Forbidding Fruit – Frank McNally on two great but lesser-known Irish exports: St Piran and the Cockagee apple

An Irishman’s Diary

Thanks to Saint Piran, a mysterious holy man who lived circa 450 AD, March 5th is considered – by hard-line Celts anyway – the national day of Cornwall. I'm embarrassed to say that until 17 years ago, I had never heard of this Cornish St Patrick. Even more shamefully, my conversion to his cult occurred in the parade ring of Cheltenham racecourse.

I was assured there by someone who knew that a four-legged (and two-r'd) St Pirran was the surest thing of the 2004 festival. The horse duly justified this prophesy, emerging from a big field to win. Whether it was divinely inspired, I can't say. Jockey Ruby Walsh may have helped too.

It was only afterwards I learned about the two-legged (and one-r'd) St Piran, a man generally thought to have been Irish. He may even have been St Ciaran of Saighir, in Offaly, with his initial changed because of orthographical differences between Celtic languages.

Either way, he is now patron saint of tin-mining, a Cornish tradition. And if there is any truth in the legend of how he got to Britain – floating across, after the Irish tied him to a millstone and threw him off a cliff – he should be made patron of ferries too. In the meantime, his flag is also Cornwall’s.

The question of whether Cornwall is in fact a nation has been the subject of long debate. Back in the 1970s, for example, this newspaper received several indignant letters from there after suggesting in a tourism feature that Cornwall was in England.

Correspondents argued otherwise, vehemently. One wrote that the Cornish were the original “West Britons” (a badge of pride to them), before the B-word was stolen by English invaders. London newspapers might be excused for placing Cornwall in England, they said. From the island of St Piran, they expected better.

Saints aside, fifth-century Cornwall was an area of Irish settlement, perhaps even Irish rule. But any influences must have long since vanished. I’m sure it’s mere coincidence that celebrations of the national saint are associated with feats of epic alcohol consumption, and that the excesses of March 5th have spawned the phrase “drunk as a Perraner”.

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This brings me back, neatly, to the subject of apples and cider, and the variety of both known as “Cackagay” or “Cackagee” and multiple other spellings, which we were discussing earlier in the week.

As I wrote then, the odd name comes from Irish and an association with Goose manure – hence “Cac a’ Ghéidh” – as which it must have been brought to the English (and Cornish!) west country, where the anglicised word has long been known too. The apple was now feared extinct, I also suggested, taking the once-famous cider with it.

Well, thanks to Mark Jenkinson, a cider farmer from Slane, I now know a lot more about this storied fruit. That its association with goose droppings was originally just a matter of colour, for example, before the tradition of letting geese roam in orchards reinforced the connection. That it is mentioned as far back as the 1660s. And that long before Guinness, it had a prestige far beyond Ireland, being considered as much like "French white wine" as cider, a fact reflected in its price.

But best of all, Mark tells me, the apple still exists, or so he believes. This revelation dates to several years ago when he was reading an online book "Native Apples of Gloucestershire", by English pomologist Charles Martell, and saw therein a variety with the unlovely name of "Hen's Turds". It "jumped off the screen", he says.

He had been searching for the “long-lost Irish Cockagee” – another variant spelling – for years, and for a time even entertained hopes about an old, unidentified tree on his own farm. That proved to be something else, unique. But could “Hens’ Turds” be the one?

Much investigation later, he feels sure it is, the name having jumped bird species, from the Irish “cac”, via the anglicised “cock”, to hens instead of geese. His research has included getting samples from Gloucestershire and growing them here. Everything points to them being the same variety, he says, although the final proof would be an old tree in Ireland that matches the DNA.

In the meantime, from the sainted village of Slane, he has revived the name at least, via Cockagee Cider. St Patrick, who launched his own start-up project locally, may or may not approve. As for the old tree in his garden, Mark has named that variety more conventionally, after his daughter. Hence, a bit like the four-legged St Pirran, It’s now known as “Ruby’s Choice.”