Michaelmas in Irish Folklore

Postcard – from the Fading Years’ Archive

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.

The Last Sheaf – A Harvest Rite for the Old Hag

Irish harvest workers 1920s, Photographer unknown.

Traditionally the cutting of the last sheaf of corn is a special rite which, at one time, was observed on many farms throughout Ireland to mark the end of the harvest, which generally occurred between late September and early October each year. When the harvest was saved a lone sheaf of corn, wheat, or oats would be left standing in the last field to reaped. This sheaf would then be plaited into the shape of a woman to represent an old woman, a witch, or a hag,* generally known as the Cailleach in Ireland, who was generally blamed for any misfortune suffered by the people throughout the previous year.

A contest of skill between the labourers was then held with the aim of dislodging this lone-standing sheaf from the soil. In the north of Ireland during the early years of the twentieth century proceedings for the contest generally followed the following pattern; labourers, standing at a distance of ten yards, or metres, took turns throwing hooks intending to fell the cailleach. Once the sheaf was felled it was brought triumphantly to the farmer’s wife and hung about her neck, the successful labourer would often take credit for removing misfortune from the mistress and her household, the labourer was generally rewarded for their skill with the first drink, a shilling, or some other small but significant prize. A feast was often provided by the farmer to celebrate the end of harvest, with all involved in the work drinking and dancing through the night.

After the day’s festivities the sheaf was hung in a prominent position in the kitchen, or another room of the farmhouse, and at the end of harvest the following year it was generally relegated to the byre, to make way for the the current year’s sheaf, although in certain cases the sheaf was kept in the kitchen, and would be displayed along with the sheaves from the years that followed.

The tradition seems to have remained strongest in the north of Ireland and was traditionally popular on both Catholics and Protestant farms, where it continued to be practiced as a harvest custom up to the middle the last century.

* also known in some parts as the ‘hare’ or the ‘churn’ with the latter  term sometimes used to describe the feast that followed.

Sources

Danaher, Kevin. The Year in Ireland. Dublin 1972.

Evans, E. Estyn. Irish Folk Ways. London, 1957.

Frazer, W and M’Cormick Mr H. M’Neili. ‘Harvest Rites in Ireland’. Folklore, 1914.

Lett, H.W. ‘Winning the Chrun’. Folklore, 1905.

Saint Ciarán & the Patron at Clonmacnoise

Last Circuit at the Patron at Clonmacnoise
– George Petrie, 1838

Located beside the River Shannon in the centre of Ireland stands the ruined sixth-century monastery of Clonmacnoise. Founded by Saint Ciarán, the monastery survived for over a thousand years during which time Clonmacnoise was famed as one of Ireland’s great seats of learning, until it was eventually brought to ruin and looted under the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1552. The name Clonmacnoise, along with some ruins at the site, appear to predate the monastery’s religious associations; with Cluin Mac Nós translating from Irish to English as ‘Meadow of the Sons of Nós.’ Legend has it that the lands were given to Saint Ciarán by Diarmait Mac Cerbaill – who is traditionally held to be the last pagan High King of Ireland. Whether the legend is true or false it is well documented that the Kings of Connaught continued to patronise the monastery of Clonmacnoise until the thirteenth century. In spite the destruction of Clonmacnoise the picturesque ruins of the monastery with its round tower, seven churches, and stone crosses, have continued to attract large crowds of pilgrims on many days throughout the year but, most particularly on the Feast Day of Saint Ciarán which falls on the ninth of September each year. In 1816 the Reverend Patrick Fitzgerald, who was then Vicar of the Parish Clonmacnoise, stated that on Saint Ciarán’s Day from ‘3000 to 4000 people assemble there to do penance from different parts of Ireland,’ remarking that some had travelled from as far away as Donegal.

1860s engraving by H. Griffiths

In his book The Holy Wells of Ireland Patrick Logan remarked that by 1980 the traditional longer station at Clonmacnoise had declined in recent decades and had been replaced by a significantly shorter station. The longer station was made up of three circuits, with each circuit. it was usual for a person to do the station barefoot less than a century ago. The station began at Saint Ciarán’s Well, continuing through to the cloister, on to the stone crosses, and further on to the Nun’s church. At each place prayers were offered and decades of the rosary were recited. Logan estimated that to complete the ‘long station’ would take a person over four hours.

Although devotion was the primary objective of those who visited Clonmacnoise many devotees hoped to find cures for a wide variety of long lingering ailments. In 1813, while visiting Clonmacnoise, the Reverend James Hall noticed that pilgrims in their ‘thousands believe that the waters of the well, at the ruins, gives the blind their sight, and makes the lame walk.’ While a cure for toothache could be got by visiting a tree at the religious site according to a relative of Nora Killeen, who provided the traditional belief in the Schools’ Collection in the late nineteen-thirties.* If a pilgrim suffered from epilepsy they could find a cure by sitting on a stone on which, legend had it, Saint Ciarán had sat. Finally, according to Lady Jane Wilde, a woman can clasp her arms around Saint Ciarán’s Cross she ‘would never die in childbirth.’

As the burial site of its founder Saint Ciarán, one of the most revered of the Irish saints, it is to be expected that the graveyard of Clonmacnoise remained a popular burial site in the centuries that followed the saint’s death. However, the thirteenth century ancient Registry of Clonmacnoise, which contains transcriptions from the Life of Saint Ciarán, noted another reason for the preference of being buried at Clonmacnoise. The entry explains that Saint Ciarán was granted a favour from God that no soul buried at Clonmacnoise should be deprived of salvation. While visiting Clonmacnoise in 1813 Reverend James Hall noted that this the above guarantee of salvation was still widely to be true, and that ‘those buried near the ruins have half their sins forgiven, and that the soul only remains half the time in purgatory it otherwise would.’ Those buried at Clonmacnoise did not even need to fear purgatory according to an account collected for the Schools’ Collection by a young school girl named Bridget Feehily, who noted that it is ‘believed that all persons who were interred in the Holy Grounds belonging to it insured to themselves a sure and immediate ascent to Heaven.’

* The Schools’ Collection was a project set up by the Irish Folklore Commission which asked young schoolchildren in the late 1930s to gather folklore from their older relations and neighbours.

Sources

Tales of the Elders of Ireland. Translated by Ann Dooley and Harry Roe. Oxford 1999.

Fitzgerald, Patrick, “Parish of Clonmacnoise”, Mason, William Shaw. A Statistical Account or Parochial Survey of Ireland. Dublin, London and Edinburgh, 1816.

Hall, James (Rev).  Tour Through Ireland; Particularly the Interior and Least Known Parts. London, 1813.

Logan, Patrick. The Holy Wells of Ireland. Buckinghamshire, 1980.

O’Hanlon, John (Rev), Lives of the Irish Saints. New York, 1905.

Otway, Caesar. A Tour of Connaught. Dublin, 1839.

Wilde, Lady Jane, Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland. London, 1888.

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