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May Day in Ireland and Beyond

The beauty and the magic of May is upon us. It has always been a special time in Ireland and May day was always a very special festive day.

Bealtaine the name the Gaelic May Day festival was and commonly held on May 1st. It has been historically observed throughout Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. The Irish the name for the festival day is Lá Bealtaine, in Scottish Gaelic Lá Bealltainn and in Manx Gaelic Laa Boaltinn and in Welsh Calan Mai. It is one of the four mail Gaelic seasonal festivals—along with Samhain, Imbolc and Lughnasadh—and is similar to the Welsh Calan Mai. Beltane is mentioned in early Irish literature and is associated with important events in Irish mythology.  SAMHRADH: commences on May 1st (Bealtaine) i.e. Lucky Fire. Beltane marks the beginning of summer and Samhain  marks the beginning of winter. They have been regarded as the most important of the four Gaelic festivals.

Geoffrey Keating

The earliest mention of Beltane is found in old manuscripts from Gaelic Ireland. According to the early medieval texts Sanas Cormaic and Tochmarc Emire, Beltane was held on 1 May and marked the beginning of summer. The texts say that for the protection of cattle from disease, the druids would drive cattle between two fires “while making great incantations“. According to Geoffrey Keating the17th century Irish historian, a great gathering took place at the hill of Uisneach each Beltane in medieval Ireland, where a sacrifice was made to a god named Beil.

Keating wrote that two bonfires would be lit in every district of Ireland, and cattle would be driven between them to protect them from disease. The medieval Dindsenchas includes the tale of a hero lighting a holy fire on Uisneach that blazed for seven years. Excavations at Uisneach in the 20th century found evidence of large fires and charred bones, showing it to have been ritually significant. One custom that survived for hundreds of years was driving the cows between two bonfires and carefully singeing their hair with burning material. The fields would also be treated to a singeing from the sacred bonfire, as a means of purification.

Origins of Bealtaine

The origins of the name Bealtaine derives from two possible sources – the Celtic pastoral God, Belenos, or the old Celtic words for “bright fire.” Eventually, Beltane became more strongly associated with Belenos the god of light, healing and protector of cattle. In Ireland, as in many parts of the Celtic world, bonfires were lit around Beltane- sometimes on the night before, and sometimes on the evening of the day itself.  Celtic feast days or festivals always begins at sundown on the eve, and ends at sundown on the day.

As a festival, Beltane as a festival had largely faded away by the mid-20th century, however in some places elements of its customs have continued and it has been revived as a cultural event. Beltane fires were common in Ireland until the mid 20th century, but the custom seems to have lasted to the present day only in County Limerick and in Arklow, County Wicklow.  Cultural groups have sought to revive the custom at Uisneach and at the Hill of Tara.

The Gaelic Diaspora

The lighting of a community Beltane fire from which each hearth fire is then relit is observed today in some parts of the Gaelic Diaspora, though in most cases it is a cultural revival rather than a survival of the ancient tradition. In some areas of Newfoundland, the custom of decorating the May Bush is also still extant.

The town of Peebles in the Scottish Borders holds a traditional week-long Beltane Fair every year in June, when a local girl is crowned Beltane Queen on the steps of the parish church.  Since 1988, a Beltane Fire Festival has been held every year during the night of 30 April on Calton Hill in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Associated Place Names

A number of place names in Ireland containing the word Bealtaine, indicate places where Bealtaine festivities were once held. It is often anglicised as Beltany. There are three Beltanys in County Donegal, including the Beltany stone circle, and two in County Tyrone.  In County Armagh there is a place called Tamnaghvelton/Tamhnach Bhealtaine “the Beltane field”. Lisbalting/Lios Bealtaine “the Beltane ringfort” is in County Tipperary. Glasheennabaultina/Glaisín na Bealtaine “the Beltane stream” is the name of a stream joining the River Galey in County Limerick

Bealtaine marks the beginning of summer and rituals were performed to protect the cattle, crops and people, and to encourage growth. Special bonfires were kindled, and their flames, smoke and ashes were deemed to have protective powers. People and their cattle would walk around or between two bonfires, and sometimes leap over the flames or embers. Household fires would be doused and then re-lit from the Beltane bonfire. These gatherings were accompanied by a feast, and some of the food and drink was offered to the aos sí. Doors, windows, byres and the cattle themselves would be decorated with yellow May flowers because they evoked fire. In parts of Ireland, people made a May Bush: a thorn bush decorated with flowers, ribbons and bright shells.

