In the France of former centuries, this weekend would have been marked by an extraordinary religious ceremony involving donkeys. The Feast of the Ass fell on January 14th and celebrated the post-Christmas Flight into Egypt, to which the animal was traditionally central.
But the event’s theatrical excesses, possibly rooted in older, pre-Christian festivals including the Romans’ new year Cervula – were considered an embarrassment by other believers, especially of the Protestant kind.
The Victorian almanac Chamber’s Book of Days acknowledged that early converts to the faith had to be “weaned off” pagan rituals and that a certain amount of drama was justified “to impress religious truths upon the minds of an illiterate people”, impervious to books: “But the advantages resulting from this mode of instruction were counterbalanced by the numerous ridiculous ceremonies which they originated. Of these, probably none exceeded in grossness of absurdity the Festival of the Ass.”
The Catholic Encyclopedia records one such rite, from Beauvais, in which a young woman and child were first carried by donkey to the local church.
The animal was then stationed at the altar during Mass while the congregation sang in Latin (as translated): “From the eastern lands, the Ass comes, beautiful and brave, fit to bear burdens. Up! Sir Ass, and sing. Open your pretty mouth. Hay will be yours in plenty, and oats in abundance.”
But the most infamous part of the service was at the end where, instead of saying “the Mass is over”, the priest would “bray thrice”, in imitation of the beast, inspiring the congregation to reply in kind.
The ceremony is thought to have spread into western Europe, circa the 11th century, via Constantinople. It was mainly or exclusively confined to Catholic France, however. Despite the historic regard for donkeys in this country, Ireland seems to have been immune.
Mind you, Irish regard for the animal was not always universal. And according to Michael J McCarthy (1864-1928), a Cork-born lawyer, nationalist, and anti-clerical author, whose writings influenced James Joyce, it too split along sectarian lines.
“One of those fortuitous straws which show how the religious wind blows and marks the difference [...] between the Catholic and Protestant counties,” he wrote in his 1911 book, Irish Land and Irish Liberty, “is the relative esteem in which asses are held.”
Antrim, “the most Protestant county in Ireland”, had the fewest donkeys, McCarthy noted: only 783 in 1901. This compared with 25,000 in Mayo, 20,000 in Cork, 17,000 in Tipperary, and so on.
Elsewhere in the Protestant northeast, Derry, Down, and Armagh were almost equally donkey-deficient. But in all the “Catholic counties” – except Tyrone, which he declared “neutral” on the subject – asses were “reckoned in thousands”.
It would not have surprised McCarthy that, although yet to be composed in his lifetime, Ireland’s best-known poem about this gentle creature would be written just south and west of the donkey line, in Monaghan.
In Kerr’s Ass by Patrick Kavanagh, the animal is not quite an object of reverence. But, as remembered from London, it does inspire a spiritual epiphany: “Until a world comes to life -/Morning, the silent bog./And the God of imagination waking/In a Mucker fog.”
Alas, that sentiment too has proven to be a challenge for some historically Protestant countries. The poem is today sometimes censored by online forums in America, where the line about borrowing “Kerr’s big a**” is liable to be misunderstood.
Beauvais is less well-known these days for its Feast of the Ass than for its airport, which offers a low-cost gateway to Paris. It is now also synonymous with Ryanair, a company that does not yet provide Flights into Egypt, but will probably soon offer flights to somewhere near Egypt, with onward bus connection.
The airline’s chief executive has become almost equally famous for his association with animals equine, albeit of a larger and faster kind than donkeys. Michael O’Leary is a leading member of the Irish horse-racing elite, or as Myles na gCopaleen of this parish once called them, the “Hippocracy”.
Our columnist was at the time affecting to be annoyed with the horsey set, for obscure reasons chief among which may have been a misrepresentation of his pseudonym. That was sometimes translated as “Myles of the Little Horses” whereas, emphasising the territorial integrity of small animals in the face of larger ones with imperial ambitions, he preferred “Myles of the Ponies”.
All of which is a transparent - some might say half-assed – excuse for me to mention again the latest International Flann O’Brien conference, which takes place in the Romanian city of Cluj in June. The theme this year is “Strange Atmospheres”. Scholars of Myles/Flann wishing to present papers are invited to submit abstracts via firstname.lastname@example.org by January 31st.