Of Processions and Celebrations
"Who trenched the rath on such a hill, and where the bones may lie
From staging concerts to marshalling processions, saintly and otherwise, is a seasonal hop,
the first taking place in winter, the second in summer.
Of saint, or king, or warrior chief..."
Every year the Catholics on the south side of town marched from St. Joseph's Church across
the Sixteen Arches to link up with the parishioners of St. Patrick's on the north side,
joining two parishes, indeed two dioceses, Clogher and Raphoe, in a religious procession to
celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi.
The annual Orange Parade and celebrations were usually held at Rossnowlagh, five miles
distant, which served as a gathering point for all the Lodges in the southern part of the
county and adjoining areas. "And, dammit all", according to the Catholics, the Orangemen
had one great advantage. Their's was on a fixed date, "the glorious Twelfth" of July, and
glorious weather they usually enjoyed.
Corpus Christi, on the other hand, was a moveable feast. This meant that, although it
always fell on the same Sunday in the church calendar, the date changed every year in the
ordinary calendar, usually in June, and usually on a day that saw at least one shower of
rain, and that shower might last all day. Indeed, to have a completely sunny Corpus Christi
was a rarity.
I shall never forget the one and only time I ever had a role to play in the procession.
Somehow or other St. Joseph's needed an extra pair of hands to carry the wooden shafted
big brass crucifix that, along with various solidarity and confraternity banners and flags,
headed different segments of the processionists as they made their way along The Rock,
through the West Purt, across the bridge, up Castle Street, and on to Chapel Street, there
to merge with St. Patrick's congregation, from that point forming one procession along
College Street and out to the Sisters of Mercy convent in whose grounds the principal
celebration took place. I was selected for the job.
There should have been nothing to it, except for one or two things. First, I had never been
an altar boy. This meant St. Joseph's had to find an extra white surplice and a soutane for
me to wear. Finding a surplice was no problem, but all the black soutanes were already
being used by the regular altar boys. In desperation--the procession was about to move
off--the good Father Connolly, against all his better judgment, said, "Give him a red one".
In liturgical and canonical matters colour plays a big role, purple for Passion Week, green
for Sundays, white for other occasions, and red was definitely not for Corpus Christi.
Into the red soutane, on with the surplice, up with the crucifix, and off we went, I fully
conscious of the clash in colour with my altar boy companions. We were in the middle of the
contingent, for which I was very glad. That way, being shy, I didn't think I stood out too
Then came the second thing. Over at Chapel Street, by tradition leadership of the joint
procession was assumed in turn by either parish, and that year it was St. Joseph's turn.
Of course, since St. Joseph's had only a curate, overall direction of the arrangements was
held by St. Patrick's, which had the Right Reverend Monsignor McGinley, Dean of Raphoe, as
Parish Priest, a smallish, white-haired man of advancing years, and not too spritely of
One of his able assistants sorted out the various groups, legions, and societies, and led
them to their assigned places in the procession. Then came the fateful order. "You", he
said to me, with a scorching look at the red soutane, "you and the rest of the St. Joseph
altar boys will lead the procession, the crucifix in front, the boys to either side and to
the rear. And mind you hold it high." At once I held it high, and when the order came to
march, off we went, St. Joseph's altar boys in front, and myself in front of the whole
As we marched, gradually the distance between ourselves and the rest of the procession
increased. A third of the way along College Street, just past the De La Salle Brothers'
house, one of the St. Patrick's clergymen came panting up from behind. "Slow down--you're
going too, too fast!" He was red of face, and if it wasn't a religious procession and
himself a religious man, he might have said more.
Well, we slowed down, and when the procession caught up with us, off we went again, at
what, to our young minds, seemed a much slower pace. The result was the same. The rest of
the procession, marching at the Right Reverend Dean McGinley's pace, fell farther and
Another clerical messenger was despatched with an urgent message: "SLOW DOWN!" And again
we slowed down.
Three times messages came, and three times we slowed down, but our boyhood's slow march was
still faster than the poor Dean's best efforts to keep up.
In effect we had two processions, the St. Joseph's altar boys, with me co-opted, being the
first, and the two congregations making up the second one.
We got back to St. Patrick's an unholy length of time in advance of the second one, where
I was glad to shed surplice and red soutane, hand the wooden-shafted big brass crucifix to
a steward, and fade into the anonymity of the laity, back down Castle Street, over the
Sixteen Arches, left-wheel into the Purt, and the safety of home.
