‘Christmas is coming and the goose is getting fat ...’
The first line of this Christmas rhyme always brings me back to memories of childhood and family custom. My father disliked turkey and preferred goose while my mother favoured the traditional fare. So there was an annual compromise where turkey was on the menu for Christmas while roasted goose was served on New Year’s Day.
Domesticated and wild geese have been eaten in Ireland since ancient times. Wild geese are far more common in other parts of Ireland but we do get some sightings in Cork too.
Geese have been domesticated for at least 4,000 years and have been valued for their flesh, feathers, fat and eggs. All of our farmyard geese are descendants of the greylag goose of northern Europe.
In ancient Ireland, the Brehon Laws allocated one third of a goose’s value as flesh, another third for its brood and the remainder for its ‘potential’ as a breeder. The Laws also stated that the grazing for two geese was equal to that of a single sheep.
We had geese on our farm and my mother used to say that they made the best watch dogs. They are extremely large birds and do have a well deserved reputation as being aggressive to interlopers.
The Ancient Romans also valued geese as ‘watchbirds’. Geese were said to have saved Rome from being overrun by invading Gauls in 390 BC, when their cackling raised the alert and saved the Capitol. This event was subsequently celebrated with an annual procession featuring a golden goose.
In ancient Rome and Greece, geese were considered sacred to the Goddess Juno as well as the Goddess Aphrodite. The latter belief gave rise to the custom of goose fat being used as an aphrodisiac. (But I’m sure there was none of that carry on in Ireland!)
For the Celts of Britain and Europe, the goose was also a symbol of watchfulness and aggression. Geese were depicted in ancient Celtic art as guardians and defenders. Julius Caesar stated that the Celts did not eat geese but they were certainly eaten in Ireland.
A medium-sized black, grey and white goose, the barnacle goose overwinters in Ireland and breeds in Greenland. Its distribution is mostly along the west and north west of the country but it’s also been seen in transit along the coast here too. Somewhere in the region of 7,000 barnacle geese come to Ireland in the winter.
There are some strange beliefs associated with the barnacle goose in Ireland. One of them held that these geese did not reproduce in the way that birds normally do but instead hatched out of the barnacle shellfish. This belief is presumably what gave this goose its unusual name.
Gerald of Wales wrote about this phenomenon in the 12th century in his publication on the ‘History and Topography of Ireland’ and it was repeated thereafter by other writers.
This meant that the barnacle goose came to be regarded as fish and so could be eaten during Lent and other fast days when meat eating was prohibited. This tradition persisted in some part of Ireland into the 20th century.
What gave rise to this mistaken belief is lost in the mists of time but the colouring and shape of the barnacle shellfish does slightly resemble that of the head of the goose. The fact that the bird was migratory and therefore its nests were never seen here might also have contributed to the myth.
As the smallest of the goose species, the brent goose is not much bigger than a large duck. There are several different ‘races’, or populations, of brent geese and most of the ones that over winter in Ireland are from the Arctic Greenland and Canada. This is the most common wild goose species in Ireland with over 30,000 arriving here each winter.
They are mostly seen along the western and eastern coasts of Ireland but are visitors to east Cork too. They are very vocal birds but their constant call is softer than that of the barnacle goose. An old Irish poem from the 9th century said that the call of the barnacle goose heralds the arrival of winter.
The brent goose was certainly eaten in old Ireland as it is mentioned twice in this way in the Táin in the famous tale of ‘The Cattle Raid of Cooley’.
There are records of other species visiting Ireland but, outside the domesticated variety, the brent and barnacle are the two most commonly seen geese here.
My neighbours told me a story about a domesticated goose that went feral and followed a pair of swans every day in the bay. This ‘wild’ goose would knock on their kitchen door for food on a daily basis and they were quite upset when it suddenly disappeared.
Cures and quills
Geese were used in many ways in folk medicine. One remedy for a variety of ailments involved holding a live goose’s beak close to that of the sick person’s mouth. Inhaling the breath of the goose was believed to provide a cure.
A more specific version of this remedy decreed that oral thrush could be cured by putting the beak of a fasting gander into the sufferer’s mouth. I know I’d certainly be instantly cured if I saw one of those beaks coming towards me!
Goose fat was used for pains in the joints as well as in cooking. The very large goose eggs were considered a special treat to eat. Feathers from domesticated ducks were utilised as quills for writing with ink. This gave rise to the word ‘pen’ which owes its origin to the Latin word for feather. The feathers of domestic geese were also used for bedding and in pillows.
There are many Irish sayings that feature the goose including ‘don’t send the goose with a message into the fox’s den’. And, in English, the word features in many ways from ‘goose-flesh’ to ‘goosestep’ as well as in countless sayings ‘what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander’, ‘he’s cooked his goose’ and ‘can’t say boo to a goose’ etc.
I can still hear my mother’s voice as she called the birds for feeding ‘biddy, biddy, biddy’ as countless other women did on the farms of Ireland. These fowl provided much needed pocket money for her and others. And – of course – the New Year’s Day’s dinner.
Wishing you all the very very best for 2017. Thank you so much for your emails and feedback during the year – and for reading this column for almost a decade.