The tradition of sacrificing a fowl or a farm animal on Saint Martin Eve was once observed in many parts of Ireland, and was still going strong 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, gander, chicken, or duck became the most widespread offering to the saint. For those who could neither afford nor obtain a farm-animal – alternatives were often resorted to. In some coastal areas, for example, seabirds were known to be slaughtered in place of farm-animals on Saint Martin’s Eve, while for those who failed to procure an animal of any kind the spilling of blood was sometimes considered so essential that a member of the family would spill some of their own blood, usually by cutting a finger, to fulfil the obligation to the saint.
The slaughtering of the animal was the responsibility of the head of the household; if a fowl was to be slaughtered the woman of the house generally carried out the ritual, while if a mammal was to be slaughtered the man of the house was thought to be responsible for the ritual. Whether female or male, the head of the household would hold the animal in their hands and proclaim that the animal was been killed in honour of Saint Martin. 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 instances, the byre, stables and other outbuilding were protected in a similar manner. While, as a form of personal protection, blood from the animal was sometimes used to make the sign of a cross on the forehead of each member of the household. Ronald H. Buchanan tells us that ‘the head of the fowl was sometimes thrown over the roof of the house to ward off evil during the following year.’ While, according to Lady Augustus Gregory, the claw of a foul killed on Saint Martin’s Eve is worth retaining as it is thought to contain the power bring back a child that had been taken by the fairies.
There are many legends warning of the consequences of failing to make an offering to Saint Martin on Saint Martin’s Eve, for example, versions of following short County Leitrim legend were once well known in many parts of Ireland;
‘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 fowl or beast was cooked and shared between the members of the family on Saint Martin’s Day, which along with Michaelmas and Christmas Day were the only holy days when the consumption of meat was permitted amongst the primarily Catholic population of Ireland.
Buchanan. Ronald H. “Calendar Customs.” Ulster Folklore. Volume 9. Belfast, 1963.
Duncan, Leland L; Whelan Barney; Whelan, Anne; Lynch, Michael; McVittie, Edward; and Drumkeeran. ‘Fairy Beliefs and other Folklore notes from County Leitrim.’ Folklore 7, no. 2 (June 1896), pp. 161-183.
Evans, E. Estyn. Irish Folk Ways. London, 1957.
Mason, William Shaw. A Statistical Account or Parochial Survey of Ireland. London, 1814-1819.
Moutray Read DH. ‘Some Characteristics of Irish Folklore.’ Folklore 27, no.3 (1916), pp. 250-278.
Wilde, Lady Jane. Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland. London, 1888.
Painting by Edith Sommerville, titled ‘The Goose Girl,’ 1888, available to view at Crawford Art Gallery, Cork.