Mizen Mountains 3 – Letterlicky Cairn, or ‘The Old Bog Road’

I confess I’m stretching things a bit here: the 297m peak in the townland of Letterlicky, West Cork, fits well enough into my definition of mountains – anything above the 200 metre contour line. But is this one on the Mizen? We think of our own village of Ballydehob as being ‘The Gateway to The Mizen’ in the south-east, and it would be logical to have another ‘Gateway’ at Durrus, where the northern coastline of the Mizen meets the Sheeps Head. If you draw a straight line between these two points, then today’s subject misses out. But – there are no straight lines in nature, and this peak is a continuation of a natural ridge line that rises down on the Mizen near Mount Corrin and runs east.

But if you are uncomfortable with my concept of what is or isn’t the Mizen, just go with the subtitle of this post: The Old Bog Road. We found Letterlicky Cairn quite by accident as our exploration set out to follow a trackway that we had often passed, on the high road to the north of Ballybane West. We had no idea where the track would take us, but it’s very well defined, roughly paved and probably quite old. As we journeyed up into the hills, we could see that the track was there to serve peat workings which must have been used for generations. The extent of the peat workings – and the line of the old road serving them – show up well on the aerial map view below.

It was a sunless mid-March day when we set out: the wind was in the east and there was little colour in the landscape. There were, as yet, few signs of spring. We could see the ridge in the distance and, happily, the track appeared to climb towards it. In Ireland, the days of cutting peat for fuel are numbered: commercial operations will cease by 2025. Generations of families in rural areas have historically cut peat by hand and lay claims on the rights to do this. Increased regulation will eventually see this tradition declining along with all other fossil fuel production as carbon neutral ways to produce energy are developed. It seemed significant that the large array of 20 giant wind turbines on the high land to the east was a constant backdrop on our journey along the Old Bog Road.

Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh (1907 – 1967) was an amateur photographer who recorded life in rural Ireland during the first half of the twentieth century. We have used examples of his work in previous posts. These two prints (above) demonstrate the hand-working of peat faces and the transporting of sods from the workings. Our Old Bog Road would have seen similar sights in its heyday.

As we threaded our way through the peat workings, we could see the track carrying on towards the ridge. We had done no prior research into the area we were traversing, but as the way grew higher and higher – and we realised we must be coming to a high point in the landscape – we wondered whether there would be any signs of ancient activity on the mountain top. We could see other high points around us – Mount Kidd to the south and Mount Gabriel to the west – and, beyond, a spectacular distant view over Roaringwater Bay: a place like this would have been considered special, surely, to those who knew it thousands of years ago.

Views from the Old Bog Road: upper – Mount Kidd; middle – Mount Gabriel, and lower – the islands of Roaringwater Bay

As we rounded the last bend in the trackway we could see the summit ahead of us. Initially, we were delighted to see a substantial cairn. But we were surprised by the number of larger, roughly shaped boulders and slabs which were lying around it. Also, there seemed to be a substantial earthen raised platform.

To add to the interest – and the enigma – there were some 21st century monuments on the same hilltop. An inscribed bench and a carved wooden marker which resembled a gravestone, with wording on both sides:

Our subsequent enquiries have given us a little information about Mick Townshend (1951 – 2012). He was well know locally, related to the Townshends of Castletownshend, and lived near Ballybane West. The bench was made by his friend Charlie, and was intended to be installed in Ballydehob: we don’t know why it is now here at the mercy of the elements, but it’s easy to imagine someone finding such a place inspirational, and perhaps asking to be remembered at this spot.

Although it wasn’t the best of days, the view to the north was exceptional, taking in Bantry Bay and the Beara mountains beyond. It’s a place that demands to be returned to. As we prepared for the descent we heard the sound of a small engine, and suddenly there was farmer Florence McCarthy arriving on a quad bike with two collies running behind: they were searching for lost sheep. Good chat was had – although, in deference to the Coronavirus crisis, we all kept the currently regulation distance apart. It felt very unnatural to not shake hands, and we forgot to ask for a photograph, until Florence was just disappearing over the brow of the hill!

