Leprechauns in Adelaide for Saint Patrick’s Day 2021

I had started writing something completely different in preparation for 17 March and then I found the object pictured below. Isn’t it perfect? It was in an op shop, in a dusty plastic bag. It cost me $3.99. Which may have been over-investment in what is essentially some plastic tat and a cheap golden candle. But leprechauns! There is no point of origin marked anywhere – Ireland, China, Germany, it’s a mystery. These leprechauns materialised all by themselves in Adelaide and I have to say that when I washed off the dust they were even better than I expected. First of all, there are four of them. Usually, the leprechaun is a solitary creature. Secondly, two of them are using the candle to pole dance; this is not something I have ever encountered before, it’s certainly not a tradition I’ve come across in my research. And thirdly, the cauldron of gold and shamrocks of green are quite perfectly formed and heavy for their size. Class!

Leprechaun candle
Four leprechauns, a pot of gold, some green shamrocks and a candle.

The rest of the family is not so enamoured. ‘Donate them back’, I was told. ‘They’re embarrassing.’ ‘They have no place in a modern Irish Australian home.’ A compromise was reached and they are now confined to the study, banned from appearing anywhere else in the house. ‘And you have to donate them back soon.’ ‘Of course’, I lie. Because by now I’m quite fond of them.

The leprechaun is probably the most widely known Irish mythological creature. Traditionally, he is the fairy shoemaker, banker and guard of the fairy treasure. In fact, his very name comes from one of his occupations – leprechaun, according to Douglas Hyde (first President of Ireland and scholar) via W.B. Yeats (poet and collector of Irish legends), comes from the Irish leith bróg, the one-shoemaker, as the leprechaun is usually spotted working on a single shoe. If you encounter a leprechaun and keep a hold of him, he is obliged to show you the location of his gold hoard. Which, when you think about it, doesn’t seem like quite the right action by us mortals. If he’s essentially the fairy banker, the pot of gold belongs to the fairies or good people; it’s not ours to steal. And I for one wouldn’t want to get on their bad side. Leave well alone I say. If you meet a leprechaun while out and about, exchange good wishes, mention the weather, wish each other good health and safety in these Covid times, and go about your business.

The lepracaun, who continually makes shoes.
Drawing of a leprechaun at work on a shoe (Yeats, W.B. (1986 [1888]:81).

I think these four leprechauns who have taken up residence in our house may stay for a while. And then they’ll probably move on of their own accord. When they’re quite ready.
In the meantime, I’m sure they’ll join with me in wishing everyone a happy, safe and socially distanced Saint Patrick’s Day in 2021.

Further reading:
White, Carolyn 2008 A History of Irish Fairies. Cork: Mercier Press.
Yeats, W.B. (ed.) 1986 [1888] Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry. New York: Avanel Books.

Posted in Folk traditions, Ireland, Irishness, Material culture, South Australia | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Culchie Day in the big city

Today is 8 December. It’s a holy day of obligation, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, and when I was a child it was a day off school. Traditionally, this was the day that the country people went to Dublin to do their Christmas shopping, and known by Dubliners for this reason as Culchie Christmas Shopping Day. We never did this – my dad couldn’t abide the thought of those Dublin jackeens laughing at the culchies up from the country on the 8th. We went the weekend before to see the lights in Henry Street, the women on Moore Street crying ‘Last of the cheeky charlies’, the toys in Hector Grey’s and Roches Stores. And then the walk up and over the Ha’penny Bridge, past College Green to Grafton Street and Switzers where we were able to tell Santy what we wanted and gaze at the Christmas windows in wonder.

A visit to Santa Claus at Switzers in Grafton Street, Dublin, 1971
Santa at Switzers, 1971

In defence of Dublin, the Santa Claus at Switzers was a lot less scary than his alter ego down the country.

A visit to Santa in Longford, c.1966
Santa in Longford, c.1966

Extensive research (a quick look in Google) finds that Culchie Day is no longer such a big event. Online shopping and the American Black Friday sales mean that 8 December is less relevant. But for many people, it is still the day to start Christmas and put up the decorations. And in this pandemic year, when many of us are physically further apart from our families than ever before, it might be even more important to celebrate family and friendship and the anticipation of an upcoming feast. Happy Christmas on Culchie Day!

