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Animal ‘Sacrifice’ and Blood Letting, Saint Martin’s Feast in Ireland

Today, the 11th of November, is the feast of St. Martin of Tours. He was a particularly popular saint in Ireland and up until quite recently his feast (Martinmas) was surrounded by a number of superstitions and customs.  These included a rather gruesome tradition, at least to modern eyes, which involved animal ‘sacrifice’ and blood letting. The creature killed was usually a bird, such as hen or goose, but sheep and pigs were also butchered (often on St. Martin’s Eve). The animal’s blood was then saved and used in the feast day rituals. The blood was typically sprinkled around the house and across the main threshold, in the belief that this protected the home from evil or ‘bad luck’. It was also collected and used to make a Sign of the Cross on the residents foreheads, again as a protective talisman.

The folklore accounts below describe these traditions in greater detail and are based on information supplied by schoolchildren to the Irish Folklore Commission in the late 1930s.

Galway

‘On St. Martin’s Day everyone in our parish kills a cock or a sheep. They gather the blood into a bowl or basin and every person in the house dips his finger into it and makes the sign of the cross on his forehead with it. They do not eat the meat until two days afterwards’. Told by Patrick Maullaney, Gort, Co. Galway 

Mayo

‘They kill a goose or turkey or some other fowl. When the 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 and the Son and the Holy Ghost’. Told by Rita Cunney, Corrower, Co. Mayo

Galway

Some kind of fowl is killed such as chicken or goose and then the blood is sprinkled in the four corners of the kitchen. In some houses there is a cross formed with the blood, or three drops. It is believed if this is done no member of the family will meet with a violent death during the year.’ Told by Mr. Farrell, Tuam, Co. Galway 

Tipperary

The people kill a cock or a duck or a goose on St. Martin’s Eve. They cut the bird on the head and spill the blood at the threshold of the door and on the four corners of the kitchen floor in honour of St. Martin. Some people kill the pig in honour of Saint Martin. Told by Tom McGrath of Curraghmore, Co. Tipperary 

And if you didn’t sacrifice a bird, there might be trouble…

Kerry

Martin King used kill a fowl every St Martin’s night in honour of St Martin. One year Martin forgot it and when he awoke in the morning the floor from his bedroom to the kitchen was covered with blood. Martin washed out the floor, but when he awoke again the following morning the floor was covered with blood again. This went on for three nights. Martin was very troubled about it so he told his story to an old woman that lived near him. The old woman told him it was because he had not killed something in honour of St Martin. Every year after that till he died Martin killed a hen or something in honour of St Martin‘. Told by Tom Sullivan of Meen, Listowel, Co. Kerry 

These Martinmas traditions form part of the Schools’ Folklore Collection, a large and important corpus of material, whose compilation occurred between 1937 and 1939.  This far-sighted scheme, run by the Irish Folklore Commission, saw over 100,000 schoolchildren collecting local folklore from their parents, grandparents and older members of the community.

And a shout out to two excellent twitter accounts, Duchas.ie and VoxHiberionacum who inspired this short blog post.

 

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3 Responses to Animal ‘Sacrifice’ and Blood Letting, Saint Martin’s Feast in Ireland

  1. Mike Sinnott November 12, 2016 at 8:52 pm #

    Interesting. In Wexford, fishermen did not go out fishing on this day. The tragedy of the Faythe Fishing craft is recalled as evidence of this. Folklore relates that they were warned by a vision on the sea not to go out, but they continued and all were drowned. Is this the experience in other fishing communities?

  2. Anne Johnson November 13, 2016 at 1:46 am #

    Appreciate everything you send. AnneJ

  3. Carine Beau November 18, 2016 at 11:10 pm #

    Hi, I didn’t known about these animals sacrifices on St Martin s day here in Ireland. Interesting! I m from Tours and this year is the 1700th anniversary of his birth (316AD). You can check out this link for further information
    http://saintmartin2016.com/

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