Saturday 11 November 2017

Holiday Customs in Ireland: Saint Martin's Day

November 11 is the feast of Saint Martin of Tours,  a saint much venerated in the Early Irish Church. I have previously given a summary of this devotion here, and now we can turn to having a look at some of the rather strange 'bloodletting' customs associated with the feast, in an extract from an 1889 paper on holiday customs in Ireland. As the author says, Irish practices are but part of a European-wide tradition, living in a city I have no personal experience of any of what he describes but it is certainly interesting. There appear to be two central parts to what takes place, one being the sacrifice of blood and the other being a taboo on wheels or anything else being allowed to turn on this day. Curiously, there is an attempt to suggest that Saint Martin was a miller or that he was a martyr, broken on the wheel à la Saint Catherine of Alexandria, to explain this taboo. Hagiography, however, does not depict Saint Martin as either a miller or a martyr but rather as a Roman soldier who sacrificed his cloak to help a beggarman, only to find that he was helping Christ.

The Holiday Customs of Ireland. 
By James Mooney.
(Read before the American Philosophical Society, May 3, 1889.)


We come now to Saint Martin's day, a festival which for some reason seems to be connected with animal sacrifice throughout Christian Europe. Among the ancient Greeks, this day was the beginning of the Vinalia or feast of Bacchus, which lasted four days and was a season of public carousing, being considered the time for trying the new wine, but there is no mention of sacrifices. In modern Europe also it is-or was-a time for testing the new wine and for feasting, drinking and public sports, but, in addition to this, we find among all the northern nations traces of sacrifice, which may have come down from the old Teutonic and Keltic religions. With the more practical moderns, this rite has generally degenerated into a simple provision of the winter's meat. On the continent, the animal commonly selected to die on this occasion is a goose, a preference for which the Norse assign a legendary reason. In England, the goose is killed on Saint Michael's day, September 29, while Saint Martin's day is considered about the proper time to kill beef and hogs for winter, whence it comes that a beef is called a marten in the north of England. In Gaelic Ireland, a beef cow is called a márt (marth). In England, it is said that on this night water is changed to wine, a belief transferred in Ireland to Twelfth-night, while in both countries it is held that on this day "No beam doth swinge, nor wheel go round."

Saint Martin, who has been styled the second apostle of France, came of a noble family in Pannonia, now included under the government of Hungary. By his father, he was designated for the military profession, but this life was distasteful to him, and he became a religieux, being finally appointed bishop of Tours. He died, surrounded by his clerical companions, about the year 397. In the history of his life, even as related in Butler's "Lives of the Saints," a work which deals largely in the marvelous, we find nothing to account for the strange legends and practices connected with his name, and the conclusion seems irresistible that these belong proper connected earlier pagan god or hero. Can it be that under the name of Saint Martin, the modern peasant is honoring Mars, the ancient god of war? The bloody rites which so distinguish this day from all others might well bear out such an assumption.

In Ireland, the poorer people sacrifice a goose or a rooster, while the wealthier farmers and graziers offer a sheep. When a rooster is to be the victim an effort is made to procure a black one, and in some districts it must be a coilleach Martain, or March cock, i. e., one hatched in March from an egg laid in the same month. Strangely enough, a rooster is never sacrificed in some parts of Kerry, where the people dislike to kill one under any circumstances. The doomed animal is previously "named for Saint Martin," that is, dedicated for a sacrifice in his honor on Saint Martin's day, and the vow is sealed by "drawing blood" from it. In the case of a sheep, this is done by cutting a piece from its ear. A weakly sheep is sometimes thus consecrated, and so well tended in consequence that it may become the best in the flock, but no money would tempt the owner to sell it for any other purpose, although there is no objection to selling the wool. The animal is killed on the day preceding the festival, and the flesh is eaten on Saint Martin's and succeeding days until consumed, a portion being also given to the poor in honor of the saint. The chief object in killing the animal is not to feast upon its flesh, but to "draw blood" for the saint, and it is believed that if any fail to draw blood for Saint Martin, he will draw blood from them.

In illustration of this belief, there is a story told in Connemara to the effect that a man once named a sheep for Saint Martin, but as the day approached the animal was in such fine condition that his avaricious wife was constantly urging him to sell it instead. Afraid to break his vow, and equally unwilling to incur his wife's displeasure, he secretly killed a fowl and smeared the bed with the blood. Then getting into bed and covering himself up as if sick, he persuaded the woman that the saint was drawing blood from him in punishment of the contemplated impiety, until such fear seized her heart that she was as anxious as himself to see the sheep killed.