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Tools of the archaeology trade

These days, I’m deep in the results from the Baker’s Flat excavations of 2016 and 2017, analysing what we found as part of the ‘writing up’ of my PhD. As we excavated, the work was captured in words, photos, total station data, and more forms than you would care to imagine. And each time a photo was taken, its details were recorded on the Photographic Recording Form – photo number, description, photographer, date, direction of view.

But sometimes I took photos just for fun. And here are a few of them, deliberately taken without identifiable people in them, designed to highlight the tools we use. As you can see, most of them are very ordinary – buckets, string, brushes, plastic trays. They’re essential though, as are the trowels and sieves. And a sense of humour!

Sieving in the late afternoon sun.
Sieving in the late afternoon sun.
Shadows of archaeologists dancing.
Archaeologist shadow dance.
Two large sieves on top of a pile of sieved dirt.
Pink sieve and brown sieve on top of an ever increasing pile of dirt.

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Turnip carving? It must be Halloween

I’ve written before about Halloween, citing a spine-tingling poem and stories of children stolen by the good people. I loved this time as a child, that feeling of uncertainty, that strange things could happen on this one night when the membrane between our world and the next was thin and fragile, when we were on the cusp of winter and the short dark days. My mum told me how one year, one of the men she worked with saw the banshee on his way home late on Halloween night. The banshee was sitting in a window, high up in the ruins of Newtown Cathedral, combing out her long grey hair and wailing. This was just at the end of our road! I was terribly impressed.

In our family, we didn’t go calling on houses at Halloween. None of our friends did either. Most years, though, a group of young lads would call to the door masked and disguised, singing songs and playing the guitar, and in return we would give them coins and nuts. Once they had enough coins, they would go to the pub. I don’t know what they did with the nuts.

Aside from that excitement, we just ate barm brack and mixed nuts, and played games involving apples. We ducked for apples in basins of water. And we tried to snap bites of an apple as it spun round on a string hung in the middle of the doorway. This snap-apple game got more complex over the years. My dad made a small cross-piece from two pieces of wood. At each end he hammered a nail through and we stuck the apples on the nails. Four apples spinning round, and my brother and I trying to take a bite with our hands behind our backs. And then my mum would kiss us goodbye and head to her night shift as a nurse in the local hospital. As soon as she was out of sight, my dad would replace two of the apples with lighted candles. And then we had to try and take a bite of the apple before our hair caught on fire from the candles. Happy days!

These days, my Halloween adventures are a lot tamer but I do like to mark it in some way. Although I’ve carved pumpkins I’ve never tried to make a turnip lamp, which is the Irish tradition. And honestly, the year of 2020 needs all the help it can get in warding off evil spirits. So if a turnip lamp can help in some small way, I’m all for it.

To carve a turnip, you need a few tools. Some sheets of newspaper, a small cutting board, a sharp knife, a strong spoon and a ballpoint pen. The slideshow below shows the process, but basically I chopped the head off my turnip, scored a criss-cross of lines in the ‘lid’, then used these lines to help scrape out the innards with the spoon. Same process for the rest of the turnip, augmented by cutting a slice off the end for a flat base. Eyes and mouth drawn for a face, carved out with the knife and spoon, skull cap back on top, add a candle and there he is – one creepy turnip head.

That one had been so successful that I had to give it another go. With a smaller rounder turnip.

The final touches were to add a hanging wire, and then my two turnip lamps were ready to scare away all the ghoulies and ghosties that might be wandering around our South Australian suburban street.

Once Halloween is over, I’m going to hang them in the shed and see how they look in a year’s time. Watch this space!

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A tale of two buttons and some supernatural events

I’ve been cataloguing buttons from Baker’s Flat. The ones in the picture below are known as trouser buttons (suspender buttons if you’re in the US) and were used mainly on work trousers and shirts. These four hole, sew through buttons were stamped from large metal sheets, usually copper alloy. Manufacture began around 1810, and by 1850 they were being produced in massive numbers. They’re a common find on archaeological sites.

These ones have flat rims and the typical deep central recesses for the eye holes. Stamped around the rims are the words KIRKHAM EVANS & CO BON MARCHÉ. Because they’re branded in this way, it’s possible to discover quite a lot about these small, otherwise unremarkable artefacts.