Florence

The cairn is a scheduled monument, described prosaically on the Archaeological Survey Database as: Circular area (19.5m N-S; 19m E-W) defined by scatter of large rectangular stones. The Duchas folklore collection proved far more interesting, although I can’t be sure that this entry from Gort Uí Chluana School, Bantry, in 1936 is referring to the same cairn:

Long ago when some of the people from the north of Ballydehob used be carrying their “firkins” of butter to Cork they used go through an old road in the town land of Letter Lickey . . .


On the side of this old road it is supposed that one man killed another with a stone. After that it was the custom with the old people; who ever happened to pass that stone should throw a stone near the spot the stone was dropped at the man or if not something would happen to the person afterwards. Up to the present day there is a cairn of stones to be seen on the side of this old road . . .

All Silver and No Brass

title page full

To celebrate St Stephen’s Day, I’m republishing this post from a couple of years ago. Both Mumming and Hunting the Wren were (and still are) traditional activities which take place on the day after Christmas in many parts of Ireland. I was pleased to find Henry Glassie’s volume on the Mumming Tradition in Northern Ireland in my younger days: as a Mummer myself, I was eager to search out any material on this then neglected subject, and was pleased to find this volume. It is written and illustrated by Henry Glassie, a Professor of Folklore at Indiana University Bloomington, and is the product of an extended field trip to County Fermanagh in the early 1970s. The title comes from the Mummers’ plea for the audience to put money in their hat or box – preferably silver coins!

Henry Glassie – born 1941 – has written many books about life and traditions in Ireland. His first was All Silver and no Brass, published by The Dolmen Press in 1976

…Winter nights in Ireland are black and long. A sharp wet wind often rises through them. Midwinter is a time to sit by the fire, safe in the family’s circle, waiting for the days to lengthen and warm. It is no time for venturing out into cold darkness. The ground is hard, the winds bitter. But for two and a half centuries, and possibly for many years before them, young men braved the chilly lanes, rambling as mummers from house to house, brightening country kitchens at Christmas with a comical drama. Their play, compact, poetical, and musical, introduced an antic crew and carried one character through death and resurrection…

(From the Preface to All Silver and no Brass by Henry Glassie)

here comes I

saint patrick

Glassie stayed in Ireland during the Troubles, and deliberately chose a community that was close to the upheavals of those days.

…Mumming was neither my project nor my goal. My project was the creation of an existentially grounded ethnography of people in trouble… We settled next to the barbed-wire bound barracks in the southwest Ulster town of Enniskillen, in the County Fermanagh, about twelve miles north and east of the burning border. I began quickly, luxuriously conducting my study on foot. I came to know every dog, bog, path and field in a small area south of the town, lying west of Upper Lough Erne, its waters as bright, its isles as green as promised in the old ballad of the Inniskilling Dragoon…

Enniskillen, from a photograph dated 1900, and Henry Glassie’s illustration of the mummers ‘Doin the Town’ as remembered in the 1970s

I like the way the book is set out. One section transcribes a number of conversations that Glassie has with people who remembered – and had been involved with – the mumming tradition.

…Most of the kitchens at the centers of those white houses were opened willingly, generously to me. My Americanness set me outside the local social categories, so I got on well with people of opposed political and religious persuasions. More of the people were Catholics than Protestants, more were men than women, more were old than young. Almost all had made courageous adaptations within the terrors that frame our lives. That was what interested me most: how daily life passed sanely, even artfully, despite armored cars hurtling down the country lanes, despite bombs that cracked the air and rattled the windows. I had forgotten all about mumming. Then one evening Mrs Cutler and I were chatting about Christmas and she mentioned the mummers’ arrival as the season’s high point. Suddenly excited, I asked if any of the play’s performers were still alive, and she listed people I knew well. All of them were men in their sixties and seventies who had begun to stand out in my thinking as exceptionally energetic, outgoing, and articulate. From that time on, I asked many questions about the drama, its performance, meaning, and purpose. I learned that the memory of mumming is cherished…

wren-boys

Upper picture – Wrenboys from Athea, Co Limerick, 1946 and below – ‘Mummers hunting the wren’ in Macroom, Co Cork, around 1950

Glassie talks at length to two brothers, Peter and Joseph Flanagan, who have very clear memories of taking part in the mumming.

