Whipping the herring

As of October 2012, I am no longer drinks columnist with the Irish Examiner Weekend. If that’s why you’re here, please see the home page of this blog for more details. Thank you.

ONCE upon a time, the butchers’ apprentices in parts of Ireland would mark Easter Sunday — and the end of a slack month of Lenten no-meat misery — with music, mirth and wild celebrations. Drink may have been taken too. A fiesta always comes after a fast of course, but I imagine there would have been an added cause for celebration for people whose livelihood depended on the consumption of meat. The picture here records the tradition in Cork in the mid-18th century. The centrepiece of the festivities involved attaching a herring to the top of a long pole which was then paraded around the city walls, affording the local urchins (basically me, 250 years ago) an opportunity to flake the bejaysus out of it like some piscine piñata.

“Whipping The Herring…” at the Crawford gallery.

This tiny but delightful painting, Whipping The Herring Out of Town (c1760) is by Nathanial Grogan, and it’s in the collection of the Crawford Art Gallery on Emmet Place in Cork. The picture was featured in the exhibition at the Crawford, A Question of Attribution: The Arcadian Landscapes of Nathaniel Grogan and John Butts which ended on April 7, 2012. To the best of my knowledge, it’s on permanent display in the gallery. Well it’s always there any time I look, on my way around the contemporary exhibitions, or on my way to check in on the Penrose collection. Go take a look.

I warn you, Whipping the Herring… is tiny. Arguably, you’ll see more detail in the excellently-photographed pic on the Crawford’s site and in their catalogue, which you can buy. But then, no matter how slick a recording is, you just can’t beat a live gig. So if you find yourself in Cork, please do go see it.

The picture is so vivid you can almost hear the racket. I love the detail. Walking while playing the fiddle at the head of a parade is no mean feat. One old fella who should know better is drawing back his cudgel to take a good swipe at the fish. I imagine the child with his back to us is about to burst into tears, terrified by the crazy, noisy procession bearing down on him. The woman at the lower left, who seems to have been upended by a runaway dog (and is that a pig running alongside?) is pure Beryl Cook, legs akimbo. The same beasts are being pursued by a man in a natty red coat who seems to be convulsed with mirth and horror at the same time. Think of all of them the next time you see some fella, wearing a traffic cone on his head, cavorting in the Berwick fountain on the Grand Parade at midnight.

All of this contained in a picture smaller than the sleeve of a 10-inch EP.

Despite the energy and chaos, the arched building you see in the background is an accurate representation of the city’s south gate, which survives only in the name of South Gate Bridge. The first picture of the bridge on that Cork City Library link is also by Nat Grogan – a much more sober daytime illustration, complete with one of his signature flourishes, a romantic John Hinde-style overhanging tree, on the right hand side.

Apart from the river and the bridge, it doesn’t look much like today’s view. To orient yourself in that picture, you’re looking East from the intersection of Proby’s Quay, Crosse’s Green and French’s Quay — with St Fin Barre’s Cathedral behind you, Elizabeth Fort to your right, and George’s Quay and the Quay Co-Op further down the river. To your left is the site of the former Beamish & Crawford brewery which is tipped to be redeveloped as a concert venue.

The spot depicted in the painting is close to two historic sites – the thriving port city of Cork’s Viking era which was trading internationally 1,000 years ago, and which was only discovered during archaeological excavations from 2003 to 2005, and Sir Henry’s nightclub. Yes, I will post a pic from the same spot when I get round to taking it.

The Irish tradition depicted by Grogan reminds me of a Spanish custom which still takes place each year at the start of Lent. Around 1810, Goya recorded on canvas the Burial Of The Sardine parade in Madrid. The Wikipedia entry here includes a photo of the painting. Well worth a look.

You can find out more about Grogan and his picture of Cork’s whipping the herring tradition here on www.crawfordartgallery.ie. ♦

As of October 2012, I am no longer drinks columnist with the Irish Examiner Weekend. See the home page of this blog for more details. I’m leaving much of the info I posted here in case it might be helpful. Thank you.

