In medieval Ireland almost all villages had a patron saint; some had been genuine local holy men or women, others people to whom chance had offered fame of some sort and some were really just aspects of pre-christian entities refashioned to suit a new religion. Whatever their antecedants they were genuinely revered locally and I some cases even achieved regional or national fame. Over the years their stories were retold and embroidered, sometimes sanitised, but as literacy improved, the stories gelled and left us with the characters that every church has today.
As the power of the church gained a firmer hold, the righteous began to undertake pilgrimages to ask favour of distant saints, usually on that saint's anniversery. The recipients of these pilgrimages organised routes around the area, stopping at especially holy spots to perform acts of penitance. Part of the act was often to mark a cross or a number of crosses on a convenient flat stone surface, using a pebble.
The whole procedure became known as a 'pattern' from the word patrun (Irish for patron) which perhaps has left us a little confused with the patterned stone surfaces.
The medieval mind was just as commercialised as ours, and crowds of happy pilgims presented a market oppurtunity not to be missed. Maybe at first just a few stalls selling food and drink were set up, but soon stall holders realised that year long employment could be gained from moving from pattern to pattern selling all sorts of trifles or entertaining folk with music and dance. Soon these fairs, as they had now become, became a very efficient way of extracting every last penny out of the populace, often by deceit and sleight of hand. Often church authorities legislated on behaviour at these fairs, but sadly usually to divert money into their own coffers. Many religious also made a good profit on selling fake relics or indulgences for ones sins.
In 1682 Sir Henry Piers wrote of a pattern day in West Meath “For ale sellers in great numbers have their booths here as in a fair and to be sure the merry bag-pipers fail not to pay their attendance. Thus in lewd and obscene dancing, and in excess drinking, the remainder of the day is spent as if they celebrated the Bacchanalia rather than the memory of a pious saint or their own penetentials; and often times it falls out that more blood is shed on the grass from broken pates and drunken quarrels when the pilgrimages are ended than was before on the stones from their bare feet and knees during the devotions.”
Things don't seem to have changed at all over the next hundred or so years for in 1813 folklorist Thomas Croker writes about Gougane Barra. “We whiled away the time by drinking whiskey punch, observing the dancing to an excellent piper, and listening to the songs and story-telling which were going on about us”. Retiring to a tent at nightfall. “As night closed in, the tent became crowded almost to suffocation, and dancing being out of the question, our piper left us for some other station, and a man, who I learned had served in the Kerry militia, and had been flogged at Tralee about five years before as a White-boy, began to take a prominent part in entertaining the assembly, by singing Irish songs in a loud and effective voice. These songs were received with shouts of applause, and as I was then ignorant of the Irish language, and anxious to know the meaning of what had elicited so much popular approbation, I applied to an old woman near to whom I sat, and found that these songs were rebellious in the highest degree. Poor old King George was execrated without mercy; curses were also dealt out wholesale on the Saxon oppressors of Banna the blessed (an allegorical name for Ireland); Buonaparte’s achievements were extolled, and Irishmen were called upon to follow the example of the French people.”
On the 9th. June 1817, Bishop John Murphy, Bishop of Cork, (1817-1847) issued a Decree of Excomunication on Patttern Day at Gougane Barra. It was later revoked.
Finbarr’s feast/pattern day is the 25th of September and is celebrated on the following Sunday with the local pipe band and a mass on the Holy Island in Gougane Barra.