“…We’d just take every house that we faced, whether we’d be admitted or not. We’d just take every house that we’d face. Of course, there was people on the other hand that wouldn’t admit them because it might frighten the youngsters, you see, or cause some confusion. That’s the way. That’s the way it goes now. So, You all stood at the door and…”

He twists and rapidly knocks five times on the table.

“…’who’s there?’

“…’Captain Mummer. Any admission?’ Yes, aye, or no: that was the way. ‘Any admittance for Captain Mummer and his men?’

“and if the person was pleased to admit you, well, they’d open the door. Throw it wide open for you.

“And Captain Mummer walked in.”

Peter moves quickly from his seat and down the kitchen. His heavy boots sound sharp on the floor. He closes the front door behind him, raps on it thrice, and re-enters. He strides ten feet into the kitchen and stands to deliver his lines, turning his torso to project to the audience assembled in a semi circle that runs from the front table past the hearth to the back table. Joe and I are fixed upon him…

“Here comes I, Captain Mummer and all me men.

Room, room, gallant room, gimmee room to rhyme,

Till I show you some diversion round these Christmas times.

Act of young, and act of age, the like of this were never acted on a stage.

If you don’t believe in what I say, enter in Beelzebub and he will clear the way.”

Frowning, Peter returns to his stool. It has been years since he has thought of the rhymes. “Let me see now,” he says, and sits repeating the speeches of Beelzebub and Prince George under his breath. Joe picks up the large turf out of the fire with the tongs and sets them at the front of the hearth. He sweeps the thick ashes off the iron to his side with a besom, places new turf against the backstone, and arranges the old coals next to them. The smoke and glow increase as the new turf ignite. Joe, too, went mumming, but he went out less often than Peter and cannot remember the part he played. He sits back as Peter starts in again…

Henry Glassie’s drawing of ‘how a mummer’s hat is made’ together with two examples from more recent times

Glassie’s writing goes on to describe the recollections of the play from those who undertook the performances. It is an invaluable record: his informants have now passed away. They would probably be surprised to know that their plays have not been lost: a new generation is performing in the north – and elsewhere on the island of Ireland. They would be even more surprised, perhaps, to learn that their own play breathes again: there is a Mummers Centre in Derrylin and the Aughakillymaude Community Mummers (Aughakillymaude translates as the wooden field of the wild dog) perform regularly in the area around Christmas time once more, while at other times they travel across Europe keeping the spirit of mumming in Ireland very much alive:

the performance

Henry Glassie’s reconstruction of the performance before the hearth – above. Below – Aughakillymaude Community Mummers in full cry

aughakillymaude-mummers

Aughakillymaude Community Mummers in full cry (above)  and (below) Henry Glassie’s reconstruction of the performance before the hearth

Ireland’s Santa Claus!

You may remember my excitement when – a few years ago now – I found out that the real St Valentine is interred in the Carmelite Church in Dublin. But here’s a palpable marvel: at Jerpoint, Co Kilkenny,  the bones of St Nicholas are reputed to be buried.  Yes – the Santa Claus St Nicholas! Tradition has it that a band of Irish Norman knights from Kilkenny went to the Holy Land to take part in the Crusades. As they headed home to Ireland, they ‘seized’ St Nicholas’ remains, bringing them back to Jerpoint, where the bones were buried – some say – under the floor of the Abbey (others say they repose nearby at the old church of St Nicholas).

