Thursday 25 December 2014

A time for contracts and feasts

Published 12/10/2008 | 00:00

MICHAELMAS, just past at month end, marked the last days of berry harvesting and the start of a new law term when black-robed men and women bustle about the great buildings of the Four Courts, with its life and work noted by some historians to be a continuing tradition of the old Irish Parliament which wound itself up in 1800.

This used be a time for general bill-paying, the letting of lands (conacre), setting of rents and settlements.

The timing of these practices, first introduced by the Normans, may now have fused with other dates of contract -- but, as with the Easter festival, Michaelmas remains a time of legal consequence, publicly expressed with religious ceremonial.

But these days one never hears about goose feasts. And, of course, there is no bull-baiting, a barbarous activity once described as "polite recreation" to keep the mob enthused in towns such as Kilkenny and Drogheda on the day new mayors were sworn in, up to the beginning of the 18th Century. Some gentry even contributed money to this to make themselves popular with butchers, as butchers' boys were fearless street fighters and useful in times of political difficulty.

Michaelmas more importantly marked Fomhar na nGean, the goose harvest, when birds hatched in spring were ready for market.

An important custom was to have a goose dinner on this day, which is perhaps something which could be considered by the poultry industry today to bring a new impetus to their business.

Farmers' wives had the responsibility for large flocks of geese in Ireland of yore and, as well as selling them at fairs, made gifts of birds to friends and also to poorer families. There was also a tradition of

farmers killing a sheep and giving meat to the poor.

Geoffrey Keating in his Legends of Ireland related how St Patrick restored to life a king's son. The boy's mother, in gratitude, vowed to give to the poor on Michaelmas Day one sheep out of every flock she had. This became law, and the custom of Cuid Mhichill, or St Michael's Sheep, continued into the 18th Century.

The eating and giving of geese appeared to be in tandem with sheep, and in some instances -- as noted in the Calendar of Justiciary Rolls 1305-07 -- a rent of geese was paid to town burgesses.

English historians claim the eating of a goose at Michaelmas had to do with an order of Queen Elizabeth to remember the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. She had been having a goose dinner when told key ships had been destroyed in the Blasket Sound. This, of course, was caused by the weather. The hard-pressed Kerry folk could have told her they had been eating goose on that date for centuries and it had nothing to do with Sir Francis Drake.

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