Licking the Lizard – or The World Turned Upside Down

…Nothing was more natural than the desire to have a ‘last fling’ just before the beginning of Lent. On the Continent of Europe this became a public, communal revel, the carnival, but generally in Ireland the Shrove Tuesday celebration was a household festival with the family and their friends gathered about the fire-side, when the surplus eggs, milk and butter were used up in making pancakes, and even the most thrifty housewife did not object, as otherwise these perishable foodstuffs might go to waste. Some people kept the Christmas holly for the fire which baked the pancakes…

That’s my old friend Kevin Danaher again, reporting on the seasonal customs which we will be celebrating this week, described in The Year in Ireland Mercier Press, 1972. As he points out, the ‘last fling’ in Ireland is tame by comparison with Carnival in other countries, where it really can be the case of A World Turned Upside Down – authority is despatched to the sidelines while fools, mock kings, mock abbots and ‘Lords of Misrule’ conduct the proceedings. Hence the illustrations above, where malevolent hares get their own back on human hunters – and men lay eggs! Both of these are from the marginalia of thirteenth century manuscripts which are teeming with such anarchic visions.

Above – role reversal, a popular feature of carnival customs – and contemporary political upheaval which seems carnivalesque

An 18th century chapbook carries a remarkable and wonderful series of illustrations: The World Turned Upside Down or The Folly of Man, Exemplified in Twelve Comical Relations upon Uncommon Subjects. Here we find ‘the cart before the horse’, ‘children caring for their parents’ and many other thought-provoking reversals.

Back to Danaher:

…In Skibbereen, County Cork, after the fall of darkness on Shrove Tuesday evening the boys of the town amuse themselves by discharging home-made firecrackers. These were made by wrapping gunpowder in paper with a short fuse attached and enclosing the packet in a tight covering of the lead-foil lining of tea chests. Some, even more dangerous, were made from a short length of lead pipe stuffed with powder. These miniature bombs were thrown about the streets, at groups of people, when the sight of the glowing fuse flying through the air was the signal to scatter and run. The bang from these fireworks is said to have been very loud and when thrown at a belated wedding cavalcade, usually caused the horses to bolt, much to the public danger. Towards the end of the last century this custom was finally suppressed by an active police official… (ibid)

amorous hareJohn Dunton, an English writer and bookseller, visited Ireland and described various customs he encountered, in Teague Land: or A Merry Ramble to the Wild Irish (1698). Here’s one he observed in Naas, Co Kildare:

…The inhabitants of this place and the neighbourhood have a custom (how begun I could not learn) on Shrove Tuesday to meet on horseback in the fields, and wherever they spy a hare in her form, they make as wide a circle as the company can and the ground will permit, and someone is sent in to start poor puss, who cannot turn herself any way but she is repulsed with loud cries and so frightened that she falls dead in the magical circle, though sometimes she breaks through and escapes, if a greyhound or any other dog be found in the field, it is a thousand to one she loses her life; and thus after they have shouted two or three hares to death they disperse…

Hardly surprising, then, that the hares in the 13th century manuscript marginalia should want to get their revenge… And, unhappily, an evolution of this same barbarous sport, now under the name of ‘hare coursing’ is still permitted in Ireland! We live in a topsy turvy world, indeed.

better hunting haresAmhlaoibh Ó Suilleabháin, the schoolmaster of Callan, Co Kilkeeny reported a similarly unsavoury Shrove Tuesday custom in  1831:

…To-day is the day when cocks were pelted. It was a barbarous trick. The poor cock was tied to a post or a stone by a hard hemp cod, and sticks were thrown at it. He who killed it became owner of it. A penny was wagered on every shot. Recently this custom has receeded. I have not seen it for thirty years. It was an English custom…

Good to know that we can at least blame the English for that! Cock-throwing was also noted in the three volume Guide to Ireland published between 1841-1843 by Samuel Carter Hall (1800-1889), and his wife Anna Maria (1800-1881) …The day for this sport was Shrove Tuesday, a day which is still dedicated to games and amusements far less cruel and irrational… They went on to describe and illustrate pastimes more familiar to us.

hall's shrove tuesday

…The family group – and the “boys and girls” of the neighbours – gather round the fireside; and each in turn tries his or her skill in tossing the pancake. The tossing of the first is always alloted to the eldest unmarried daughter of the host, who performs the task not altogether without trepidation, for much of her “luck” during the year is supposed to depend on her good or ill success on the occasion. She tosses it, and usually so cleverly as to receive it back again on its surface, on its reverse, in the pan. Congratulations upon her fortune go round, and another makes the effort: perhaps this is a sad mischance; the pancake is either not turned or falls among the turf ashes; the unhappy maiden is then doomed – she can have no chance of marrying for a year at least – while the girl who has been lucky is destined to have her “pick of the boys” as soon as she likes…

We had better finish off with a pancake recipe – and who better than Monica Sheridan to provide a traditional Irish one?

