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

‘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