Thanks to the wonders of cheap flights and the new public holiday for St Brigid, last month I found myself gazing at the blue sky of Malaga in the south of Spain.

This was a fortnight before Shrove Tuesday and over that weekend, a modern reflex of the medieval tradition of carnival was in full flight. It was to continue in its boisterous anarchy until it hit full climax on Shrove Tuesday and ended abruptly on Ash Wednesday when the restrictive Lenten period began.

The special air of pageantry and fun manifested in small bands of crazily clad revellers marching up and down the narrow streets, banging on drums and playing musical instruments. Each group was dressed fantastically in a variety of colourful costumes, wearing wigs, extraordinary hats and elaborate face paint. As they paraded, they threw handfuls of confetti into the crowds, who returned the favour in a re-enactment of the battle of the flowers.

Carnival history

While it may seem that the costumes and characters of different groups, whether Smurfs, superheroes, clowns, cowboys or matadors, are all in good fun and benign, the charade of carnival has always allowed for the caustic criticism of contemporary social issues.

In medieval times, it was defined as il mondo reverso (the world turned upside down) and the essence was the complete reversal of the orthodox social order. Peasants dressed as kings and cardinals, while the aristocratic elite took on the roles of the hard-working blacksmith or comely milkmaid.

The carnival was a type of annual pressure-release where all manner of injustice and wrongdoing was publicly aired and pilloried. Gender roles were reversed with men dressing as women and the women in men’s clothing, sporting moustaches and beards, both acting out elements of the opposite sex. It was a temporary period of extravagance resulting in an annual opportunity for organised chaos.

A moving spectacle

As with all carnivals, groups parade in a long procession through the streets. Some construct spectacular floats to augment their statements and draw attention to their concerns.

The advantage of a moving spectacle is that it allows the assembled masses to witness each and every display as they pass. The more outrageous the participants’ exhibition, the better. There is an intimacy between those on parade and the audience and at carnival, it is said, all become actors and none spectators.

St Patrick’s Day

It was whilst watching this extraordinary spectacle in Spain that I was starting to lament the lack of any such parading back home. Before I kicked myself for being so short-sighted. I had forgotten St Patrick’s Day. At this time of the equinox, we have an elaborate series of colourful parades.

There is a mix of the local FCA battalions, the pipe and reed bands, the shiny tractors and combine harvesters, the vintage cars, and low lorries bedecked with Duracell Irish dancers. The parade is a public display of local pride mixed with kitsch, humour and commentary.

An age-old celebration of a three-day festivity did once prevail with people celebrating from 16-18 March for: the gathering, the feast, and the scattering. This was the window when you could rely on the great tradition of the Pota Phádraigand a time when you were obliged to break out of your abstinence from alcohol and drink to the health of our patron saint, drowning the shamrock in your glass of whiskey or poteen. It would have been easy to validate opening up a bottle the night before the 17 March, the day itself was inevitably a free-for-all, but the continuation of the celebrations the following day needed extra justification.

In this case, in Ireland in the late 18th, early 19th century, people looked to the vague figure of Sheelah. Now totally forgotten, but one variously and non-specifically identified as Patrick’s mother or wife, she was celebrated, especially by women, on her day on 18 March.

In literature

An account by John Carr in his book The Stranger in Ireland in 1806 reads, “the anniversary of St Patrick, the country people assemble in their nearest towns and villages, get very tipsy… and walk through the streets with… the shamrock, in their hats, when whiskey is drank in copious libations; and, from a spirit of gallantry, these merry devotees continue drunk the greater part of the next day, viz., the 18 March, all in honour of Sheelagh, St Patrick’s wife.”

The Freemans Journal, 20 March 1841, carries an account of a woman who appeared in court having drunk too much. She declares that she bought, “two small naggins of whiskey… not wishing to break through the old custom of taking a drop on St Sheelah’s Day.” In contrition to the judge, she vows, “I here promise that for Patrick’s Day or Sheelah’s Day, or any other day in the calendar, I’ll never stand in your presence again.”

A mocking parade of Patrick and Sheelah in the carnival tradition took place in Castlebar, Co Mayo, organised by the 13th Dragoons who were stationed there in the late 18th century. “Two of them representing Patrick and Sheelah, were escorted through the town by some of their comrades.

“The male was tricked out with caubeen, brogues and treheens (woollen socks with threads attached to the toes) and tied with suggawns (straw ropes) in derision of the saint. The female was mantled in a barrack blanket; and the worthy pair were preceded by a third Dragoon provided with mop and bucket of impure water, which he scattered indiscriminately on all he met, male and female.”

This year as you watch, in the rain, the cement lorry and the majorettes, think that you are witnessing the Irish version of a great medieval tradition of carnival, and remember that despite the Lenten restrictions, you have full licence to continue the exuberance on Sheelah’s Day too.

Shane Lehane is a folklorist who works in UCC and Cork College of FET, Tramore Road Campus. Contact