My mother’s uncle, Paddy Ryan, lived on the family farm in the townland of Ballybeg between Bruff and Kilmallock in Co Limerick. When she was young, she remembered that in the week coming up to Michaelmas, on 29 September, a goose would be dispatched by public transport to Cork. This special “Michaelmas Goose” would have been one of the last vestiges of an elaborate yet now almost forgotten tradition.

While it was to St Patrick that Irish people looked to mark the spring equinox, it was Michael, the head of the angels, who designated the late September autumnal equinox. Michael is, of course, the warrior angel, the great protector, head of the celestial army and is most often depicted unsheathing his sword as he overpowers either a dragon or the devil.

On the Irish high crosses, Michael is the one who weighs the souls at the last judgement. There is veneration to him all over Europe, most often in elevated locations; perhaps the best known being the Benedictine Abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy. Cornwall boasts its own St Michael’s Mount, a stone’s throw from the seaside village of Penzance, while the most spectacular of all locations dedicated to Michael must be Ireland’s Sceilig Mhichíl, the pyramid of jagged rock off the south Kerry coast.

Agricultural year

The twenty-ninth of September was one of the official quarter days of the English business year when rents were paid and contracts completed and in the many parts of Ireland that were influenced by the Anglo-Normans, the date became a significant one. In the settlement of rents, loans and wages, the goose often became a key part of the transactions. The weeks running up to Michaelmas were the heydays for geese as they had an abundance of fodder, fattening themselves on the fallen grains of oats, barley and wheat left in the fields following the harvest. The geese were let loose in stubble fields where they could peck away to their hearts’ content. The Fomhar na nGéan, “The Harvest of the Geese” or Samhradh Beag Gé Fiadhain, “The Wild Gooses’ Little Summer”, marked a turning point in the agricultural year when the crops were finished and it was time to have things in store.

Giving hand

Just outside Mitchelstown in Co Cork, there was a custom called “Giving Hand” where, on 29 September, all the farmers would kill their first goose and then gather together. A draw would take place and whoever won would distribute the highly valued Michaelmas geese to the poorest families in the area who did not have a goose of their own. Eating a goose at Michaelmas was said to bring prosperity and good fortune to all who partook.

Throughout the last century, those who moved into cities left their country ways behind. However, some held fast to some of the older traditions and were anxious to maintain the luck-giving observance. With this in mind, I have even more admiration for my grand-uncle, Paddy Ryan, who went to the trouble of sending the goose to his brother and family in Cork city.

Irish legend

One Irish legend offers an explanation as to why a goose is eaten at Michaelmas. Once upon a time, there was a High King in Tara and he was holding a feast when his son started to choke on a bone stuck in his throat, causing him to die. Everyone thought nothing could be done, save his mother, the queen, who had recently converted to Christianity. She sought the help of St Patrick, who came to her aid and at his prayer, to everyone’s amazement, St Michael appeared in the form of a dove. He put his bill into the boy’s throat and took out the bone, restoring him to life. Ever since, it was decreed that one animal out of every flock should be killed in honour of the Archangel on Michael’s Day. In old accounts, this Cuid Mhichíl “Michael’s Share” was originally a sheep or sometimes a pig, but latterly the goose became the customary sacrifice as specified in this old proverb:

On Michaelmas night by right divine, the goose is chosen to be swine!

Shane Lehane is a folklorist who works in UCC and Cork College of FET, Tramore Road Campus.

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