Celebrating the Old Year

For over one and a half centuries the arrival of each New Year is celebrated in Portmagee Ireland with a unique costume parade called
the "Old Year".

In 1727, three days after Christmas, a Kinsale brig, flying a French flag, landed in the Port of Portmagee after coming from Nantes,
France. The boat remained until the New Year but what was to happen to the people of Portmagee on New Year’s Eve 1727 was
going to change their little village for evermore.

As the locals were retiring for the night, a strange but eerie noise was coming from the vicinity of the local pier. As the strange sound came up towards the village, to the locals amazement they saw the crew of the French boat holding torches and marching through the village. They were led by a piper and in the center of the torch men a shaggy and staggering figure of an old man on his last legs was swaying as if his time was up.

They proceeded through the village and when they returned to the head of the pier, a shot rang out and the old man lay on the road as if dead. Silence descended again but only for a moment when a newly-dressed man with white trousers, swallowtail coat and top hat emerged from the darkness and he repeated the route of the old man with again the piper leading him and the torches either side. The new man gave a speech to explain to locals about what they had just seen and he went on to inform them that the old man had symbolized the year gone by and, come midnight, he was no more. The New Man symbolized all that was new and the youth of the year that had just begun.

The local people, at first confused and a little fearful, loved the whole event and have recreated it annually ever since. It’s quite a sight. Torches lit with paraffin soaked turf light the path of a local dressed as a stooped old man parade through the town to the pier, where at midnight he is reborn and young again.

The event takes place on the streets of Portmagee, so there are no tickets or admission charges.

St. Stephen's Day in Ireland

St. Stephen's Day (Lá Fhéile Stiofáin), or the Day of the Wren (Lá an Dreoilín), is an occasion to commemorate the life of St Stephen, a Christian martyr. Celebrated the day after Christmas, many people spend the day quietly with close friends or family.

St Stephen is believed to be the first Christian martyr. He was stoned to death sometime around the year 33 AD. According to an Irish legend, he was betrayed by a wren while hiding from his enemies. Another legend tells of Viking raids on Ireland on St Stephen's Day sometime around the year 750 AD. Irish soldiers were approaching a Viking camp to drive out the intruders. However, a wren started eating crumbs from a drum and alerted the Vikings to the presence of the Irish soldiers. Hence, some people felt that wrens betrayed them and should be stoned to death, just as St Stephen was. Boys traditionally hunted a wren and threw stones at it. They tied it to a stick when it was dead and paraded it around the village. They did this to collect money for a dance or party for the whole village. Although the custom of killing wrens on December 26 died out around 1900, St Stephen's Day is still known as the Day of the Wren, particularly in rural areas.

The wren, the wren, the king of all birds, St. Stephen's Day was caught in the furze, Although he was little his honour was great, Jump up me lads and give him a treat.

As I was gone to Killenaule, I met the wren upon the wall, I upped with me wattle and knocked him down, and brought him into Carrick town.

Droolin, Droolin, where is your nest? 'Tis in the bush that I love best, It’s in the tree, the holly tree, where all the boys do follow me.

Up with the kettle and down with the pan, And give us a penny to bury the wren.

We followed the wren three miles or more, three miles or more, three miles or more, We followed the wren three miles or more, at six o'clock in the morning.

I have a little box under me arm, under me arm, under me arm, I have a little box under me arm, a penny or tuppence'll do it no harm.

Mrs. Clancy’s a very good woman, a very good woman, a very good woman, Mrs. Clancy’s a very good woman, she gave us a penny to bury the wren.

Video: https://youtu.be/o8jUwJJCr2E

St Stephen's Day has been a holiday in Ireland for hundreds of years. It became a public holiday following the Bank Holidays Act in 1871.

Hurricane Ophelia

We Old Salts in the northeast US are used to the threats of hurricanes and the realities of brutal winds and rain of Nor’easters. Not so in our mother country. Last weekend, for the first time since 1961, Ireland was belted by a hurricane. That means that everyone under age 56 in the Emerald Isle has no memory of anything this powerful and devastating.

