Michaelmas in Irish Folklore

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Postcard uncredited

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.’

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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.

 

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 Fair of Donnybrook

Dublin-

26 August-

Donnybrook Fair
Donnybrook Fair – Erskine Nicol, 1859

Richard  Warburton, 1818;

‘It is however at the fair of Donnybrook, that the natural humour and peculiar character of the lower classes of the metropolis are best seen. Donnybrook is a pleasant village contiguous to the south suburbs of the city.

It has a green or common, on which the fair is held, in the month of August. It is regularly proclaimed, and is attended by police officers, whose interposition is indispensable to preserve the peace. The fair, which is held for the sale of horses and black cattle, lasts a week, during which time every mode of amusement and gymnastic exercise peculiar to the Irish is practised, each day concluding with a pitched battle, in which much blood is spilled, and many heads broken, but rarely and life lost.

The Green is covered with tents, and filled with pipers, fiddlers, and dancers; and of late years has been introduced mimes, mountebanks, shows of wild beasts, and all these spectacles, but on a much more limited scale, which are to be found at Bartholomew fair.

During the continuance of this fair, Harcourt-street, and the other avenues leading to it, present extraordinary spectacles, particularly in the evenings. Almost all the carriages, which plied at other ends of the town now assemble here, and while they go to and from the fair they are crowded at all hours with company. The din and tumult of the roads on these occasions is inconceivable, particularly during the stillness of night; form the vociferation, laughter and fighting of these turbulent cargoes, a noise ascends which is heard for several miles in all directions.

The attachment of the populace to this amusement is so great, that the Lord Mayor finds it necessary to proceed there in person at the expiration of the limited time, and, striking the tents, compel the people to go home.’

History of Dublin

Donnybrook Fair traditionally ran for a week, from the 26 August each year, however the fair could, and often did, run for a fortnight.  The  fair was held annually on that date for seven hundred years, from the middle of the thirteenth century and continuing until the 1850’s. Various attempts, which eventually found success, were made by the Dublin authorities to put an end to the drunken debauched riots that invariably accompanied, and often overshadowed the intended trade of black cattle and horses at Donnybrook Fair.

Saint Maelruain’s Feast Day

 

Dublin-

Saint Maelruain's Chuch, Tallaght
Saint Maelruain’s Chuch, Tallaght. Laurence Collection 1870-1914

WSA Joyce, Tallaght, 7 July;

‘St Maelruan’s patron or “pattern”, was every year celebrated here but in the later years the original Saint’s name was lost sight of altogether, and replaced by the corrupted form, “Moll Rooney”, under which title “the pattern” continued to be annually held, until it came to be such a nuisance, owing to drunkeness and debauchery, that it was suppressed in 1874.

The proceedings consisted of making a kind of effigy, supposed to represent the saint, and carrying it about from house to house in procession, headed by a fiddler or piper. The occupants of each house then came out as they were visited and danced to the music after which a collection was made to be spent on drink. Few went to bed that night; many slept in ditches on the way home, and drinking, dancing and fighting went on intermittently until morning.

Another item in the performance in recent times was to visit the grave of an old village piper named Burley O’Toole who had expressed a dying wish to that, and to dance and fight around his grave.’

Neighbourhood of Dublin, 1921.