Sunday 26 March 2017

Country Matters: Michaelmas is a time to cook the festive goose

Masterful: The 'Goose Girl' painting was originally credited to William Leech and the Irish National Gallery adopted the painting as its logo. The gallery eventually conceded that the painting had in fact been created by Englishman Stanley Royle. Despite this (maybe because of it), this picture is one of the most popular in the gallery
Masterful: The 'Goose Girl' painting was originally credited to William Leech and the Irish National Gallery adopted the painting as its logo. The gallery eventually conceded that the painting had in fact been created by Englishman Stanley Royle. Despite this (maybe because of it), this picture is one of the most popular in the gallery

Joe Kennedy

The Feast of Michael the Archangel or Michaelmas, on Tuesday may not ring many clear bells in the autumnal countryside these days.

The day was once almost as popular as Christmas, especially for feasting. Times and customs have changed and its significance may now be more confined to the hallowed portals of the Law Library within the historic Dublin building known as the Four Courts.

Even yours truly does not remember when it was a special time for serving up roast goose for dinner.

The feast date, however, marks the beginning of a new law term and it remains a traditional date for renewal of land contracts, settling accounts and such.

There is a Michaelmas flower, of course; a daisy, an autumn-flowering aster, a blue-purple ragworth which came in from America and became naturalised.

The flower blooms, the lawyers talk to their clients, autumnal days grow short, the leaves turn to flame, with no time for the waiting game, as the grizzled actor Walter Huston once recorded.

Michael threw Lucifer out of heaven and straight into a heap of blackberry brambles!

The devil took his revenge by going about the countryside urinating on the berries, making them hard and bitter. So folklore has it but this is caused by an insect.

But the hedgerow harvest should have been gathered by now, with cauldrons cooking and jams and cordials prepared for the days ahead.

Many families carry on this tradition and passers-by have been picking and eating berries overhanging roadsides without a thought to the residues of passing traffic.

But what of the goose? In the past, this was a time for poultry markets when spring goslings were ready for table.

The Michaelmas goose was eaten as harvest time ended at the autumn equinox. In these changing weather times, there is no rest for the farmer as vital work remains to be completed.

The Normans are credited with introducing accounts reckoning and land transactions and town mayors were appointed. Drogheda's first citizen had to take office before proceedings could begin in Dublin.

Such formalities were accompanied by 'entertainments' such as bull-baiting, described in Kilkenny as a "much affected pastime with the lower classes".

The last "savage spectacle" there, in St James Green, was in 1837, according to a John Prim of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society (writing in 1852).

Goose markets were less gruesome. Birds often changed hands in lieu of rents and farming families' generosity was evident when wives, who controlled the flocks, gave birds as gifts to poorer families.

There was also a giving of mutton or 'Cuid Mhicil' (St Michael's Sheep), "bestowed upon the poor". According to Geoffrey Keating, historian, this practice was a tradition from early Christian times.

More modern history relates a notable Michaelmas dinner with Queen Elizabeth the First at the time of the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.

The worst storm of the century scattered the fleet, wrecking many ships, some along the Irish coast. The weather beat them but the queen saw it otherwise.

While dining on roast goose, news arrived of the fate of the Spanish ships.

Having earlier toasted "death to the Armada", Elizabeth proclaimed that "henceforth shall a goose commemorate this famous victory." And so an historic tradition was given the royal imprimatur.

Sunday Independent

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