Opinion: Blood sacrifices involving pigs, sheep or geese were practiced in Ireland well into living memory on Martinmas.

By Marion McGarryGalway Mayo Institute of Technology

"Some kind of fowl is killed...and then the blood is sprinkled in the four corners of the kitchen." That is how one collector of Irish folklore in the 1930s described the practice of sacrificing a fowl and using its blood in a ritual that occurred around St. Martin's Day. Of all the Irish customs that may or may not have been rooted in pagan origin, it is astonishing to consider that blood sacrifice was practiced in Ireland well into living memory.

St Martin’s Day occurs annually on November 11th and is also known as Martinmas. He was not an Irish saint but a revered one in Ireland and Martin was a popular Christian name in the country until recent times. The day is also celebrated throughout Europe and countries like Germany, Poland, Portugal and Spain have their own rituals and feasts to mark day.

But in Ireland the day was most notable for the blood sacrifice rituals and practises that coincided with it. Such rituals may have taken place on St. Martin's Eve (the night of November 10th) or on the saint’s feast day itself. Geographically in Ireland, the custom extended from North Connacht, down to Kerry, and across the midlands and was rarer in Ulster or on the east coast.

This blood was considered special and was saved for magical or curative purposes as it was supposed to preserve house against misfortune

In very ancient times, the chosen animal to be slaughtered was a pig. Sheep were later favoured and it was more often a fowl, such as a cock (black in colour) or a goose, by the nineteenth century it was more often a fowl, such as a cock (black in colour) or a goose. This ritual, perhaps barbaric and primitive to modern eyes and likely practiced by your rural great grandparents, is described here by Henry Morris: "the killing was a formal affair, generally done by the head of the house, and its blood was  spilled in the four corners of the house inside and was sprinkled or daubed on the door posts...the daub on the door posts was not a cross. Sometimes the blood was sprinkled on the threshold also."

In Irish rural homes, these architectural boundaries were of great liminal importance and had to be protected from evil otherworldly elements and bad luck. Warm blood in some cases was smeared on foreheads. Significantly the blood was not consumed – the Irish would have been keen practitioners of the "nose to tail" cooking philosophy before it was known in the modern sense, and would have used all parts of the slaughtered animal.

This blood was considered special and was saved for magical or curative purposes as it was supposed to preserve house against misfortune. Blood from the sacrificial bird was applied to a cloth which was stored in the rafters of the house and used as a folk cure to stop bleeding. The bird or beast was then cooked and eaten by the family and, in some places, the supper was concluded by all drinking three sips of water. More prosperous farmers distributed meat to poorer members of the community so that they too could enjoy a meal on the day.

Other customs of Martinmas included that no wheels were to be turned on the day out of respect to St Martin

Where did this tradition come from and how old may it have been? In The Year in Ireland, a Calendar, Kevin Danaher noted that St Martin’s Day blood sacrifice dates at least back to 1500 in Ireland. Writing about St Martin's Eve in Béaloideas, Henry Morris found little to connect St Martin himself with blood sacrifice, concluding that "the sacrifice and blood-spilling was originally a pagan ceremony that had been observed annually about the second week of November, and was transferred under early Christian influences to St. Martin's Day".

The true meaning of the original ancient ceremony may be lost to us, but from a practical point of view, it made sense that this time of year was traditionally associated with slaughter. Having spent the summer grazing, excess animals that could not be supported by the farm throughout the winter months (as they had to be taken in and fed) were slaughtered. Cattle and pigs were usually slaughtered around this time and their meat was preserved, usually using salt. Farmers had time to spare on this as the harvest was done, and the preserved meat would be available throughout the winter period and especially for Christmas feasting.

Other customs of Martinmas included that no wheels were to be turned on the day out of respect to St Martin – some say the saint met his death by being crushed between two wheels - so spinners or millers did not work. It was also considered unlucky to yoke a horse on this day or to travel using any wheels: cart, bicycle or car.

READ: Geese, daisies and debts: Michaelmas customs in Ireland of old

A final mention goes to the tradition of the quills of sacrificial Martinmas geese made into pens and given to children in the belief that their use encouraged them to become better writers. It may be fanciful to speculate, but might this practise have somehow influenced and incubated the wonderful literary tradition we have here in Ireland?

Dr Marion McGarry is an art historian, author, independent researcher and lecturer at Galway Mayo Institute of Technology


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