Oh! Do I hear you asking where Licking the Lizard comes into all this? Here is Kevin Danagher to round things off:

…There was a common belief that to lick a lizard endowed the tongue with a cure for burns and scalds; this was especially effective if the lizard was licked on Shrove Tuesday…

hare with dog

 

‘Will the Hare’ – and the Mizen Olympics!

street market

…In ancient Ireland the festival of the beginning of the harvest was the first day of Autumn, that is to say, it coincided with 1 August in the Julian calendar. This has continued in recent tradition, insofar as Lúnasa or Lammas-Day was still taken to be the first day of Autumn; the gatherings and celebrations connected with it were, however, transferred to a nearby Sunday, in most parts of Ireland to the last Sunday in July, in some places to the first Sunday in August… The old Lúnasa was, in the main, forgotten as applying to the popular festival and a variety of names substituted in various localities, such as Domhnach Chrom Dubh, Domhnach Deireannach (Last Sunday), Garland Sunday, Hill Sunday and others…

making the stack

All the photographs in this post are from the collection of Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh who travelled and photographed the west of Ireland during the 1930s, 40s and 50s and is an invaluable documentary of the times in which he lived. Generally, the locations of the photographs are not noted, and very few are likely to be specific to the Mizen: they do however record life as it would have been lived at that time in all the rural areas

Today we celebrate Lúnasa – the festival of the bringing-in of the harvest. Kevin Danaher (The Year in Ireland, Mercier Press 1972) wrote (above) about what he observed in the middle of the last century, when things were already changing and many of the old customs were, as he notes, ‘in the main forgotten’, although still talked about. What changes do we see in Ireland, a few generations on?

seascape

Northside of the Mizen by Patrick McCarthy and Richard Hawkes was written in 1999 (Mizen Productions) and is a collection of memories and stories still being told then about traditional life in this westerly part of of the country:

…The heat of the summer was eased by the cooling breezes from the Atlantic. It was busy on land and sea, with seine fishing by night and fish curing and farming by day, but there was always time for scoriachting, games and dance, sometimes on Carbery Island or across Dunmanus Bay…

…Once in the year Carbery Island was the location for a dance and in settled weather the Northsiders could shout across and give the signal to the people of Muintir Bháire to meet at Carbery Island. As many as forty-five people in three boats would cross Dunmanus Bay to the White House, and a good crowd of men and women from Bear Island would also come to the dances. They were great hearty people. Ann Daly from Kilcrohane and Agnes O’Donovan of Dunkelly played the melodeon…

I like the idea of the Northsiders shouting across the water to the residents of the Sheep’s Head, two miles away! I wonder if they would be heard nowadays?

horse race

…There were competitions at Dunmanus for swimming, running, jumping and weight lifting, and you could be sure that the Northsiders were well represented in each of the events. ‘Will the Hare’ (William McCarthy of Dunkelly Middle), was good at the long jump and the running races and would often win and bring great honour to the Northside. It was said that ‘Will the Hare’ got his name by catching a hare on the run! It was also said that when you blew the whistle to gather the men for seining, by the time you had finished, ‘Will the Hare’ would be at Canty’s Cove waiting!

boat race

…Wild John Murphy would take the lads to the Crookhaven Regatta which was held on The Assumption (15th August). It was a long pull around the Mizen but a good time was had by all. The Northsiders were great with the oars, but it was hard to beat the Long Island crews in the boat races…

(Danaher): …In very many localities the chief event of the festival was not so much the festive meal as the festive gathering out of doors. This took the form of an excursion to some traditional site, usually on a hill or mountain top, or beside a lake or river, where large numbers of people from the surrounding area congregated, travelling thither on foot, on horseback or in carts and other equipages… Many of the participants came prepared to ‘make a day of it’ bringing food and drink and musical instruments, and spending the afternoon and evening in eating, drinking and dancing…

picnic

…Another welcome feature of the festive meal was fresh fruit. Those who had currants or gooseberries in their gardens, and this was usual even among small-holders in Munster and South Leinster, made sure that some dish of these appeared on the table. Those who lived near heather hills or woods gathered fraucháin (‘fraughans’, whortleberries, blueberries) which they ate for an ‘aftercourse’ mashed with fresh cream and sugar. Similar treatment was given to wild strawberries and wild raspberries by those lucky ones who lived near the woods where these grow… A number of fairs still held or until recently held at this season bear names like ‘Lammas Fair’, ‘Gooseberry Fair’, ‘Bilberry Fair’…