Edit: I added a few lines about Whipping The Herring to a post about a wine and beer tasting before Easter this year (2012). The tradition deserves a bit more attention, so I’m re-posting an expanded version above. For this weekend’s post about Elbow Lane Angel Stout, click here https://blakecreedon.wordpress.com/2012/06/21/cheers-for-a-cracking-new-stout/


I ♥ radio

A History of the world in 100 objects

UPDATE:  I’ve slightly amended this post which originally dates from October 2009 when the BBC programme was first broadcast.

Vera Lynn and Charles Stewart Parnell

TWO historical online radio tips for you — a brilliant series tied in with a book about Irish political trials, and a one-off journey into an icon of popular culture.

The last shall be first because you only have until until Monday October 19 4pm on Monday March 28, 2011 to hear it.

Even though it’s presented by the estimable Ian Hislop, I wasn’t exactly excited at the prospect of BBC Radio 4’s Bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover which I presumed would be no more than a mildly diverting bit of WWII quaintness.  But it turns out to be a fascinating story of plagiarism, propaganda and politics. And birdwatching. Spoiler alert: Like me, you may find some aspects of the programme pretty startling, and prefer to enjoy discovering them by listening rather than reading on here.


Made famous by Vera Lynn, The White Cliffs of Dover has a strange and interesting history.

Hislop starts the programme atop the cliffs asking an RSPCA ornithologist to point out the bluebirds. The answer — that there aren’t any there, and never have been, that it’s an American species which doesn’t migrate very far — kicks off a search for the real roots of the song. It turns out that it was an American tune (a hit for Glen Miller among others) long before Vera Lynn got her hands on it. Pop culture mavens will certainly enjoy Hislop’s brief interviews with the guitarist on one of those 1930s American recordings, and with Vera Lynn how she came across the tune.

But its parentage is even more interesting than its birth.

Lyricist Nat Burton lifted the title, the aspiration and the Anglophile sentiment from The White Cliffs, the now forgotten but then bestselling verse novel by mathematician and poet Alice Duer Miller.

Burton and co-composer Walter Kent *cough* borrowed from a source even more iconic than their own composition, lifting lyrical keywords, and even the opening few bars (albeit offset a little) from Somewhere Over the Rainbow. You can demonstrate this if you want – get an accomplice to start singing the White Cliffs of Dover song and join in with Somewhere Over The Rainbow on the word ‘blue’ and the two uncannily fit together.  Hislop gamely tries it with a musicologist.  I’d never noticed the connection before – it’s one of the many delights of the programme.

While the TV on BBC iPlayer is restricted to the UK, all its radio channels are available worldwide for a week after broadcast. It’s worth a trawl for all sorts. For me, it’s all about documentaries and other non-fiction, some of the comedy and Craig Charles’ excellent funk and soul show on Radio 6.

Charles Stewart Parnell

Charles Stewart Parnell

THE second programme I’m recommending is even more stuffed with fascinating incident and detail.  Accompanying the book of the same name, Conspiracy: Irish Political Trials under the Union is a four-part RTÉ series dealing with some of the most significant cases in Irish legal history between 1801 and 1922.

The series delves into the trials and tribunals of Robert Emmet, Daniel O’Connell and (from next Sunday) the courts martial after the Easter Rising of 1916. The only one I’ve heard so far is the one where Phoebe and Chandler about Charles Stewart Parnell and the 1889 tribunal investigating the attempt to defame him and other reformers by forged letters in The Times linking them to violence. With no apparent effort, Myles Dungan leads a panel of historians through a thorough explanation of the story and its background. Featuring reenactments from the Times commission hearings, including the dramatic unmasking of the forger Piggott, it’s a great hour’s radio.  I’ve pluck’d them from the very aether downloaded the rest of the series as podcasts and am  looking forward to hearing them.  I won’t bother reposting about them here though, as I think you get the idea.    ♦

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