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 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

‘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

Gather Your Seaweed

collecting sand

Today is Oiche Fhéile Bhríde – St Brigid’s Eve. The Saint’s festival – tomorrow – marks the beginning of Spring: we will feel the lengthening of the days, and we have to be alert for so many portents.

Firstly – Hedgehogs. Watch out for your Hedgehogs: to see one is a good weather sign, for on Brigid’s Eve the Hedgehog comes out of the hole in which he has spent the winter, eyes up the weather and, if he likes the look of it, starts his foraging. If he goes straight back in again, then you’ll know that the storms will continue! This is according to Kevin Danaher, a frequent contributor on our seasonal folklore. The wind direction on the eve of the festival ‘…betokens the prevailing wind during the coming year; the festival day should show signs of improving weather, although an exceptionally fine day is regarded as an omen of poor weather to come…’

For those of us who live by the sea we have to be alert for Rabharta na Féile Bríde, the spring tide nearest to St Brigid’s day, as it is said to be the most significant one of the year – that’s when the difference between high and low tide is the greatest. Danaher, The Year in Ireland, Mercier Press 1972, notes: ‘…The people were quick to take the opportunity of cutting and gathering seaweed to fertilize the crops and of collecting shellfish and other shore produce. In a few places a live shellfish, such as a limpet or a periwinkle, was placed at each of the four corners of the house, to bring fishing luck and ensure plentiful shore gathering…’ But don’t forget that it’s not until Good Friday that you harvest the Mussels.

along the strand

All the photographs in this post are from the collection of Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh, who documented life in rural Ireland between the 1930s and the 1950s – an invaluable pictorial record of the times

This is the day to make – and eat – your bairin-breac: ‘…On St Brigid’s Eve every farmer’s wife in Ireland makes a cake, the neighbours are invited, the madder of ale and the pipe go round, and the evening concludes with mirth and festivity…’ (Danaher). I’m holding out hopes that Finola will oblige and get out her delicious barm-brack recipe. Of course, the mirth and festivity will follow as she soaks the fruit in whisky! The Saint travels around the countryside on the eve of her festival, bestowing her blessing on the people and their livestock. We must be sure to leave out for her a piece of our cake: ‘…Often a sheaf of corn was put beside the cake, as refreshment for the Saint’s favourite white cow which accompanied her on her rounds. Others laid a bundle of straw or fresh rushes on the threshold, on which the Saint might kneel to bless the house…’ (Danaher).

collecting seaweed

Tonight we will hang a piece of red ribbon outside our door: ‘…One traditional story says that St Brigid wove the first cloth in Ireland and worked into it white healing threads which were said to have kept their healing power for centuries. In many places in Ireland it was customary to put a piece of silk ribbon, red being the preferred colour, outside the house on the Eve of St Brigid’s Day, much in the same way as articles of clothing or cloth left out on the saint’s eve would be endowed with St Brigid’s blessing when they became known as the Brat Bhríde (Brigid’s cloak). It was believed that St Brigid, when travelling around the country on the Eve of her Day, would see and touch the ribbon, so endowing it with her blessing and conferring on it some of her healing power. After this it was referred to as the ribín Bhríde…’ from Brigid: Goddess, Druidess and Saint Brian Wright, The History Press 2009. This reminds me very much of another saint – Gobnait – who also has a February festival. It’s going to be a busy month! To start it off it’s essential that we make our bogha Brídhe – St Brigid’s Cross.

carrying the seaweed

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.

9074db7eb01031a082d064758b8b18ba

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.

herring

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!.

img4465-1

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…

BarnacleGooseIE