And powerful it was. With wind gusts as high as 120 mph, Hurricane Ophelia also boasted the record for the biggest wave ever measured off the Irish coast: a 58.4-foot surge off the coast of Waterford – equal to the height of a six-story building. Ophelia traveled farther east in the Atlantic basin than any Category 3 hurricane on record. The storm was powerful enough to knock out electricity and telecommunications to more than 350,000 people. Three people were killed by falling trees. The areas most affected by the storm were in the south, including Cork, Wexford and Limerick.

On the Cape, we have not seen some of the more unusual storm effects experienced in Ireland. For example, at Forlorn Point at Kilmore Quay in Wexford, the storm unearthed ancient skeletal remains from over 1000 years ago. In another town, roads were engulfed in foam, in a “freak weather phenomenon,” caused by high winds and foam spraying off the ocean.

Hannah Kiely, SOECC friend from Galway and honorary member who visited last July, wrote, “Wow, now I know what a bad storm looks like, sitting here in the woods, watching branches breaking and waiting for the trees to come down! The whole of Ireland is on red alert and the whole country is shut down: schools, colleges, work, everything.” Hannah also sent the accompanying image of the Salthill coast in Galway being battered by the storm.

We on the Cape have been safe, but it has been a terrible hurricane season for many island dwellers surrounding the Atlantic basin: US Virgin Islands, Florida Keys, Puerto Rico, and many more. Who would ever have expected to add Ireland to the list of that devastation?

Newgrange and Knowth

Submitted by Dianne Duffy

Several years ago, I had the pleasure of visiting Newgrange and Knowth. I took a bus tour to the site. Newgrange is one of the best examples in Ireland and in Western Europe, of a type of monument known to archaeologists as a passage-grave or passage-tomb. It was constructed around 3200 BC, according to the most reliable Carbon 14 dates available from archaeology. This makes it more than 600 years older than the Giza Pyramids in Egypt, and 1,000 years more ancient than Stonehenge.

If you were looking out the left side of the bus approaching the site, you would miss it as it is high upon a hill and covered with grass. The tour guide led us up to the entrance where she explained the history of the site and theories as to the cravings on the stone in the front.

We walked through narrow hallway, that had wood beams holding back the rock walls from collapse, to get inside. We got to the center of the tomb, which was circular. There were three cubby holes with cravings as well. With 24 people in one place, it was very cramped.

The tour explained how five days a year, at the winter solstice, the sunshine moves through capstone at the entrance, engulfing the center room with light. She demonstrated it by turning off the lights and then turning on another light to replicate the event. Being in a dark place with 24 strangers is not something I recommend, but the demonstration was “Illuminating.”

Admission to the Newgrange chamber for the Winter Solstice sunrise is by lottery, application forms are available at the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre. About 30,000 applications are submitted annually. In September each year, 50 names are drawn with two places are awarded to each person drawn. 

Tracing Your Irish Roots

There are 35 million people in the United States who embrace Irish ancestry. New services like 23andMe and Ancestry.com have made finding out about your genetic heritage quite popular. You don’t need to use one of these expensive businesses to research your Irish heritage. According to the website, Ireland.com, there are increasing numbers of resources available, both online and from official organizations, to assist you in finding out about your Irish ancestry. These include:

  1. The National Archives, which offers a free, short, personal consultation with professional genealogists.
  2. The General Register Office registers all civil birth, adoption, death, marriage and civil partnerships in the Republic of Ireland. You can get copies of records at its Dublin office or online.
  3. The National Library has a free walk-in advisory service, varied workshops and talks. It also has microfilm copies of most surviving Roman Catholic parish registers.
  4. The Ireland Family History on Facebook page has regular Q & A sessions with genealogy experts.
  5. County Genealogy Centers in many of Ireland’s counties work with volunteers, local historical societies, local clergy and authorities, government agencies and libraries to build a database of genealogical records.
  6. IrishGenealogy.ie is run by the Irish government and brings together church and civil records in one online, searchable and free archive.
  7. Other sources are
    • Public Record Office of Northern Ireland
    • Ulster Historical Foundation
    • Glasnevin Cemetery Museum, and Military Archives
    • The Yarmouth Town Library has a Genealogy Club, which meets on the second Thursday of each month at 6:30 pm at the South Yarmouth Library. Some meetings feature guest speakers, and others are hands-on work sessions. For more information, contact Jane Cain, Library Director.
    • Cape Cod Genealogy Club at http://www.capecodgenealogy.org/
      or visit their office at the Dennis Public Library.