The Barnacle Goose – and Other Wonders

Barnacle Geese portrayed on canvas by Charles Tunnicliffe

Barnacle Geese portrayed on canvas by Charles Tunnicliffe

Here we are in Lent and the butchers are feeling the pinch.

Excuse me?

Well, strictly speaking we shouldn’t eat any meat or animal products during the 40 days of Lent. So that’s a lean time for the milk sellers, the cheese makers and the egg producers as well as the butchers. 

Surely that’s not still the case?

Depends on how strictly you observe the ‘abstinences’. But – I have to be honest – these rules were officially relaxed by the Catholic Church in Ireland in 1917. Still within living memory, however – just. And old habits die hard… 

So, tell me a bit more about Lenten traditions.

Published by Mercier Press, 1972

Published by Mercier Press, 1972

I will: I’m relying for much of this on The Year in Ireland, an excellent book published in 1972 and written by Kevin Danaher, who at that time was Lecturer in Irish Folklore at University College, Dublin. While he derived some of his material from printed sources he cites ‘…memories of a childhood spent in a district where old beliefs and customs still survived vigorously…’ and ‘…more than thirty years of research into Irish folk tradition…’ so it’s reasonable to say that much of the popular culture he describes was alive and well in the middle of the twentieth century – at least around his native part of the West of Ireland, County Limerick.

Now, the butchers….?

Yes – so pleased were they that Lent was over that on Easter Saturday in Cork, Drogheda and a few other towns they held a mock funeral for the Herring (for salted Herrings became a staple diet during the ‘abstinence’). The butchers put a Herring on the end of a nine foot long lath and carried it through the streets, insulting the poor fish as they went. When they got to the bridge the Herring was hurled into the water and they hung up a quartered Lamb decorated with ribbons and flowers instead.


Another commentator in 1916 describes a remembered ceremony in County Monaghan:

whippingtheherring‘…On Easter Sunday morning, immediately after last Mass, all the young men and maidens, dressed in their best, flocked into the town of Carrickmacross, where they formed into a procession, headed by one of their number carrying a long pole, from the top of which dangled a Herring, and marched to the tune of whatever musical instruments they could muster (fiddles were the most common in those days) till they came down to the lake just outside the town, when the Herring was taken down from the pole and thrown into the water amidst the cheers and laughter of the spectators… The Herring, being the cheapest and most plentiful fish, was the principal dish of the poorer classes, and of some of the better-off people, too; consequently the people grew so tired of seeing him day after day on their tables that they conceived the idea of getting rid of him by drowning, after which they would indulge in all kinds of games and pastimes, amply making up for the quiet time they spent during Lent, as no one would think of enjoying themselves during the Holy Season…’

Enjoyment being another ‘abstinence’ then?

Certainly. Danaher again: ‘…there was no merrymaking during Lent, no music, dancing, card playing or visiting friends. No mother would visit her daughter newly married at Shrove until Lent was over. Musical instruments were stored away. In many houses the pack of playing cards was burned and a new pack was bought at Easter. Many people, women (who were equally addicted) as well as men, gave up smoking and some in excess of zeal broke or burned their tobacco pipes. And although some topers found solace in the old couplet:

 – Good luck and long life to the Council of TrentIt took away meat but it left us the drink –

large numbers took a pledge against alcoholic drinks ‘for the duration’…’

The Council of Trent

The Council of Trent

I’m getting dizzy – just tell me about the Barnacle Goose.

Human ingenuity has a way of overcoming all difficulties and we find that the clergy were eating Geese throughout Lent! This was because it was once thought that the Barnacle Goose (and the Brent Goose) – both of which winter on our west coast but don’t breed here – should be classified as fish. This is first mentioned by Geraldus Cambrensis who visited Ireland in the twelfth century and described the wonderful way in which these Geese came not from eggs but from Shellfish – or grew on trees!.


He goes on to say ‘…Accordingly in some parts of Ireland bishops and religious men eat them without sin during a fasting time, regarding them as not being flesh, since they were not born of flesh..’ More recently – shortly before the 1914-18 Great War – Martin Duncan, librarian of the Zoological Society, was lecturing in the North of Ireland on marine mammals when he was asked by a local Parish Priest ‘…whether he had told the whole story of the Barnacle “because his people were in the habit of eating the Barnacle Goose during Lent under the impression that it was more fish than fowl”, and stating that a comparatively recent pope had granted a dispensation to the people of Derry to continue to eat the Barnacle Goose during Lent as an ancient and established custom…’ The same licence obtained all along the Kerry coast ‘…not because they had any belief in the mythical story of its origin, but because they knew that it lived more on the sea than on the land, and so acquired fishy character…’

In fact it is true that a pope commented on the topic, but that was Innocent III in 1215 – and he condemned it. As Danaher relates, ‘…news of this does not seem to have yet reached the people of the west of Ireland…’

Good for them! Oh – and what is the collective noun for Barnacle Geese?

A Crustacean of Barnacle Geese…