Friday 22 September 2017

Country Matters: Pay bills, enjoy the roast goose

Michaelmas was traditionally a time for goose markets.
Michaelmas was traditionally a time for goose markets.

Joe Kennedy

A MICHAELMAS daisy is an autumn flowering aster, a blue-purple ragworth, a naturalised alien from North America.

Michaelmas, tomorrow, marks the start of a new law term and is a traditional time for contracts. The flower blooms, the lawyers talk to clients. It is a time of autumnal renewal. It is the feast day of the Archangel Michael who threw out Lucifer from heaven to fall into - folklore has it - a heap of blackberry brambles. Mad Sweeney got tangled up in thorns which seems a worse torture.

Folklore also had it that at this time, the devil went about the countryside urinating on blackberries, to take revenge as it were, making them hard and bitter. This was really caused by an insect which dribbled saliva on the berries and sucked up the juice. Picking the fruit should have ended by now.

Michaelmas was also traditionally a time for goose markets, when spring goslings were ready for a roast goose feast which someone may have been lucky enough to have enjoyed today, a reminder that the year is falling and Christmas is down the road.

St Michael's feast day was traditionally a time for rural reckoning, settling conacre (leasing land) and paying bills and accounts at the grocer's, draper's and general suppliers to farm homes. Michaelmas events have been around since Anglo-Norman times at least, a time when town mayors were elected, the mayor of Drogheda being installed before proceedings could begin at the Mansion House in Dublin.

In Kilkenny, people were more bloodthirsty, and baiting a bull was a "much-affected pastime with the lower classes" before a new mayor was sworn in. The original activity used to be near St Francis Abbey but, we learn, the "modern bull-baiting took place in St James Green and the last time the savage spectacle was witnessed was on Sept 29, 1837", according to a John Prim of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society, writing in 1852.

Geese markets appear less gruesome and birds were paid in rents at "Fomhar na nGean"; and farm wives who had charge of large flocks gave birds to poorer families and to their friends. The less-provided for also benefited from portions of mutton, "Cuid Mhichil", or St Michael's Sheep, an animal being killed and "bestowed upon relieving the poor", a tradition from the time of St Patrick, according to the historian Geoffrey Keating in the 18th Century.

Goose feasts were celebrated throughout Europe and in England there is an historic link with Elizabeth I and the Spanish Armada.

She famously addressed her forces at Tilbury in 1588 but it was the weather rather than her ships that defeated the Spanish who decided to sail the long way home over Scotland, and down the Connacht coast.

That September was the stormiest of the century and many vessels were wrecked. The queen was dining on roast goose on Michaelmas night when a messenger arrived with the news of the loss of Spanish ships in the Blasket Sound. Having earlier toasted "death to the accursed Armada", she immediately proclaimed that "henceforth shall a goose commemorate this famous victory". And so a tradition was consolidated.

Hopefully, it continues as: "He who eats goose on Michaelmas Day shan't money lack or debts to pay."

Sunday Independent

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