Spilling Blood on Saint Martin’s Eve

Saint Martin’s Eve –

10 November;

395-p-e-somerville-the-goose-girl
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

 

A Vigil for the Feast of Saint Francis in Athlone

Westmeath-

3 October –

athlone-castle
Athlone by Richard Lovett, circa 1900

J.G. Conmee. Glanduff, 1902;

‘The Feast of St. Francis was a day of great devotion in the Barony, and fifty years ago it was the custom for a crowd of its good people to gather into the St. Francian Church at Luainford [Athlone] to keep not only the day itself, but even its Vigil.

The whole night before a throng of country people sat up in the little church, and passed the time in the familiar and homely practices of piety then so dear to them. Foremost among these was the Rosary – the decades being “let round” by men or women of recognised social or spiritual superiority – not within a mild contention now and then as to whether it was Pat Ryan’s or Mrs. Murphy’s turn to officiate, or whether the fifth “dicket” had or had not been said.

But when this and other devotions were fulfilled, Johnny McKay would be requested to play a “pious chune in honour of the night that was in it.” This the Barony minstrel, himself a man of much faith and exemplary life, never failed to do, discoursing a “linked sweetness long drawn out,” with a wealth of expression and tremulous pathos that made many of his hearers, as they testifide, “turrible devout.” But even in these days there were not wanting cynics who declared that Johnny could not play a hymn “if you were to kill him,” and that the sacred melody he palmed off on the congregation was nothing else than an adagio rendering of “The Hare in the Corn.”’

Old Times in the Barony

Father John Conmee, 1847-1910, was Rector of Clongowes Wood College when a six year old James Joyce was enrolled  there in 1888. Joyce would later depict Conmee, under his own name, in both Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses.

Michaelmas in Irish Folklore

nev-fyr-001
Postcard uncredited

Michaelmas is the feast-day of the Archangel Michael and is traditionally observed throughout Ireland on the 29th September. A host of tradition is attached to this date, for example, male children born on, or near, Michaelmas were often called Michael or Micheál in his honour. While in Swinford, County Mayo, in the early twentieth century,  Michaelmas had a special significance; as many locals returned to Swinford from working the harvest in England on, or before, the day of the feast, according to John Millington Synge the returned harvesters would be, ‘sitting around in each other’s houses playing cards through the night, and a barrel of ale set up among them.’

As with many Irish calendar customs food took a central role in the activities of the day. An animal – usually a goose, which was generally referred to as a Michaelmas Goose, was slaughtered and eaten in honour of the saint. John Hannon in his 1870 book Irish Folklore maintained that a sheep used to be slaughtered by those who could afford it on Michaelmas day, while he also states that it was ‘ordained by law that a part of the animal must be given to the poor. This is said to have been done, in order to perpetuate the memory of a miracle wrought by St Patrick, through the assistance of that Archangel.’

history_bullbaiting
uncredited

Michaelmas also acted as a marker for certain civic and domestic activities. In many Irish towns, including Drogheda, Dublin and Kilkenny, the Mayor took office on Michaelmas Day. Up until the first decades of the 19th century, on the feast day of Saint Michael, a bull was baited* at a bull-ring situated  near Saint Francis Abbey in Kilkenny. In some areas Michaelmas was one of the two annual rent days, previously known in Ireland as Gale Days, (the other being the 25 March), in place of the more usual Gale Days of the first days of May and November. Domestically the woman of the house started slaughtering the foul at Michaelmas, with the first goose slaughtered becoming the “Michaelmas Goose”, while for the men, the day marked the beginning of the fox and hare hunting seasons, and, in many parts of Ireland, the end of the fishing season.

Otherworldly creatures were active at Michaelmas, and children were warned not to eat blackberries after Michaelmas eve, as it was believed that the púca  flies through the county defiling the blackberries on that night.** Michaelmas was also a time for divination; a Michaelmas cake was baked on the night of Michaelmas with a ring mixed through the dough, exactly as is still done on Hallowe’en. Portions of the cake were then distributed amongst any unmarried persons who were present, with the belief that whomever discovered the ring was destined to be wed before next Michaelmas.

 

*Bull-baiting typically involved a bull being attacked by dogs, while trapped in an area, often a pit of some kind.

