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.
‘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
‘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
‘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
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…
‘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.
7 thoughts on “Animal ‘Sacrifice’ and Blood Letting, Saint Martin’s Feast in Ireland”
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?
Appreciate everything you send. AnneJ
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
Your posts are great.
We are visiting Ireland for the 2nd time in 2 years. Can you recommend resources for “quick” folklore? Specifically I’d like a book with brief folklore/beliefs for each county but am open to any and all suggestions.
Thank you for considering
A Roman legionary convert to Christ called Martin was expelled from Milan by its bishop and travelled west to into the ancient Gaelic province along the Italian coast, crossing from there to the island of Gallenara in the Tyrennian Sea. He lived there for a while as a hermit, until in 360AD he went to live at Ligugé in Gaul, where he established a community of aescetics, introducing the attitudes and practices of earlier desert monks. In 372AD he was created Bishop of Tours, and formed a monastic settlement on the opposite bank of the Loire. The Celts called it ‘the place of the big family’ or ‘mor muntir’ now called Marmoûtiers. Sulpicius Severus described it thus: “The bishop (Martin) occupied a cell of wood. Many of the brethern were in similar cells., but the greater number dig out caves in the overhanging rock in which to install themselves There were about eighty disciples and all followed the example of their blessed master. Noone possessed personal property, everything was in common.’
Thus St Martin was a follower of the principles of Pelagianism.
St. Martin died in 397AD. He was one of the greatest pioneers of Western monasticism, directly influencing the types of monasteries established in Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
St. Ninian of Whithorn is said to have studied at Marmoûtiers where he was profoundly influenced by Martin, carrying deep respect for his teacher and his methods back to Whithorn in Galloway. In 397AD Ninian was in the process of building a church there when news reached him of Martin’s death and the church was duly dedicated to St. Martin. A stone nearby bearing the Latin inscrption ‘We praise thee O Lord’ is dated to about 450AD.
Born about the turn of the fourth century, St. Patrick spent several years in Ireland as a slave, escaping from there about 421AD. It is said that he then spent some time at Marmoûtiers where St. Martin was still venerated, then he travelled to the islands off the Italian coast, where he followed the solitary life of a hermit.
St. Martin is remembered in the placename of Desertmartin in Co. Derry.
It’s not really a sacrifice if the animal is consumed and it’s not blood letting if the animal is killed.
All that happens is that some of the blood of a slaughtered animal is used in a ritual, while the rest to make pudding!
Wow didn’t know this wonder how it started