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The Irish For: Time for two Irish romantic traditions - Leap Year proposals and the Skellig Lists

February 29 proposals are sweet, but the Skellig Lists were another story, writes Darach Ó Séaghdha.

Image: Shutterstock/northallertonman

2020 IS A bliain bhisigh, which is the Irish for a leap year.

The word bisigh can mean increased or improved and in some contexts can even mean pregnant (bó bhisigh is an in-calf cow).

This is all quite apt in the February of a leap year in Ireland as two marriage-related traditions (and I’m not even including Valentine’s Day here) come into play.

The first is well-known around the world: in Ireland, on the 29th of February there is a glitch in the matrix of traditional gender roles, and for twenty-four hours a woman can propose to a man and he must accept.

Great tradition, bad movie

This practice is celebrated in the movie Leap Year (2010), in which Amy Adams plays a New Yorker fed up of waiting for her boyfriend to pop the question.

Sadly, Leap Year isn’t a very good movie, and I say that not as some chin-scratching snob but as a big fan of the romantic comedy genre in general.

The writing in romantic comedies needs to be great to create tension in situations when little is at stake (compared to an action movie where a villain is going to blow the city up) and when certain outcomes are expected (the couple getting together).

The second nuptial tradition associated with February (or early spring, at least) is less well-known, but has a firmer basis in fact and probably would give a comedy writer more material to work with.

In the not-so-distant past, the church did not perform weddings during Lent, when opportunities to go courting (such as dances and the cinema) were also stopped. Subsequently, there was pressure on couples to tie the knot before Ash Wednesday.

Laughing at singletons

While other Catholic countries would throw fun carnivals on the last day before Lent (“carnival” literally means “goodbye to meat”), in Ireland it was more common to make fun of singletons who had not sealed the deal in time and had to wait until after Easter to get back on the saddle.

For example, Dinneen’s dictionary includes the entry coigealach “a rude figure tarred on the doors of those whom Lent finds unmarried”.

Under the entry for stócach (an idler or one who lives off others) a related definition is included “person that accompanies a man looking for a wife at Shrovetide” – matchmakers working under time pressure evidently charging extra.

Another practice was the composing of mocking verse about various local spinsters and bachelors, drawing attention to their recent and memorable failed romantic conquests, their poor wooing techniques and their age.

The Skellig Lists

In Munster, these verses were compiled in what was known as the Skellig Lists.

The reason for this was that Sceilg Mhicíl was considered to be in a different timezone of sorts and that Lent started later there, giving the unmarried one last shot; the Skellig Lists would document the people expected to take this trip and the reasons why.

Although composed in rhyme so they could be recited from memory, the Skellig Lists were popular enough to be printed and sold in the nineteenth century, selling thousands of copies a year at a time when literacy was far lower than it is now.

Anyone who thinks that mean pile-ons by anonymous jerks is a new thing, or unique to social media, would be well advised to remember that these lists went viral long before the internet.

Finally, as Valentine’s Day approaches it’s worth remembering that one of the Irish words for a darling, rún, also means a secret: as society piles pressure on single people to pair up, on couples to get engaged and on married couples to have children, the vocabulary of the Irish language itself reminds you that your love life is nobody else’s business. 

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