From as early as the middle of September each year flocks of barnacle geese, known in Irish as Gé ghiúrainn, make their winter homes on remote sea-cliffs and islands that surround Ireland’s northern and western coasts, where they stay until their eventual departure which commences as the weather starts to warm up, which usually occurs by the following April. We now know that barnacle geese migrate to Ireland, flying thousands of miles in their distinctive V-shaped formation from the sea-cliffs of Greenland where they spend the summer months, mate, nest, and rear their young goslings. Prior to the development of scientific explanations on the migratory habits of birds the mysterious appearance and disappearance of barnacle geese in Ireland, coupled with the absence of evidence of their reproduction, led many to take special notice of the arrival of these winter visitors in Ireland, and to ascribe legendary explanations for the origin and reproduction of barnacle geese.
As winter visitors the date of arrival of barnacle geese on Irish shores is traditionally believed to provide insight into the weather of the coming season. As noted in a number of accounts provided by the Irish Folklore Commission’s Schools’ Collection, which collected folklore from Irish Schoolchildren in the late 1930s, the early arrival of these geese, between late September and early October was believed to be a harbinger of a ‘hard’ or ‘severe winter.’ The early arrival of barnacle geese, however, was not always believed to impact the weather of the whole season; Mary Agnes Bonner of Ardmalin, County Donegal, provided a local belief that gave the premature arrival of the barnacle goose a shorter period of influence over Ireland’s winter weather noting that the geese’s arrival ‘is a sure sign of a month’s bad weather.’
The mysterious appearance and disappearance of barnacle geese, who neither nest nor rear their young goslings on Irish shores, led to a number of variants of legends that attempted to explain the obscure origin and reproduction of these distinctive winter visitors. The earliest documented account describing the origin of barnacle geese is recorded in the twelfth century text The History and Topography of Ireland by Giraldus Cambrensis [Gerald of Wales], who claimed to have witnessed the conception of these geese himself, noting that ‘first they appear as excrescences on fir-logs carried down upon the waters. Then they hang by their beaks from what seems like sea-weed clinging to the log, while their bodies, to allow for their more unimpeded development, are enclosed in shells. And so in the course of time, having put on a stout covering of feathers, they either slip into the water, or take themselves in flight to the freedom of the air.’ Similar variants to Cambrensis’ account of the reproduction of barnacle geese were still well remembered in more recent centuries. The Belfast born ornithologist, Edward A. Armstrong noted in his 1940 book Birds of the Grey Wind the widespread familiarity of the belief ‘that barnacle geese are generated from the shell-fish of the same name.’* Armstrong also noted that in his 1882 hunting manual The Fowler in Ireland Sir Ralph Payne-Gallwey asserted that around the coast of Ireland ‘men were to be found who professed to have seen the transmogrification taking place. Writing for the Schools’ Collection, in the late nineteen thirties, Mick Campbell of Speenoge in County Donegal recalled hearing the old people ‘say that the gosling of the barnacle goose falls from a barnacle that grows on a certain tree, on a certain shore on one particular island of the Orkney- and nowhere else.’
The accepted and widespread conclusion that barnacle geese were not born of flesh had a significant impact on the consumption of food on Ireland’s many and various fast days throughout the year, which included Fridays, Holy Days and Lent. In the twelfth century Giraldus Cambrensis noted that ‘in some parts of Ireland bishops and religious men eat them [barnacle goose] without sin during a fasting time, regarding them not to be flesh, since they were not born of flesh.’ In 1215, just thirty years after Cambrensis’ visit to Ireland, Pope Innocent III saw that it was fit and necessary to specifically forbid the eating of barnacle goose on fast days. Despite Pope Innocent III’s edict, the consumption of barnacle goose by fasting Irish Catholics continued well into the twentieth century. Kevin Danaher in his 1972 seminal work The Year in Ireland confirmed that the tradition of Irish people, including members of the Catholic clergy, eating barnacle goose on fast days, in the belief that the geese were of the sea rather than of flesh, continued until relatively recent times in areas along the west coast of Ireland, including parts of Donegal and Kerry, and that a well-known hotel in Tralee served ‘brent goose# during Lent, mainly for the benefit of the clergy.’
*Edward A. Armstrong thought it probable that the word barnacle was attached to these geese through the similarities between the Latin word for shell-fish – bernaculae, and the Latin word for referring to birds – Hibernicae or Hiberniculae.
# Brent geese were, and to some extent still are, often confused with barnacle geese. At one time they were they were thought to be of the same species.
Armstrong, Edward Allworthy. Birds of the Grey Wind. Oxford, 1950.
Cambrensis, Giraldus. The History and Topology of Ireland. Translated by John O’Meara. Harmondsworth, 1982.
Danaher, Kevin. The Year in Ireland. Dublin, 1972.