market in town

One interesting custom was the driving of cattle and horses into the water. This is mentioned in the 1680s by Piers in his Description of the County of West-Meath:On the first Sunday in harvest, viz in August, they will be sure to drive their cattle into some pool or river, and therein swim them; this they observe as inviolable as if it were a point of religion, for they think no beast will live the whole year thro’ unless they be thus drenched; I deny not but that swimming of the cattle, and chiefly in this season of the year, is healthful unto them…

at the fair

‘Going to the Skelligs’

star wars on the skelligs

My eye was taken by an article in the Irish Times this week which stated that the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Pope have agreed to work towards a fixed date for Easter. Currently, that festival can occur anywhere between 22 March and 25 April – this year it will be an early one: Easter Sunday will be on 27 March. This has meant that, in Ireland, the Easter school holiday will last for three weeks, from St Patrick’s day (17 March – and always a day off school) until 4 April. Evidently the church leaders believe that a fixed date for all Christians around the world to celebrate Easter would be logical and practical. So much for logic – what about history and tradition?

It’s all about the sun and the moon, and the Vernal Equinox. That’s the point in the first half of the year when day and night are of exactly equal length. We are used to thinking of the equinox occurring on 21 March but this won’t happen again until the 22nd century! From now until 2044 the equinox will be on 20 March, then on the nineteenth. This is in part because our Gregorian calendar is inaccurate, but also because the Earth’s axial precession is gradually changing. In 325 the Council of Nicaea established that Easter would be held on the first Sunday after the first full moon occurring on or after the Vernal Equinox, but that was taken to be 21 March. You can begin to see the complications…

As you might expect, Ireland has had a lot to say about all this. The early church here, established by Saint Patrick, didn’t necessarily agree with the Roman church over certain issues, including the date of Easter. Matters came to a head in 664 when a synod was convened in Whitby, Yorkshire attended by delegates from the Ionian tradition and the Roman tradition. The Ionians were led by the Irish Saint Colmán, Bishop of Lindisfarne. They supported the older traditions, but the debate was won by the Romans and Saint Colmán resigned his post and returned to Ireland, where he founded abbeys in Inishbofin and Mayo and – presumably – continued to celebrate Easter in the ‘old way’.

The situation today is still confused. While Roman Catholic and Protestant churches use the ‘Alexandrine rules’, agreed in the 7th century and adapted when the Gregorian calendar was introduced (1582), Orthodox churches generally follow a method based on the earlier Julian calendar but, in fact, there are different systems used by the many different branches of Orthodoxy around the world so the Easter festival in any year may be celebrated on varying dates in divergent places.

Let’s look at tradition, especially in Ireland. Although the churches here did eventually conform to the Roman calculations, there was always some dissent. Folklore tells us that the monks on the Skelligs – isolated rocks off the Kerry coast which housed a monastery back in medieval times – followed a calendar which was several days behind the rest of the country – this sounds as though they were still basing themselves on the Julian system. This was useful, however, if you missed out on getting married before the beginning of Lent (you couldn’t marry during Lent): the period we are in now – between Little Christmas (6 January) and the beginning of Lent – was in Ireland always the most popular time for weddings. ‘Going to the Skelligs’ was a joking expression used unkindly against confirmed bachelors and spinsters.

From Danaher The Year in Ireland – Mercier Press 1972:

In much of the south-west of Munster there is a vague tradition that the festival of Easter was celebrated a week later on the island sanctuary of Sceilg Mhichil than on the mainland. Whether this tradition is a distant echo of the ancient controversy on the date of Easter is a matter of speculation, but it did give the occasion of another form of disapproval of the unmarried. These had lost their chance of marrying this year on the mainland, but they could still be married on the Skellig, and steps must be taken to send them there… All over County Kerry, in parts of west County Limerick, in much of County Cork, especially along the coast, and in west County Waterford the negligent were greeted, in the first days of Lent, with a barrage of chaff and banter. ‘You’re off to the Rock, I suppose?’ ‘Don’t miss the boat!’ ‘Is it Mary or Katie you’re taking on the excursion’ etc etc. The victims had to grin and bear it… In many places the custom was carried further, and local poets were encouraged to compose verses on the occasion, verses which told of a grand sea excursion to the Skelligs, praised the splendid vessel which would take the party there and gave a long list of the participants, linking together the names of the bachelors and old maids as incongruously as possible. These verses – most of them mere doggerel – were written out and circulated about the parish so that all might enjoy them, and were sung to popular airs, often in the hearing of those lampooned in them… The custom has in more recent times taken the form of large posters, giving details of the ‘Grand Excursion’ with a list of the couples taking part in it. These notices were hung in prominent positions on the first Sunday of Lent, where they might be read by all on their way to church… In south-east County Cork the Skellig joke appeared in its most extreme form. Here bands of young men went about on Shrove Tuesday evening, and if some inveterate bachelor ventured out and fell into their hands he was bound with ropes and had his head ducked under a pump or in a well; this drenching was called ‘going to the Skelligs’

