While not exactly a physical feature for us to see and visit, the subject of this week’s installation was still an important traditional feature of it’s time and reminds us of the types of small scale activities which leave little visible trace for us today in the landscape. Knowledge of these events can only be accessed through local folklore and the documentary evidence.
The last century has seen Remembrance Day and its commemorative events dominating our attention and news sources on November 11th. The date is longer remembered however as the Feast of Saint Martin of Tours (AD316-397) who left the Roman Army to become a monk. One of his more famous legends is that he cut his cloak in two to give half to a freezing beggar. That night he had a dream where he saw Christ introduce him to angels as the man who clothed him. For this reason he was popular with the poor and his feast was celebrated annually across Europe. Saint Martin was also popular in Ireland where pilgrimages were carried out to holy wells dedicated to him such as the example at Ballynacally Co Clare which will be the subject of an upcoming blog post over on the Pilgrimage in Medieval Ireland page. The National Folklore Archive held in UCD contains a wealth of accounts of these events two of which were sourced in the Blackstairs Region. These were gathered as part of a targeted survey on Saint Martin’s Day folklore.
Observing this Feast was said to bring great luck to the household for the rest of the year. It was also said that no machine wheels should turn on November 11th as Saint Martin had been killed in a mill.
A young cockerel was killed on the eve of the feast day outside the house and the blood collected and sprinkled on the doorway and threshold. This was left to wear away naturally and was not to be cleaned off as it acted as a safeguard against evil entering the household for the next 12 months. Sacrificing the bird to the Saint was also believed to safe-guard the household’s livestock from harm, disease or ill-fortune for the rest of the year.The cockerel was then eaten on the Feast Day as part of the celebrations either boiled or roast.
If you had a sick cow or sheep on the day, part of its ear was cut off and offered up to Saint Martin. If the animal was cured it couldn’t be sold and had to be kept until it died naturally.
The survey also questioned the use of Martin as a name in the collectors region and the townland of Ballymartin between Corries Cross and Borris in Co. Carlow was noted in these records. The Christian name Martin was identified as being widespread in the area although not associated in particular with any one family. Seán Ó Clúmáin highlighted the extensive use of the name in the Saint Mullins region in 1939 by exhaustively listing all the families which used the name with there being at the time of writing Martin; Doyle, Murphy, Joyce, Lennon, Fenlon, Dwyer, Cushen, Coady, Kelly, Brennan, Dreelan, Ryan, Kinsella, Hennessy, Gahen, SHeehy, Byrne, Purcell, O’Mara, Foley, Quigley, Fogarty, Deegan, Comerford, O’Shea, Walshe, Fitzgerald, O’Connor, Grennan, Corcoran, Drew, Keeffe and King.
As for how to choose which of your cockerel’s to be sacrificed , Walter Furlong, Grange (aged 83 in 1954) had the answer “A cock crowing at unusual hours was unlucky so it was given up and killed”.
I’m not sure if that was unlucky for the household or the bird!
Pernoud, R. 2006 Martin of Tours: Soldier, Bishop and Saint. San Francisco; Ignatius Press.
National Folklore Archive MS 682 (pages 78-80). Information collected by Seán Ó Clumáin, Nás na Rígh 06/12/1939 in Saint Mullins Area from multiple unnamed sources.
National Folklore Archive MS 1344 (pages 152-153). Information collected by J.G. Delaney, Parnell St. Wexford 16/07/1954 from Walter Furlong (farmer), Grange aged 83. Furlong got his information from his mother when he was 23 [c.1894]