We first visited Jerpoint back in 2015, on a trip that took us to County Meath where we explored the monastic city of Kells (the famed book was written and illustrated there) and also where we found the medieval image of Santa’s reindeer in the header of this post! It is carved on to the base of the town’s Market Cross. We also visited Kells Augustinian Priory – a different Kells but in County Kilkenny  – and Jerpoint Abbey itself, a Cistercian monastery rife with carved figures, some up to 900 years old. Look at the ‘Weepers’, above, carved by members of the O’Tunney family – sculptors from Callan who worked in the 15th and 16th centuries. These four represent saints and show how they were martyred: St Thomas with a lance (left), St Simon with a saw, St Bartholomew holding a skin (he was flayed to death) and St Paul with a sword.

The Book of Kells is worth more than a passing mention, especially as some commentators have likened the medieval carvings at Jerpoint and other contemporary monastic foundations in Ireland to ‘illuminated manuscripts cast in stone’, because of the richness of the characters, the decoration and the detail. The Book (that’s just one example of the incredibly detailed capitals on a single page, above) probably dates from the 8th or 9th centuries and may either have been written in its entirety in Kells, or started by St Columba’s community in Iona and completed in the Scriptorium in Kells. That building still exists! In fact it (or something very like it) is illustrated in the book. It’s known as St Colmcille’s House – we went to have a look at it, and were fortunate to have a tour by its guardian.

Here is the ancient stone roofed oratory of St Colmcille’s House (above), supposedly the place where the Book of Kells was written – or, perhaps, completed. The upper floor of the building has a small window oriented to focus sunlight on the writing table. St Colmcille’s bed was also kept here – a large and heavy stone slab – until it was stolen in the 1950s! A few hundred years earlier (in 1007)  the Book itself was stolen from Kells and eventually found in a nearby bog. It stayed in Kells until 1654, when it was sent to Dublin for safekeeping: it is now on permanent display in Trinity College.

(Above) another page from the Book of Kells, which may be an illustration of the Scriptorium at Kells, and – perhaps – a self-portrait of the writer: see him sitting in the doorway to the house working away with his quill pens. Back to the medieval feast at Jerpoint: the trio below, from Jerpoint, are St Catherine – with her wheel, Michael the Archangel and St Margaret of Antioch – who is conquering a Dragon.

At Jerpoint it’s not just the tombs and the Weepers which fascinate: there is a 15th century cloister which, in its heyday, displayed a riot of carvings both saintly and secular. Some of these are in situ; some are partially destroyed and others have been recovered during archaeological excavations, and placed on display in a little museum. Among them we identified knights, ladies, animals fantastic and real, and ‘ordinary folk’ – including a man with stomach ache!

‘The Bones of Santa Claus’ (Author Bill Watkins)

Where lie the bones of Santa Claus, to what holy spot each pilgrim draws
Which crypt conceals his pious remains, safe from the wild wind, snows and rains?

It’s not in Rome his body lies, or under Egypt’s azure skies
Constantinople or Madrid, his reliquary and bones are hid.

That saint protector of the child, whose relics pure lie undefiled
His casket safe within its shrine, where the shamrocks grow and rose entwine.

Devout wayfarer, cease your search, for in Kilkenny’s ancient church
Saint Nicholas’ sepulchre is found, enshrined in Ireland’s holy ground.

So traveller rest and pray a while, to the patron saint of orphaned child
Whose bones were brought to Ireland’s shore, safe from the Vandal, Hun and Moor.

Here lie the bones of Santa Claus, secure beneath these marble floors
So gentle pilgrim, hear the call, and may Saint Nicholas bless you all!

I hope this topical little foray into some of our archives demonstrates once more how easy it is to find history (and legend) wherever you go in this special land. In fact, it’s very difficult to travel far here without tripping over the past. It’s often fairly low-key. Most sites are protected as scheduled monuments; some are in the good care of the Office of Public Works and have guides and visitor centres. Many are remote, open to the wind, rain and sunshine and free for us all to visit: very often you will have the history all to yourself.

