Analysis: forget Bumble or Tinder or First Dates, our ancestors got the shift at gatherings like fairs, pattern days and wakes

In recent years, apps have increasingly facilitated online dating, Indeed, thanks to Covid-19, these have become the only way for single people to link up with potential partners. Covid has also meant that large get-togethers in real life are out of bounds. This would have been an unimaginable state-of-affairs to our rural 19th century ancestors, whose courting rituals in their pre-married days happened at mass social gatherings like fairs, pattern days and wakes.

In the 19th century, there were certain societal norms outlining what was deemed to be acceptable behaviour and most social activities upheld a distance between the sexes. In addition, all courtship was linked to marriage. According to rural tradition, marriage was an important and tightly regulated institution linked to property inheritance and social status. Single people were often preoccupied with the question of who would they marry and some attempted to find the answer through divination rituals at certain times of the year.

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From RTÉ 2fm's Chris and Ciara show, Ciara's Diary on how she buckled to peer pressure and did something illegal in the hope of getting the shift

Couples were usually matched for marriage through their parents or by a local matchmaker hired to do the job. Matchmaking was a common custom and persisted into living memory. The Catholic church too was growing in influence, which would have far reaching consequences for wider societal norms in Ireland well into the 20th century. Thus, the love lives of our ancestors was largely regulated by society and courting had to be socially sanctioned, polite and ritualised.

But we can't assume that all rural Irish people had just one partner in life whom they married. People must have had flings, especially in their younger days. However, there was little opportunity for singles to mingle in everyday life. People had little opportunity to mix with those from outside of one’s small community, where many were related to each other.

As a result, mass seasonal gatherings of fairs, patterns and wakes were popular enablers of rural Irish courtship. At these events, there was an easing of the usual moral code and an opportunity to let one’s hair down. One might possibly even have got 'the shift’.

Fairs

Imagine an Ireland in older times with no towns to shop in or no decent road network like we have today to serve widely dispersed rural communities. Now, imagine the buzz and excitement of a big gathering. Imagine being in a large crowd of people, having lived in relative isolation from crowds. Many of us who have been hankering for this Covid-19 restrictions will be able to somehow understand how fairs were much anticipated events in rural Ireland.

Fairs played an important role in the social and cultural life of rural Ireland and were eagerly anticipated and celebrated in many cultural forms. Most of the four quarterly festivals had fairs and others held throughout the year provided an prospect for exchange of livestock, goods and news. Fairs also offered the opportunity to trade goods, but also to shop for all sorts of items in a world long before the variety of modern shops we have today.

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From RTÉ Archives, Tommie Gorman reports for RTÉ News on the fair day in Ardara, Co Donegal in 1987

After the trading finished, the ‘fun of the fair’ began with sideshows, music, food, dancing and all sorts of revelry. Some people attended for entertainment rather than business. Fairs broke the usual routine of toil and were a welcome respite from work, but were also an opportunity to socialise and meet members of the opposite sex. Fairs usually took place over three consecutive days and their final day was known as a sorrowful one as the fun ended and people had to part company with others.

For those who wished to escape arranged marriages, fairs also facilitated elopements, as they provided an opportunity to meet and disappear without anyone noticing for a time. It was not a common practice, but some eloping couples returned to their families where they were grudgingly accepted. In the absence of dowry agreements and living arrangements, resources would have been scarce for them. Others, though, never returned home.

Pattern days

Pattern days were held on a patron (patrún) saint’s day or close to it and people would assemble at certain saints’ shrines or holy wells to pray. When the praying ended, they would linger to rest and socialise. Over the years, these became bigger events with music, markets, food stalls and alcohol, with many in the crowd drawn to the entertainment rather than to pray.

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From RTÉ Archives, a Radharc report on the annual event to honour Saint Moling in the village of St Mullins in Co Carlow in 1966

Patterns became popular in rural Ireland and were keenly awaited fair-like, festive occasions. In this slightly licentious atmosphere, the single could meet and socialise. Despite the folk-religious aspects to patterns, there was disapproval of them by the Catholic church because of the often rowdy behaviour associated with them. As the church’s power grew, patterns gradually fell out of favour.

Wakes

While many traditional aspects of Irish funeral rituals remain with us, many more have been lost. For example people indulged in wake games or amusements to keep themselves awake as they sat up with the corpse. Wakes usually provided an occasion for a community to come together and gave young people an opportunity to meet up socially and get to know each other a little better, perhaps romantically. Some wake games facilitated this, informally introducing couples who might otherwise not meet due to shyness or other circumstances.

Waking ‘games’ included mock weddings, mock confessions and ‘kissing games’. The latter had erotic overtones and such unashamed assertions of sexuality at these was totally at odds with the prevailing prudent attitudes in Ireland at the time. Wake games involving kissing and imitative of marriage (such as mock weddings) were considered by the Church to have an especially corrupting influence as they encouraged close interaction between the sexes.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Arena, Kevin Toolis on his Wonders of the Wakes collaboration with traditional keeners

One well known and notorious wake kissing game was commonly called ‘Frumso Framso’ according to Séan Ó Suilleabháin's Irish Wake Amusements. The game was theatrical and watched by all in attendance and involved young single people. A young man was selected, and he had to call out the name of a young woman in the room to come and kiss him. Having been kissed, he asked her: ‘Frumsy Fransy, what’s your fancy?’ to which the woman called out the name of the man she would like to kiss, and on the game went.

Such kissing was for spectacle and entertainment by all in attendance, but the game known as ‘Postman’s knock’ allowed couples more privacy. It involved a young man leaving the wake house through the door which was guarded by two ‘sentries’ and he would knock on the door to say he had a letter for a certain woman, who in turn had to go outside and retrieve it. The sentries ensured their privacy. Many couples could pair up in this way as the men took it in turns to be the postman and call out the woman of their liking.

The heady atmosphere at wakes combined with the amount of alcohol taken led to much fraternising and increased the image of the wake as a place of disrepute in the eyes of some. While the games were mostly witnessed and consensual, some unwanted sexual overtures are likely to have resulted, perhaps even unplanned pregnancies. In some areas, the clergy started to forbid single women and girls (who were not close relatives of the deceased) to attend wakes, in order to protect their decency. Wake games and other deep-rooted folk customs associated with them soon died out as they met increased opposition from the church.

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RTÉ Brainstorm podcast based on this article

By the end of the 19th century, all three of the mass gatherings described here were well in decline. They became associated with debauchery, alcohol consumption and faction fighting (a custom and spectator sport which resulted in death and injury).

Large public gatherings were also nervously viewed by the colonial authorities as occasions that might encourage seditious actions. Some behaviours and rituals became increasingly frowned upon particularly by the Catholic Church, which was growing in power at that time. By the start of the 20th century, the more raucous behaviour at fairs, patterns and wakes had all but disappeared, and with them, the opportunity for our ancestors to sow their wilder oats.


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