Fr Kevin Hegarty
Yesterday (November 11) was the feast of St Martin. It was, up to the 1940s, a significant day in Irish folk culture. The day was also celebrated in several European countries. It marked the end of the active agricultural season and the start of winter.
St Martin was born in what is modern day Hungary in the 4th century. His father was a Roman soldier and, at the age of 15, Martin followed suit, due to family pressure.
Baptised as an adult, he abandoned the army and became a monk in France. In 371AD, he was chosen to be Bishop of Tours where he died 20 tears later. Preferring the ascetic lifestyle of a monk to the pomp of being a bishop, he tried to avoid the appointment by hiding in a goose shed. The geese , however, alarmed by the alien presence of the holy man, cackled raucously, giving away his location. It explains why geese are associated with the celebration of his feast day.
The best-known legend associated with him, however, happened before he entered religious life. During a harsh winter he met a beggar, almost naked and shivering with the cold. Martin cut his cloak in two and gave half to the beggar. The following night he dreamt he saw Jesus wearing the garment he had given away. He heard Jesus say, “Martin has covered me with his cloak.”
There is some evidence that St Patrick was influenced by the cult of St Martin and may have brought it to Ireland. According to the researches of the Irish Folklore Commission, St Martin’s day was celebrated in Connacht, all of Munster (except Kerry and Southwest Cork) and parts of Leinster and Southwest Ulster.
The main tradition of the day involved animal sacrifice and bloodletting. A fowl (either a goose or a hen), a sheep or a pig was killed on St Martin’s Eve. The following day the blood was sprinkled around the house in the belief that this protected it from evil and bad luck. Every member of the household was blessed with the blood for the same reason. A Mayo woman, Rita Cunney, gave a graphic description to the Irish Folklore Commission in the 1930s:
“They kill a goose or turkey or some other fowl. When they kill the fowl they let some of the blood flow and make a pudding of the rest. They make a sign of the cross on the door with some blood, which they let flow. They kill it by cutting its head off and drawing its blood. They sprinkle some of its blood in each of the four corners of the house. When they are doing so they make the sign of the cross, saying in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.”
In his fascinating book ‘The year in Ireland’, Kevin Danaher records how St Martin’s Day was once celebrated in Ireland. In his parochial survey of Ireland, published between 1814 and 1819, W Mason states that in the Athlone area “on the eve of St Martin, every family of a village kills an animal of some kind or other; those who are rich kill a cow, or a sheep, others a goose or a turkey, while those are poor and cannot procure an animal of greater value, kill a hen or a cock and sprinkle the threshold with the blood, and do the same in the four corners of the house, and this ceremonious performance is done to exclude every kind of evil spirit from the dwelling where this sacrifice is made, till the return of the same day in the following year.”
People abstained from active work on St Martin’s Day. Wexford writer Patrick Kennedy, in his book ‘Banks of the Boro’, which was published in the 1820s, wrote:
“A Wexford legend says that on one recurrence of this festival, the people in all the boats plying about the Wexford line of coast were warned, by an apparition of the saint pacing along the waves, to betake themselves to the harbours. All who neglected the advice perished in a storm that ensued the same afternoon. In our youth, no Wexford boat would put to sea on that saint’s festival, no miller would set his wheel a going, no housewife would yoke her spinning wheel.”
As the modern novelist LP Hartley has said “The past is a different country. They do things differently there.”