The Enigmatic Bullaun

Bullaun Stones abound in Ireland. They are usually found nowadays at sites with ecclesiastical connections, as in the example above at Maulinward, an ancient West Cork burial ground. This association does not reduce or affect their traditional uses – according to folk convention – to cure or to curse. The Irish word Bullán means ‘bowl’ – a water container. At pilgrimage sites, such as St Gobnait‘s, Ballyvourney (below), the bullaun stones often hold quartz fragments or smooth, rounded pebbles – perhaps incised with a cross – which are turned around each time a pattern or procession is completed.

The Maulinward example on the header picture shows how the tradition of making offerings at some of these locations continues to this day. At other sites, such as the one below, the hollowed-out stone filled with rainwater takes on the properties of a holy well, and is visited for cures or simply good fortune.

This example, outside the door of the church at Cill Lachtáin, Co Cork seems to have been mounted to perform as a holy water stoup: the plaque reads ” . . . This blessed font of Cill Lachtáin was standing in Cloch Aidhneach from 600AD to 1600AD . . . “ Others resemble fonts and are similarly associated with places of worship. Look at this striking stone from Timoleague Friary, whose purpose – according to tradition – is clearly stated:

In the sixth century, the Council of Tours ordered its ministers ” . . . to expel from the Church all those whom they may see performing before certain stones things which have no relation with the ceremonies of the Church . . . ”  Such an order doesn’t seem to have prevented folk customs of curing continuing into the twenty-first century.

The ongoing use of bullauns as fonts, stoops or holy wells does not explain their original purpose (which is probably pre-Christian: here’s an interesting conjectural world view of the phemomenon), and it’s quite likely that we will never fathom for sure what they were for. The example above, at Kilmalkedar, Co Kerry is as enigmatic as they will get, with its multiple ‘basins’ carved into a large earth-fast boulder isolated in the middle of a field, although not far from a remarkably complex ecclesiastical site. But the one I find the most fascinating can be found along the Priest’s Leap road, a mere few steps away from our own home in West Cork . . .

This rock outcrop – known locally as The Rolls of Butter – is large (I’m there to give it scale!) with seven scooped-out bullaun like basins and a somewhat phallic central upright stone. The basins each contain a large, smoothed pebble. Some folk traditions in Ireland identify such pebbles as ‘cursing stones’: “. . . if you wanted to put a curse on someone, you turned the stones anti-clockwise in the morning . . . ” However, the curse had to be ‘just’ otherwise it came back to curse you in the evening! The illustration below – of ‘cursing stones’ at Killinagh, Co Cavan was made by antiquarian W F Wakeman in 1875. He also noted the similar local folk traditions of these examples.

Many bullaun stones or stone groups around Ireland have been included in the National Monuments records, and number in the hundreds. Functional, magical, sinister? Who knows . . . Your guess is as good as anyone else’s. But one thing is certain – they are intriguing and mysterious. Keep a look out for them – as we do – in your travels around this land.

Note: this is a re-run of a post I published five years ago – but it’s been augmented, updated and – hopefully – improved!

No Wrens Were Harmed in the Making of this Post!

Wran Hunting has featured before in Roaringwater Journal: that’s the way that St Stephen’s Day – 26 December – has been celebrated for generations in ‘Celtic’ parts of western Europe, specifically Ireland and The Isle of Man, but also in Cornwall – where it’s now only a memory – Brittany, Wales and Scotland. ‘The Wran’ is a very strong surviving tradition here, especially on the west side of the country. The Dingle Gaeltacht is the place to go if you want to see all the action (click on the bottom right of the window to turn on the sound):

In our own Ballyedhob community ‘The Wran’ is not forgotten. In fact you can even find a poem written about it in the Duchas folklore records. This was recorded in the 1930s by John Levis, aged 32, who took it down from Jeremiah Driscoll, aged 64 years. Jeremiah had been a Wren Boy in Ballydehob. Here’s the poem:

Come all you ladies and gentlemen,

For tis here we come with our famous wran

With a heart full of cheering for every man

To rise up a booze before the year is gone.

 

Mr O’Leary we came to see,

With our wran so weak and feeble,

The wran is poor and we can’t feed him,

So we hope your honour will relieve him.

