In addition to offering a wide-range of holiday recipes in my new cookbook, Festive Flavors of Ireland, you’ll also enjoy reading about many long-standing, often bygone, Irish holiday traditions at the end of each chapter. Brian Nolan, a Loughrea, County Galway native, shares his memories of Mairgead Mór, a great day of celebration when farmers would converge on town to sell their crops, livestock, and poultry, and women would come with them to spend their "butter and egg money" on holiday gifts and goodies.
According to Nolan, “Over most of Western Europe, particularly in those areas connected with the ancient Celts, December 8 was associated with the celebration of the festival of the winter solstice. It was an amazing sight to me as a child in the early 1960s, before marts and supermarkets modernized everything. On that day, everyone came to town — the ruddy-faced, wool-capped men with their sturdy womenfolk; the too-thin gaggles of wide-eyed children — on horses, in donkey and cart, on bicycles, and on foot, and everyone carried something for the fair. They arrived before dawn, and left, mess of straw and leavings behind them, after dark.
Geese by the hundred, turkeys and chickens by the thousand, all 'live,’ tied to the back of upturned donkey carts between loads of turf. Mounds of potato sacks brimmed with Kerr’s Pinks and Banners from Clare; huge heads of cabbage and turnips; bunches of parsnip and carrots, and the very rare bushel of Brussels sprouts. Wheels of hardy cheddar, and what seemed like acres of flats of eggs in hues of brown and white, with the bigger duck-eggs, bluish in the winter sunlight.
The fowl would be raucous, hog-tied or closeted in bushel baskets, with their heads poking out, or in more modern times, poking their heads out of car-boots, and all cackling and clucking and gobbling away to their hearts' content. The 'townies' and some city market buyers made their canny way, back and forth between the rows of sellers, examining here, feeling there, commenting on the size and weight, and what they were fed on, and whether they were spring or summer birds.
Amid all that was the excitement of the shops, the bustle of the women going in to settle their account with the harvest, butter, and turkey money enabling them to pay off the tab and get some new clothes for themselves and the children, now wide-eyed in expectation and appreciation of the beautiful goods and sweet chocolates they were able to see and touch now.”
December 8 was one of the most important dates in the Celtic calendar as it marked the celebration of a farmer's success and the approach of the New Year. In modern Ireland, it's the biggest shopping day of the year.
Nolan, a longtime fellow member of TheWildGeese.irish community, a great storyteller and passionate ambassador for tourism in Ireland, is the founder of Galway Walks (galwaywalks.com), a delightful way to tour the city with a native.