Depending on your point of view today is either 7 October 2016 or 27 September. If you are a big fan of Julius Caesar and swear by his mathematical calculations, then it’s the latter. If, however, you go along with Pope Gregory XIII, then it’s the former.
Without wishing to cause offence or any unnecessary hurt to Caesarians most of us tend to go along with the Pope on this one. It all depends on how you calculate time. In 45 BC Julius Caesar, the one who died on the Ides of March – whatever they were – introduced a calendar that had 365 days and allowed for a leap year every four years. And what’s wrong with that, you might ask?
Nothing, except that Caesar’s year was three hundred and sixty-five days and six hours long. Whereas the length of the year is actually three hundred and sixty-five days, five hours, forty-eight minutes and forty- six seconds. A difference of eleven minutes and fourteen seconds, so about as long as a heavy metal guitar solo.
Given that Julius Caesar was stabbed to death by Brutus, Cassius and one or two others the following year he never realised that because of this slight discrepancy, over the years that followed, time got a bit out of whack. For one thing Easter, the ultimate movable feast, was getting later every year. At some point it would inevitably coincide with Christmas Day. Action was required and Pope Gregory XIII got off his Vatican throne and did something about it. Accordingly, across most of Europe, people went to bed on 4 October, 1582 and woke up on the 15th.
However, in a rather significant Brexit the English decided that they would have nothing to do with a calendar devised by the Antichrist himself. Instead they decided to render unto Caesar the things that were Caesar’s – starting with his calendar. As the English Crown claimed Ireland, a gift from the Pope in 1155, we were stuck with the old calendar too.
Of course things got really confusing when it came to Irish rebellions. As the rebels were invariably Catholic their wars were fought according to the new calendar devised under the auspices of Pope Gregory. This, presumably, made it easier to identify an Irish Catholic rebel. You just asked him the date.
So, for example, the Battle of Kinsale was, according to the English side, fought on Christmas Eve 1601. But the clash contested and lost by the forces of Hugh O’Neill and Hugh O’Donnell, as well as their Spanish allies, didn’t even take place the same year. The Irish fought the Battle of Kinsale on 3 January 1602.
The English, and by extension the Irish, didn’t come into line with the Gregorian Calendar until 1752. Don’t be too shocked if they suddenly change their minds some day and revert to the Julian calendar.
Not that the Irish are wedded to ancient history or anything like that but the calendar switch is often cited as having huge philosophical significance in the context of the first day of the Battle of the Somme. On that occasion, 1 July 1916, the 36th Ulster Division went over the top at Thiepval. More than two thousand of them never came back. The date became part of Ulster Unionist folklore. However, it was pointed out at the time that if you ignored the Pope’s calendar – something your average unionist didn’t have much of a problem with – the 1 July 1916 was actually the anniversary of 12 July, 1690 when King William led his Protestant forces to victory against the Catholic Army of King James. The battle had actually had been fought on the First of July 1690, according to King Billy and his followers.
Because of his decision to toss out the calendar of Julius Caesar, and the consequent loss of ten days, Pope Gregory XIII ensured that absolutely nothing happened four hundred and thirty four years ago, on this day.