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 hare

John 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 hares

Amhlaoibh Ó Suilleabháin, the schoolmaster of Callan, Co Kilkenny 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 Danaher 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

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…