 

We’ve hunted our wran three miles and more

We’ve hunted this wran all around Glandore

Through hedges and ditches and fields so green,

And such fine sport was never seen.

 

As we copied our wran again

Which caused our wran-boys for to sing,
She stood erect and wagged her tail,
And swore she’d send our boys to jail.

 

As we went up through Leaca Bhuidhe

We met our wran upon a tree,

Up with a cubit and gave him a fall,

And we’ve brought him here to visit you all.

 

This the wran you may plainly see,

She is well mounted on a holly tree,

With a bunch of ribbons by his side

And the Ballydehob boys to be his guide.

 

The wran, the wran, the king of all birds,

St Stephen’s day he was caught in the furze,

Although he is little, his family is great,

So rise up landlady and fill us a treat.

 

And if you fill it of the best,

We hope in Heaven your soul will rest,

But if you fill it of the small,

It won’t agree with our boys at all.

 

To Mr O’Leary and his wife

We wish them both a happy life,

With their pockets full of money, and their cellars full of beer,
We now wish a merry Christmas and a happy New Year.

 

And now, our song is ended, we have no more to say,

We hope you’re not offended for coming here today,

For coming here this morning we think it is not wrong,

So give us our answer and let us all be gone.

By good fortune there’s ‘Mr O’Leary’ above! He’s the landlord of Levis’ Corner House Bar in Ballydehob – which is the subject of Finola’s post today. He’s on the left in the upper picture, looking on at the Wran Workshop which he allowed to take over his pub yesterday. Basically that involved covering the whole place in straw out of which, magically, appeared a whole lot of wonderfully crafted Wran masks. Joe is wearing a fine example in the lower picture.

The afternoon started outside, in Levis’ garden, where we were all given guidance on preparing the straw. We had to strip away the leaves and any heads which had been left behind, and produce bunches suitable to be plaited and then turned into ropes which would form the basis of the  hats or ‘masks’ traditionally worn to disguise the wren hunters.

On the right here you can just catch a glimpse of workshop maestro Sonia Caldwell, inspecting another fine mask. Sonia is determined that Ballydehob will embrace the Wran tradition (vestiges of which have appeared on the streets over the years) and re-energise it in the way that only this West Cork village’s vibrant community knows how. I can just imagine that in a couple of years’ time people will be flocking to see ‘The Wran’ in the same way that they flock to the Jazz Festival and all the other festivals and events that happen annually here.

Finola and I were at the workshop, and there I am with work in progress on the straw mask which we made (upper picture). You’ll notice that I’m wearing ‘tatters’: I’ve had these for years, and I used to don them for our own mumming tradition in Devon which also happened on 26 December (that’s me with the squeezebox mumming in the 1970s! – lower picture). Over there we called St Stephen’s ‘Boxing Day’ because that was when ‘Christmas boxes’ were given to the postman, the milkman and anyone else who provided their services through the year. Interestingly, Kevin Danaher mentions the ‘Wran box’ which was taken around the houses by the wrenners (or Wran Boys) and used to collect money ‘for the Wran’. This illustration of a Wren box from County Galway is from Danaher’s book The Year in Ireland:

The workshop in Levis’ was very well attended, and there is clearly great enthusiasm for reviving this custom. Sonia collected the straw at the annual Thrashing in Ballydehob – which is a traditional harvest celebration. It’s not easy to find the right straw for making the masks nowadays: anything that has been through a combine harvester has been flattened and will not survive the plaiting.

It’s a complex process, but the group coped well in acquiring the new skills under Sonia’s tutelage. You can see for yourself how successful the day had been in the last picture below. The making – every year – has always been part of the tradition where it’s still practised today. Sometimes the straw masks (which are only one part of the ‘disguise’) are destroyed after Stephen’s. In some of the Dingle traditions they are ritually burned on the following St Patrick’s Day.

