by John Fitzgerald

DONNCHA Ó Dulaing, the legendary Highways and Byways man who has passed away, is fondly remembered in Coolagh, just outside Callan, for his 1987 visit to the great Pattern of that year. 

He interviewed people there and Callan man, Sean Holden, who was MC, tape-recorded Donncha interviewing the locals.

Result was a precious record of that day’s festivities at the pattern, an annual event that has, like so many of the old traditions, passed into history. 

The late Sean was a great character whose community activism in the town and district has ensured his place in Callan’s Hall of Fame.

 I attended that year’s Coolagh Pattern and afterwards penned an account of the day’s revelry, aided by Sean’s own recollections and his trusty cassette tape, for inclusion in my book Callan in the Rare Old Times.    

Sean Holden with his Callan Person of the Year Award (2001)

 The day started with black clouds threatening to unleash a deluge, but these gradually gave way to a clear blue sky and the balm of warm sunshine, real pattern weather, as the man on the gate put it. 

  There was excitement among pattern committee men and women. Donncha O’ Dualing, Radio Eireann’s noted folklorist and presenter, a broadcasting legend in his own lifetime, had stated his intention to honour the Coolagh community with his presence at the open air festival.

 When he arrived at Jamsie O’Neill’s field, his take me to your leader request was answered with a helpful gesture. 

 “There’s your man” said a gate man, pointing to a lone figure holding a microphone and rattling off at breakneck speed a commentary on a pillow fight. 

The blow-by-blow account reaching the seasoned RTE broadcaster’s ears sounded more, he thought, like a report on a tense and nerve-racking showdown at the Olympics, so seriously did this ginger-haired commentator take the action he surveyed through binoculars from a makeshift wooden platform.

Sean Holden took a break from his pillow fight report to introduce Donncha to the Coolagh Pattern. 

Wiping the sweat from his furrowed brow, Sean guided the high profile visitor around the bustling venue. 


  In one section of the field, a camogie match was in progress. Strapping young women from the rival teams of Graigue Ballycallan and Mooncoin wore deadly serious expressions as they zigzagged athletically and curvaceously around a mud-sodden pitch. 

 Chanting supporters maintained a constant barrage of catcalls, slogans, heartfelt applause, and spontaneous-if less than helpful- hurler on the ditch advice to Kilkenny’s future sporting elite.

 Jockeys for the Donkey Derby paraded beside their humble charges in another corner. 

The Callan Primary School Brass band, lined up dutifully inside a red and blue weatherproof tent, was belting out its own rendition of The Moon Behind The Hill. 

The pillow fights raged on without the benefit of Sean’s thrilling commentary. 

The combatants faced each other sitting on a long steel pole, belting away. 

Feathers flew in all directions from burst pillows and cushions, wafting across the field on a light autumn breeze. 

 Defeated contestants fell off the pole into a soft bed of straw. Waves of laughter, cheering, and elated exclamations swept over the field from the pillow fight arena, blending with roars of encouragement to the camogie girls.

Neddy Walsh had invented the pillow pole, Sean informed Donncha. It had taken him three years to get his design off the drawing board and into service at Coolagh. 

It was proving a success, much to the relief of the Pattern Committee whose members wondered how it would stand up to the rough and tumble of a hectic day’s use. 

Field trials had pointed to a probable satisfactory performance, but even the best-laid plans could misfire, critics had warned. 

But Neddy’s invention worked like a dream. Seasoned pillow fighters, many of whom had travelled from the far corners of Ireland, praised the texture and quality of the pole, which had been oiled to render it slippery and therefore more challenging.

 “Do you think I could have a word with the donkey trainers and jockeys, Sean?” Donncha loved a challenge.

Revellers at Coolagh Pattern


“No sooner said than done,” retorted the darling of Coolagh Pattern Day. Forty years of commentating at Coolagh had made Sean an acknowledged expert on the revived tradition.

Donncha learned that Mansion Harry, trained by James Mylan, had won a race by 10 lengths. 

The secret, according to James, was to achieve a quick away and to feed the asses well. 

A donkey called Knockbutton Flyer had run nicely too, as had Sam’s Delight, introduced by Sean as a grand old piebald ass. 

But the main talking point and centre of attention at the Pattern Derby was Jessie, a light greyish donkey with a pleasant, friendly temperament. 

The RTE man approached a delighted teenage girl who was standing beside a triumphant Jessie, clapping the animal on the back. 

“And what’s your name”? he asked. “Claire Doocey,” she replied shyly. 

