Rites and Rituals

A short walk from Island Bridge was an ancient well of which St. John was the patron. It was frequented by rich and poor alike, most especially around St. John’s namesake day, June 23rd.

As darkness fell upon St. John’s Eve the bonfires - ‘St. John’s fires’ - were lit on the high ground to signal the approaching patron’s day or pattern and working folk gathered their families and set out for the well, streaming from all corners - from across the Island Bridge,  from the city and from the Liberties beyond. Nearby the well some pitched their tents, others set out their stalls and musicians readied their instruments, for even a saint’s feast day brought with it all manner of worldly festivities.
The ancient rituals were most solemnly observed. Water was drawn, vessel by vessel, from the well and drunk by young and old to ward off or cure any number of ills and ailments. Leaping from side to side across the bonfire was thought to cleanse the body and give protection for the year ahead. Even young children were persuaded, or forced, to swallow their fear and leap through the dancing flames. A great bonfire was lit outside the hospital which had served the sick poor since the time of Strongbow. 

And on the same eve and with great ceremony the mayor of Dublin and his entourage filed into the great hall to pay homage to the image of St. John which stood there. On St. John’s Day itself, the canons of St. Thomas Court and the friars of Francis Street came too in solemn procession to make offerings to the revered saint.

St. John’s was not the only public observance of saints’ days through the centuries of Dublin history - among others St. Patrick’s, Holy Eve or Hallowe’en and St. James’ days were of significance but of these, the rituals of St. James’ Day can be viewed only through the lens of history.

The day began with the decoration of the graves in St. James’ churchyard. Old linen or paper was fashioned into life sized effigies of the dead and these were laid upon the graves or hung from trees while the family prayed. It was a common sight to see a mother surrounded by images of her dead children while mournfully praying for their souls. Though hundreds of years old, perhaps even older than Dublin itself, these ritual traditions came to be frowned upon. In 1787 the Archbishop of Dublin issued a decree forbidding attendance at the pattern at St. John Well because of people who ‘scandalise their religion and disturb public peace by their criminal excesses’ and who succumbed to the ‘dangerous opportunities of intoxication and riot’.

Festivities were first watered down and, by the middle of the 19th century, mostly rendered extinct - the magistrates of Dublin prohibited bonfires, the city expanded and engulfed the fields and churchyards, and when feast days, fairs and festivals became bywords for drunkenness and lawlessness they were suppressed by the authorities. Thus the observance of St. John’s and St. James’ Days fell from common practice, while those of St. Patrick and Hallowe’en took on more secular forms.

by Annette Black, Wicklow
Published on 26th August 2013