The Skelligs have been in the news recently, as the setting for a scene in the new Star Wars film: The Force Awakens. Filming on the historic site provoked considerable debate and discontent among archaeologists and conservationists. Despite our own reservations, Finola and I went to watch the film in Vancouver and – although we had to wait until the very end (the Skelligs appear only in the last scene) – we were delighted to see one of the West of Ireland’s most magnificent seascapes on the big screen – and in 3D!

Shrovetide is nearly upon us. If you haven’t arranged your pre-Lent weddings yet don’t forget there’s always the Skelligs!

With thanks to mavek-cg (http://mavek-cg.deviantart.com) for the fine image on the header

The Booley

Bucolic

Booleying is an Irish term for transhumance – the agricultural tradition of taking cattle up to the high open lands to graze during the summer months.

booley farm

Booleying territory: on the upland moors of the Sheep’s Head the ruins of a simple cottage in a lonely glen tell of bygone farming practices

The English poet Edmund Spenser went to Ireland in 1580 and was given lands in County Cork that had been confiscated in the Munster Plantation. (His fellow colonialist Sir Walter Raleigh was also granted large areas of land, which he sold to Sir Richard Boyle who later became Earl of Cork and one of the richest men in the British Isles). In 1596 Spenser wrote a pamphlet – A View of the Present State of Ireland – based on his experiences. This piece is highly regarded as a historical source on 16th century Ireland although it refers somewhat inaccurately to booleying: …the Irish country people keep their cattle and live themselves the most part of the year in bollies, pasturing upon the mountains and wild waste plains, and removing to fresh lands as they had depastured the former… 

irish rebellion

16th century Ireland: the Munster Plantation

Our trusted commentator Kevin Danaher devotes a chapter in Irish Customs and Beliefs (Mercier Press 1964) to ‘The Summer Pastures’: …If you could take away the cattle from the fields around the house all during the summer and autumn, you could have more hay and a bit of winter pasture. Therefore you could keep more cattle and were a richer man. But where could you put the cattle in summer and autumn?

peak

Old walls on the Coomkeen ridge tell of early land divisions

(Danaher) …In Ireland there are big areas of the countryside which have some value during the better part of the year but none at all during the winter and spring. These are, of course, the mountains and moor lands. In the cold season they are barren and desolate, but when the milder part of the year comes they provide grazing which may be sparse but is very sweet. Our farming ancestors knew this and a system was worked out which gave the milch-cows the benefit of them. They were away in the mountains or the moors, far from the homestead over bad roads or no roads at all, so that the cattle could not be driven home for milking. Some of the family went and lived with the cows on the mountain. Some sort of dwelling was built there for them, they milked the cows morning and evening and made the butter which could be stored until the men from the home farm came for it once a week…

Varieties of simple shelters – ancient beehive style (left from George Walsh’s window in St Kentigern’s Church, Eyeries, on the Beara Peninsula and – top right – from Dingle, County Kerry – both were used by contemplative hermits but some booley huts were built in similar style) and, bottom right, an example of an Irish cabin

Of the booley houses – or huts – Danaher writes: Most of them were just rough copies of the kind of houses ordinarily used as dwellings, smaller and simpler but made of the same materials and by the same methods. Usually they had only one room, with a simple fireplace, often without any chimney, only a hole in the roof over the hearth… In fine weather their occupants could live out of doors all through the long period of daylight, coming in only to sleep or to cook food and eat it, and the buaile houses were used as sleeping-places only…

booley hut

This structure on the Sheep’s Head is recorded on the National Monuments Record as a Booley Hut

Farming practices have changed in the modern day and I am not aware that any booleying still happens – but the custom lives on in memory and in place names. The Irish word Buaile (pronounced bool-yeh), is translated as a feeding or milking place for cows – so it refers to the dairy as well as the summer pastures. There is a townland near us called Corravolley: that’s the anglicised name. Two roads lead there, and on each road is a signpost:

Do you notice the subtle difference in the Irish rendering of the name on these signs? One reads ‘An Chorrbhaile’ and the other ‘An Chorrbhuaile’. One letter is different in the second sign, but it makes all the difference in the way you might translate its meaning. An Chorrbhaile combines corr – round hill, pointed hill, hollow, pointed, conspicuous with baile – townland, town, homestead, but the alternative suffix buaile means cattle-fold, or summer-pasture. As Corravoley is way up in the hills it is very likely that it was the place of the booleying.

cattle in the wild

Other examples of Irish names which may have derived from the booley include Coill na Buailidh, Kilinaboley, Kilenabooley, Both Théith, Boheagh, Knocknaboley, Buaile h’Anraoi, and Cnoc an tSamhraidh (which actually translates as Summerhill – a place name associated with transhumance in Britain).

bullocks

In Scandinavia, transhumance is still practiced: there the common mountain or forest pasture used for transhumance in summer is called seter or bod / bua. The same term refers to a mountain cabin, which is used as a summer residence. In summer (usually late June), livestock is moved to a mountain farm, often quite distant from a home farm, in order to preserve meadows in valleys for producing hay. Livestock is typically tended for summer by girls and younger women, who also milk and make cheese. As autumn approaches and grazing becomes in short supply, livestock is returned to the home farm. Note the Norse word būð which sounds like ‘both’ as in ‘bothy’, and the use of that word in Scotland to mean a basic shelter on the high moors, unlocked and available for anyone to use free of charge.

from the uplands

There is physical evidence of the booleying in Ireland. On the Coomkeen route of the Sheep’s Head Way we found a little glen high up on the mountain, a setting for a ruined small stone house which could well have been used by those herding the cattle on the summer pasturage in bygone days. It’s a beautiful sheltered site, guarded by two ancient thorn trees, and we could easily imagine – through our romantic 21st century vision – the hard but simple lifestyle invoked there.

booley thorns

Guardians of the Booley – two ancient thorn trees stand by the abandoned cottage

I feel particularly close connections to that way of life as my Dartmoor ancestors were transhumers. They kept a remote farm out on the moor uplands, well away from the nearest centre of civilisation. The enclosure had been established towards the end of the 18th century and involved the building of miles of stone boundary walls (which caused dissent among the commoners) and my forebears who lived there for a few generations were paid to run cattle from other farms on the pastures during the summer months. By the early 1900s the farm had been abandoned and nature has gradually taken over and created an attractive antiquity which I loved to wander over and recreate in my mind’s eye the scenes of family life: my maternal great-grandmother was one of fourteen children born on the farm in one generation.

teignhead today

Family home: Teignhead Farm on Dartmoor – used as a summer run for cattle, although it was  a permanent residence way off the beaten track for the large family of my forebears – an early 19th century print (top left), a photograph dated 1889 (top right) and the ruins of the house today (below)

Novelist Philip Robinson writes:

…The ghostly footprints of ancient sod walls still mark the sites where families once moved with their cattle up to uplands in county Antrim during the summer months (from May to October). They built temporary ‘booley’ huts to live in, usually beside a water burn or spring… The families that took their cattle to booley places on the Commons like Ardboley (High Booley), Carnbilly (Booley Cairn) or Milky Knowes had their home farms down on lower ground in clusters or villages called ‘clachans’. The arable land around each clachan was shared out between the group in a jigsaw of tiny plots and strips each year, and when the cattle returned before the 1st November, the field markers were torn down and the land around the clachans returned to common winter grazing. The homecoming to the clachan at harvest time was another great time of celebration and seasonal customs, closely tied up with Halloween bonfires and gatherings on 31st October.

on the move

On the move – Kerry cattle (believed to be Ireland’s most ancient breed) from the collection of photographer Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh, who documented life in rural Ireland between the 1930s and the 1950s

We know that Booleying was an ancient practice as it is mentioned in the Brehon Laws – which takes it back at least to the time of St Patrick. Later, under the 14th century Statute of Kilkenny the Irish ...were forbidden to booley or pasture on those of the march lands belonging to the English; if they did so the English owner of the lands might impound the cattle as a distress for damage; but in doing so he was to keep the cattle together, so that they might be delivered up whole and uninjured to the Irish owner if he came to pay the damages… The historian, John O’Donovan (1806-1861) noted (in his Ordnance Survey Letters of 1838) that the people owned houses in two townlands, one of which was a booley. …It is a great habit among the people of the island to have two townlands and houses built on each where they remove occasionally with their cattle. The townlands are held under one lease and one of these farms is called a Bouley…

booley house

In Ireland The Booley is relegated to the tune books but there are those alive today who remember the tradition in their own families. Danaher relates: …old people tell of the buaile as a very happy place, full of song and laughter. On Sunday evenings the girls from several buailes would come together and the young men came up from the farms to be with them, and there was music and dancing and gaiety on hillsides that now hear only the bleat of the sheep and the cry of the grouse and the curlew…

boley fair poster

 

