Analysis: the day before Lent began may have involved feasting and food, but it certainly wasn't a good day for single people

By Marion McGarryGalway Mayo Institute of Technology

The day before Lent begins is most significant in all cultures that observe the Lenten period. Shrove Tuesday is the day before Ash Wednesday and is also known as Pancake Tuesday and Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras in places further afield. It's a day which offered a final blowout before the beginning of the fasting period, certainly where it came to foodstuffs. People could have a bit of a feast if stocks allowed and, because eggs were off limits during Lent, the feast traditionally involved pancakes.

One Irish custom of the day was that any holly left over from Christmas should be saved for the fire to make the pancakes. As eating meat was to be banned for Lent, animals were slaughtered for a final Shrove Tuesday feast. More prosperous farmers ensured that any neighbours who were quite poor would get a portion.

From RTÉ Radio 1's News At One, Marion McGarry on the odd and bizarre traditions once associated with Shrove Tuesday in Ireland 

As was the case with most Irish calendar customs, some rituals involving marriage divination could also take place on the night of Shrove Tuesday. There are strong marriage customs around Shrove Tuesday which are said to have evolved from the fact that weddings could not take place during the Lenten season. The tradition was that Roman Catholics did not get married during fasting days, Lent or Advent, so the period leading up to Shrovetide was a time of weddings. This became a time when additional pressure was ramped up on singletons. It was seen as a type of disregard of social duty to not get married and single people in Ireland were regarded as having a lesser social status.

What became known as Skellig Night was a feature of Shrove Tuesday in parts of the south, especially Cork and Kerry. After sunset, noisy crowds went onto the streets of towns in the region and the Skellig night procession was all about loudly slagging off the still-single and telling them to "go to the Skelligs". The Skellig islands off the coast of Co. Kerry were said to still run under the old calendar, therefore Ash Wednesday would arrive later there, hence there would be still time for the single to go there to marry before Lent began. Sometimes, people in disguise would call to the homes of the single and try to take them by force onto the street to be jeered, making as much of a din as possible.

From RTÉ Archives, Folklorist Seosamh Ó Dálaigh from Dún Chaoin, Co Kerry, talks about customs and folklore relating to Shrove Tuesday and Lent on a 1982 episode of Fáilte

Throughout the 19th century, satirical ballads celebrating the trip to the Skelligs were composed, printed and sold as broadsides. As noted by Caoimhin Ó Danachair's "Chalk Sunday" in North Munster Antiquarian Journal, what became known as the Skellig lists were printed and displayed publicly, listing those about to go on the "grand sea excursion" to the islands. They would include names of real people, and often veered into offensive territory. This was all to be regarded as a harmless joke of course but it can't have been too nice to have been a single person on the receiving end of either Skellig night or the Skellig lists.

The Sunday following Shrove Tuesday, the first Sunday in Lent, was commonly known as Chalk Sunday in Ireland and the public bullying of the unmarried would reach a peak on that day in some regions. The unmarried had chalk Xs and other emblems drawn on their backs to public jeers and cat-calls. This often took place on the way to and from church.

From RTÉ Archives, Professor Daithí Ó hÓgáin, Eileen Ní Mhurchú and Síle de Cléir discuss Shrove Tuesday customs with Teletalk host Ciana Campbell in 1993

Young men and women were let off with a chalk mark but chronic bachelors and spinsters were especially targeted. Some were daubed with raddle, a substance used to mark sheep that was really hard to clean from clothing. To be chalked was seen as a bit of a joke, but to be "raddled" was viewed as an affront. They also had pranks played on them: gates were removed from the gateposts of the single and (temporary) graffiti daubed on their gateposts. There is a story of one group of pranksters who went to the trouble of creating an effigy dressed in women's clothes and leaving it in front of a bachelor's house, to jokingly provide him with a "wife". 

In some parts, the day was known as Puss Sunday, (after pus, the Irish word for scowl) because anyone without a partner was said to wear a scowl reflecting their constant unhappiness at their unmarried state. The torture of the unattached did not end there: Salt Monday was observed in some parts of the country, with the condiment freely thrown on single people "to preserve them for another year" - oh, how they must have laughed. For the single in Ireland in the past, the public shaming and mortification was loud and real, but these customs thankfully had died out by the mid 20th century. We still have Pancake Tuesday however, and that can be enjoyed by all.

Dr Marion McGarry is an art historian, author, independent researcher and lecturer at Galway Mayo Institute of Technology

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