April Fool’s Day remains one of the best known non religious customs still prevailing in the English speaking world. How the tradition arose of playing practical jokes on the day which is known in English folklore as “All Fools Day” is now lost in history. The earliest reference one can find to the practice places it as early as the 17th century. In those far off days the tomfoolery associated with April 1st was the prerogative of adults who found amusement in tricking one another into going on ridiculous errands. The perennial search for a pint of pigeon’s milk or a pound of elbow grease found particular favour amongst craftsmen who had obedient and subservient apprentices to answer to their demands. In more recent times the media has entered into the spirit of the day. Perhaps one of the most memorable practical jokes was that perpetrated by Richard Dimbleby in his famous television documentary on spaghetti harvesting.
April Fool’s Day is practiced, if such is the correct work, with a particular enthusiasm by the Scots who have invented their own specific piece of tomfoolery which they call “hunting the gowk”. The victim is sent on an errand with a sealed envelope which requests the person receiving it to “hunt the gowk another mile”. When the recipient reads this he tells the messenger that the errand requires a further journey to another house where of course the same thing is intended to happen. So the messenger goes from house to house until he finally realises what is happening or some kind hearted soul tells him. In the meantime the victim of the joke has been “hunting the gowk” which in Scottish dialect means “cuckoo” or “fool”.
April Fool’s Day has just passed and I am reminded of the ancient custom associated with the day because this year I was the subject of an elaborate April Fool’s Day joke. For years I have sought, without success, to get some background information on a local man by the name of Benjamin Pelin who in the 1920’s went to live in Russia. He was a socialist and I presume a member of the Communist Party of Ireland founded by James Connolly’s son Roderick in 1921. Pelin went to live in Russia in the 1920’s but later returned to Ireland where I believe he founded an organisation called the “Knights of the Plough”. That is as much as I knew about Pelin until in more recent times I discovered that he left Ireland again, this time to emigrate to Australia where he subsequently died.
I have searched for some considerable time in the various repositories here in Ireland to check out Pelin and the “Knights of the Plough” and of course I have mentioned my quest to various people over the years. No information has yet been unearthed. However, just three days before the end of March I got an e-mail from a Donegal lady which informed me that her uncle died earlier in the year and she had been given the task of looking after his affairs. Amongst his papers she found a copybook written by a cousin of her late uncle in which that cousin recounted his involvement in a society called the “Knights of the Plough”, it’s foundation and the subsequent affairs of the society. The good Donegal woman, who claimed to have received my address from the Kildare Nationalist having read some of my articles while on holidays in the Kildare area, thought the copybook might be of interest to me.
You know, occasionally one comes across material, whether photographs, handwritten accounts of forgotten events or whatever which provide a frisson of excitement, but this e-mail all the way from Donegal brought me the most exciting news imaginable. I dashed off an immediate reply expressing my gratitude for the kind offer of the copybook and awaited its arrival.
I was not to be disappointed. On April 1st the Postman delivered in a package neatly addressed and carefully bound a school copybook, the cover of which bore the legend “Knights Of The Plough - Part 1 - Written 1964”. I opened it up, barely concealing my excitement and quickly glanced at the first page, again written in pencil, and then turned over the first few pages which were pasted into the copybook. The same hand which had written the pencilled first page of what I expected to be a long awaited account of the “Knights of the Plough” had this time emblazoned across the page, “April Fool!! … sorry Frank, couldn’t resist it!”
I was gobsmacked. As a recipient of the best April Fool’s joke ever perpetrated on me I could only smile. It was a first class practical joke in keeping with the best traditions of the day and more than equal to the hoaxes perpetrated each year by press, television and radio which over the years have produced a crop of plausible, yet absurd reports disguised as news items. As for the identity of the hoaxer, he has to remain anonymous for the time being.
The search for information on Benjamin Pelin and the “Knights of the Plough” continues and hopefully before April comes around again I will have the necessary background information of what must have been an extraordinarily interesting man.
Before I finish I want to bring to your attention a recently published book. It’s title, “I met Murder on the Way” - the story of the Pearsons of Coolacreas is by Alan Stanley. It is a slim volume, written in a most engaging and unusual style, and concerns the killing of two young Pearson brothers while working on their father’s farm in County Offaly in June 1921. The killing of these two young men was but one of many horrible examples of mans inhumanity to man perpetrated at a time when Ireland’s War of Independence was coming to a close. It’s a moving account of the events surrounding the killing of the Pearson brothers and the aftermath of that cowardly act. I recommend Mr. Stanley’s book to anyone who wants to know more about the tragedies which followed in the footsteps of the so called freedom fighters.