Feast Day of Saint Catherine in Ireland

25 November-

saint-catherines-well-killybegs
St. Catherine’s Well, Killybegs, circa 1940. Valentine Photographic Collection, National Library of Ireland

Despite having spent all of her short life in Egypt Saint Catherine Alexandria was, at one time, among the most revered saints in Ireland. The many religious institutions named after Saint Catherine give some indication of the saint’s widespread veneration in Ireland over previous centuries, but it is perhaps Saint Catherine’s Bed, one of six penitential beds,  at Lough Derg that gives the greatest indication of the high position she previously held among the saints of Ireland.

As Saint Catherine is considered, at least in Ireland, to be the patron saint of  seafaring* it is natural that her cult has remained strongest in places like the coastal parishes of  Killybegs in Donegal and  Ventry in  Kerry,  both of which have Catherine as their patron saint. Saint Catherine’s Feast Day, 25 November, has continued to be observed in Killybegs and Ventry with pilgrimages and patrons at holy wells which, according to legend , were long ago blessed in Saint Catherine’s honour by survivors of shipwrecks, often monks, who believed the saint had intervened to spare them being drowned.  In Killybegs there is also a more recent legend, dating from the middle of the nineteenth century, in which a Protestant rector named Lodge decided to fill the holy well with soil, in an effort to put a stop to the well worship in the area, only to discover that after doing so a spring shot up through the floor-board of his house flooding his drawing room, leading the rector to have the holy well restored to its previous state.

 

 

* Internationally and in the Roman Catholic tradition Saint Catherine of Alexandria is considered to be the patron saint of many occupations including unmarried women, millers and archivists, however to the best of my knowledge, seafaring is only ascribed to her in the Irish tradition.

 

 

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Fridays, the Fairies & Stolen Brides

Ireland –

Goblin Market - Arthur Rackham
Goblin Market – Arthur Rackham

Lady Wilde;

‘The creation of Adam, the Fall, the expulsion from Eden, and the death of Christ, all took place on a Friday; hence its evil repute and fatal influence, above all other days of the week, upon human actions. But the fairies have great power on that day, and mortals should stay at home after sunset, for the fairies always hold their revels upon Fridays, and resent being interfered with or troubled by the human presence.’

‘On Fridays the fairies have special powers over all things, and chiefly on that day they select and carry off the young mortal girls as brides for the fairy chiefs. But after seven years, when the girls grow old and ugly, they send them back to their kindred, giving them, however, as compensation, a knowledge of herbs and philtres and secret spells, by which they can kill or cure, and have power over men both for good and evil’

Ancient Cures, Charms, and Usages in Ireland, 1890

Ancient Legends , Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland, 1888

Saint Martin’s Day

Wexford, 11 November –

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New Ross – 1832

Patrick Kennedy;

‘A Wexford legend says that on one recurrence of this festival, November 11, 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 (c.1810), 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. Occasionally, when a goat or sheep was ill, and seemed likely to die, its ear was slit, and itself devoted to St. Martin. If it recovered, it was killed and eaten on some subsequent 11th of November. It would not be sold in the interim for ten times its value.’

Patrick Kennedy – The Banks of the Boro, 1867.

Spilling Blood on Saint Martin’s Eve

Saint Martin’s Eve –

10 November;

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The Goose Girl – Edith Sommerville, 1888. Crawford Gallery, Cork.

The tradition of sacrificing a fowl or farm animal on Saint Martin Eve was once widespread in Ireland, and was still strong in many parts of the country into our grandparents’ times. The type of animal slaughtered depended on the means of the household; in wealthier households a pig, lamb, calf, or other animal was generally chosen, while in the majority of households, especially as the nineteenth century progressed, the slaughter of a fowl, generally a goose, chicken, or duck became the most widespread offering to the saint.

Once the creature was slaughtered, to protect the household from evil and to encourage prosperity in the coming year, the blood was spilled and sprinkled over the threshold, about the windows, and in each corner of the dwelling, in some cases, the byre, stables and other outbuilding were protected in a similar manner. On Saint Martin’s Eve the spilling of blood was considered so essential that, in cases where a household could not procure an animal a member of the family would spill some of their own blood,  by cutting the finger, to maintain the custom and ensure the household’s safety.

There are many legends relating to the importance of killing a creature on  Saint Martin’s Eve, for example, versions of the legend below were well known in county Leitrim at the turn of the twentieth century;

‘A man who, having nothing else, killed his only cow in honour of the saint, who rewarded him by increasing his riches in the following year, so that when St Martin’s Day came round again, he was the possessor of many beasts. Then in his plenty, he grudged even a fowl, and by the following 11th November was as poor as he ever was.’

The slaughtered foul or beast was eaten on Saint Martin’s Day which along with Michaelmas and Christmas day were the only holy days when the consumption of meat was permitted.

Sources

Mason,William Shaw. A Statistical Account or Parochial Survey of Ireland. London, 1814-1819

Wilde, Lady Jane. Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland. London, 1888.

 Issues from the Folklore Journal 1896-1916

 

The Púca, and Blackberries after Hallowe’en

Monaghan, 1 November –

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Henry Morris in 1915, recounting beliefs from his Childhood in the Farney Barony;

‘Nice ripe blackberries are sweet and palatable; but hungry boys and girls will eat blackberries that are neither sweet or palatable. However after ‘Oidhche Shamhna’ or Hallow Eve no blackberries are eaten. And why? Because on that night the púca* goes abroad and crawls over the blackberries covering them with an invisible slime, and where is the boy or girl who would eat a berry soiled with the púca’s slime. The fact seems to be that blackberries after that date are stale and unwholesome. But the púca’s slime is the great deterrent.’

*Sometimes spelled pooka, is a shape-shifting spirit/fairy/ghost, often taking the form of a black horse, with some describing it as resembling a mix between a mule a bullock and a big black pig. The púca is also said to befoul blackberries at Michaelmas, 29 September.

Journal of the Louth Archaeological Society, 1915.