Holy Wells and Gale Days

Holy wells were also visited, while Beltane dew was thought to bring beauty and maintain youthfulness. Many of these customs were part of May Day or Midsummer festivals in other parts of Britain and Europe.

May Day in Ireland celebrated and welcomed summer. It celebrates a coming into the light and the warmth of summer and a farewell to the dark winter half of the year.

Traditionally on May 1st and the November 1st tenant farmers paid their half-yearly rents to the landlords – these were known as ‘Gale Days’.

People also took stock of their food supply required to sustain them until harvest time later in the year. Traditions associated with May include May Bushes, May Flowers, May Boughs, May Poles and May Bonfires. All are associated with luck and protection.

The May Bush

The May Bush was a decorated bush, which in rural areas was left outside the house. In villages and towns, it was erected in the green or a communal place.

Sometimes it was carried about the area by groups of adults although later this custom was carried out by children. M Geographically, the tradition was strongest in Leinster and the Midlands, stretching west to Galway and northwards to south Ulster and Donegal.  The bush was generally a hawthorn. The decoration usually consisted of ribbons, cloth streamers and perhaps tinsel. Sometimes leftover coloured eggshells painted for Easter Sunday were used as decorations. ‘Long Life, a pretty wife and a candle for the May Bush’ was a rhyme recounted by children in Dublin when looking for a contribution of candles, money or sweets for their May Day festivities.

Sometimes communal bushes were burnt on May Day evening. The bush was associated with the luck of the house or the community and in cities it was watched carefully in case a rival group would attempt to steal it. The custom of erecting a May bush still survives as an individual household tradition, particularly in the Midlands.

The May Bough

The May Bough was a larger version of the May Bush and was most popular in Munster. Instead of a small bush, a larger part of a tree was used. This was either for outside homes or for use at some public area in the community. It was similarly decorated to the May Bush.

May Poles

May Poles were popular in some larger towns and possibly indicate some English influence. In this festive way communities welcomed in the summer. There were May poles in many towns, such as Kilkenny, Mountmellick, Kildare and Longford. There was also a strong tradition in the north east of Ireland, such as in Hollywood, Co. Down. Originally tall trees were used but later these were replaced by formal poles erected in the town centre. They were decorated with flowers and ribbons like in England, where the tradition was more widespread, dancing and sport centred round the pole.

May Flowers

May Flowers were picked on the evening before May Day and this was often done by children who went garlanding for flowers. These were sometimes assembled together to make posies or crowns. Yellow flowers, such as primroses, buttercups and marigolds were especially popular, possibly as they reflected the sun and summer. Furze and ferns were also put around the outside of the home. The flowers were placed on the doorsteps of houses and on windowsills. They were believed to offer luck to the house and offer protection from mystical forces – there was a strongly held belief that these were particularly active around the quarterly days. It was believed that the fairies could not enter the home as they could not pass such sweet smelling flowers.


They were often put on farm animals so as to protect them from being ‘overlooked’ by people with the evil eye, who might through envy, steal the productivity of the animals. The tradition of spreading flowers at thresholds was most common in the northern half of Ireland, especially south Ulster. Throughout Ireland, there is a strong tradition of formally showing welcome, through the spreading of rushes. Children often carried baskets of flowers and strew them in front of their neighbours’ homes as a gesture of goodwill and good luck. Sometimes May flowers were placed in the local well so as protect the water supply and the livelihood of those who used it. Water or fire was generally never asked for or taken from the home on May Eve or May Day so as to retain the luck of the house. Mayflower water taken from the well on May Day was said to offer protection and cures. This water and May morning dew was believed to be good for the complexion. Herbs gathered before sunrise on May Day were believed to have particularly effective curative properties.

