By Janet Mifsud B.Pharm.(Hons), Ph.D.(QUB)
(I would like to acknowledge the kind assistance of Dr Joe Mifsud and Mr JC Camilleri in the preparation of this article).
The 29th of June means different things to different Maltese people, it has even acquired political undertones with feverish political controversy surrounding the date in our insular bi-partisan political calendar. L-Imnarja or the Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul immediately brings to mind, my own foreign experience of this much revered local feast. Around four years ago, in sectarian Belfast I planned a reunion of Maltese living in that city (on my husband's advice).
L-Imnarja is synonymous to Fenkata in folklore language, so like many Maltese abroad, two or three days before the event, I set off in pursuit of a butcher's shop which could guarantee me a fresh supply of two or three "fniek" for the stew. "Sawyer's" is a much revered delicatessen in the city centre of the Ulster province. It caters for delicate and refined tastes and always has on sale different kinds of seafood, exotic hams, sauces and pasta from the Mediterranean region. At Sawyer's I was informed that the "fniek" will be ready for picking up on the 28th, around two o'clock in the afternoon. On the 28th I went to the city centre with another Maltese friend, being both highly respected shoppers, we decided to limit ourselves to window-shopping.....however this session soon turned into a serious shopping spree. Around one in the afternoon, having exhausted ourselves and our funds, we retreated into a lovely corner inn called Fountain Tavern to enjoy some lunch. This place is just round the corner from Sawyer's, so after lunch it was agreed that we should pick up our fniek and make our way home to start preparing the Mnarja dinner! We had just picked up our lunch drinks when a mighty explosion rocked the centre of Belfast. It felt that the IRA bomb had been set off right under the restaurant . We ran out of the place, down the narrow winding wooden staircase, onto the square where Sawyer's should have been waiting with his fniek.......of course Sawyer's was not in a position to produce the fniek. That was the end of that Mnarja!
The Maltese historian, Guze Cassar Pullicino associates l-Imnarja with the devotion to St. Paul. In fact up until the 17th century, this feast was celebrated by the locals with a pilgrimage to the Crypt which lies underneath the Parish Church of Rabat (Malta). A procession would pass through Rabat and finish at the Mdina Cathedral, which is dedicated to St. Paul. Many historians also tend to link this feast to harvests and farming. One must remember that the majority of Maltese during the 16th, 17th and 18th century were farmers, and that Rabat is the hub of farming activities in the Island. Many Maltese used to flock to Rabat on the eve of the feast, on foot or using horse and mule driven carts. The crowd would gather at Saqqaja, on top of the hill in Rabat, and would recite the rosary and other prayers. Later they would join the Bishop and his Cathedral Chapter in the procession towards Mdina. Accompanying the procession one would also find the daqqaqa and the folklore singers (the troubadours) wearing priestly robes.
During the British reign, under Governor Sir W. Reid in 1854, the Agricultural Society took over the National Farmers' exhibition, which gathered prime livestock, top agricultural produce and Maltese honey under a marquee in Buskett Gardens. Under the Knights it was prohibited to carouse at Buskett during the night.. The Agricultural show at Buskett brought great changes, many Maltese used to go down to see the exhibition, and spend the day at Buskett, eating fenkata and singing away until the early hours of the morning. The Agricultural Society changed the date of the show to the 28th of June so that on Mnarja's day, the Governor, first, and later the President of the Republic, could go and present the Silver trophies awarded for the best exhibits.
Another social gathering associated with this feast is that which sees horses as the main protagonists. In fact, horse-racing at Mnarja have been popular since 1722, when the historian Agius De Soldanis wrote:
"then they return from Buskett and soon go to the Cathedral while others find a place on the wall, where the races are to be held and in truth I cannot see how they stand the heat of the sun especially the women, waiting for hours to see the races."
The races used to be held around Saqqaja Hill and going up the incline on the left one can still see the "Loggia tal-palji" the balcony which the Islands' leaders used to guest and in which Paliji were given to winners. The palji ( prize-flags) were brightly coloured and the winners would take these to their respective villages amidst scenes of tribulation.
Back in Malta, for this year's celebration of Mnarja, I hope to enjoy this feast as a sign of continuity in Maltese folklore tradition. I must add that the only explosions that I am really looking forward to are those arising from fire-works, and sincerely one hopes these to be brief and colourful and not too disturbing to our local environment (the feast is celebrated with much charm in Nadur, Gozo). But I will definitely favour a fenkata, and although Sawyer's can now service me in my needs, I am looking towards keeping it local!
E-mail to Dr Janet Mifsud.
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