Pancakes, secret marriages and roosters – an old Shrovetide tradition linked to the Rio Carnival and Mardi Gras
On Tuesday we will all gorge on pancakes in a last festival of indulgence before Lent.
‘Pancake Tuesday’ also known as ‘Shrove Tuesday’ derives its name from the Middle English ‘shrive’, meaning to ‘confess’ your sins.
As we enjoy baked delicacies, our counterparts in New Orleans will be taking advantage of the licence to tuck into all those rich foods they will be abstaining from until Easter as part of their ‘Mardi Gras’ (literally ‘Fat Tuesday’) celebrations.
‘Carnivals’ (from Latin caro – flesh, and levare – remove, i.e. give up meat), will be taking place all over the world, particularly in Latin countries, including Brazil, where the Rio Carnival is known as ‘the biggest show on earth’.
In Derry and Donegal ‘Pancake Tuesday’ is most famous for the delicious sweet and savoury flat cakes from which it gets its name.
But it was also once a time when young couples would run off to get married and rings would be placed in the pancakes and whoever discovered them would be said to be the one who would get married first.
The Irish Folklore Commission compendium of folk traditions collected by pupils from their parents and grandparents in the late 1930s is a rich trove of the traditions of ‘Shrovetide’ in the north west.
Sister Beirín Ní Bhaoighill, a teacher at the Convent of Mercy in Carndonagh, collected the following tradition:
“In this district this day is called ‘Pancake Tuesday’, as the evening meal usually consists of pancakes. In one of the pancakes a ring is put, in another a coin and in another a button and in another a medal.
"The person who gets the ring will be married before a year is over. The one who gets the money will be very rich. The person who gets the button will never be married and the one who gets the medal will have a religious vocation.”
Sister Ní Bhaoighill said it was a time for getting married.
“’Trotting Tuesday’ is also a name for ‘Pancake’ or ‘Shrove Tuesday’ as young couples trotted off to the Church to get married before Lent. ‘Runaway Monday’ is the Monday before Shrove Tuesday and it is given this name because secret marriages were arranged and, lest anyone would see them going to the Church the groom went one way and the bride another,” the nun stated.
Margaret Doherty, a pupil from Iskaheen, told how ‘on Shrove Tuesday pancakes are baked, a ring is put in a pancake and a button is put in a pancake, whoever gets the pancake with the ring will be married first, and whoever gets the pancake with the button will be an old maid, or an old bachelor. Money is also put in them.”
Annie M. Harrigan, from Quigley’s Point, was a pupil at Drung: "Pancakes were, and still are, baked on ‘Shrove Tuesday’, or on ‘Pancake Tuesday’, as it is locally named. The ingredients used were, some flour, a pinch of salt and baking soda, a spoonful of sugar, and sometimes, an egg was beaten through the mixture.
“Milk was used for the mixing of the ingredients. There was a little butter or dripping rubbed over the flying-pan when hot. The dough was then put in with a spoon - about three spoonfuls to each pancake.
“In about fifteen minutes, they were ready for turning, and in another quarter of an hour, the pancakes were ready for the tea-table. Most of the bread which we eat nowadays is baked at home, but a certain amount is bought in the shops, and which is baked in the local bakeries.”
Bridget McDaid, aged 53, was the parent or grandparent of a pupil at St. Oran’s, Buncrana.
“The people say it is lucky to get married on ‘Pancake Tuesday’. Some of the people when they were going to get married went on a sidecar. The man that is getting married to the girl gets two other men to ask the girl and the two men take a bottle of whiskey and if the father and mother is pleased the girl gets a cow or sheep,” related Mrs. McDaid.
Arthur Peoples, a pupil at Castlecary, between Moville and Redcastle, gave the following:
"My mother always bakes lovely pancakes for our tea on ‘Pancake Tuesday’ when we go home from school. ‘Shrove Tuesday’ is the day before Lent and everybody is rushing to get married on ‘Shrove Tuesday’ as they are not allowed to get married in Lent. I have heard that there were over twenty marriages on ‘Shrove Tuesday’ at Drung Chapel.”
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Gerard Doherty, aged 14, was a pupil at Gleneely: “The old people ate certain food on different occasions such as pancakes on ‘Pancake Tuesday’ and eggs on ‘Easter Sunday’.”
Patrick Carlin, was a pupil at Tievebrack, between Strabane and Castlederg on the Donegal side of the border: “On ‘Shrove Tuesday’, which, in this district is called ‘Pancake Tuesday’ or, ‘Cock Tuesday’ two customs are fulfilled. One of these is that the woman of every house should make pancakes on that day and let everyone in the house eat some of them.
“The other custom is that the woman of every house should kill a cock on that day. If this is not done it is said that the woman will have no luck with her chickens.”
P. Ó Dochartaigh, the schoolmaster at Glasalt, received the following:
“The next day is ‘Shrove Tuesday’ because of boys and girls who wished to get married to people their parents didn't like left to the last day and kept it secret. On this day pancakes are made for evening tea, and it is commonly known as ‘Pancake Tuesday’.”
Kathleen Gibson, a pupil at St. Columb’s, Moville, recounted: “Marriages take place frequently around ‘Shrove’ and there is an old custom to eat pancakes then. You put a ring in a pancake and whoever gets the ring will be married first.”