One of the more unusual Irish contributions to English is a word variously spelt as “Cockagay”, “Cackagay”, “Cackagee”, and in several other ways too. It refers to a kind of apple, typically used in cider-making, and so is well-known in western parts of England.
But the apple gets its name from association with the geese that used to feed on and fertilise the Irish orchards in which it was once widely produced. Gaeilgeoirí will thereby guess where the word’s “cac” sound comes from, and the “gé”. For yes, both the apple and the cider owe their names – and presumably some of their flavour – to goose droppings.
Even stranger to say, this phenomenon may be another legacy of the Limerick Palatines, about whom I was writing recently (January 28th). Being of German origin, they also had a flair for brewing, which neither their original Lutheranism, nor the Methodism to which John Wesley introduced them in Ireland, discouraged.
On the contrary, while Wesley frowned on hard liquor, he had no objection to wine or ale in moderation. His Methodism may even have been an influence on Arthur Guinness’s development of a lower-alcohol alternative to whiskey, Guinness having married the niece of a woman who hosted Wesley on his first Irish visit.
The preacher differed from some latter-day craft beer snobs is disliking the fashion for hops that was creeping in then. But in any case, his Irish followers were implicated in a situation whereby, in the 1830s, Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary could write of Co Limerick: “This and the contiguous county of Clare are famous for their orchards, which produce the much-esteemed Cackagay cider”. Among the districts best known for it, Lewis added, was Palatine Rathkeale.
I owe my new knowledge about geese and cider to Heather Heavenor Swinson, from Midlothian, who on foot of the previous columns, sent me a rather charming card with story attached. She is herself of Palatine Irish stock, via her father – that's the Heavenor bit, formerly Hovenor – and to mark her 70th birthday last October, she commissioned an artwork in her ancestry's honour.
Originally on linen by Hiberno-Scottish textile artist Ann Dickson, and now also on the card, it depicts an apple harvest at the Heavenor farm at Chapel Russell, near Rathkeale, complete with geese but also with 16 human figures representing Heather's living family, now part of a tribe of Heavenors peculiar to Scotland.
It was when her Irish grandfather died, prematurely, that Heather's widowed grandmother moved back to Scotland, needing her family. "She had been a librarian with Boots the Chemist, adds Heather, as an aside: "Now there's another article for you!!!".
Sure enough, this is the second fascinating thing I learned from her card. That for much of the 20th century, Boots Chemists used to operate an in-store library service. Hence the line in a John Betjeman poem: "Think of what our nation stands for,/Books from Boots' and country lanes,/Free speech, free passes, class distinction,/Democracy and proper drains."
This little quirk of civilisation ended in 1966, after which councils in the UK had to provide libraries. And I don't know if the idea ever extended to Dublin. But there is a charming echo of it in Sweny's of Lincoln Place, where thanks to a cameo in Joyce's Ulysses, books have in recent years edged out pharmaceuticals as the main product.
Returning to apples, it was also thanks to Heather’s card that I found Eilis Kennedy’s short essay on the subject from a few years ago: “The Last of the Cackagees? Cider making in Limerick and Clare”.
The history goes back to well before 1750, she says, and continued into the last century. She quotes the late Dermot Healy's 1994 novel A Goat's Song, in which a Northern policeman marries a Free State Methodist, Maisie Ruttle from Rathkeale.
Visiting the bride’s homeplace, he notes: “In the distance was another farm, just like Ruttle’s, and beyond that another, and another, each similar and each with an orchard. And from everywhere came the honk of geese as they roamed the orchards looking for fallen fruit.”
Alas, the cackagee apple variety itself seemed to have disappeared down the gullet of history by the end of the 20th century, although various horticultural detectives, including the Irish Seed Savers Association, were still looking out for it then in older orchards. I don't know if they found it since.
In the meantime, Eilis’s essay concluded with another piece of poetry that, although not quite Betjeman, may be a suitable tribute to the Palatine cider makers, if only because it’s a Limerick: “There was a young lady from Hyde/Who ate a green apple and died/While her lover lamented/The apple fermented/And made cider inside her inside.”