More on Martinmas

Today – November 11 – is Martinmas. That’s the feast day of St Martin of Tours: the picture above is Harry Clarke’s representation of the city of Tours, which we can see in St Barrahane’s Church, Castletownshend, here in West Cork. St Martin was a saint of Hungarian origin who founded a monastery in Marmoutier, in north-eastern France in 372. As far as we know, he never visited Ireland, yet he is widely celebrated here… Why?

Marmoutier Abbey, near the city of Tours (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Well, one reason could be that St Martin was the sister of St Patrick’s mother, Conchessa. Or, perhaps he was her uncle – we don’t have definitive records from that time, but we do have plenty of stories. The one everyone seems to know about St Martin is that he came across a naked beggar while travelling in the middle of winter. He immediately split his cloak in two and gave half to the beggar. That night he had a dream in which Jesus told him that it was he who had received the gift of the cloak from Martin. From then on Martin determined to spread Christianity wherever he went.

Here is St Martin, depicted in Harry Clarke’s Castletownshend window. Finola tells the full and fascinating story of this wonderful window here. He is depicted as a soldier, and is the patron saint of soldiers. Confusingly, he is also the patron saint of conscientious objectors! In fact, he was the first recorded conscientious objector as he became converted to Christianity while he was serving in the Roman Army. Because of his beliefs he refused to fight but – to prove he was not a coward – he was prepared to go into battle unarmed and stand between the opposing parties in the name of Jesus. Miraculously, on the eve of the battle an armistice was declared. Martin was given a discharge and was able to pursue his calling. Eventually he was made Bishop of Tours and founded his Abbey across the River Loire.

This is the beggar who received the gift of St Martin’s cloak – also from the Harry Clarke window. Here in Ireland there were once many customs associated with Martinmas. I set out some of these in a previous post a few years ago. For me, the most interesting is that no wheel should be turned on St Martin’s feast day. This is because the saint met his death by falling under a mill wheel. Below are two of ten 14th century frescoes from the San Martino Chapel in Assissi, setting out the stories of the saint: these depict his death and his funeral.

In County Londonderry, Northern Ireland, St Columba founded a church in the sixth century and named it after St Martin: Díseart Mhartain or ‘Hermitage of Martin’. Fascinating that this European saint should have such a following in Ireland: I found at least four churches dedicated to him in the Republic. One thing I touched on in my earlier post was the custom of killing a goose or cockerel on the day and sprinkling its blood in the four corners of the house to ensure well-being for the next year. I have since found that it is correct to say ...In onóir do Dhia agus do Mháirtin… while doing this (In the Honour of God and St Martin). I hope I’m not too late to wish you a good Martinmas! And I’m leaving you with the full image of the Harry Clarke window…

November Dark

November Dark

Dramatic sky over Nead an Iolair on November Dark this year

The month opened with Snap-apple night and tales of pucás and little folk. From the rising of the moon on November Dark the mackerel would make their way to deeper water; it was the end of the seine season. With the crops all in and hill grazing finished, fires were set on the hills and preparations made for the winter. There was little employment for the months ahead… (from Northside of the Mizen by Patrick McCarthy and Richard Hawkes 1999)

I have mentioned this reference to ‘November Dark’ in previous posts but, apart from the Northside book, I have been unable to find any other allusions to the term – either on the internet (which is usually a sure source of every conceivable fact or fiction) or on our bookshelves (which are overflowing with volumes on Irish culture, traditions and folklore). According to McCarthy and Hawkes it points to the appearance of the November new moon: this year it occurred last Wednesday – the 11th – which was also Martinmas.

bookshelf

gallimaufry on the bookshelves at Nead an Iolair

Once, the day had particular significance: …With the rising of the moon from November Dark the mackerel made their way to deep water; it would be the end of the seining season. Most of the barrels of fish were collected by ships from September onwards. Limerick Steam coasters and ships from England and America anchored offshore, and the barrels would be taken to them. The faller boats took five to eight barrels per trip to the ships. They were hauled up by a derrick, two at a time, into the hold. Often 300 barrels would be loaded onto one ship… Although the barrels of fish were taken throughout the season by the fish buyers, it was on November Dark that the seine crews received their money… (from Northside)

Seining: the huer (top) watched for the arrival of the shoals and then signalled their location to the boats at sea; the lower photograph shows seine netting on the beach at Greystones, Co Wicklow

Historical evidence documents seining in the South West Coast of Ireland from County Waterford, to County Kerry, from the 16th century onwards. This was an important industry with Baltimore, Dunmanus, Schull, Sherkin, Kinsale, Bantry and Whiddy Island as centres, together with outlying curing stations called Fish Palaces or Pallices, of which there were significant numbers along the Southern coast. The fish – usually pilchards – were caught by means of a seine net: two boats, the seine boat and the so-called follower (locally called the ‘faller’) were used. The seiner, a large boat pulled by perhaps a dozen or more oars, carried the net, which was often 300–400 yards long. An experienced fisherman acted as a huer by directing fishing operations from a suitable vantage point ashore. From high land, the huer could see the shoals of pilchards clearly, and he alerted the seine boat, by shouting (the ‘hue and cry’) or making suitable signs as to the location of the shoal. Often the shoals were too far out to be seen from the land, and one of the crew – known as  a spyer – had the job of locating them from on board. On a given signal, the net was shot around the shoal by the seine boat, and in the meantime, the free end of the net was picked up by the faller, with a crew of perhaps five or six, pulling the ends of the net together. The footropes of the net were gradually drawn up until the fish were completely enclosed, and by means of baskets the fish were transferred from the net to the boats.