In Kerry, they tell a story of a man who had been always mindful to draw blood for Saint Martin, but who, for some reason, was at last banished from his native land. One night, in his new home, he was going along a road all alone when he suddenly rememberd that it was Saint Martin's eve, and there came over him a feeling of deep regret that he could not be at home to draw blood on the occasion. At that moment a horseman rode up from behind and inquired where he was going. On being told, the stranger said that he was going the same way and invited the man to ride behind him on the horse. He consented and mounted behind the other.  Soon the night grew so dark that he could not distinguish objects about him, until, at last, the stranger set him down at the end of his journey, and, sure, where did he find himself but at his own door at home in Ireland. "It was supposed from this," added the old man who told the story, "that the horseman was Saint Martin."

Like the other festivals, Saint Martin's day is considered to begin at midnight and to last until the following midnight. The blood must be drawn before the "day" begins-usually on the eve as it is a common saying that the saint will take it before, but not after. A part of the blood is soaked up with tow or cotton and preserved for use in connection with certain prayers in the cure of various ailments. In parts of Galway the blood is not preserved but is sprinkled about the house and upon the people, and a bloody cross is marked upon the forehead of each member of the family. Those who are too poor even to afford a rooster sometimes gash one of their own fingers for this purpose.

The following detailed account of the practice as it exists today on the west coast, together with the reason assigned for the usage, is given by Lady Wilde, and applies equally well to other districts where the primitive customs are still kept alive: "There is an old superstition still observed by the people, that blood must be spilt on St. Martin's day; so a goose is killed, or a black cock, and the blood is sprinkled over the floor and on the threshold. And some of the flesh is given to the first beggar that comes by, in the name and in honor of St. Martin.

"In the Arran isles, St. Martin's day is observed with particular solemnity, and it was held necessary, from ancient times, to spill blood on the ground in honor of the saint. For this purpose a cock was sacrificed; but if such could not be procured, people have been known to cut their finger in order to draw blood, and let it fall upon the earth. The custom arose in this way: St. Martin, having given away all his goods to the poor, was often in want of food, and one day he entered a widow's house and begged for something to eat. The widow was poor, and having no food in the house, she sacrificed her young child, boiled it, and set it before the saint for supper. Having eaten and taken his departure, the woman went over to the cradle to weep for her lost child; when, lo! there he was, lying whole and well, in a beautiful sleep, as if no evil had ever happened to him; and to commemorate this miracle and from gratitude to the saint, a sacrifice of some living thing is made yearly in his honor. The blood is poured or sprinkled on the ground, and along the door-posts, and both within and without the threshold, and at the four corners of each room in the house.

" For this symbol of purification by blood the rich farmers sacrifice a sheep; while the poorer people kill a black cock or a white hen, and sprinkle the blood according to ancient usage. Afterwards the whole family dine upon the sacrificed victim. In some places it was the custom for the master of the house to draw a cross on the arm of each member of the family, and mark it out in blood."

 Another legend makes it his own son whom Saint Martin, like Abraham of old, was about to sacrifice out of love to God, because in his great poverty he had nothing else to offer him. Although he loved the boy more than life, he killed him late one night, and then lay down, intending to complete the sacrifice at daybreak. On opening his eyes in the morning, he was surprised to see a sheep hanging up in front of him, all skinned and dressed. Full of wonder he went over to his son's bed, and there he found the boy sleeping quietly and in perfect health, with not even a mark to show where his father had driven the knife. The saint gratefully offered up the sheep as a sacrifice to God in the place of his son, and thus the custom originated in remembrance of the miracle.

Saint Martin is stated to have been a miller, and his festival is said to commemorate the day on which he was "drawn on the wheel," an expression which seems to hint at martyrdom and the rack, although there is no authority for believing that he was either a miller or a martyr. In accordance with this tradition, it is held that no wheel should turn, or anything go round, on this day; no yarn may be spun, no mill may grind and no cart may be driven on the highway. Even a stocking should not be knitted, because in so doing it is necessary to turn it round upon the band, and the boatman will not put out from shore on this day, because in starting it is customary to turn the boat round on the water. So strong is this feeling that even in the city of Limerick the large factories sometimes find it difficult to procure a working force on the eleventh of November.

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