Pattern Day in Old Ireland
The word pattern is derived from the Irish Patrun or English Patron and, in the old days, most Irish parishes had a patron saint. On the saint's feast day, the parishioners celebrated what was known as a Pattern Day.
In pre-Reformation times, the festivities began with religious devotions at the church, but this came to an end when the confiscation and/or destruction of Roman Catholic churches took place in the century and a half between the
1540s and the 1690s. By 1700, the devastation was such that very few, if any, churches remained under Catholic control and public religious ceremonies almost disappeared.
With the central location of their secular devotions gone, the faithful found alternative ways to celebrate their saint's feast day. While many of the laity paid homage at the saint's shrine or in the ruins of their local church,
most devotions took place at the holy well.
In general, devotions at these sacred wells began with making what was called 'the rounds.' The people would walk around the well a certain number of times while saying special prayers. Part of the ritual included drinking the water
as well as bathing with it. It was said that water from a sacred well had curative powers and some wells became famous for curing specific ailments. At the end of their visit, the people usually left behind a small token - some coins, a piece of cloth which
was hung up, or any other small object they happened to have with them.
These sacred well traditions, rituals, legends and customs date back hundreds of years, and were common throughout the British Isles long before Christianity came to Ireland. However, for Irish Catholics, the disappearance of their
churches and the Penal Laws made well-gatherings an important event - especially on the feast day of their patron saint.
Without official clerical direction, Pattern Days became noted for unorthodox forms of devotion and often rowdy amusements. The clergy tried to keep matters under control and at the Synod of Tuam in 1660, the following decree was
"Dancing, flute-playing, bands of music, riotous revels and other abuses in visiting wells and other holy places are forbidden...."
Of course, no-one paid much attention to that decree or even the Penal Laws of the early 18th century which included the following infamous 'Act to prevent further Growth of Popery." It prohibited "the riotous and assembling together
of many thousands of papists to the said wells and other places and prescribing a fine of 10/- on all who met at wells and 20/- on vendors of 'all ale, victuals or other commodities' with a public flogging in default of payment, enjoined on all magistrates
the demolition of 'all crosses, pictures and inscriptions that are anywhere publickly set up, and are the occasion of any popish superstitions."
While this law caused the destruction of most embellishments at wells and shrines, it was ineffective in suppressing Pattern Days because it depended on the local gentry for enforcement. While there were a few religious bigots who
enjoyed making life miserable for the faithful, most of the gentry turned a blind eye on what was, for the most part, a harmless local custom. Thus, Pattern Days continued to flourish on into the 19th century. Today the practice is declining but still very
active is some areas.