Sonia is holding a further workshop – also at Levis’ Corner Bar – next Thursday 28 November at 7pm. It’s free to attend: please come and join in: you’ll learn more about the history of The Wran, and there’s likely to be some music too! And then on Stephen’s Day itself it’s out into the boreens and byways of Ballydehob to look for a wren . . . Don’t worry – the days are long gone when our (almost) smallest bird would lose its life: it’s a token hunt, the point of which is the disguising, the visiting around the streets, and the celebrations afterwards, which will extend late into the night!

Many thanks to Pól Ó Colmáin for providing this wonderful photograph of the results of the workshop!

Bloodshed and Fenny Poppers – the Legacy of Martinmas

If the wind is in the south-west at Martinmas (10 November), it keeps there till after Candlemas (2 February) . . .

I’m writing about St Martin again! I’ve already put up posts about this character and his fascinating legacy over the past few years. He can take another – after all, we celebrate St Patrick year after year and that’s ok, because this is Ireland . . . But St Martin never set foot in Ireland (as far as we know) although he is well remembered in many Irish traditions, including that piece of weather-lore above. And here – as elsewhere in Europe – there’s a phenomenon known as St Martin’s Summer, or Martin’s Little Summer, which describes an unseasonable spell of warm weather, sunshine and clear blue skies that occurs around about now, in mid-November. In fact today – Martinmas or St Martin’s eve – has dawned warm and clear.

Header and above – looking across Rossbrin Cove from the garden of Nead an Iolair early this morning – St Martin’s Eve – conforming with the tradition of ‘Little Summer’ associated with the saint

The English poet John Clare (1793 – 1864) – sometimes called the peasants’ poet – wrote a very long poem about  St Martin’s Eve: I’ll quote some verses as we go along. It’s worth noting that Clare was a great champion of traditional rural life, and was known as “. . . the greatest labouring-class poet . . . No one has ever written more powerfully of nature, of a rural childhood, and of the alienated and unstable self . . .” That’s according to his biographer Jonathan Bate. Although some of his work was well received in his lifetime, he was unable to make enough to keep him, his wife and seven children – and his alcohol consumption – on an even keel. He suffered from ‘strange delusions’ and spent the last twenty seven years of his life in asylums where, nevertheless, he continued to write.

Now that the year grows wearisome with age 

& days grow short & nights excessive long

No outdoor sports the village hinds engage                                                                                Still is the meadow romp and harvest song                                                                               That wont to echo from each merry throng

At dinner hours beneath high spreading tree

Rude winds hath done the landscape mickle wrong

That nature in her mirth did ill foresee                                                                                       Who clingeth now to hope like shipwrecked folk at sea . . .

 

(John Clare, St Martin’s Eve, 1823)

Here’s St Martin, looking every inch a medieval knight – although in fact he lived in the fourth century. He was St Patrick’s uncle – possibly accounting for his popularity in Ireland. In this Italian representation he is shown cutting his cloak in two and giving half to a beggar: the act that has made him famous. He was a Roman soldier but gave up that calling to be consecrated as Bishop of Caesarodunum (Tours) in 371. Although he lived a long life, he is said to have died a martyr by being thrown into a mill stream where he was crushed by the wheel. He achieved acclaim as the patron saint of soldiers, but also managed to become the patron saint of conscientious objectors!

The Basilica at Tours, France (above). St Martin served as Bishop here from 371 – but reluctantly. It is said that he tried to hide from those who wanted to install him as Bishop, but his hiding place was given away by the cackling of geese – which have been associated with the saint ever since. Other stories tell how the saint destroyed pagan temples and cut down sacred trees: in one instance, the pagans agreed to fell their sacred fir tree, if Martin would stand directly in its path. He did so, and it miraculously missed him. There’s a relic in the St Catherine’s Convent Museum of Religious Art in Ultrecht, the Netherlands, which claims to be a hammer which St Martin used to fell pagan sites including sacred trees.  Archaeological analysis has shown it was probably made in the 13th or 14th century from a late Bronze Age stone axe dating from c 1,000 – 700 BC. The handle contains a Latin text saying Ydola vanurunt Martini cesa securi nemo deos credat qui sic fuerant ruicuri (‘the pagan statues fall down, hit by St Martin’s axe. Let nobody believe that those are gods, who so easily fall down’). Here it is:

Beside the fire large apples lay to roast

& in a high brown pitcher creaming ale

Was warming seasoned with a nutmeg toast

The merry group of gossips to regale

Around her feet the glad cat curled her tail

Listening the crickets song with half shut eyes

While in the chimney top loud roared the gale

Its blustering howl of outdoor symphonies

That round the cottage hearth bade happier moods arise . . .

