The Gathering? It’s nothing new
You have only to look around to see how deeply assemblies are rooted in Irish history
Open-air ritual: pilgrims climb Croagh Patrick on Garland Sunday. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times
In 1351 William Buí O’Kelly, lord of Uí Mháine, in east Galway and Roscommon, invited the poets, brehons, bards, harpers, jesters and other entertainers of all Ireland to his house at Christmas for a great gathering. So pleased were the assembled artists with O’Kelly’s hospitality that they praised him lavishly for his excellent generosity.
One of these medieval poems survived: Filidh Éireann go haointeach (The Poets of Ireland to One House) was composed by the master bardic poet Gofraidh Fionn Ó Dálaigh, who died in 1387. Gofraidh spared no hyperbole in praising O’Kelly for his invitation and bounty:
The grandson of Conchobhar of Glandore is not a mere Irishman; William with his curly, ringletted, spreading locks, is Grecian and Spanish.
The poet painted a similarly exaggerated image of the great gathering as it was arranged around O’Kelly’s castle:
The poets of the Irish land are preparing to seek O’Kelly. A mighty company is approaching his house, an avenue of peaked hostels is in readiness for them.
Hard by that – pleasant is the aspect – a separate street has been appointed by William for the musicians that they may be ready to perform before him.
The chroniclers of comely Ireland, it is a gathering of a mighty host, the company is in the town; where is the street of the chroniclers?
The fair, generous-hearted host have another spacious avenue of white houses for the bardic companies and the jugglers.
(translation by Eleanor Hull)
Whether or not this particular event gave us the Irish expression fáilte Uí Cheallaigh – the welcome of O’Kelly – is a moot point. Yet both O’Kelly’s 14th-century festival and the Irish phrase show how deeply assemblies and gatherings are rooted in Ireland’s history. We do not need to invent gatherings: they have been part of our culture for a long time.
The imprint of assembly sites can be found throughout the Irish landscape. The great ceremonial monuments at Tara were constructed for a variety of communal assemblies and royal processions. Kings of Tara followed a deliberate route uphill along the lengthy Banqueting Hall to the Neolithic tomb at the Mound of the Hostages, passing the prophetic Lia Fáil, which lay beside the tomb. They then reached the impressive man-made mound now known as the Forrad, the spot on which kings of Tara were proclaimed.
Assemblies at Tara were public spectacles on a grand scale. Similarly impressive communal gatherings took place at major sites such as Teltown, in Co Meath, Rathcroghan, in Co Roscommon, Navan Fort, in Co Armagh, and Cashel, in Co Tipperary.
Such is the richness of the surviving prehistoric and medieval archaeology in Ireland, and medieval Irish sources, that we can experience at first hand the excitement and tension sensed by our ancestors on such occasions. An 11th-century poem describing the assembly of Carman, the most important ceremonial meeting place in Leinster, catches the atmosphere of bustling activity on the site, an atmosphere reminiscent of many an annual county fair today:
Three busy markets in the land, the market of food, the market of livestock, the great market of the Greek foreigners, with gold and fine clothing.
Medieval Irish sources describe what events were organised at gatherings, and they were not very different from our own entertainment at festivals today: horse-racing, games, markets and feasting.
But assemblies from the most local to the provincial were also vital to the medieval communities of Ireland: here their kings were proclaimed, their laws were agreed, justice was administered, political alliances were concluded, marriages were made, armies were mustered, ancestors were revered and saints were invoked. The óenach (Modern Irish aonach) assembly was at the heart of Irish society.
Some of the most familiar words in Irish describe a gathering: aonach, dáil, feis and tionól. Throughout Ireland dozens of place names retain the silent memory of a local gathering: Cnoc Samhna, the Hill of Samhain (Knocksouna, Co Limerick), Mullach Leac, the Hill of the Stone (Leck Hill, Co Monaghan) and An tAonach (Nenagh, Co Tipperary).
Pilgrim sites continue to attract large crowds who follow established rituals in the open air. We need think only of the annual climb to the summit of Croagh Patrick, in Co Mayo, or pattern days, such as that celebrated on July 24th, the feast of St Declan, at the holy well at Toor, in Co Waterford.
Wells were often the locations for dramatic public events, none more sensational than that described by Friar John Clyn in his medieval chronicle when crowds descended on St Mullin’s church in Co Carlow after the Black Death began to spread through the towns in the east from 1347. The friar recorded that in 1348
bishops and prelates, men of the church and of religion, magnates and others, and commonly all persons of both sexes, gathered from all sides of diverse parts of Ireland, to the pilgrimage and the wading in the water of St Moling in crowds and multitudes, so that you might see many thousands of men assembling at the same place for many days. Some came from feelings of devotion, others (the majority) from fear of the plague that then prevailed beyond measure and that first began near Dublin at Howth and Drogheda.
Dr Bernadette Williams)
In more recent memory, and even surviving to this day, are the common occasions that bring a community together: the wake in the house of the deceased or the summer funfair on the local green. There is no more evocative portrayal of the Irish inclination to gather and to have fun than The Festival of Lughnasa, the iconic work of the folklorist Máire MacNeill, published in 1962. MacNeill documented dozens of recollections of the festivities celebrated in the Irish countryside on Garland Sunday, or Domhnach Chrom Dubh, at the end of July. A typical description is that relating to Kylecorragh, in Co Kilkenny, recorded in 1942 and preserved in the National Folklore Collection at University College Dublin:
All the young boys and girls for miles round came to climb the hill and pick the fraughans [wild bilberries] . . . The fraughans picked during the day were brought by the boys to the various houses of the district and the young girls were commanded to make a ‘Fraughan cake’. This was an honour conferred on the girls as each boy came and took that girl as well as the cake to the Bonfire dance. The boys also provided wood for the Bonfire. Tables were also loaned by the houses nearby to put the ‘Fraughan cakes’ on. They danced and ate alternately well into the small hours of the morning. All went home well pleased and the Coill a’Charraig or Fraughan Sunday’s fun was the talk and tonic of the rural population of the area . . .
Whatever about girls baking fraughan cakes and boys collecting firewood, today’s generation could do worse than take a look at MacNeill’s wonderful work as they try to think of how to entice people to Ireland for the Gathering this summer.
Dr Edel Bhreathnach is a medieval historian at the Mícheál Ó Cléirigh Institute for the Study of Irish History and Civilisation, at University College Dublin