Would you Follow these Rules for 40 days?

Our Irish ancestors were given specific guidelines on what they could - and could not - do for the 40 days leading up to Easter. In this letter, we feature a pastoral letter outlining these rules and guidances. It makes fascinating reading given the consumer culture we live in today!

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Would you Follow these Rules for 40 days?

When I was growing up in Ireland as a young Roman Catholic, a number of things were true for the majority of us Roman Catholics at the time:

  • We all went to mass on a Sunday.
  • The church was full – with some salubrious characters standing outside the backdoor catching up with the local news.
  • The priest often gave guidance to the gathered following his sermon. Every now and again, he read out a pastoral letter from the archbishop of the area.

Few of us youngsters paid much attention to the reflections, suggestions and instructions issued within those letters. The pastoral Letters were, in our minds, aimed at the older members of the audience. 

By older members, I am referring to those who accepted ashes on their forehead for Ash Wednesday, never ate meat on a Friday and said a “decade” of the rosary every night.

Nowadays, we (mostly) have freedom of individual religious belief. However, looking back at the Ireland of our ancestors (especially for the 85% who were of Roman Catholic persuasion) following church law was an important cultural requirement. We took the safeguarding of our souls very seriously, especially if the priest was in a position to single us out from the pulpit for deviant behavior!

As we have entered the 40 days preceding Easter Sunday – known as “Lent” in the Roman Catholic and other faiths, I thought it would be interesting to share extracts from a pastoral Letter read out at all churches in County Wicklow in 1899. It gives an insight into the complexities of Church and Civil law that our Irish ancestors had to navigate.

Right, here we go. The pastoral letter is titled: “LENTEN REGULATIONS FOR DIOCESE OF DUBLIN” and was read out from the pulpit to all parishioners in County Wicklow in the Sunday preceding Lent in February, 1899. I’m sure it was added to by the local priest. The letter outlines, in great detail just what was allowed to pass between the lips of parishioners on given days of any week during Lent:


“The General law of the church binds the faithful to fast on one meal, with a collation ( small snack), on all the days of Lent, except Sundays. On Sundays there is no restriction as to the number of meals.” 

That was the main rule. Now, on to the details:

“Even at the one meal allowed on weekdays, only fasting fare can be taken, insofar as a dispensation from the full rigor of the law may be granted by authority of the Holy See”.

This is serious stuff! If you wanted an exception, you had to go all the way to the top! However, on that note – there were a number of exceptions (and complications):

“On Sundays, the use of meat is allowed without restriction.

On Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, meat is allowed, but at one meal only.

On Wednesdays, as well as on Fridays, the law forbidding the use of meat in Lent remains in force.” 

The restrictions were not just about abstaining from meat:

“The use of milk, butter, cheese and eggs is allowed on Sundays without restriction.

On week-days when meat is allowed at the principal meal, there is leave also for the use, at that meal, of milk, butter, cheese and eggs.”

It then goes on to outline just WHO might be exempt from the rules. These include: 

“Persons under twenty-one years of age, those who are engaged in exhausting occupations; the desolate poor whose meals are scant and uncertain, those whose state of health is such as to be unfit for the Lenten observance and those who are over sixty years of age are exempt from the obligation of fasting.”

That last one tells us just what age was considered “old” at that time! There are many more suggestions as to what can be imbibed (or not) on different days of the week. I’m sure the priest was kept very busy with his flock checking (probably with tongue-in-cheek) on possible exceptions on a regular basis during this time.

The final piece goes on to note the spiritual work that a parishioner should undergo during this time: 

“During Lent, penitential works should be sanctified by meditating on the Passion and Death of Our Redeemer, by performing the Stations of the Cross, by visiting the Blessed Sacrament, by devotion to the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus or by other acts of piety and charity.”

Lent was a serious and austere time for many of our ancestors. One that coincided with a time when the land was producing little produce before the first crops of spring. It was also, most likely, a unifying time among a community when all looked around them and noticed most of their families and neighbours moving through the same lenten requirements in lock-step as they approached Easter. Even to this day, the meal on Easter Sunday in Ireland tends to be a feast – featuring lamb and many other delights on the table. And still people of my age often ask each other “what are you giving up for lent?”. Of course, we always answer with the best intentions…

How about you? I wonder if any of your Irish ancestors listened to such pastoral letters offering precise guidance as they prepared for forty days of abstinence from foods, alcohol, dancing, music and many more such “delights of the flesh”? Maybe you even receive such instructions from the pulpit today yourself?

That’s it for this week from Ireland. As always, do feel free to share the names and stories in your own Irish family tree.

Slán for this week,


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