In a Word... Calendar

Where the days went, and how the months came

Hello and welcome to the eighth month, which is why it is called October - `octo’ being the Latin for `eight’. It, logically, follows the seventh month – September, from `septem’ for seven in Latin - and precedes the ninth and tenth months – November (novem) and December (decem).

All very clear then.

Among the things the Romans did for us was name the months of the year, which, for them, began in March. So July was Quintilis, for `fifth’ month. Then along came that modest man Julius Caesar. He introduced the Julian calendar (named after himself), beginning in January and featuring July, also named after himself (so good he did it twice).

January is named after Janus, Roman god of beginnings/endings and doors, while Februarius meant `purification’ and Martius is named after the Roman god of war, Mars. The origin of Aprilis remains unclear but Maia was the goddess of fertility. June was named after Rome’s founder (by one legend. There are others), Lucius Junius Brutus, while August is named after the first Emperor, Caesar Augustus.


Then, it seems, the Romans ran out of ideas and resorted to numbers. As you do. This lends credence to the view that the Romans were more engineers and law makers than the arty, philosophical ancient Greeks.

So the calendar rested until 1582 when Pope Gregory XIII introduced the…ah…Gregorian calendar. Then, when in Rome….

By the 16th century it was clear that the Julian calendar was way out of synch with the earth’s orbit of the sun as understood by science. So, in October 1582, the Pope banished 10 days and, lo, October 4th, 1582, was followed by October 15th, 1582. (Great scope there for a trick pub quiz question).

However, due to Protestant suspicion of Rome, this was not accepted in those parts of the world ruled by the British until 1752, when – hey presto! – September 2nd was followed by September 14th.

Not so in all of Ireland. The Gregorian calendar was used from the beginning by the Gaelic Irish under Catholics Hugh O’Neill and Hugh O’Donnell. It is why the Battle of Kinsale was fought on Christmas Eve 1601 according to the British, but on January 3rd, 1602, according to the Irish.

Calendar, from Latin calendarium,`the calends’ being the first day of the Roman month when debts were due and accounts sorted.

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry is Religious Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times