.

“I used to hear about the woman who was blind, and her husband took her to the lake to the do the rounds. And didn’t she get her sight back, and what she saw first was a priest,” he says.

“My mother told me her mother told her that horses and carts used to be lined up near the field on pattern day. You’d be coming a long way, if you had a horse and cart. That was long before cars. They didn’t come for nothing. It’s hard to explain what brought people. Maybe they thought they’d be cured of something. They do the pattern because it’s tradition.”

Like many long-standing rituals, people who observe them generally don’t tend to question why they do so. Puzzlement descends over everyone I ask in Kilmakilloge as to why they continue to make the pattern-day rounds. These are some of the answers I received over the evening.


“It’s what we’ve always done.”

“People travelled long distances to come here for the pattern, so there must be something in it.”

“Everyone takes their own meaning from it.”

“Isn’t it like doing the Camino: people do these things because there is some spiritual meaning in it for them?”

“Whatever it is, it’s not Christian at all, it’s pure pagan.”

“It’s about respect.”

“It’s our local tradition.”

Deep grooves in stone
After talking to Eoin Downing, I go back to the field where people had been doing their pattern rounds all day. The grooves of both stones with the deeply carved crosses in them are newly white with fresh markings. The grooves are the depth of my finger. They bring to mind the dip of spiral stone steps at castles, where centuries of treading feet have gradually worn away solid stone to show that people have long passed that way.

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