May Queens & May Poles

The Flowers were also used for crowning the May Queen. The tradition of selecting a Queen of May is found throughout Europe. Like the May Poles, this tradition was more popular in large towns. It was often accompanied by a procession and sports and festivities. In some parts of Ulster, a King was chosen, along with the Queen. Sometimes, there was a bush carried in the procession, on which there were hurling balls hanging.  May Day traditionally marked the start of summer hurling and in Kilkenny, women gifted men with new hurling slitars on this day. In parts of south Ulster, there was an effigy of a female May Queen carried on a pole in a procession. This was decorated with flowers. There are references to a similar floral decorated May Baby in parts of Monaghan.

Bonfires were a feature of May Eve throughout Europe but the tradition survived mainly in the east of Ireland and in parts of Munster.  Although there were small local and family bonfires to ensure good luck, the tradition of larger communal fires survived especially in the cities.


Dancing was a feature of May bonfire celebrations. It also featured around the May Pole or where communal May Bushes were burnt. This was a time for celebrating the continuity of the community.  The customary dance involved the men and women joining hands to form a large circle with a dancer weaving in and out of the circle under their arms and collecting other dancers to follow after them.  This has been described as representing a winding serpent and as representing the movements of the sun. It is similar to the children’s game In and out go the dusty bluebells – these blue flowers were also traditionally picked in May.

Butter Stealing

May Day was especially associated with butter stealing: the stealing of the butter profit of the home. The cows were safe-guarded through attaching flowers around their heads and sometimes red ribbons or bits of rowan were tied to their tails. This was believed to offer them protection from the malign glance of those with the evil eye .The churn was especially vulnerable at this time so often similar items or iron objects were placed underneath it.

All who visited the house at this time were encouraged to take a dash of the churn. They usually accompanied this with a prayer such as ‘God Bless the Work’.

People used to make the ‘May Eve Churn’ and the butter of that churn was salted and put away for the coming year. Each night and morning before the milk is put in the pans, the woman got a small piece of butter of the ‘May Eve Churn’ and put it in the pan and then put in new milk. The ‘power’ of this butter prevents the milk and cream from being taken by ‘pishoges’ or any other supernatural power.”

Divination and Superstition

May Eve and May Day was a time to divine the future. Women tried with snails on flour to foretell the man that they would marry. “When gorse is out of blossom, kissing’s out of fashion”. Furze which is also known as gorse is in flower from February to May. This was also a time to study the weather and weather in the month of May would forecast what was expected to follow in the summer.

‘A wet May and a dry June makes the farmer whistle a tune’
‘A swarm of bees in May is worth a load of hay’
‘A wet and windy May fills the barns with corn and hay’

THE marsh marigold is considered of great use in divination, and is called “the shrub of Beltaine.” Garlands of marigold were made for the cattle and the door-posts to fend off the fairy power. Milk was poured on the threshold, though none would be given away; nor fire, nor salt, these three things being sacred. It was not considered safe to go on the water the first Monday in May. Hares found on May morning were supposed to be witches, and should be avoided. The fire going out on May morning was is considered to be very unlucky, and could not be re-kindled except by a lighted sod of turf brought from the priest’s house. The ashes of this blessed turf were afterwards sprinkled on the floor and the threshold of the house. Neither fire, nor water, nor milk, nor salt should be given away, and if a visitor is given a cup of milk, he must drink it in the house, and salt must he mixed with it. Salt and water as a drink is at all times considered a potent. Charm against evil, if properly prepared by a fairy doctor and the magic words said over it.

Welcoming the summer

May Day in Ireland was a time to welcome the summer and to protect the family and livelihood of the farm from supernatural forces. It was a joyful festival celebrated with flowers, fires and dancing and had strong links to the same holiday celebrated throughout much of northern Europe.


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