Queen of the May

May Eve activity: setting up the May Bush

May Eve activity: setting up the May Bush

I was excited to learn – from one of my favourite and most faithful volumes on folklore: The Year in Ireland by Kevin Danaher (Mercier Press 1972) – that on May Day the Fastnet Rock weighs anchor, casts off her moorings and goes sailing about in Roaringwater Bay! I spent May Eve in a whirl of anticipation – and hot spring sunshine – awaiting the morrow which would present this wonderful spectacle to add to the feast to be seen from our window. The morrow that came, ostensibly the first day of summer, was a disappointment: the wind was in the east – and biting – and the whole bay was encased in damp, grey fog. The perambulations of the rock remained out of sight until nightfall, by which time the sweeping light had smugly returned to its rightful place twelve miles off shore.

Dancing Rock...

Dancing Rock…

My only consolation – again, according to Danaher – is that a cold, wet May morning heralds an excellent summer (and this certainly came about last year). I could write all day about Danaher’s observations on the subject of Mary’s month – in his book 42 pages are devoted to it: the longest section by far, indicating the importance given to this part of the year in the traditional calendar. But I’ll leave that for another time and concentrate on our own activity: putting up our May Bush.

When I lived in the west of England it was a toss-up between going to Minehead or Padstow on May Day – occasionally both. They were contrasting experiences: in Minehead, on the north coast of Somerset, you had to take pot luck – there was no fixed itinerary to the day and you never quite knew what you were going to see, or where or when. What you wanted to see was the Hobby Horse, sometimes known as the Ship-horse, or the Sailor’s Oss. I’ll refer you to another classic book – by chance also dating from 1972: A Year of Festivals – A Guide to British Calendar Customs by Geoffrey Palmer + Noel Lloyd (Frederick Warne):

…The head of the horse (or the mast and sails of the ship) is in the centre; and a long rope tail, once a real cow’s tail, is fastened to the ‘stern’. The man inside the contraption glides and sways through the streets, and sometimes swings his tail around anybody who refuses to contribute to the collecting-box… The ship form of the horse is said to date from 1772 when, on the evening before May Day, a ship sank in a storm off Dunster, three miles from Minehead. The only object to be washed ashore was a dead cow, the tail of which was used to decorate the horse…

Now, the early photograph below is one of my all-time favourites as an illustration of a folk custom: it’s optimistically captioned Hobby-horse Festival, Minehead, Somerset and says to me that such traditions will continue forever because ‘they have to be done’ – even if the rest of the world has lost all interest…

The First of May at Padstow is another matter altogether. It’s a huge gathering: all the roads are closed to traffic and at times it seems impossible that any more people could be fitted in to this modest Cornish fishing community. Here there are two ‘Obby Osses’: the Red Oss, sometimes known as the Original or Old Oss, is stabled in the Golden Lion, while the Blue Oss – or Temperance Oss has its headquarters in the (perhaps more temperance friendly) Public Library. Both horses come out in the morning of May Day, led by a ‘Teaser’ and accompanied by numerous dancers, drums and accordions, perambulate all around the town, and well beyond it, finally meeting in the evening at The Square, in the shadow of an elaborate and colourful May Pole.

Padstow taster… Photos from the 1960s and 2006:

Preparing the Maypole in Bavaria

Preparing the Maypole in Bavaria (Florian Schott, Ellbach)

While I was experiencing my first Padstow May Day in the 1960s, our Cappaghglass neighbour Dietrich was in Bavaria, watching the construction of an enormous Maypole: he also remembers all the children dancing around it holding up May Bushes. For our own May Bush we took our inspiration from Danaher:

…The children set up their May Bush in the same spirit in which we hang out our flags on a national holiday, to celebrate an occasion, but some – at least – of their parents were glad of the feeling of protection against unseen forces which the May Bush gave…

Oh yes! We have to be aware that…

…So powerful were the preternatural forces abroad in the night between sunset on May Eve and sunrise on May Day that almost anything might be expected to happen… (Danaher) while …The powers of evil, always on the alert to entangle and destroy souls, being most dangerous and powerful on May-Eve, on that day the maids were apt to be uneasy and rather sullen, watching us suspiciously lest we might, through our unbelief, frustrate their precautions against danger. They strewed primroses on the threshold of the front and back doors – no fairy can get over this defence – and in the cow-byres they hung branches of rowan while the head dairy-woman sprinkled holy water in mangers and stalls. The milkmaids, at the end of the evening milking, stood to make the sign of the cross with froth from the pails, signing themselves and making a cross in the air towards the cows… from The Farm by Lough Gur by Mary Carbery (Longmans, 1937).