Claire told Donncha that this was her first race and she could hardly believe she had won. Jessie seemed to come out of nowhere to take the lead. 

 She further informed the folklorist that this multi-prize winning donkey, trained by Paddy Condon, had three Coolagh classics to her credit. 

“A sterling achievement”, Donnacha conceded.

 Admiring the action too was Jim Conway, one of the stalwarts of the Kells Pipe Band. 

He had procured his set of pipes 50 years before, and he said he wouldn’t part with them for a bag of emeralds. 

He had piped in Dublin at the Tailteann Games in the 20s with the band. Kells Pipers had been playing marches and hymns since 1900.

Ninety-year old Paddy Norris told Donncha he had enjoyed a good run. 

Before cars were invented, he had walked as a boy to patterns in Coolagh from Cruchtabeg. He would save pennies in the weeks leading up the pattern to buy sweets on the happy day. 

His love of the old tradition persisted into adulthood and remained constant in his latter years. 

 Paddy would join the revellers on pattern night as they danced and consumed what he called rakes of drink. 

He certainly needed such breaks from the daily routine: in his early years, he rose at 6am and toiled until 7pm for half a crown a week as a creamery chap.

He spent countless hours, from dawn to dusk, behind a horse and plough in fields around Coolagh. 

  Paddy’s reminiscences were interrupted by shouts of jubilation from the camogie pitch where one of the teams had just notched up another score. 

Coolagh Pattern patrons: Bill Maher, Ned Leahy and James O’Neill


Olive O’Neill told Donncha of the important role Callan had played in reviving the county’s fortunes on the national camogie scene. 

Callan Camogie Club was founded in 1974, and two of its best-known members were the Downey sisters, Anne and Angela. 

A star of the 1987 Coolagh camogie match, Breda Cahill, revealed to Donncha that she couldn’t wear a helmet as it was a bit warm on the head. 

She was about to commence her own analysis of the match, Eamon Dunphy-style, referring to bad pulls and great pucks, when a loud thump distracted the RTE man and herself. 

 A parachutist had dropped onto the camogie pitch, barely missing a goalpost and looking quite relieved that he had failed to land on the crossbar. 

Applause greeted his arrival. Another parachutist was sailing gently towards the field, a snow-white circle in the sky silhouetted against a purple cloud. 

A third, bright red like a big celestial rose petal, seemed to hover above the venue, frightening birds and drawing hundreds of hand-shielded eyes skyward.

  Amongst the older and wiser folk enjoying the pattern was a woman Donncha could hardly wait to meet: 85-old Nell Leahy. 

Her sharp memory and charming ability to weave tales of yesteryear had endeared her to locals, and to thousands of radio listeners who had heard her lilting voice.

Born in 1902, she recalled an age when patterns at Coolagh were held, not in a field, but on the crossroads. 

She explained that the pattern had been organised near an old church in the area for centuries, but the celebrations moved from this location after 1812 when a new road running between Callan, Windgap, and Carrick formed a crossroads at Coolagh. 

 In her childhood and early teens, locals and visitors attended Benediction in Coolagh Church before heading for the pattern. 

The official church view of patterns had given way again to a quiet tolerance of the tradition, though worshippers were cautioned about over-indulging in the hard stuff that flowed generously at the night-time fringe activities. 

This advice was gratefully received, respectfully acknowledged (“Lord Graciously Hear us”), and tactfully set aside once the music and dancing began. 

Nell Leahy and her pet donkey


Such restraining words were blissfully forgotten when the corks and caps starting flying off the bottles, and the glasses clinked in the shebeens. 

  These makeshift pubs might consist of an old canvass covering thrown over five or six branches stuck in the ground. 

Just as men of previous centuries had kept an eye out for the Redcoats, the drinkers in the shebeens would post lookouts to prevent the boys in blue from spoiling the fun.

 Children loved the pattern, Nell confirmed, and she never forgot the sense of elation she and her childhood friends in Coolagh felt as the big day approached. 

Auntie Clifford would be at the cross early in the morning. Her stand was loaded with fruit, sweets, chocolate, fresh cakes, and sticks of Peggy’s Leg. 

  The box she sat on concealed bottles of stout. She had those in case the lads got thirsty. 

Auntie Clifford was a hit with the kids. She was kind to them because she knew they only had a few pennies to spend. 

 The day after the pattern, Nell recalled, she and the other children went back to school crying. 

“We’d pass armies of wasps on the way,” she told Donncha, “swarming around the rotten apple cores at the cross. 

“In school we’d daydream about the matches, and the sweets, or the donkeys running. The teacher told us to cheer up. There would always be another year.”

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