Bathing Mystery at Lahinch October 21, 2014Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback
In 1892 Laurence Gomme gave a presidential address to the Folklore Society. Gomme was particularly interested in the parallels between British (by which was meant at this date British and Irish) folklore and the folklore of the ‘savages’. If he could snap some branches from the golden bough while proving that the Aborigines and the Anglo-Saxons were one he was overjoyed. Imagine, then, his joy at this peculiar record from Co. Clare in south-western Ireland. Gomme proceeds:
At Lahinch, a small village at the bottom of the Bay of Liscannor, in Ireland, a remarkable summer ceremony took place about the year 1833. It was observed in two successive years, and the details were on each occasion the same. This fact is important, as unfortunately a minute description has not been put on record. A crowd of men and boys walked for about a mile along the road which runs along the bay. At their head were two middle-aged men, holding each by one of his hands a lad of about nineteen years of age perfectly naked, while immediately behind him was an elderly man (either his father or uncle, as it was afterwards found out) holding a hatchet and a saw. On reaching the bathing-place a circle was formed, and the principal performers were enclosed in it. After a time the young man was led out by another, who had undressed himself, and bathed in the sea, after which they were again received into the circle, when some ceremony was gone through in which the hatchet and saw were used, and in a few moments a loud shout proclaimed that the mystery was proceeding successfully. As soon as the man who had bathed the boy was dressed, the crowd set forth into the village with loud shouts, the two men leading the naked youth as before, and the man with the saw and hatchet following. Nothing could be found out about the meaning of this extraordinary ceremony, and questions were not allowed to be asked about it. A sort of horror seemed to hang over everything until the bathing ceremony was completed, and everyone, particularly the women, seemed anxious to keep out of the line of procession, while the ceremony was strictly guarded from the observation of the ‘profane’. As soon as it was over, all the rabble rout, both male and female, of the village flocked about the performers, and for some time kept up loud shouts.
Gomme got very excited about this ceremony asking whether the boys were originally novitiates or victims (the Wicker Man was presumably put up on the beach) or was this a Lady Godiva cult or, best of all, ‘a mere piece of modern foolery of more than questionable taste’? The original version of this account came in that Bible of the obscure Notes and Queries in 1852 (126-127) in a letter from Geraint mab Erbin (it goes without saying that this is an assumed name) and was entitled ‘Pagan Observance on the West Coast of Ireland’. Geraint saw the ceremony twice (apparently once and then two years later, which is not strictly speaking, two successive years as in Gomme). He made extensive inquiries but his only discovery was that ‘it was in someway connected with the worship of Priapus.’ Gomme missed the reference to Priapus out and understandably. What could it possibly mean? It seems unlikely that the good seafolk of Clare, given ‘the primitive manners of the natives’ (see below), would have heard of Priapus. Surely then Geraint had had some Lahinchian point to the naked lads’ genitalia and Geraint had proceeded to dress this up as best as he could for the drawing room audience that wrote and that devoured N&Q. What was going on in Lahinch? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
Beach has put Geraint’s letter below for the sake of completeness. It differs in some interesting regards to Gomme’s digest.
About nineteen years ago I spent some time with a connexion by marriage at a lodge which he had built at Lahinch, a small village at the bottom of the Bay of Liscannor, and while there, on two separate occasions, I was witness to the following most extraordinary proceeding. I must premise that the house was situated on the very verge of sea, within reach of the spray at high tides, and that, in accordance with the primitive manners of the natives, the bathing-place for all females was under the windows, while the men’s bathing-place was not ten yards distant. And now to my tale: — About the time of high water, one fine hot day, I was sitting in the window, when I heard a considerable bustle, and the sound of many voices talking loudly In the vernacular approaching. On looking out I saw a crowd of men and boys coming along towards the sea, not directly from the village, which lay behind my friend’s house, but down the road which ran along the bay. At their head walked two middle-aged men, holding each by one of his hands a lad of about nineteen years of age, perfectly naked; while immediately behind him walked an elderly man (either his father or uncle, as I afterwards found out), holding a hatchet and a saw. They walked along, attended by the crowd,  by the row of villas that fronted the bay, and, I heard afterwards, had come about a mile along the road that runs round the southern angle of the bay. On reaching the usual bathing-place, a circle was formed, and the principal performers were enclosed in it. After a time the young man was led out by another, who had undressed himself, and bathed in the sea; after which they were again received into the circle, and in a few moments a loud shout proclaimed that the ‘mystery’ was proceeding successfully; and as soon as the man who had bathed the boy was dressed, the crowd set forward into the village with loud shouts, the two men leading the naked youth as before, and the man with the saw and hatchet following. I endeavoured to find out what was the meaning of such an extraordinary exhibition, but in vain: all that I could discover was, that it was in some way connected with the worship of Priapus, while I was strictly cautioned not to ask questions about it. A sort of horror seemed to hang over everything xmtil the bathing ceremony was completed; and every one, particularly the women, appeared anxious to keep out of the line of procession, till the shouts announced that all was well, when all the ‘rabble rout,’ both male and female, of the village seemed flocking about them, and for some time the shouts of the mob could be heard as they passed up the village street. About two years afterwards I witnessed a precisely similar performance; and when I anxiously inquired into the meaning of it, was refused all information, and cautioned most earnestly not to inquire. When the boy was received into the circle, after his bath, some ceremony was gone through, in which the hatchet and saw were used; but this was strictly guarded from the observation of the ‘profane’. Have any of your readers witnessed a similar oc- currence, and can any one give more information about it? Geraint mab Erbin.
21 Oct 2014: One of my favourite twitter accounts is Vox Hiberionacum (St Patrick’s dream). VH has very kindly agreed to look at the evidence here. I’m stringing together a series of tweets but they are cogent and interesting: a spur to more research. Vox Hiberionacum: Right, so yer man Gerwaint is obs a pseudo, he never wrote anything else in N&Q… [for the origins of the name follow the link http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geraint_son_of_Erbin. ] The ritual described is obvs a fanciful & tabloid witnessing of an old pattern held on Lahinch sandhills… …in honour of St. MacCreehy. The celebration shifted to ‘Garland Sunday’ (last in July) & St Brigit.. Saint MacCreehy’s ”bed” was submerged under water at coast, with poss more ruins offshore… revealed to be a natural area rock outcrop & shingle – not an archaeological monument… Folklore re St Mac Creithe = his coffin was to be placed on the shore within reach of the tide… …and thereafter buried at its next resting-place (ASI Notes).’ Sounds like good context. Southern Man next notes that according to Wikipedia the population of Lahinch grew from almost nothing to almost a thousand in the early nineteenth century, typical context (‘if those figures are reliable’) for folklore innovation. Finally, only as a joke, but I loved it from Tom: There once was a man of Moose Jaw,/ Who wanted to meet Bernard Shaw,/ When they asked him why,/ He made no reply,/ But he sharpened an axe and a saw.’ Tom wonders if we don’t have a ‘primitive’ circumcision ritual here or were they just making St MacCreehy’s coffin? Thanks all!
26 Oct Vox has now written a full blown piece on this question.