Burning the land

Burning the land

We have had a long, dry spell and there have been a number of gorse fires recently in our neighbourhood: this one occurred on May Eve – traditionally a time in Ireland when bonfires were lit – although the gorse fires have nothing to do with that tradition. Here are the observations of William Wilde (father of Oscar) in Irish Popular Superstitions, Dublin, 1853

…Turf, coals, old bones, particularly slugs of cows’ horns from the tan-yards, and horses’ heads from the knackers, logs of wood etc were also collected, to which some of the merchants generally added a few pitch and tar-barrels. The ignitable materials were formed in depots, in back-yards, and cellars of old houses, long before the approaching festival; and several sorties were made by opposing factions to gain possession of these hoards, and lives have been lost in the skirmishes which ensued… With the exception of one ancient rite, that of throwing into it the May bush, there were but few Pagan ceremonies observed at the metropolitan fires. A vast crowd collected, whiskey was distributed galore… The entire population collected round the bush and the fire; the elder portion, men and women, bringing with them chairs or stools, to sit out the wake of the winter and spring, according to the olden usage… Fiddlers and pipers plied their fingers and elbows; and dancing, shouting, revelry and debauchery of every description succeeded, till, at an advanced hour of the night, the scene partook more of the nature of the ancient Saturnalia, than anything we can presently liken it to…

mass sign

By contrast, our own rural activities were much more calm and constrained. I couldn’t miss out on an outdoor Mass celebrated at one of Lough Hyne’s Holy Wells – the Skour Well. On a beautiful evening – attractive to the midges – it felt the most natural thing in the world to be at a site which has been considered sacred for hundreds, if not for thousands of years, and to take part in a ceremony which is also ancient. I counted over eighty people, including a gentleman of 97, at this event – presided over by two priests and centred on a portable altar with cloth and candles, the revered well being the backdrop. Prayers were said and hymns were sung in English, Irish and Latin.

There’s a continuity here which defies any twenty first century rationale. I was very conscious that this was the way that faith was practiced in Ireland in the penal times (requiring that a watchful eye be kept out for the Redcoats) – but also it was an honouring of nature and a respect for the elements: earth, water, sun and rain – old ways carrying on regardless of new technologies.

A May garland – Hatherleigh, Devon:

Finola’s memory of May Day in her schooldays was of all the girls wearing veils and processing down to the grotto saying the Rosary; and, every day throughout Mary’s month, singing the refrain that was sung at the close of the Mass at Skour Well:

O Mary! we crown thee with blossoms today,
Queen of the Angels, Queen of the May.

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Whisperers

Shergar wins the 1981 Derby by ten lengths!

Shergar wins the 1981 Derby by ten lengths!

The skill of the Irish in breeding, training and riding horses is unbounded. These arts are swathed in folklore and storytelling as much as in reality. Take Shergar – record-breaking racehorse whose 1981 win was the longest margin in the Epsom Derby’s history: after an illustrious career the horse was kidnapped from Ballymany Stud, near The Curragh in County Kildare by masked gunmen – and never seen again. The incident has been the inspiration for conspiracy theories, books, documentaries, and a film.

You’ve all heard of the Horse Whisperer, a novel by Nicholas Evans which, in 1998, became a blockbuster film starring Robert Redford? Well, the term ‘Whisperer’ was around long before that, used to describe people who communicate with and train working horses. As far back as 1648 it was recorded that a Sussex horseman, John Young, had the art of controlling horses ‘…by means of the whisper…’ – but the most famous of the historical ‘Whisperers’ is a man from County Cork, James Sullivan. He was born in Mallow towards the end of the eighteenth century, ‘…an ignorant, awkward rustic of the lowest class…’ according to Mile’s Modern Practical Farrier, 1843. Sullivan ‘…gained the singular epithet of Whisperer by an extraordinary art of controlling in a secret manner and taming into the most submissive and tractable disposition, any horse or mare that was notoriously vicious and obstinate… He seemed to possess an instinctive power of inspiring awe, the result perhaps of a natural intrepidity, in which I believe the greater part of the art consisted… A faculty like this would have, in other hands, made a fortune; but Sullivan preferred to remain in Ireland…’