I never did become an altar boy, was never asked to take part ceremonially in any other
procession, and never did become the first Irish Pope in history, sed libera nos a malo,
Lord, considering the circumstances.
For every Kerryman and woman, this was a good thing. Had I been elected by the sacred
College of Cardinals, and being the first Celt to take the chair of Peter, I would have
felt obliged to take the name of Patrick, it being one of the privileges of a newly elected
Pope to adopt whatever name he pleases. Then Donegal people could rightly boast of having
among their ranks not only Paddy the Cope, pioneer of the co-operative movement down in the
Gaeltacht, but also Paddy the Pope, which has a metrical, not to mention a papal ring to
As it turns out, a Pole was the first to break the Italianite chain of succession.
Considering the history of our two races, and since it couldn't be an Irishman, the result
was acclaimed by Kerry and Donegal people alike.
"Many a true word is spoken in jest". On the off-chance, however remote, that the reader
might question my credentials to become Bishop of Rome, let it henceforth be known to all
men and women that the following is a verbatim extract from the Annals of the Four Masters,
vol I, page 135:
The Age of Christ, 447. The nineteenth year of Laeghaire.
Secundinus, i.e. Seachnall Mac Ua Baird, the son of Patrick's sister, Darerca, Bishop of
Ard-Macha (Armagh). yielded his spirit on the twenty-seventh of November, in the
seventy-fifth year of his age.
Then follows one of O'Donovan's "copious notes", again transcribed word for word:
"Seachnall Mac Ua Baird.--According to all the ancient Irish authorities, he was the son
of Liemania, otherwise called Darerca, one of the sisters of St. Patrick, by Restitus the
Lombard, and the author of a hymn in praise of St. Patrick, published by Colgan in Trias
Thaum, p.211-- see Ussher's Primordia, p.284, and Lanigan's Eccl. Hist. Irel., vol i,
pp 259, 271, where it is shewn from various authorities that he was a suffragan bishop to
St. Patrick, and that his principal church was Domhnach Sechnail, i.e. the Church of
Seachnall, now Dunshaughlin, in Meath, where he was placed by St. Patrick about the
year 443, and died in 448..."
And, to hammer a nail home, in the poem "The family of St. Patrick", preserved in the
Book of Lecan, fol.44, b and the prose list attached to it, Seachnall is named second.
O'Donovan's translation of the first three lines runs:
"The family of Patrick of the prayers, who had good Latin,
I remember, no feeble court (were they), their order, and their names.
Seachnall, his bishop without fault; Mochta after him the priest;"
and on it goes.
All things considered, rather than possessing the Papal ring I would prefer to nestle in
the comfort that, generations ago, St. Patrick may have been my uncle!
On summer Sundays a procession of another sort took place on a regular basis, particularly
during the years when transportation by train was practically the only mode of travel
available in both the Six and the Twenty-Six Counties.
By chance, by design, or just a joke, Ballyshannon, a town of some 2,000 odd souls, had
two railway stations, separated from each other by a good mile and three-quarters' walk.
At the top of the town was the County Donegal Railway station, southern terminus for the
narrow gauge railway line that ran between Ballyshannon and many of the main towns in the
county, linking up with a line at Strabane in the County Tyrone which led to Derry City.
At the other end of the town, a mile away from the Purt and out past Neely's Lane, stood
the Great Northern Railway station, the second last stop on the G.N.R. main line that had
as its axis Dublin, Belfast, and Bundoran, one of the most popular seaside resorts north or
south of the Border.
Bundoran was in the south where wartime rationing of food, although severe, was not as bad
as in the Six Counties, where Derry lay.
To get from Derry to Bundoran, railway travellers had to take the narrow gauge line to
Ballyshannon, debark, march all the way through the town, over the bridge, down the Purt,
and up past Neely's to the G.N.R. station, where they would join an excursion train
carrying passengers from Belfast, Enniskillen and other places, and so on to Bundoran.
At six o'clock in the evening, or perhaps an hour and a bit later, they would repeat the
process in reverse, embark at Bundoran, disembark at Ballyshannon, march all the way back
up to the C.D.R. station, re-embark, and thence to home and bed, to paraphrase Pepys.
These Sunday excursionists enjoyed not only the sea breezes of Bundoran but were able to
get a good meal of beef into the bargain. On their noontime passage through Ballyshannon
they were generally in such a hurry to make their connection with the G.N.R. that they were
no trouble. The return procession in the evening could well be another matter, thanks to
exposure to the sea breezes, unlimited helpings of beef, and a generous quaffing of
Guinness or the hard stuff to wash it all down.