**The púca, sometimes spelled pooka, is a shape-shifting spirit that most commonly takes the form of a horse, but can also take the form of other animals, it was also said that the púca defiled blackberries on Hallowe’en.

 

Sources

Hannon, John (Lageniensis), Irish Folk Lore: Traditions and Superstitions of the Country; with Humouress Tales. London1870.

Mason, William Shaw. A Statistical Account or Parochial Survey of Ireland. Dublin, London and Edinburgh, 1814-19.

Synge, J. M. In Connemara. Dublin, 1910/1979.

Various articles from the Folklore Journal, up until 1920, as well as Transactions of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society, 1852 and the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, 1897.

Patron of Clonmacnoise

Offaly-

9 September –

Last Circuit of Pilgrims at Clonmacnoise
Last Circuit of Pilgrims at Clonmacnoise – George Petrie, 1838

Rev. Patrick Fitzgerald, Parish of Clonmacnoise, 1816;

‘There is but one patron day held here, on the 9th of September, in honour of St Kieran (Ciarán) their tutelar saint; it is numerously attended. From 3000 to 4000 people assemble there to do penance from different parts of Ireland, even from the county of Donegal.

Tents and booths are erected round the church-yard for the accommodation of people. The assemblage continues for two days, and often ends in quarrels. Its abolition would be a desirable circumstance. Some persons have been obliged to keep to their beds for weeks, in consequence of beatings received at such meetings.’

William Shaw Mason, A Statistical Account or Parochial Survey of Ireland Vol 2

 

 

Saint Declan’s Day, Ardmore

Waterford-

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Mr & Mrs S.C. Hall, 1840;

‘The 24th of July is the patron day of Saint Declan, whom the Roman Calendar states to have flourished prior to the appearances of Patrick. He is said to have landed at Ardmore and to have there preached Christianity where he also, and in one night, built the famous tower and the adjoining church. The grave in which he is supposed to be buried and a singular mass rock on the sea-shore near the church are objects of peculiar veneration. This rock is believed to have floated over from Rome with the vestments of the saint, a bell for this tower and a lighted candle for the celebration of mass.

Though now a miserable village containing no house above the rank of cabin save that of the rector, there was a time when Ardmore was classed among the high places of Ireland. It was anciently an episcopal see erected by St Declan in the infancy of the Irish Church and before the arrival of St Patrick. St Declan, it is said, was a native to Ireland who travelled to Rome and returned to teach his countrymen in the year 402.The ruins of two churches which, from their architecture, must be of the Saint’s era, are in the immediate neighbourhood, and one of them, which had being used for service until very recently, is close to the famous round tower.’

Hall’s  Ireland, 1842

Although Mr and Mrs S.C. Hall fail to provide information on the patron at Ardmore, Thomas Crofton Croker lets us know  that it was a popular site of pilgrimage in the early decades of the nineteenth  century. In his Researches in the South of Ireland, published  in 1826 – less than twenty years before the Hall’s account,  Croker comments that on Saint Declan’s Day, ‘vast numbers of the country people flock to Ardmore for the purposes of penance and prayer.’ The Catholic Church citing pagan practices attempted to stop patrons  here on many occasions throughout the nineteenth century.

Saint Maelruain’s Feast Day

 

Dublin-

Saint Maelruain's Chuch, Tallaght
Saint Maelruain’s Chuch, Tallaght. Laurence Collection 1870-1914

WSA Joyce, Tallaght, 7 July;

‘St Maelruan’s patron or “pattern”, was every year celebrated here but in the later years the original Saint’s name was lost sight of altogether, and replaced by the corrupted form, “Moll Rooney”, under which title “the pattern” continued to be annually held, until it came to be such a nuisance, owing to drunkeness and debauchery, that it was suppressed in 1874.

The proceedings consisted of making a kind of effigy, supposed to represent the saint, and carrying it about from house to house in procession, headed by a fiddler of piper. The occupants of each house then came out as they were visited and danced to the music after which a collection was made to be spent on drink. Few went to bed that night; many slept in ditches on the way home, and drinking, dancing and fighting went on intermittently until morning.

Another item in the performance in recent times was to visit the grave of an old village piper named Burley O’Toole who had expressed a dying wish to that, and to dance and fight around his grave.’

Neighbourhood of Dublin, 1921.