Saturday 20 July 2019

Once there was a royal feast of geese

Country matters

ROAST GOOSE: Elizabeth I
ROAST GOOSE: Elizabeth I

Joe Kennedy

The Feast of St Michael came and went quietly last weekend as the tail end of the summer swallows departed southwards - as did I, joining them over the Bay of Biscay - but that's for another day.

Sunday, folklore has it, the devil went about urinating on blackberries - the Archangel Michael had thrown him out of Paradise, to land in brambles - and it was considered unwise to eat the fruit, now hard and bitter anyway (this is caused by a saliva-dribbling insect).

Michaelmas more notably marks the start of a new law term and was also a quarter-day for setting rents and accounts, now a practice accelerated to an alarming degree with almost weekly financial property shocks.

There are some claims of Michaelmas roots being from the Celtic mists - but it came here with the Anglo-Normans in the 12th century when they set up their legal practices. The folklorist Kevin Danaher says it had no special significance in ancient Ireland.

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

Michaelmas marks the end of harvest time with the autumn equinox and is an important time for farmers to decide on what stock to carry over the winter months.

Huntsmen and hounds meet to gallop the countryside, with landowners' permission, of course, but geese "harvests" which were once thriving events when spring goslings were ripe for roasting are no longer heard of.

This was supposed to be a reminder that the year was falling and that Christmas was just down the road. This may have been another Norman introduction but the Native Irish soon gave it a stamp of their own.

Plump birds often helped pay rents at Fomhar-na-nGean and farm wives who had charge of flocks gave goose gifts to poorer families.

Also shared with the less well-off were portions of mutton called Cuid Mhichii or St Michael's Sheep, "bestowed upon relieving the poor" according to the 18th-century historian Geoffrey Keating. This generous practice was carried for many generations and may very well continue to this day unheralded by charitable farm families.

There is a famous historical goose story from the end of last month involving the first Queen Elizabeth. In August, 1588 she had addressed her naval and land forces at Tilbury at the height of a Spanish invasion threat ("Let tyrants fear!"). Then the following month the storm of the century scattered the Armada which tried to struggle home around Scotland and down the Irish west coast.

The queen, on Michaelmas night dined with a Sir Neville Umphreyville on roast goose. She raised her glass to "Death to that cursed Armada".

No sooner had she spoken, the story goes, than a messenger rushed in with the news that Spanish vessels had foundered in the Blasket Sound.

Elizabeth immediately proclaimed: "Henceforth shall a goose commemorate this famous victory!"

And so it came to pass, though the real victors over the Armada were the forces of nature rather than a battle of tall ships on the high seas.

Sunday Independent

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