If the return train was held up for an hour and a bit, the length of the bit depended on
how many stragglers had to be rounded up by friends and coaxed back to the Bundoran railway
station. Then they faced the daunting march back down past Neely's, through the Purt, over
the bridge, up the very steep Castle Street, Back Street, past the Commons and on to the
C.D.R. station, a march lightly undertaken with happy hearts and joyous expectation in the
morning but which, by evening, became as long as any forced march with full pack faced by
the French Foreign Legion away off in the sands of Algiers. Many excursionists repeated the
experience Sunday after Sunday, giving rise to a well remembered cry, "Mary Ann, Mary Ann,
quick, take in the meat. Here come the Derry ones!" Who could blame an exhausted and
partly inebriated excursionist if, once in a while, a window pane was smashed on the
return trip through town? Such a gibe had to be answered some way or another.
Bundoran revisited: Readers of this Home Page will know it includes links to other pages of
Irish interest, among them "The Irish News" in Belfast. A hard copy edition of that paper,
dated July 20, 1996, was a birthday gift that I received this year, just as I was revising
the html coding for this week's number of "The Kindly Spot". In it, on page 8, above the
fold, was a five-column width article by Phelim McAleer, describing the present-day resort
"Forty years ago tens of thousands of people would arrive in Bundoran off the train on a
Sunday. They would come mostly from the north and spend their hard earned pounds, shillings
"Today the train has gone and cheaper foreign holidays with guaranteed sunshine mean
Bundoran is not the attraction it once was. Now it plays host to car driving day-trippers,
mostly from the north, and families in caravans."
More about Bundoran will appear in a later number of "The Kindly Spot".
Reference to the Commons, which lay above above the town and close to the County Donegal
Railway station, brings to life long treasured memories of the 16th of September, the most
important date in the year for the town, second only to Christmas itself. This was the date
of the annual Ballyshannon Harvest Fair, the largest of all the livestock markets held
monthly throughout the year.
It was a date eagerly anticipated by young and old, townspeople and country folk, cattle
jobbers and gombeen men, tinkers and trick-of-the-loop artists, three-card tricksters,
thimble men, roll-a-penny stall holders, rickety-wheel operators, strong men, and
double-jointed Houdinis festooned with chains and locks, tied by ropes and manacled in
handcuffs, from all of which they escaped with amazing dexterity and bodily contortions,
while a watch or clock ticked away a pre-determined time limit.
People flooded into town from all over, and right of way was given to the passage of
cattle, sheep, pigs, goats, donkeys, and horses through the streets, going to the Commons
in the morning, and being driven back by their new owners, for further fattening, or to the
knackers, in the evening. There had once been a flourishing tanyard out by Portnason where
hides were transformed into leather, but most of the cattle for slaughter were now destined
for Dublin yards for transshipment to England.
Broken-down horses were shipped to Belgium where, 'twas said, foreigners would eat
anything. A sorrier sight than a ship with a cargo-hold of spavined old mares and
half-blind stallions was hard to find, and if a number of them died during the channel
crossing it was all accepted as part of doing business. Mercifully, in later years animal
rights protectionists succeeded in curbing the worst cruelties.
But Belgium was the last thing on most people's minds when day dawned on September 16. This
was the day the country took over the town, when the population was doubled, if not more,
when farmers, their wives, sons, daughters, hired men and servants took over the streets
and sidewalks, filled the pubs and drapery stores, and attempted to eat the townspeople out
of house and home.
Pre-war there wasn't a single restaurant in the place, except for the dining rooms in
various hotels, so in preparation for the hungry hordes many a shop and private house would
open up a forgotten space, an unused room, storing shed, parlour used once a year, or
pantry, and cram into them as many chairs, benches and tables as they could accommodate,
and from morning until late afternoon there would be a steady stream of customers,
everybody in the family working as cooks, servers and washer-uppers, the later being hard
pressed to keep up with the demand for "more clean dishes, and more hardware (knives and
forks)." "Can't you do anything right, you eejit?"
