Bealtaine is the name in Irish, Scottish-Gaelic and Manx mythology for the seasonal feast at May 1. At the end of the dark half of the year, Bealtaine is a survival of one of the four great Celtic calendar feasts, known in early Ireland as ‘Imbolc’ (February 1), ‘Lughnasa’ (August 1) and ‘Samhain’ (November 1). Bealtaine may, or may not, derive from the veneration of the continental Celtic god, ‘Belenus’, whose cult stretched from the Italian peninsula to the British Isles.
The year, in ancient Ireland, was divided into two parts – ‘Ó Shamhain go Bealtaine is ó Bhealtaine go Samhain’. At Bealtaine and at Samhain the veil that divided this world and the Otherworld was open and spiritual creatures were out and about on these nights.
A great body of oral tradition is associated with Bealtaine, of which fires were the most important. Fires were kindled in honour of ‘Belenus’, (Bel, Baal) and cattle were driven between two fires as a safeguard against disease. In Irish we have the expression: ‘táim idir dhá thine Bealtaine’; I’m between two fires of May’, meaning ‘I’m between two minds, unsure, in a dilemma’. May Day was symbolic of a return to life, of the defeat of the hard winter, with new hopes for good planting and rich harvests. Bealtaine was the time for milk and honey, the primary time of pleasure, of blossoming and blooming, of desire and satisfaction, so the cow and the bee were both significant symbols for this celebration. The cow’s miraculous ability to create milk and the bee’s creation of honey, the sweetest food on earth, were absolutely magical. At Bealtaine people especially celebrated love, attraction, courtship and mating – that yearly groundswell we know as ‘spring fever’.
In parts of Cork and Kerry, the first Sunday in May was named ‘Domhnach na hEadraí’, (Cow-time Sunday) because it was on this day that the cows were left out to pasture after the winter.
May Day was a ‘gale day’, when the Irish farmer’s tenancy began or ended, on which a half year’s rent must be paid to the landlord. Failure to pay the rent sometimes meant eviction, depending on the landlord or his agent’s whim. The letting of grazing or meadows usually dated from May 1 and farm servants and workmen were hired at this time. Hiring fairs were held in many places, to which those seeking work, both men and women, came, often carrying symbols of their skill, a spancel, which told that its bearer was an expert milker, or a spade, hay fork, reaping hook, flail or other instrument.
As people looked upon beginnings as foretelling the future, so people were anxious that all indications would be favourable on May Day. Signs of the weather, the appearance of the sky, the strength and direction of the wind, the amount of rain, were all carefully noted as indications of the coming summer’s weather. Rain was expected and welcomed during the coming month. ‘A wet and windy May fills the barns with corn and hay’ and ‘A wet May and dry June makes the farmer whistle a tune’, and with the coming of the nectar-laden summer blossoms, ‘a swarm of bees in May is worth a load of hay’.
There were more ‘piseogs’ (or superstitions) connected with May Day than any other day of the year. Nobody would loan or give anything away on this day and anybody who asked for such was believed to be trying to steal his neighbour’s good luck. Among the fishermen of the islands of Roaringwater Bay, nobody would ask for the loan of a match, tea, sugar or anything, not even the time of day. If they did, they were suspected of trying to steal the boat’s luck. In general the rule for the day was ‘no spending, no lending, no borrowing’.
The first water taken from a well after dawn on May Day was considered lucky. It was known variously as ‘the top of the well’, ‘the luck of the well’ or ‘barra-bua an tobair’.
A story is told of a woman in Cape Clear rising very early to ensure she would be the first to draw water from a particular well; she fell asleep and a neighbour beat her to it, however.
‘Piseogs’ were especially strong regarding matters which involved no certainty such as milk, hay, crops and fishing. The dew on the grass on May morning has long been a symbol of agricultural prosperity. It was often gathered and kept as a medicine or aid to beauty. The young woman who washed her face in the dew on May morning gained a fair complexion; while if she were daring enough to undress and roll naked in the dew she was given great beauty of person.
The principal customs were those which welcomed the summer. The picking and bringing home of wild flowers was common, those in bloom at this time of year being mostly yellow – primroses, buttercups, marigolds, furze-blossom. The children usually made posies of the flowers, small bouquets, which they hung up in the house or laid on the doorsteps or window-sills. In West Cork, instead of flowers, people used to and some still do, collect leaves of the wild iris, liostrum, (or feileastrum), which were hung on the door, or placed on the window-sill or dresser. In most parts of Munster it was more usual to pick and bring in ‘May boughs’, small branches of newly leafed trees, hazel, elder, rowan, ash, and particularly in Co. Cork, the sycamore, often called the ‘summer tree’. Different growths were believed to be lucky or unlucky, varying from place to place. Blackthorn, elder, honeysuckle, furze, alder and whitethorn particularly were considered unlucky or lucky depending on the area.
‘March will search, April will try and May will tell whether you’ll live or die’, so runs the popular saying. May was thought to be a critical time for sick people. However, May Eve and May Day were among the best days for gathering medicinal herbs. Everybody was expected to take blood purifying medicines at the beginning of May. A common custom was to eat three meals of fresh young nettles, boiled until tender, or three cupfuls of the liquid from the boiling. The belief that nettle stings were good for rheumatism may have some bearing on the custom which flourished in West Cork at least until the 1960s – the custom of stinging with nettles on May Day. Going to school in Lisheen in the 1950s, much ‘fun’ was had on May Day, striking each other on the hands and legs with a bunch of stinging nettles. This was called ‘Lá na Neantóg’ on Cape Clear.
In the Roman Catholic Church, the month of May is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Many families make a ‘May altar’ in their homes with a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary adorned with vasefuls of fresh wild or garden flowers. The Roman flower festival of Floralia was instituted in Rome in 283 B.C. and was celebrated from April 28 to May 3 in honour of Flora, goddess of flowers and vegetation. This Roman festival was introduced into Britain and juxtaposed over the old Celtic fire festival of Bealtaine. The Christian devotion to Mary was juxtaposed over this, so many of our customs show a continuity from pre-Christian times.
As at Samhain, (Halloween), at Bealtaine, the division between the natural and supernatural was less and in folklore otherworldly creatures were more than usually active about May Day and the appearance of a travelling band of fairies, or a mermaid, a ‘púca’, or a headless coach might cause unease but would not occasion surprise. Persons straying near forts or homes of the ‘good people’ – a ráth or a lios – might meet them venturing out to engage in dancing, hurling or other revels. A favourite pastime of the fairies was to cause mortals to lose their way by bringing down mist or by confusing landmarks. In Germany, May Eve is called ‘Walpurgisnacht’, or ‘Night of the Witches’.
By Celtic reckoning, the Bealtaine celebration began at sundown on May Eve, April 30, because the Celts always figures their days from sundown to sundown. Sundown was the proper time for the Druids to kindle the great Bal-fires, on the top of the nearest hill, such as Tara Hill, in County Meath.
Traditionally there is often a snap of cold weather with easterly winds at the end of April and early May. This period was and still is in places called ‘Scairbhín na gCuach’ – the rough weather of the cuckoo because it coincides with the arrival of the cuckoo. More correctly, this time should be called ‘garbhshíon na gcuach’ from ‘garbh’, (rough) and ‘síon’ (weather). It is usually referred to as ‘The Scaraveen’. ‘Ne’er cast a clout until May be out’ says the proverb, interpreted by many as a warning not to change into summer clothes until June. Others have the version – ‘Ne’er cast a clout until the May be out’, that is until the mayflower (whitethorn) is in blossom. Certainly most country children were permitted to run barefoot from May Day onwards.