Manners and Customs in Old Kilmactigue

The reverend James Neligan (1752-1833), who was the Rector of Kilmactigue from 1802 until his death, has left us a most interesting insight into the lifestyle of this once densely populated Parish in the south-west of County Sligo. In his dual role as vicar and magistrate, he was well-placed not only to observe but also to comment on the manners and customs of his fellow parishioners, the majority of whom were Roman Catholics. His relationship with his co-religious was such that on occasion he rented the local chapel for the use of his small flock.  In his obituary in ‘Saunders News Letter’ he is referred to as a “scholar, poet and gentleman”.

 “ The parish of Kilmactigue, which has a rectory and vicarage, is situated in the barony of Liney, county of Sligo, and diocese of Achonry.  It is six miles in length by four in breadth; bounded on the east and south by the parish of Achonry; on the north and west by those of Killasser and Attymass.  A long range of mountains passes through it, most of which is pasturable; it also contains large tracts of wet bog. No woods are to be met within the parish; although in former ages a great part of it must have been covered with timber.

The number of families – by a return made last year by the priest – amounts to twelve hundred Roman Catholic families, to which may be added to the ten Protestant families, four of which have come lately to the parish. The number of houses is stated to be eleven hundred and fifty, to which are to be added those of the Protestant part of the population; in many of these there are two families living together.  Many of these families keep a servant boy or girl, and sometimes both, for three, six or nine months in the year, to assist them in their work.  It is computed that there are on average five children in each family, or rather a house, which however must be a rather large a computation, as many are old people, and many newly married.  The proportion of males and females is nearly equal.  They are mostly poor, maintaining themselves on small portions of land, for which they generally pay a very high price.  There are not thirty families in the parish who pay any of the public taxes included under the hearth and window duty, they are notwithstanding, tolerably healthy, though confined to poor diet, such as potatoes, with milk and eggs occasionally. The population, as well as the prices of provisions, must  have increased very much within the last forty years, as that time Archdeacon Hutchinson,  who was the incumbent, could set the thythes (both rectorial and vicorial) for only £85 per annum, which now exceed £400.

Early marriages is perhaps the principle cause of the great increase in the population.  The young women are generally married from the age of fifteen to twenty, and the men from twenty and upwards.  The portion usually given, is from ten pounds to fifty with the girls, and the young man has generally a smallholding of land, with perhaps a few cattle, to begin the world with. A few instances may occur where one hundred pounds may have been given as a portion with a bride, but such may indeed be called a ‘rava avis’. These marriages are contracted in most instances, without any regard to love, affection, or any of the finer feelings, and are concluded between the friends of the young people, without any reference to their choice or judgement; and it frequently happens, that the bride is dragged to the hymeneal altar, bathed in tears, and compelled to take a companion for life, who is chosen by her parents from prudential motives.  The chief time for marriages is from Christmas until Lent, being the season of the year when people have the most leisure for settling such business.

 When the parents of a young man think it is time for him to take a wife, they consider what young woman in the neighbourhood will be likely to answer the purpose, and having determined on one, the party goes to make the match, as they term it, which is done by sitting up the whole night, talking over the terms, drinking whiskey and smoking tobacco.  The match being concluded, the day is appointed for the marriage, at which time the parties assemble at the abode of the woman, where the priest attends and a plentiful dinner or supper is prepared for the occasion, at which a large number of the friends are entertained, and the abundance of whiskey distributed amongst them; perhaps ten gallons, or more, the price of a middling cow; this, with the accompaniment of a piper, enables them to pass the night in the utmost of festivity. Dancing makes a considerable part of the entertainment, and is considered as a necessary accompaniment amongst them; and hundreds who have never learned the alphabet, or spoken a word of English, have regularly attended the dancing schools, and, at no small expense, become adept in that science.  Singing the old Irish songs makes also a principal part of their entertainment, which they execute with great correctness, as many of them have sweet and melodious voices, well adapted to these melancholy and plaintive strains. Things go on very well in the beginning of the night.

 As long as the reverend pastor holds the chair, he keeps them to regularity and good order; but afterwards the scene changes, and exhibits chaos of tumult, vociferation and drunkenness.  Perhaps three musicians may be  found playing to as many as sets of dancers, a dozen men and women singing as many different songs, and other groups employed in altercation and quarreling. Thus two or three days and nights are spent, before the parties disperse’ and it frequently happens that there is as much money lavished on the entertainment as would amount to half the fortune of the bride.  Such however is the custom of the country, and such the pride and spirit of the people, that they would lay out their last shilling to furnish the feast rather that be thought singular or churlish.

It is only on such occasions as weddings and christenings and at Easter and Christmas, that they afford themselves any sort of animal food. Potatoes furnish the standing dish three times a day throughout the year, except that in summer, when they begin to grow scarce, those who can save a part of their oats from the landlord’s rent, make little meal, which they use either for bread or to make gruel, which they make with their potatoes.

 Although almost every family has one cow, and many of them more than one, yet their pasture is so bad, and their winter feeding so scarce and indifferent, that they have very little milk at any time; but for the winter and spring months scarcely any, particularly if their cows are in calf.  Those who have even one cow put by all the sweet milk for the churning, and use none but the buttermilk; by so doing, they make half a hundred weight of butter in the season, and perhaps more, which they will sell at Sligo, where it is brings from £5 10s to £6 10s. per cwt. and which enables them to pay their rent. They have a good many fowl, and plenty of eggs, which the women sell to procure the price of tobacco, (a luxury to which they are immoderately attached), and such is their infatuation, that, notwithstanding their poverty and nakedness, each family will expend from 10d to 1s 8d per week on that abominable weed, where it is used by the man and wife; for although they could buy as many salt herrings for that money, as would afford them nearly every dinner every day along with their potatoes, they prefer eating them dry, to the want of their beloved tobacco.

