Saint Martin's Day in Ireland

Of Irish Legends and Lore on the Pan-European Saint's Feast Day

Heading for a Saint Martin's Day celebration? You better rethink that, fast
Bernd Biege

Saint Martin's Day is the celebration of the Roman soldier that shared his cloak with a poor man at the roadside. And at the same time Saint Martin’s feast, which was also called Martinmas, means that it’s curtains for many a goose. But how alive is the tradition of Saint Martin's Day during mid-November in Ireland? Germans, for instance, will always associate Saint Martin's Day with children parading lanterns around town ... but in Ireland the tradition was quite different. Here on November 11th (or maybe 10th, on Saint Martin's Eve), a ritual slaughter occurred and a blood sacrifice was made, thankfully not a human one. While mainly for practical reasons, it contained elements of Pagan practice. Though this tradition is not very widespread these days, let us have a look at Martinmas in Ireland.

The Background Story

Saint Martin's Day, known also as the Feast of Saint Martin, Martlemass or Martinmas, is held in remembrance of Martin of Tours, in France also called Martin le Miséricordieux, a man with a conscience. It has a long, Europe-wide tradition of feasting and food, in a time when the agricultural year was all but over. Around November 11th the autumn wheat would have been seeded, stock was taken, and the livestock examined. It was also the time when the days got really dark - as the old Child ballad of the Wife of Usher's Well tells us as it mentions "Martinmas, when nights were long and dark".

Martin of Tours originally was a Roman soldier, born in what we now know as Hungary in the first half of the 4th century. Although showing an interest in Christianity even in his youth, he was only baptized as an adult and later choose the life of a hermit and monk. Known as a kind man leading a simple life, he was around 371 acclaimed as Bishop of Tours. He died in 397.

The one legend almost everybody knows about Saint Martin is him cutting his cloak in half on a bitter cold night, sharing it with a beggar. For this random act of kindness he was recognized as a saint by Jesus himself, as the legends say - with some even insisting that Jesus was the beggar, hanging around dark alleys in search for holy men. Many representations of Saint Martin (a very popular motive in civil heraldic in Catholic areas of Europe) show him in the act of cutting and sharing the cloak. Another legend ties Martin to geese – because when he was to be made bishop, he hid in a small shelter on a farm ... unfortunately disturbing some geese, who immediately and loudly proclaimed his presence. There was no getting away from his divine calling.

Saint Martin as Patron and Calendar Marker

These days, Saint Martin is remembered mostly for his charity (e.g. the cloak), and his friendliness towards fellow humans, notably children. He has become the patron saint of the poor and alcoholics (in both cases regarded as being helpful on the road to recovery), cavalry and equestrians (due to his day job), horses in general, geese, innkeepers and wine makers. He is also regarded as the patron saint of France and the Pontifical Swiss Guards

The feast of Martinmas was first celebrated in France, then spread mainly eastwards through Germany and Scandinavia, then finally into Eastern Europe. He is regarded as a pan-European saint and a "bridge" between east and west.

As a calendar marker, Saint Martin's Day denotes the end of the agrarian year and the final harvest of the year. Hard times began ... and in the Middle Ages a period of fasting began on November 12th, lasting for the traditional forty days and known as the "Quadragesima Sancti Martini". People ate and drank one last time before the fast.

This was facilitated by the agricultural preparation for winter - most animals were assessed as to their chances of survival and future usefulness, those who did not make the grade were killed and the meat preserved. So food was available in abundance around this time — similar to the Celtic Samhain. Goose were also nicely fattened up, leading to wholesale slaughter of the species and the traditional Saint Martin's Goose in the oven.

In the (medieval) economic calendar, Saint Martin's Day marked the end of autumn. Women began to work indoors and men left the field for the forests. This was also the time when new contracts for farm work and similar were closed.

A very frequent spell of a few sunny days after the first frosts became also known as "Saint Martin's Summer."

Saint Martin's Day in Ireland

There is no direct connection between Ireland and the Hungarian-French saint, but the village and surrounding parish of Desertmartin in County Derry takes its name directly from him. Saint Columba (or Colmcille) is reported to have visited the area during the 6th century and have founded a church in the progress. This was primarily intended as a retreat and named in honor of Saint Martin, drawing on the tradition of the saint being a hermit. The Irish "Díseart Mhartain" literally translates as "Martin's Retreat", the "desert" of the modern name is an Anglicized version.

In the old days, Irish celebrations started on the eve of Saint Martin's Day, echoing the Celtic tradition that the day started at sundown (go compare with Halloween, if you wish). And the main ritual event of Saint Martin's Eve certainly reflected Pagan traditions - the sacrifice of a cockerel or goose, which was allowed to bleed out. The animal originally might well have been beheaded and then carried around the house, the blood spurting forth and covering the designated "four corners" of the dwelling. In later days, the blood was collected in a bowl and then used to consecrate the building. After that ... oven time!

There is a widespread belief in Ireland that no wheel should turn on Saint Martin's Day, because (so the story goes) Martin was martyred when thrown into a mill stream and killed by the mill wheel. As fetching as that story might be ... Saint Martin was no martyr and of the early saints one of the few to simply die of old age.

A County Wexford legend relates that the fishing fleet was out one Saint Martin's Day, when the saint himself was observed walking on the waves towards the boats. He proceeded to tell them to put into harbor as fast as possible, despite the good weather and fishing conditions. All the fishermen who ignored the saint's warning drowned during a freak afternoon storm. Traditionally, Wexford fishermen will not go out to sea on Saint Martin’s Day.

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