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Goose feasts and Michael's berries


The Feast of St Michael falls next week (September 24), marking the end date for berry gathering

The Feast of St Michael falls next week (September 24), marking the end date for berry gathering

The Feast of St Michael falls next week (September 24), marking the end date for berry gathering

This weekend should mark the last foray of hedgerow hunters' blackberry-picking - as the devil is set to travel the countryside urinating on the berries!

The Feast of St Michael falls next week (September 24), marking the end date for berry gathering. They are becoming unpalatable, the real cause being a flash-fly dribbling saliva on the fruit, sucking up the juice and the berries hardening. The combination of devil and flies should curb enthusiasm.

The traditional story had Lucifer taking his revenge on St Michael for throwing him out of heaven to land in a heap of thorny brambles.

Other attractive bounty remains for weekend foragers in the magnificent harvests of sloes, crab apples and elderberries bending the boughs along with scarlet rowans, haws and falling beech mast and hazels. Acorns are also dropping and being buried by woodland-savvy jays and chestnuts may burst from their cocoons underfoot to reveal shiny collectibles of pristine chocolate-and-cream. Mushroom gatherers are only unhappy when ''slugs'' have struck first, tracing passageways through the maturing field crops.

High temperatures and rain have crab apples and elders hanging together like swooning lovers waiting for home wine enthusiasts to gather the ripened berries. Jelly and jam-makers will be busy though most of the elder fruit will be left for birds and to fall to the ground.

Seamus Heaney once wrote a poem about blackberries remembering a schooldays industry - as do I - when ladders were sometimes used to access the high hedges to fill pails for cash at a village shop. A quick turnover was vital as the fruit softened quickly. The young Heaney and pals saved their berries in an old bathtub to discover all too soon the cache gutted by a "rat-grey fungus".

"It wasn't fair," he later wrote, "that all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot/ Each year I hoped they'd keep, knew they would not."

Michaelmas is best marked nowadays with the start of a new law term with some modest ceremonials. It used also be a ''quarter day'' for setting rents and settling accounts and once was quite a significant time, almost as important as Christmas. It had no significance in the old Gaelic Ireland, according to folklorist Kevin Danaher, but arrived in 1170 with the Normans who established new legal methods controlling business, property and land. The peasantry were free to celebrate with some violent ''entertainments'' such as bull-baiting, the last being recorded in Kilkenny in 1837.

But goose markets were certainly less gruesome. Farmers' wives controlled the flocks of spring goslings now mature and some birds were exchanged in lieu of rents. There was also much farmer generosity as geese were given to poorer families as gifts along with ''Cuid Micil'' (St Michael's Sheep), mutton "bestowed upon the poor", a practice from early Christian times. The Michaelmas goose was eaten as harvest time ended with the autumn equinox.

There was an historic goose feast during the reign of Queen Elizabeth the First at the time of the Spanish Armada in 1588. The worst storm of the century had scattered the fleet and many vessels were wrecked along the coasts of Ireland. Elizabeth, dining on goose, proposed a toast that "henceforth shall a goose commemorate this famous victory." Of course, the weather had been the winner.

Sunday Independent