‘folk beliefs…spring from our common heritage of human fears and human hopes…the fate of the house and of those who dwelt in it was affected, if not determined, by the good or bad luck which followed on casual actions or chance events.’
So wrote the Irish folklorist Kevin Danaher (Caoimhín Ó Danachair) about what might be loosely termed ‘superstition’. Such tradition has had a strong role in helping people make sense of what might otherwise be beyond their understanding and helped them deal with the challenges of everyday life. This lies behind the old festival of May Day, Bealtaine in Irish, the meaning of which appears to be ‘bright fire’, recalling the bonfires that were formerly part of this festival. In many places, such as Limerick City, May Eve, rather than Midsummer, was Bonfire Night.
May Day marked the start of the summer half of the year and Samhain (Hallowe’en) began the winter half, both days being occasions when the supernatural and human worlds coincided. The body of tradition relating to May Day is vast, although few of the customs and practices are carried out today.
Protection of the churn, the milk, butter and the farm animals, was of paramount importance at a time of great supernatural activity. On May Eve supernatural beings were supposed to be out and about and people generally stayed at home. On May Day it was widely considered to be very unlucky to let salt, water or especially fire, or even the dirt and dust from the floor, out of the house. There were individuals, most particularly the ‘milk-stealing hag’ who might be tempted to steal the ‘profit’ of the butter and thus the household’s nutrition and luck for the year ahead.
The words ‘Come all to me and none to thee!’ or ‘Come, butter, come, each lump as big as my bum!’ or ‘Come, butter, come! St Peter stands at the gate, waiting for a buttered cake, so come, butter, come!’ would be uttered by the miscreant, who used various methods to try to coax away the butter profit. Counteractions included pouring milk on the threshold or at the roots of a fairy thorn bush. In parts of Ulster, cattle were driven into ring-forts, bled, their blood tasted and some poured onto the earth.
Fire taboos were especially critical. The hearth fire was extinguished on May Eve and only re-lit the next day from a communal bonfire. A visitor looking for a coal from the fire for his own hearth was politely turned down: it was crucial that fire not leave the house, although fire could be got from the priest’s house. A person looking for a light for his pipe would have to finish his pipe in the house he visited. In fact, nobody liked to give away anything on May Day. Likewise, nobody wanted to be the first to light their fire, but smoke from the priest’s house gave the go-ahead. In some places there were taboos about digging, whitewashing, bathing or sailing on May Day.
May flowers – primroses, cowslips, buttercups, marigolds and furze (gorse) – were gathered before dusk on May Eve or before sunrise on May Day and were scattered on the threshold or floor of houses and outbuildings, and garlands of these hung on or over doors and windows. Flowers were also picked to honour the Blessed Virgin Mary, by decorating her statue or the household altar. In parts of Munster May boughs of holly, hazel, elder or rowan were laid on thresholds, sills or roofs and rowan was placed vertically in farmyards and fields. In Leinster, whitethorn was most common and was decorated with ribbons and garlands.
Holy water was sprinkled in the byre, sprigs of rowan were placed over the door of the byre, tied to the tails of the cattle or hung or their horns. In the Glens of Antrim, for example, a rowan twig was placed upright in the dunghill or midden. Cattle were driven between two bonfires in a rite of purification. Red ribbons were tied to the manes and harness of horses. Charms were recited to accompany various of these practices. In Donegal, the milk churn was washed with the water of three landlords, perhaps water from the meeting place of three townlands. Wells were guarded and protected by sprinkling salt and holy water into them and placing flowers around them. It was thought that milk-stealers could achieve their aim by dragging a rope across a field to gather the dew. Ashes from May bonfires were scattered in the fields, as they were on St John’s Eve (Midsummer). In some places, the pig, a key contributor to the Irish diet, was driven into the house on May morning for luck.
At home, there were divination practices, as there were at Hallowe’en. One involved bringing a snail to the hearth, the creature tracing the initials of one’s true love as it moved through the ashes. A girl wishing to retain her fair complexion would wash her face in dew before sunrise on May Morning.
May Day was traditionally the day that the letting of grazing and meadow and the hiring of farm servants and workmen took place. It was start of the fresh grass season, when cattle were put into pasture fields and started to be milked twice a day; cattle were brought to the higher ‘booley’ grounds where they would stay until autumn; and turf cutting season also began.
In the nineteenth century there were parades of ‘May Babies’ and the May Queen. In Louth, a female figure was set on a pole and elaborately dressed with flowers and ribbons and a married couple, perhaps childless, would dance around it. Dancing also took place at the communal bonfire. In some villages, pairs of athletic youths, dressed in white or multicoloured clothes decorated with ribbons accompanied, fore and aft, two beautiful girls in lightly coloured clothes who held aloft May bushes, decorated with long coloured ribbons, all accompanied by music. Traditions and ceremonies once associated with the May Bush, especially in urban areas, such as Smithfield in Dublin, were widespread. Today, a May bush can occasionally be seen, set up outside the front door of a rural house.
Maypoles are known from a few places in Ireland, including Finglas (until 1847) and Harold’s Cross in Dublin, Kilkenny, Mountmellick, Portarlington, Port Laoise, Holywood (Co. Down), Downpatrick, Carrickfergus and Maghera (Co. Derry, until 1798). In this last place there was a procession of May Boys, led by a king and queen ornamented with coloured ribbons.
May Day also saw girls in southern and south-eastern counties gifting decorated balls to the youths. These were often hurling balls decorated with coloured ribbons and hung under a hoop of greenery; the whole assembly was laid out on the village green and the young people of the district danced and sang around it. These activities often became very raucous occasions, sometimes leading to serious injury, as noted in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and eventually died out, along with most other May traditions.
Article by Barry O’Reilly
National Inventory of Architectural Heritage
- Danaher, Kevin (1972), The Year in Ireland (Mercier Press)
- Evans, E. Estyn (1957), Irish Folk Ways (Routledge)
- Ó Súilleabháin, Seán (1967), Irish Folk Custom and Belief (Cultural Relations Committee)
- Wood-Martin, W.G. (1902), Traces of the Elder Faiths of Ireland (Longman, Gren & Co.)