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

Nollaig na mBan

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Sounds like ‘Nullig ne mon’ and translates as ‘Christmas of the Women’, but is also known as ‘Little Christmas’. It’s today – the 6th of January – and is celebrated in Ireland and wherever else in the world there are Irish communities. There are other traditions surrounding this day (quite apart from the arrival of the Three Wise Men), and they are confusing. I was brought up knowing that the Christmas decorations have to come down today otherwise there will be some bad luck in the year. Finola, however, knows that they have to stay up all through the day as it’s still part of Christmas – so she would have them down tomorrow instead. Maybe this is a Catholic / Protestant divide? And when is Twelfth Night: 5th or 6th of January? Either one, it seems, depending on which of the many traditions you choose to follow, or which part of the world you live in.

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In Tudor Britain the whole winter festival started on All Soul’s Eve (Halloween) and lasted until Twelfth Night. On the first day a cake was baked with a bean in it. Whoever had the slice with the bean was elected Lord of Misrule and presided over a topsy turvy time when the peasant ruled the master and so on. The World Turned Upside Down is a wishful thinking concept that has inspired many artists ever since.

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In some parts of Europe a custom of house-blessing takes place today. Dried herbs are burnt and their scents fill the building. Doorways are sprinkled with holy water and the master of the house writes with chalk above the house and barn doors the initials C M B enclosed within the year (eg 20 C  M  B 14). According to the ritual he says: Caspar, Melchior, Balthasar, protect us again this year from the dangers of fire and water. Alternatively it could stand for “Christus Mansionem Benedicat” (May Christ bless this home).

Some traditions closer to home: McCarthy + Hawkes write in Northside of the Mizen

…On Nollaig na mBan (Woman’s Christmas or Epiphany), the women put all the scraps and leftovers from Christmas onto the kitchen table and it was then up to everyone else to cope the best they could. At midnight, on the eve of Nollaig na mBan, the water in the spring well turned to wine. Now that was a great thing! Ne’er a man or woman has ever supped any and that was because it was only for the Little People…

Perhaps to emphasize that such miracles should be the preserve of only the Fairy Folk, there is a tale told of the blessed well of St Brendan in Cill a ‘Ruith, near Ventry in County Kerry: here in days of yore Three Unwise Men sat up to drink their fill of wine at the appropriate hour and were turned into three large boulders which stand there as a warning to this day.

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As this is a Monday, and the first one of the new year, it is also known as Handsel Monday, when children used to visit neighbours and friends and ask for money or cakes. Such a gift was known as a suggit which may derive from the Irish so dhuit – ‘here’s for you – here you are’.

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Finola is off out tonight with friends to celebrate Nollaig na mBan, as she used to in Vancouver where the tradition was strongly followed in the Irish community. It is said that the term ‘Women’s Christmas’ can be explained because Christmas Day was marked by beef and whiskey – men’s fare – while on Little Christmas Day the dainties preferred by women – cake and tea – were more in evidence. Finola will no doubt tell me whether this is still the case.