Tucking

Cornish ‘Tucking’ – gathering in the pilchards from the seine net – by the Newlyn School artist Percy Robert Craft: the original painting is in the Penlee Gallery, Penzance. As the seining season advanced, the Cornish boats followed the shoals to the west coast of Ireland

…After the season’s fishing all the nets were barked in a ceiler (a flat bottomed iron pot) at Dunmanus or Goleen… The ceiler would be full of boiling water and bark (a non-sticky type of tar), and the nets were steeped for a good spell. Barking drove out the salt and would preserve the cotton mesh for the next year’s fishing. The nets, when being repaired, were spread out in a field. In Dunkelly the field was called the Seine Field, and at Gurthdove it was at Willie’s Paircnafarriga. Only the experienced and older men were allowed to repair the nets, as the younger lads rarely had enough care for a job that had to be done so well… (from Northside…)

The Barking Pot at Goleen has been restored as a historic site: sadly the pot is no longer in use

Seining was used to catch pilchard, mackerel, herring and pollock off the Irish coast. A ‘Kerryman’ article by Ted Creedon in the Irish Independent back in 2003 gives a very comprehensive account of the living made in pre-war years – this is a short extract:

…Mike Séamus O’Sullivan of The Glen, St Finan’s Bay, was a member of the crew of the last seine boat to land a catch in South Kerry. Mike began fishing lobsters with his father when he left school aged sixteen.

“That was before the war and lobsters were making four shillings a dozen in those days, but when the war came the fishing really got going in these parts,” Mike told The Kerryman this week.

“We were catching mackerel, pollock, herring and they were cured and boxed at Renard Point before going by train to England. The seine boats were catching all mackerel in the war years and prices were about two shillings per hundred, but one day in 1942 an English buyer arrived at Renard Point and offered £3 a hundred!” Mike recalled.

“There was a fortune made in those days then and the local buyers put their prices up to £4 a hundred for the mackerel to keep the English buyer out!” he said…

mending nets

Mending the nets – in this case in a traditional Irish kitchen: a photograph by Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh, who documented life in rural Ireland between the 1930s and the 1950s. The Irish caption to this photo suggests that the net was damaged by a shark

We have been looking back through our archive of the photographs which we’ve taken here on or around ‘November Dark’ in past years. There’s quite a contrast: we have had times of golden sunsets and warm days when we could sit out, while this year has brought a period of wild storms and grey skies.

Mizen Sunset November

November evening

November contrasts: our view a year ago (above) and (below) in the last day or two, brief respite from a period of Atlantic storms

November Dark – have any readers a recollection of this term? We’d like to know – and record – memories of the day and its significance here in West Cork…

sad end for a seine boat

From Northside of the Mizen – the photo is captioned ‘A sad end for a seine boat’

Martinmas

St Martin's Summer: late November on the Sheep's Head

St Martin’s Summer: late November on the Sheep’s Head

I’m used to pursuing the lives of the Irish Saints – often obscure, always fascinating – their legends tied up with folk tales and seasonal customs. But here we are, in Ireland, with a strong tradition of celebrating a continental Saint – St Martin of Tours.

St Martin of Tours adorns a German postage stamp

St Martin of Tours adorns a German postage stamp

St Martin doesn’t appear to have any connection with Ireland at all – yet everyone here seems to know the one element of his story that is always told: in the winter storms he met a naked beggar and cut his own cloak in two, giving half to the beggar. There is a twist to the story – that same night Martin had a dream: he saw Jesus wrapped in the piece of cloak he had given away and Jesus said to him, “Martin has covered me with this garment.” Even though Martin was at that time a soldier in the Roman Army he sought to be baptised and then refused to fight as this was against Christian principles. In fact, he was the first recorded ‘Conscientious Objector’.

Harry Clarke's window in Castletownshend, showing St Martin and the Beggar in the right hand panel

Harry Clarke’s window in Castletownshend, showing St Martin and the Beggar in the right hand panel

St Martin’s Day is on 11 November and the season is known in Ireland as Martinmas. There are customs surrounding this time – still remembered in some rural districts. There is a whole chapter devoted to Martinmas in Kevin Danagher’s book The Year in Ireland (Mercier Press 1972). From this we learn that every family is to kill an animal of some kind “…and sprinkle the threshold with the blood, and do the same in the four corners of the house to exclude every kind of evil spirit from the dwelling where this sacrifice is made…”

In 1828 Amhlaoibh Ó Súilleabháin of Kilkenny recorded in his diary: “…The eleventh day, Tuesday. 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. No work is done in which turning is necessary…” This might be because of a story that Martin was martyred when thrown into a mill stream and killed by the mill wheel. In fact the hagiography states that he died of old age.

Another Irish legend (from Wexford) relates that the fishing fleet was out one St Martin’s Day, when the Saint himself was observed walking on the waves towards the boats. He proceeded to tell them to put into harbour 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.

St Martin is the patron saint of Geese. In England there are two ‘Goose Fairs’ held in the autumn, one at Tavistock near my old home on Dartmoor. I have been to that fair: geese and poultry are still in evidence, but I don’t know whether there is any direct link to our Saint. In the not-too-far-away Exeter Cathedral Close there is a Holy Well dedicated to St Martin.

In England and Ireland they call any spell of good weather which occurs after 11th November ‘St Martin’s Summer’. We are having one of those at the moment.

We are also now at the ‘November Dark’ – the days just before a new moon when there is no moon at all visible in the night sky. Traditionally, this was the time to cut willow rods to store for basket making in the spring, as then “…they would have the most bend in them…” (according to Northside of the Mizen).

St Martin's Summer at Rossbrin Cove

St Martin’s Summer at Rossbrin Cove

St Martin’s Goose was traditional fare on Martinmas in some cultures, so I’m feeling a little worried about this gaggle…

Goosey Fair, Tavistock, Devon

Goosey Fair, Tavistock, Devon