‘At Easter the more ordinary sort of people meet near the ale-house in the afternoon, or some convenient spot of ground and dance for the cake; here to be sure the piper fails not of diligent attendance; the cake to be danced for is provided at the charge of the ale-wife, and is advanced on a board on the top of a pike about ten foot high; this board is round, and from it riseth a kind of garland, beset and tied round with meadow flowers, if it be early in the summer, if later, the garland has the addition of apples set round on pegs fastened onto it; the whole number of dancers begin all at once in a large ring, a man and a woman, and dance round about the bush, so is this garland called, and the piper, as long as they are able to hold out; they that hold out longest at the exercise, win the cake and apples, and then the ale-wife’s trade goes on.’
A Chorographical Description of the County of West-Meath
‘It was customary on New Year’s Eve to bake a large barn-brack, which the man of the house, after taking three bites out of it, dashed against the principal door of his dwelling, in the name of the Trinity, at the same time expressing the hope that starvation might be banished from Ireland and go to the King of the Turks. The fragments of the cake were then gathered up and eaten by all members of the household. Before retiring to rest, twelve candles were lit in honour of the twelve Apostles and family prayers were said.’
Omurethi, Journal of the Kildare Archaeological and Historical Society, 1906-08.
Michaelmas is the feast-day of the Archangel Michael and is traditionally observed throughout Ireland on the 29th September. A host of tradition is attached to this date, for example, male children born on, or near, Michaelmas were often called Michael or Micheál in his honour. While in Swinford, County Mayo, in the early twentieth century, Michaelmas had a special significance; 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 Hannon in his 1870 book Irish Folklore maintained that a sheep used to be slaughtered by those who could afford it on Michaelmas day, while he also states that 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.’
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. Up until the first decades of the 19th century, on the feast day of Saint Michael, a bull was baited* at a bull-ring situated near Saint Francis Abbey in Kilkenny. 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 foul 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.
Hannon, John (Lageniensis), Irish Folk Lore: Traditions and Superstitions of the Country; with Humouress Tales. London, 1870.
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.