Two trouser buttons, stamped with words KIRKHAM EVANS & CO BON MARCHE
Two trouser buttons stamped with KIRKHAM EVANS & CO BON MARCHE

As a starting point … In June 1884, Kirkham Evans announced in the local Adelaide newspapers that he was opening a gentleman’s outfitting and fashionable tailoring establishment. Called the Bon Marché, it was located at YMCA Buildings, on the corner of Gawler Place and Grenfell Street, Adelaide. At the same time, he advertised for a respectable and well-behaved apprentice. He also wanted tailors and tailoresses – they must be first class coat, vest and trouser hands. And he was looking for a good presser and machinist. He was clearly expecting business to be successful!

On sale were shirts, scarves and collars, hats and umbrellas, travelling bags and cases, and rugs. His tailoring department was in the hands of a first-class cutter, a trial suit was guaranteed to give perfect satisfaction with strictly moderate prices, and he could provide practical wear, clerical suits and liveries. His target audience was not just the men, youths and boys of South Australia, but also the ladies whose garments would be cut on the premises.

So … when it comes to these trouser buttons, I can determine that the earliest date they could have been made was June 1884. And the latest date is December 1897 when the last advert by Kirkham Evans, Gawler Place was placed. An advert shortly afterwards by Smith and Hawkes indicated that they had taken over the business. To be honest, that’s probably all the information I needed for my button catalogue – I’d already described the buttons and now I had dates, so far so excellent.

But my foray into the fabulous Trove had hinted that there was more to Kirkham Evans. It turns out that he was a prominent member of the YMCA, Our Boys Institute and the Boy Scouts.

Although the Adelaide branch of the YMCA had been started in 1850, its first permanent headquarters was opened in 1884 at the corner of Grenfell Street and Gawler Place, the very place where Kirkham Evans opened Bon Marché. He must have been the first shop tenant.

And there’s more. Kirkham Evans was also an accomplished amateur conjurer and a reformed spiritualist. He appears to have made it his mission to seek out and debunk unexplained phenomena of an otherworldly nature, informed by his own experiences with spiritualism as a malign influence. He believed that all mediums were imposters who preyed on the vulnerable.

Take, for instance, the case of the German cello player and passionate spiritualist, Christian Reimers. In late 1884, he organised a series of séances in Adelaide led by Catherine Wood, a well-known English medium who had been in Australia for about a year. You might imagine that Kirkham Evans would have been a bit tied-up with his new shopping emporium in late 1884. But he made time to attend one of the gatherings. Poor Catherine Wood held only a few sittings before she caught typhoid fever and died in a North Adelaide hospital.

Within a week of her death, Kirkham Evans delivered a public lecture at the YMCA Hall in front of an audience of 1,100. Here, he revealed that the séances were a hoax – he had hidden in the rafters and with the assistance of two friends had generated various raps and noises that appeared to be supernatural – and asserted that Wood was a trickster. A battle in the local press ensued between Reimers and Evans, bolstered by opinion pieces and letters from members of the public. Overall, public sympathy seemed to lie with Reimers who was described as ‘a thoroughly honest spiritualist’, while Kirkham Evans and his friends were advised ‘to be most heartily ashamed of themselves’.

Port Adelaide News and Le Fevre’s Peninsula Advertiser 19 December 1884, p.4.

And then, a few years later in 1887, there was the Cradock Ghost scare in the north of South Australia. A nine-year-old girl, Sissy Schultz, was apparently under the influence of supernatural powers, which manifested as loud knocks and occasional electric shocks. Kirkham Evans went to investigate, and together with the local schoolmaster, spent a night watching the girl sleep. Sure enough, loud raps were heard, but only when the child had moved far enough over in the bed (a mattress on the pug floor) to be able to reach out and tap the floor. The schoolmaster had taken the precaution of sprinkling lampblack on the floor, and sure enough, when inspected the child’s knuckles were black. This story also caused a sensation in the local press.

However, Christian Reimers’ assertion that Kirkham Evans was not as honest and reputable as he claimed did have merit because some years later, in 1917, a cryptic announcement appeared in the gazette of the Boy Scouts’ Association. It stated that the office of metropolitan commissioner, formerly occupied by Mr Kirkham Evans, had been declared vacant. It transpired that allegations had been made of sexual misconduct with the boys. In the age-old tradition of institutional cover-ups, Kirkham Evans had been given an opportunity to leave Australia. He fled Adelaide for Sydney under cover of darkness, with the intention of heading to Fiji, and was never held accountable. And there the story ends.

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