 

(John Clare, St Martin’s Eve, 1823)

It seems a little incongruous, perhaps, to come from a world of basilicas and silver hammers to ancient folk-customs in rural Ireland, but not so long ago Martinmas was greatly celebrated here. Kevin Danaher quotes Mason’s Parochial Survey:

On the eve of St Martin (who is one of the greatest saints in their calendar) in November every family of a village kills an animal of some kind or other; those who are rich kill a cow or a sheep, others a goose or a turkey; while those who are poor, and cannot procure an animal of greater value, kill a hen or a cock and sprinkle the threshold with the blood, and do the same in the four corners of the house; and this ceremonious performance is done to exclude every kind of evil spirit from the dwelling where this sacrifice is made, till the return of the same day in the following year . . .

Danaher also mentions a writer, Amhlaoibh Ó Súilleabháin, commenting in 1830 from County Kilkenny:

The eleventh day, St Martin’s Day. No miller sets a wheel in motion today, no more than a spinning woman would set a spinning wheel going, nor does the farmer put his plough team to plough . . .

The tradition undoubtedly refers back to St Martin’s death from being ‘ground by a mill wheel’. Significantly, there are numerous entries in the Dúchas Folklore Collection, dating from the 1930s, which show that these customs were still remembered and – on occasion – practised:

One of many examples from the Dúchas Folklore Collections which remember the importance of Martinmas customs

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 . . .

 

(Eileen Donegan, Knockane, Listowel – collected for Dúchas 1935)

Another from Co Kerry:

St Martin’s day is held on the 11th of November. It is held as a feast day in honour of St Martin. The night before St Martin’s day people kill a goose or a chicken or some other kind of fowl, and they draw the blood and dip a piece of flax in it. They keep the piece of flax because it is said to be a cure for a pain in one’s side.

 

St Martin was a saint who was ground in a mill for his faith.

 

In olden times the mills used not work on that day The women in olden times used not work. No one would turn a wheel not even of a car.

 

(Mrs Walsh, aged 90 years – Tullamore, Co Kerry – collected for Dúchas)

The next piece is particularly interesting as it mentions St Martin’s association with a white horse:

It is a custom in Ireland to kill a cock on Saint Martin’s Night.

 

There was a man who emigrated to America. On St Martin’s night he was very sad. He was telling his friends that he would like to be home in Ireland, because if he were home he would kill a cock in honour of St. Martin.

 

He went outside and he went down the street. He met a man on a beautiful white horse. The man asked him would he like to go home. He said he was just wishing to be at home. He told him to get up on the horse. He did so and the next place he found himself was at his own door in Ireland.

 

The man told him to come out at a certain hour. He killed the cock and came out at the hour that he was told to do so. The man was waiting for him at the door. He got up on the horse and rode away. It was said that it was St Martin who brought him home.

 

(Maura Keating, aged 82 years, Passage East, Co Waterford)

St Martin’s Eve celebrations are still observed all over Europe. This is a festival in Italy, where children carrying lanterns watch out for the saint arriving on his white charger

What about Fenny Poppers? I hear you ask . . . Well, we have to go across to Northamptonshire, in England, for this surviving – and most curious – custom. St Martin’s Church, Fenny Stratford is to this day the scene of an event which has no apparent origin, nor any particular purpose. I won’t try to offer you an explanation – just to point out that it happens every Martinmas come hell or high water. Here’s a somewhat eccentric account of the event from a Movietone News snippet c 1950:

That’s probably enough about St Martin and his special day to last you another year. The subject is by no means exhausted!