The Last Blood Sacrifices
Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales from the Historical Cycle
Echoes of the distant past
On Martinmas eve, that is to say the 10th of November, it used to be the custom in many parts of Ireland to sacrifice an animal to Saint Martin of Tours! This tradition has only recently ceased, having been carried on well into living memory, as lately as the 1940s in some places.
In poorer homes a goose, gander, duck or chicken was killed, while wealthier people killed a pig, calf or lamb, and if none of these could be found, family members might very well cut a finger and spill their own blood! Along the coasts, a seagull might be captured and killed for this purpose.
This strange practice had little enough to do with Saint Martin, and some speculate it was a formerly pagan belief that was Christianised when Saint Patrick came to Ireland, himself a devotee of the cult of St Martin. In times of old if there were animals that couldn't be fed throughout the winter, they would be slaughtered at this time of year and their meat salted.
No part of the blood was consumed by family members. Instead the sign of the cross was made on their foreheads in blood, and on the doors of the house, and blood was sprinkled in the four corners of the kitchen while uttering the words “Glóir don Athair, agus don Mhac, agus don Spiorad Naomh” which mean Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.
The head of the fowl or animal was sometimes thrown over the roof of the house to ward off evil during the following year, while according to others, the claw of a bird killed on Saint Martin’s Eve is worth keeping since it was thought to contain the power bring back a child that had been taken by the fairies.
If it was a bird being sacrificed, it was the job of the woman of the household, and if a beast, the job of the man, and if you failed to make the proper sacrifice on Martinmas eve, all kinds of misfortune could befall you!
“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.”
“On St. Martin’s Day everyone in our parish kills a cock or a sheep. They gather the blood into a bowl or basin and every person in the house dips his finger into it and makes the sign of the cross on his forehead with it. They do not eat the meat until two days afterwards.”
Patrick Maullaney, Gort, Co. Galway
“They kill a goose or turkey or some other fowl. When they kill the fowl they let some of the blood flow and make a pudding of the rest. They make a sign of the cross on the door with some blood, which they let flow… they kill it by cutting its head off and drawing its blood. They sprinkle some of its blood in each of the four corners of the house. When they are doing so they make the Sign of the Cross, saying ‘In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost.”
Rita Cunney, Corrower, Co. Mayo
“Some kind of fowl is killed such as chicken or goose and then the blood is sprinkled in the four corners of the kitchen. In some houses there is a cross formed with the blood, or three drops. It is believed if this is done no member of the family will meet with a violent death during the year.”
Mr. Farrell, Tuam, Co. Galway
“The people kill a cock or a duck or a goose on St. Martin’s Eve. They cut the bird on the head and spill the blood at the threshold of the door and on the four corners of the kitchen floor in honour of St. Martin. Some people kill the pig in honour of Saint Martin”
Tom McGrath of Curraghmore, Co. Tipperary
“Martin King used kill a fowl every St Martin’s night in honour of St Martin. One year Martin forgot it and when he awoke in the morning the floor from his bedroom to the kitchen was covered with blood. Martin washed out the floor, but when he awoke again the following morning the floor was covered with blood again.
This went on for three nights. Martin was very troubled about it so he told his story to an old woman that lived near him. The old woman told him it was because he had not killed something in honour of St Martin. Every year after that till he died Martin killed a hen or something in honour of St Martin”
Tom Sullivan of Meen, Listowel, Co. Kerry
It was also usual to take the day off, as was written in about two hundred years ago:
“A Wexford legend says that on one recurrence of this festival, the people in all the boats plying about the Wexford line of coast were warned, by an apparition of the saint pacing along the waves, to betake themselves to the harbours. All who neglected the advice perished in a storm that ensued the same afternoon. In our youth, no Wexford boat would put to sea on that saint’s festival, no miller would set his wheel a going, no housewife would yoke her spinning wheel.”
Wexford is marked on the map below!
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