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…


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