An Irishman's Diary

 

IN THE French Revolutionary calendar, today would be 7 Vendémiaire, the month of the grape harvest. Since most days of that calendar were dedicated to different plants, however, the seventh was devoted not to the grape (that was 1 Vendémiaire, last Friday), but to the humble carrot. Which may be a rare example of French revolutionaries and Christians acting in harmony.

Church calendars tend to be devoted to saints, rather than vegetables, with September 29th being assigned to the Archangel Michael. But as it happens, carrots do feature centrally in the latter’s feast day, or at least they once did.

In the Hebrides, on the Sunday beforehand, women used to gather “St Michael’s Carrots” in ritual fashion. They dug them with a three-pronged mattock, to represent the saint’s trident, while reciting a suitable verse.

The carrots were then tied in a red string and presented to visitors, for whom they were considered lucky, especially if the carrots had forked roots.

Charming as that is, an even more charming tradition associated with the day is that, on the night previous, you were allowed to steal horses. This was because the feast day itself used to be marked by horse races. And in practice, the horses were usually returned to their rightful homes afterwards, although owners still mounted guards on their stables to prevent such borrowings.

Michaelmas was the result of a general policy whereby the early church imposed saints’ celebrations on older, pagan festivals. The more heavy-hitting holy men were reserved for the big dates. Thus, St Michael’s portfolio was the autumn equinox.

Which being a harvest festival meant that, carrots aside, there was usually plenty of food around.

Roast goose was a Michaelmas tradition too, although it become more formalised though the misfortune of the Spanish Armada. It’s said that on this date in 1588, Elizabeth I was served goose at the home of a friend, the magnificently named Sir Neville Umphreyville, and that the banquet ended with the queen raising a glass of Burgundy, while toasting: “Death to that accursed Armada of Spaniards”.

Hotfoot upon which words, a messenger arrived with the news that Spanish ships had indeed just been destroyed in the Blasket Sound off Kerry. Whereupon the queen announced that the famous date would henceforth be celebrated with roast goose for all.

ONE FOODnot eaten on or after this date – by the superstitious, anyway – was blackberries. In fact, blackberries are known to go off rapidly late in the season. This no doubt is why the French revolutionaries, who knew their food, celebrated that fruit’s day a whole two months ago, on 10 Thermidor.

But elsewhere, the superstition was that the devil spat on all blackberries, or trampled them with his cloven hoof, around this date.

In 19th-century Scotland, children were warned that if they consumed the berries on or after Michaelmas, worms would “eat their ingangs”. “Ingang” is Old English for “entrance”, although I suspect the reference here is to innards generally. Which said, after a feed of fermenting blackberries, their outgangs would surely be kept busy too. It would be gang warfare, in general, you’d imagine.

Speaking of warfare, the special enmity of the devil towards St Michael was of course attributed to the original Fall, when the archangel oversaw Lucifer’s expulsion from heaven. So whenever the saint was being celebrated, the devil was assumed to be nearby, plotting. Hence yet another Scottish tradition whereby Michaelmas cakes were made for this day and a piece of each thrown into the fire as a tithe to the evil one.

In Ireland the date was considered lucky for fishermen and was associated with health and well-being generally. But not everyone looked forward to it. It was also the formal end of the tourist season. And I read somewhere that in Waterford, people in the trade used to hold a procession to the beach on Michaelmas and cast the saint’s effigy into the sea as a symbolic protest against loss of earnings. Maybe they still do.

A few hundred miles southeast of Waterford, meanwhile, September 29th sees a ritual that can also involved getting your feet wet. It’s not nearly as well known as another saint’s pilgrimage, to Santiago de Compostela. But the venue itself is famous – probably, next to the brand name used by Marks Spencer (which in fact named after one of the company’s founders, Michael Marks), the saint’s most famous monument.

Le Mont St-Michel was 1,300 years old in 2009, and according to legend was built following a number of personal appearances by the archangel to the bishop of Avranche, commanding him to erect a church on the islet. The bishop prevaricated for a time, until the saint underlined the importance of the request by burning a thumbprint in the man’s skull. He then took the hint.

The 1,300th anniversary was marked by the beginning of works designed to restore the Mont to island status, long compromised by polderisation, silting and a built-up natural causeway. The causeway has since been removed, apparently, in favour of an elevated bridge. But it was there the last time I visited.

Despite which, you still had to dash the last few metres to the gateway of the Mont on foot, with – the day I did it, anyway – the sea rushing in around your ankles.