Sidelights on the Skelligs I

Sidelights on the Skelligs I

An excerpt from Patrick Weston Joyce, English as We Speak it in Ireland (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1910), pages 324-325.


In his essay on the “Skellig Lists” in Irish folk life contributor Shane Lehane overlooks this interesting and important notice of the custom by the Victorian scholar of all things Irish, Patrick Weston Joyce – he of Irish Names of Places and numerous other works – from one of the last books he published.

Born in 1827, Joyce (who was by way of being a cousin of James Joyce) is an engaged eyewitness of local traditions, writing about the years immediately before the Great Famine, when marriage was entered into with more relish than it was in later decades of the century, and when old folk traditions were truly alive in the mouths and minds of the people rather than of academics.


Skellig, Skellig List – On the Great Skellig rock in the Atlantic, off the coast of Kerry, are the ruins of a monastery, to which people at one time went on pilgrimage – and a difficult pilgrimage it was.

The tradition is still kept up in some places, though in an odd form; in connection with the custom that marriages are not solemnised in Lent, i.e. after Shrove Tuesday.

It is well within my memory that – in the south of Ireland – young persons who should have been married before Ash Wednesday, but were not, were supposed to set out on pilgrimage to Skellig on Shrove Tuesday night: but it was all a make-believe.

Yet I remember witnessing occasionally some play in mock imitation of the pilgrimage. It was usual for a local bard to compose what was called a ‘Skellig List’ – a jocose rhyming catalogue of the unmarried men and women of the neighbourhood who went on the sorrowful journey – which was circulated on Shrove Tuesday and for some time after.

Some of these were witty and amusing: but occasionally they were scurrilous and offensive doggerel. They were generally too long for singing; but I remember one – a good one too – which – when I was very young – I heard sung to a spirited air. It is represented here by a single verse, the only one I remember.

As young Rory and Moreen were talking,

How Shrove Tuesday was just drawing near;

Fur the tenth time he asked her to marry;

But says she: ‘Time enough till next year.’


‘Then ochone I’m going to Skellig :

0 Moreen, what will I do?

‘Tis the woeful road to travel;

And how lonesome I’ll be without you!’


Here is a verse from another:


Poor Andy Callaghan with doleful nose

Came up and told his tale of many woes:

Some lucky thief from him his sweetheart stole,

Which left a weight of grief upon his soul:

With flowing tears he sat upon the grass,

And roared sonorous like a braying ass.