A Pattern from the past

An Irishman’s Diary: Echoes of paganism in a parish celebration

Large crowds will gather from early morning on September 8th for the Pattern Day in Ballyheigue, Co Kerry, following a centuries-old tradition. The word Pattern is derived from “patron” or “pátrún” and the parish feast day is celebrated in the church’s calendar as the nativity of Mary.

At one time every parish in the country probably had such a patron day, but only a small number still survive. Many Patterns are linked to rituals at wells and other special places, showing clear associations with pre-Christian rituals, and they often took place at around the same time as the great festival of Lughnasa. These rituals were absorbed into the Christian calendar. On September 8th in Ballyheigue, people will “pay rounds” by circum-ambulating Our Lady’s Well three times in a clockwise or sunwise direction, reciting a rosary during each round, replicating an ancient Celtic rite known as the deiseal. The well water is believed to have healing properties and some will sprinkle it on the body or drink it, or take it away for later use. One expert has observed that, like wakes, there was “a vestige of innocent paganism” about the rituals of the Patterns and such traces can still be observed in Ballyheigue. Church and civil authorities were strongly opposed to Patterns, ostensibly because of abuses such as drunkenness and faction-fighting associated with them, but also perhaps because of unease about popular, uncontrolled mass devotions.

The great economist, Richard Cantillon, who was born in Ballyheigue in the 1680s and whose name graces a column in the Business section of The Irish Times, no doubt enjoyed the festivities at the Pattern, before he emigrated to France to make his name and fortune. In general, few Patterns remained by the early 19th century and the survival of a small number today suggests a stubborn resistance to sustained efforts to suppress them. Such resistance must have been shown in Balllyheigue, as a report in the Tralee Chronicle in 1871 reveals that it was then a familiar festive day: "The Pattern Day comes but once a year, and with it come the elite and rabble of the country families around . . . The Ballybunion piper and other disciples of Orpheus did not forget us this year, therefore the lovers of the 'light fantastic' danced their fill. We had actors and gamblers in almost endless variety and unlimited numbers".

In Ballyheigue in modern times, Pattern Day is still a most significant day in the parish year. Emigrants arrange return visits around it, family reunions take place, work is suspended, children are indulged and enmities are set aside. Members of the travelling community (among whom there is a strong tradition of devotion to this particular Pattern) still gather from all over Ireland and Britain. Fifty years ago, their barrel-shaped horse-drawn wagons lined the village street, while the horses enjoyed the freedom of a canter on the strand.


In an 80-year old tradition, Pattern Day now begins with a concelebrated open-air Mass at Our Lady’s Well. This year, the newly-appointed Bishop of Kerry, Raymond Browne, will preside for the first time. The devotional aspect of the day remains the main attraction for most people, and echoes of more furtive gatherings for Mass in Penal Days underlie the atmosphere; once Mass is over and rounds paid, the rest of the day is for leisure. Along the single street and seafront, hawkers and hucksters have set up their stalls well in advance, even though there is barely a day’s trading involved. Pattern Day is seen as a turning-point of the year, a demarcation, an ending and a beginning. “After the Pattern” in local parlance denotes a more settled, less busy time.

In former times there were events such as horse-racing on the strand, hurling contests (this part of Kerry is a hurling enclave), and in the mid 1900s, an aeríocht, or festival of music and song. Nowadays there is little organised entertainment. People will amble in a kind of north Kerry passeggiata, dropping into the pubs, pausing at the stalls and chatting at leisure with old friends, neighbours and returned emigrants. It has always been more of an assembly or gathering, an aonach even, than a festival. Even in these secular days, there is an underlying appreciation of a communal celebration hallowed by history, a golden thread which links the living with those who have passed on. The prevailing atmosphere is one of respect for the heritage of the parish, for the beliefs of others, for the ancestors, for the holy well, for continuity, for renewal and for the cycle of life.