The understanding of the inhabitants of this parish, though uncultivated, is acute; they are generally hospitable, complaisant and honest.  The Irish language is universally spoken, but few of them can speak English.

A great number of Saint’s days are observed, which, however, are spent in idleness and drinking, to the great injury of the people, both as morals and industry.

The Lady Days are observed with the most scrupulous attention, that is to say, so far as abstaining from all kind of daily labour, or following trade or calling, although their sanctity does not operate on their minds so as to induce them to refrain from sports and pastimes, cursing or swearing, or frequenting tippling houses, and drinking to excess. At the same time it is not unusual to see then actively employed on Sundays at their usual labour, without seeming to think that they are transgressing a positive command of God, or doing an act either sinful or indecent.  With an equal strictness they observe the fast from flesh meat on Fridays, and during Lent; although if an opportunity offers, they would not scruple to get drunk at these times. On making enquiry from some of the more decent of them, why they acted thus and why they transgressed the positive commands of God, with so little feeling, while they obeyed the ordinances of mere men with such exact devotion, the writer was informed, that their church, which taught them to do so, was infallible, and that it was their duty to obey its decrees.

To the fondness they have for observing holidays, may be added another propensity highly injurious, that of attending at the fairs and markets in their neighborhood, although they have no business to transact there.  From these they seldom return without laying out some part of their small means for whiskey, which often produces rioting and fighting; this is followed by a further loss of time, and waste of money, in going to the Magistrates to obtain justice, and from thence to the Sessions to prosecute their suits. Often indeed they settle their disputes at home, by reference or by arbitration, and the same ingredient which originally produced the quarrel, and marked their heads with bleeding scars, becomes the means of adjusting the dispute; for the compromise is never entered upon but where whiskey can be procured, and here the parties are well fined, by paying for the liquor employed in treating the Brehons, (for thus the arbitrators are called in Irish) and the friends and witnesses who attend at the reference. 

Another source of idleness amongst them, is the constant attendance given at the wakes and funerals of their neighbours; the neglect of which would be considered as a crime of the blacked dye, and an offence not to be forgiven.

It is also a custom amongst them, that when any person dies in a village, all work and labour is totally suspended by all those living in the village, or within a short distance of it, until after the interment; the intermediate space is usually employed in visiting the house where the corpse is exposed, smoking tobacco, or entertaining themselves with certain plays or tricks, which are practiced by the young folks, (some of which are particularly expert in performing these) and which enable them to pass away the long night in the greatest mirth and hilarity; so that a person unacquainted with their customs, passing by, or visiting the house, would be led to believe that they were assembled for the purpose of celebrating a marriage, or commemorating some joyful event rather than condoling with the disconsolate friends of the deceased.  Among the more wealthy people, victuals are provided for those who come to the wake from a distance, and also a due proportion of whiskey and abundance of tobacco and pipes; some of which is also brought to the burying place, with which they regale themselves while the ceremony is being preformed.

These several expenses, which are deemed to be indispensable, and highly creditable to the deceased and to their friends, together with the fees to be paid to the priest, amounting to eight shillings for each person, and the Masses read for the soul of the departed, to bring him out of purgatory, amount to a considerable sum.  The burial of a wife with all the necessary appendages, may in many cases, amount to half the portion which the husband, wife, or child is spoken of, the complaint does not seem to turn so much on the loss of the person, as on the money it has cost the money for the interment.

Among the genteel and opulent families, besides the usual Masses celebrated for the souls of the departed, there is another, no less strange, but to which an uncommon degree of merit and virtue is ascribed; this they call ‘A Month’s Mind’.  The ceremony is attended by as much of their clergy as they can procure at the house where the person dies; where the forenoon of a certain number of days is dedicated to Masses and prayers, for the liberation of the soul of the deceased from its intermediate prison and to send it to the abodes of the blessed; whilst the afternoons are spent in conviviality and innocent recreation, for the purpose the best meats and drink which the country can afford are procured.

The surest proof of the goodness of a man’s life seems to be the largeness of his funeral; and therefore great care is taken to have the remains numerously attended; so that the hundreds, and sometimes thousands are seen assembled to commit one poor putrifying body to its kindred earth, whilst the air resounds with the melodious voices of a large assemblage of females, notwithstanding the doleful and melancholy cries uttered by them, are totally unconcerned about the deceased, and never sully their cheeks with a falling tear, to denote their grief.  A priest was stationed here lately, who, if he had continued, seemed likely to remove some of their gross prejudices, and some unreasonable practices.  He began by prohibiting the use of this Irish Cry at funerals, as being in itself useless, and only fit for uncivilised society.  Reason and good sense, aided by the authority which the Catholic clergy possess over the minds of the people, produced the desired effect, and put a stop to that practice so long as he continued on the parish; but on his removal, they fell into their old practice as fully as ever, so difficult is it to eradicate prejudice confirmed by long custom.

Extract from ‘Parish of Kilmactigue’  by Revd. James Neligan,, rector and vicar- as published in Mason’s ‘Parochial survey of Ireland’, Dublin, 1816

 Blimey – nothing’s changed.



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