A woodcut by C F Tunnicliffe

A woodcut by C F Tunnicliffe

It’s worth quoting a little further from the story of this man from Cork, here from one of my much-thumbed books which I have carried with me for countless years – The Horse in the Furrow, by folklorist George Ewart Evans:

‘…Sullivan’s best known exploit was his taming of King Pippin, a notoriously vicious horse, at the Curragh in 1804. A man who had offered to put on his bridle had been seized by the horse and shaken like a terrier shaking a rat. He was saved only by the amount of clothes he had on his back. It appears that this was the custom of the Irish countryman to show off his wardrobe on occasions such as this, and if he had three coats he put them all on. After this incident they sent for Sullivan to subdue the horse. He shut himself up with him all night, and in the morning the horse was following him about the course like a well trained dog: he won a race at the same meeting…’

Another of my favourite writers whose many books pad out the folklore section of our library here at Nead an Iolair is Kevin Danaher. I can’t resist quoting from The Horseman’s Word in Irish Country People, Mercier Press, 1966:

‘…At the horse fair the buyer would look out for the characteristics of a good horse as laid down in the old saying: “…Three traits of a bull, a bold walk, a strong neck and a hard forehead; three traits of a fox, a light step, a look to the front and a glance to each side of the road; three traits of a woman, a broad bosom, a slender waist and a short back; three traits of a hare, a lively ear, a bright eye and a quick run against a hill…”

A first hand account of Whispering from Danaher’s childhood:

‘…It was at a fair in Rathkeale that I saw for the first and only time the strange power of the “horseman’s word”. A young colt, either through fear or perverseness, was prancing and kicking wildly when a boy of about seventeen walked in and fondled the horse’s nose, talking quietly. Immediately the colt became calm and the boy took the headstall and led him up and down as meek as a lamb. We were told that this boy, the son of an itinerant horse dealer, had the power to calm any horse. Some people said it was a hereditary secret in his family, others that he had learned it from an old Palatine farmer in the district who also had this strange gift. It was said, too, that as well as being able to quieten horses and break untrained animals in a matter of minutes, this boy could get a horse to stand still and not move for any force or persuasion until he or somebody else who had the power released it. There is no doubt at all that certain persons have this gift, not only in Ireland but all over the world, but no satisfactory explanation is forthcoming. In Ireland it is known as ‘cogar i gcluais an chapaill’ or simply ‘the whisper’ and its potency is held to lie in the words which are spoken in the horse’s ear…’

Irish Travellers, County Clare 1951

Danaher mentions an ‘itinerant horse dealer’. Today we might call them Gypsies or Travellers. In Ireland they are well-known for their skills in horsemanship, and for breeding a very particular type of draft horse, suitable for pulling the vardo and also for riding and sulkie racing. The horses are often piebald or skewbald. You may be sure that the Travelling fraternity are natural Whisperers!

The 'Gypsy Horse' is a light draft cob

The ‘Gypsy Horse’ is a light draft cob

Both Evans and Danaher mention the Toadmen in their discussions. These characters would use divination to gain their power over horses. One such ritual was called the ‘Water of the Moon’, and was commonly practised in the East Anglian and Cambridgeshire regions of England. It required that the horseman kill a frog or toad and hang the body on a thorn tree until only the skeleton remained.  At full moon the man then had to take the skeleton to a running stream and throw it into the water.  One small forked bone would detach itself from rest and float upstream, and it was this bone from which the horseman would then derive power over horses.

The magical bone of the Toad...

The magical bone of the Toad… (Tunnicliffe)

Have a look at this clip from Canada – it’s not Ireland, but it’s about a modern day Horse Whisperer, and makes good watching…

Speed the Plough

Speed the Plough

In England today – the first Sunday after Epiphany – they ‘bless the plough’. I can’t find any mention of a similar tradition in Ireland, but please let me know if you are aware of one. It’s because the day marks the end of the agricultural holiday which follows Christmas: tomorrow is Plough Monday – the first day of the farmers’ working year – which has its own traditions. Ploughs were traditionally taken around with collecting boxes by mummers and molly dancers in parts of Eastern England, and in some places were used as a threat: if householders refused to donate to the participants their front paths would be ploughed up! Of course the ploughs used in these customs were all drawn by horses at one time – something that hasn’t died out yet: our friends Tim and Sandra keep their own working horses here in West Cork, and I’m quite sure they have mastered the art of Whispering for themselves.

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