Saint Martin’s Eve –
The tradition of sacrificing a fowl or a 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.
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.
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.’
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