It was clatter, clatter, up and down the town, from one side to the other. Crash, would go
another pile of saucers, and another mountain of beef or ham sandwiches would disappear in
a trice. Strangely, the country diners, accustomed to eating the finest of home-baked brown
bread, soda bread and scones, on this day demanded bakery bread, shop-bought bread, white
bread, and fed their sweet teeth with every make and shape of sticky iced confectionery
they could lay their hands on. Bruegel's "Wedding Feast", painted in 1567-58, is a close
visual reflection of the scene. A change of costume and it could well be "Harvest Feast",
Once the serious business of the day, the selling of livestock, was concluded, the men
began the serious business of drinking, and the women the serious business of buying delph.
This latter was an amazing spectacle.
Every year at least two big lorries laden with delph, "coloured, white, speckled and
brown", would park in the triangle where Castle and Main Streets diverged, and with one
side and the back gates let down, displayed an absolutely astonishing collection of plates,
cups, saucers, bowls, glassware, mirrors, chamber pots, and a never-failing sideline of
china dogs and cats, all breeds, all colours, all sizes.
A pair of china dogs or china cats on a mantelpiece, with a chiming clock in the middle,
formed the basic demand of many newly married brides, and for twelve months of the year
they would scrape and pinch, saving the egg money, and maybe knitting socks or woollen
gloves to make more money in order to gather enough to buy the desired mantelpiece dogs or
The men who owned the lorries travelled from fair to fair, with their wives assisting them
in the selling, and no American carney barker ever had a better and more well-delivered
First an outrageous price was demanded for a full set of table delph, soup bowls, tureens,
platters, big plates and little plates; then a scaling down, a quarter off the price; a
further quarter--now it was half-price--and finally, "I might as well be giving it away.
Here, M'am. Take it. It's yours, all yours, twenty-one shillings and sixpence, and may all
your sons be bishops!"
"Twenty shillings" counter offer.
"Twenty-one shillings, and sixpence luckpenny!"
"Well--all right, then "
Then came another solemn ritual. Each plate, each bowl, each cup, each saucer all had to
be wrapped up in sheets of old newspapers. This the lorry dealer's wife did, as he moved
on to sell another lot of delph, another china dog, another chamber pot.
Luckpenny was a custom more prevalent in selling livestock than delph. Simply put, the
seller, when he had received his price, always had included in it a token sum to be handed
back to the buyer as "luck penny".
Bargaining over the price of a heifer was a serious business and often required the
services of a third party who, by tradition, physically tried to get seller and buyer to
shake or slap hands together as token of an agreed upon deal. Once hands met, that was
supposed to be the end of it, but if no money changed hands on the spot, once in a while a
seller might be tempted by a higher offer later in the day, thus giving rise to the
commonplace, "A done deal isn't a done deal until it's done". Yogi Berra with his, "The
game ain't over till it's over" could well understand the logic.
Come to think of it, buying and selling a heifer isn't much different from buying and
selling a baseball player, or a soccer player, or, once in while, a vote, or a group of
votes, in a Congress or Parliament, and with the same result.
"A heifer", as the songster has it, "might turn into an elegant cow", and again it might
not. The athlete sold to another club might star, or sulk and become a pain in the butt,
and the wrath of the electorate could well turn political vote sellers into political
has-beens over night.
All that, however, can't be blamed on Ballyshannon Harvest Fair. People there were only
behaving as they had for thousands of years, from the time the first man traded for a wife
who might become "the idol of his life", and again might not.
As the evening advanced, groups of young boys and girls, their parents ensconced in some
snug, would stroll up and down the streets, with many a giggle and many a glance of
"Have you not gone home yet?"
"I was thinking about it, but I changed my mind."
"Maybe you could change it again?"
"Well, if somebody was to ask me."
"Well, what if I was that somebody?"
"You mean, let you walk me home! Me mother would have a dead faint if she found out."
Decision time. The brave carried the day, the shy retired in confusion.
And hadn't the mother done the same herself, twenty years before!
Nightfall eventually would end the fair, the fun, and the excitement of bargains made or
broken, and the last revellers would leave deserted streets behind them, streets scented
and littered with cow dung. Townspeople were always happy if, on the 17th of September,
there was a heavy rainfall to wash it all into the gutters and run-off drains, and leave
their streets clean once more.
Harvest Fair, Corpus Christi, the Twelfth of July, were three main highlights of the year.
Again leaving Christmas aside, the fourth and biggest annual event was the visit by John
Duffy and Sons Monster Circus, the Longest Touring Circus in the Country, Often
Imitated--Never Equalled, Come and See it Tonight- -One Night Only. Seeing is Believing.
