Michaelmas in Irish Folklore

nev-fyr-001
Postcard uncredited

Michaelmas, the feast-day of the Archangel Michael, is traditionally observed throughout Ireland on the 29th September. A host of traditions and beliefs are associated with the day, for example, male children born on, or near, Michaelmas were often called Michael or Micheál in honour of the saint, while in Swinford, County Mayo,  Michaelmas had a special significance and was a time of celebration and reunion; as many locals returned to Swinford from working the harvest in England on, or before, the day of the feast, according to John Millington Synge the returned harvesters would be, ‘sitting around in each other’s houses playing cards through the night, and a barrel of ale set up among them.’

As with many Irish calendar customs food took a central role in the activities of the day. An animal – usually a goose, which was generally referred to as a Michaelmas Goose, was slaughtered and eaten in honour of the saint. John O’Hanlon in his 1870 book Irish Folklore maintained that a sheep used to be slaughtered by those who could afford it, while he also states that, on Michaelmas, it was ‘ordained by law that a part of the animal must be given to the poor. This is said to have been done, in order to perpetuate the memory of a miracle wrought by St Patrick, through the assistance of that Archangel.’

history_bullbaiting
uncredited

Michaelmas also acted as a marker for certain civic and domestic activities. In many Irish towns, including Drogheda, Dublin and Kilkenny, the Mayor took office on Michaelmas Day. As part of the celebrations in Kilkenny a bull was baited* at a bull-ring situated  near Saint Francis Abbey. In some areas Michaelmas was one of the two annual rent days, previously known in Ireland as Gale Days, (the other being the 25 March), in place of the more usual Gale Days of the first days of May and November. Domestically the woman of the house started slaughtering the fowl at Michaelmas, with the first goose slaughtered becoming the “Michaelmas Goose”, while for the men, the day marked the beginning of the fox and hare hunting seasons, and, in many parts of Ireland, the end of the fishing season.

Otherworldly creatures were active at Michaelmas, and children were warned not to eat blackberries after Michaelmas eve, as it was believed that the púca  flies through the county defiling the blackberries on that night.** Michaelmas was also a time for divination; a Michaelmas cake was baked on the night of Michaelmas with a ring mixed through the dough, exactly as is still done on Hallowe’en. Portions of the cake were then distributed amongst any unmarried persons who were present, with the belief that whomever discovered the ring was destined to be wed before next Michaelmas.

 

*Bull-baiting typically involved a bull being attacked by dogs, while trapped in an area, often a pit of some kind.

**The púca, sometimes spelled pooka, is a shape-shifting spirit that most commonly takes the form of a horse, but can also take the form of other animals, it was also said that the púca defiled blackberries on Hallowe’en.

 

Sources

Hannon, John (Lageniensis), Irish Folk Lore: Traditions and Superstitions of the Country; with Humouress Tales. London1870.

Mason, William Shaw. A Statistical Account or Parochial Survey of Ireland. Dublin, London and Edinburgh, 1814-19.

Synge, J. M. In Connemara. Dublin, 1910/1979.

Various articles from the Folklore Journal, up until 1920, as well as Transactions of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society, 1852 and the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, 1897.

Advertisements

The Full Moon & the Fairies in Irish Folklore

images
Illustration by Arthur Rackham, 1867 – 1939

The fairies were thought to be particularly active under the light of the full moon. On those brightly illuminated nights fairies, who lived in beautiful palaces under the sea, were said to come up on to the land to revel and converse with the fairies of Ireland, at fairy mounds and around hawthorn trees, as Lady Wilde explains, ‘on moonlight nights they often come up on the land, riding their white horses, and they hold revels with their fairy kindred of the earth, who live in the clefts of the hills, and they dance together on the green sward under the ancient trees, and drink, nectar from the cups of the flowers, which is the fairy wine.’

As fairies and mortals lived separate but connected lives, the full moon presented greater possibilities of association between these two races. On Inishbofin, for example, dread of the fairies was so strong that when the moon was fullest, young girls were encouraged to stay indoors to avoid being abducted as brides to the fairies, while the good people’s* beautiful music and dancing was said to have tempted many a young girl to leave her home on these most ominous evenings. The full moon also presented an opportunity for the fairies to seek revenge on anyone who had slighted them, and anyone who built over a mound or cut down a fairy tree would do well to stay in on these nights for there are many stories that attest that the fairies took their opportunity to seek revenge on those mortals on  moonlit evenings.

* When speaking of the fairies the name ‘good people’ was often used as a precaution to causing offence.

 

Sources

Lady Jane Wilde,  Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland, 1887

Lady Jane Wilde, Ancient Cures, Charms and usages in Ireland, 1890

Patron of Clonmacnoise

Offaly-

9 September –

Last Circuit of Pilgrims at Clonmacnoise
Last Circuit of Pilgrims at Clonmacnoise – George Petrie, 1838

Rev. Patrick Fitzgerald, Parish of Clonmacnoise, 1816;

‘There is but one patron day held here, on the 9th of September, in honour of St Kieran (Ciarán) their tutelar saint; it is numerously attended. From 3000 to 4000 people assemble there to do penance from different parts of Ireland, even from the county of Donegal.

Tents and booths are erected round the church-yard for the accommodation of people. The assemblage continues for two days, and often ends in quarrels. Its abolition would be a desirable circumstance. Some persons have been obliged to keep to their beds for weeks, in consequence of beatings received at such meetings.’

William Shaw Mason, A Statistical Account or Parochial Survey of Ireland Vol 2

 

 

“The sheaf that is bound in the Harvest will be opened in the Spring.”

Ireland-

Harvest time

September-

‘September, in Irish Seacht mí, ie “the seventh month,” also, Mi Meadhin Fómhair, ie “the middle month of harvest,” No one will think of contracting marriage in harvest because of the old saying: “The sheaf that is bound in the Harvest will be opened in the Spring.” An Irish couplet also thus refers to the season thus:

“The raven croaks in the harvest,

And the scald crow in the spring.”

Especially at this time the lover of nature, while taking a ramble will note the large number of small spiders floating on the air. These are known as Damhán ealla in Irish, and are supposed to protend that (like another Santa Claus) whoever they alight on will receive a new article of apparel, hat, coat, cloak, shawl or other garment, as the case may be. Consequent on being “lucky messangers” they are not interfered with.’

Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, 1897.