Lions, Tigers, Elephants, Jugglers, Clowns, Bare-Back Riders, High Wire Walkers, and Flying
Everything about John Duffy's circus was in capital letters, and rightly so. For all ages,
but especially for the young, the glamour and excitement created by the circus could never
This was an Irish country town, and elephants, tigers and lions were exotic fare. Many of
us had read about them, many of us had seen them in the weekly serial thrillers in the Rock
Hall cinema with "Jungle Girl" and "Jungle Jim", but stories in books and "shadows on the
wall" could not compete with the chilling reality when a real live animal trainer stepped
into a cage full of real live lions, tigers and leopards, and with a crack of his whip, or
a jab from a chair--why always a chair?--he made them jump through hoops of fire, play
leapfrog over one another, roll great big balls with their noses up steep planks, and
perform half a dozen other marvels, scarcely twenty feet in front of you.
What if something went wrong and they turned on the trainer? What if, by some weird
chance, the thin bars of the cage gave way, or the gate fell open, and the next thing you
would be looking at was an open mouth with the great big tongue and teeth of a lion about
to close over your head, supper for a hungry animal?
There were the trained circus horses and their riders, the cartwheels of the tumblers, the
pyramids of human bodies with the strong man at their base, the jugglers, and the knife or
tomahawk throwers, the antics of the clowns throwing fake buckets of water into the
audience, and the roll of the drumbeat, building and building and building into a crescendo
as the lovely lady in the spangled costume stood motionless on a tiny platform high above,
head almost touching the roof of the tent, every face turned upward, every eye riveted on
that lonely figure until, with a final frenzied drumbeat, she plunged, head downward, to be
saved inches from the ground, swinging by a threadlike cable circling one slim ankle.
The circus people lived in their own caravans, and the animals had special travelling
cages. Once a show finished at night, the big tent was struck, rolled, packed, centre pole
carefully stashed between two vehicles hitched together, and caravans, animal cages, tent,
poles, ropes and people started their journey to the next town where, next morning, all was
unpacked, set up, and made ready for the next night's show. That was the hard work. All we
in the audience saw was the glamour. No wonder my mother, an adventurous spirit, as a young
girl often threatened to run away to become a bare- back rider in a circus. She would have
been a good one, too!
John Duffy, ringmaster and circus proprietor, was a show legend throughout the length and
breadth of Ireland. My memory of him is of a portly figure, getting on in years, a
thick-lipped, full-fleshed face, and an unhealthy pallor.
My uncle, John McAdam, usually had the order for printing the circus handbills for the
advance man who travelled a week ahead of the arrival of the circus in any town, making
all necessary arrangements for renting the grounds and attending to a myriad of details
involved in ensuring animals and performers had food.
To get paid for the handbillls my uncle had to see Mr. Duffy during the afternoon, the
trouble being that this was the only time the man had a chance to have a rest, after
travelling all night and overseeing the raising of the tent and the installation of the
seats in the morning, not to mention the day-to-day exigencies of coping with Italian,
Hungarian, Spanish, and God knows what other nationality performers with their individual
and collective temperaments. Consequently, the John Duffy I knew was a rather tired man,
roused from his afternoon nap by a bill collector printer and his nephew, and not
particularly pleased with the process. But, by show time, he would be transformed again
into the magnificent ringmaster, frock coat, riding britches, black boots and top hat, who
was John Duffy, the Greatest Circus Manager and Proprietor in the World, who brought
entertainment and enjoyment to the masses.
One can envisage him drilling a troupe of flying angels, the Best that Heaven has
Ever Seen! The one at the end on the right has roguish twinkling eyes, curiously
reminiscent of one earthly aspirant to be a bare-back rider in a circus.
Postscript: As this number was being revised for publication on the Internet, "the
marching season" in the Six Counties, in the Year of Our Lord 1996, had just passed its
zenith, when the incidents at Drumcree, the Ormeau Road and Derry Walls had been seen on
every television screen all over the globe, with resultant adverse consequences for the
tourism trade, employment, and the postponement of planned investment by transnational
One letter writer to "The Irish Times" on Tuesday, August 13, 1996, gave a contrasting
picture, referring to the Orange Parade held peacefully this year, as always, at
Rossnowlagh, "a predominantly Catholic area" in Donegal.
As a Donegal and an Ulster man, it is my privilege to let readers of this World Wide Web
page know that Orange and Green can co-exist peacefully, and do live in harmony, in an
independent Ireland. The annual Orange Parade at Rossnowlagh is a telling example of
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