Bealtaine is a festival that occurs on May 1st and signifies the return of the light after winter. It was once widely observed throughout Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man and May Day celebrations occur throughout Europe. This article focuses on customs and practices of May Eve in Irish tradition - I have previously written an article describing May Day customs here:
Behind all the May festivities and gaiety lay strong folk-magical and supernatural beliefs. Like all Irish festivals, the celebrations begin on sundown on the eve of the festival that occurs the next day (Halloween and Christmas Eve are good examples of this). It was believed that the period from sundown on May Eve to dawn on May Day was an especially liminal time when the presence of the otherworld was closer and more accessible. Faeries, supernatural beings or those with evil intent, were all believed to be at the height of their power. The family, the home, the farm, livestock and its produce, even well water, was all in danger of being cursed or stolen and therefore had to be protected.
Above: Marsh marigolds were considered especially powerful against faeries on May Eve.
Protection was offered by many things, but above all flowers had a particular potency at this time. They were left on the threshold on May Eve, or thrown onto the roof of one’s home, or on window sills, or garlanded and tied to cows’ tails. Above all, yellow flowers, such as primroses, gorse and marsh marigold were seen as best against evil spirits who were renowned for their dislike of that colour.
In their placement at all the openings that allowed things in to and out of the home, they guarded what were considered liminal areas. At all times of the year protective essentials such as iron, and Christian symbols of holy water, crosses and so on were left at these places to discourage bad luck from entering the home.
Above: a cow with a flower garland tied to her tail to offer protection from faeries. Illustration in pen and ink by the author.
As the liminal period from sunset on May Eve to dawn on May Day was believed a time when any magical practices were most potent. For people who wished to have a go, it was thought to be a good time to attempt magic spells. Charms were thought to work more effectively on people at this time, as were curses and counter charms.
It was considered a good time for divination too, especially for marriage. A girl’s husband might appear behind her if she peered at her reflection in water on May Eve. A snail placed in flour or ash might slither to form the first letter of a future husband’s or wife’s name. On May Eve it was also a custom to leave ashes on a threshold and a footprint found in them the next day could be “read” for signs: if it faced outward it meant marriage, if inward, it meant death.
From the 1830s, tea became a staple in people’s diets and following in its wake, the reading of tea leaves became popular in Ireland as a form of divination. Only people with ’the gift’ for doing so could read the leaves, but everyone could have a go at the liminal times of Halloween and May Eve.
Above: May Day celebrations were known around Europe. 'Punch or May Day (1830)' By Benjamin Robert Haydon (1786-1846)
Sickness on May Eve or May Day was considered ominous, as humans were thought to be at greater risk of faery abduction or from faery stroke (sudden incapacitation). In some areas before sunrise people would gather hazel rods and carve small figures from them, these would be displayed to ward off evil. Herbs gathered after sunset on May Eve were believed to be extra powerful when used in medicine.
There are a huge number of additional customs and here I could only discuss a few. I have written about this more comprehensively in my forthcoming book Irish Customs and Rituals: how our ancestors celebrated life and the seasons due to be published by Orpen Press in the summer of 2020.
Easter was a huge religious festival in the past and continues to be the most important annual religious celebration in the Christian calendar. In Ireland it marked the end of a dark and hungry Lent, a time of denial of many pleasures: meat, eggs, dairy products, alcohol, music and even sex were all off the agenda for practicing Roman Catholics. It marked a time to look toward Summer, and there were many traditions in Ireland surrounding Easter that went beyond religion.
Easter Saturday: celebrating the end of Lent
To symbolise the end of Lent, butchers held symbolic mock funerals for herrings. Herrings had sustained many during the meat-free Lent and by Easter Saturday people were quite tired of eating them. In parts of the country they held a procession heralding the final day of Lent known as ‘whipping the herring’. A herring tied onto a rope was pulled along and whipped to pieces by the crowd. In Cork city, a single herring was insulted and ridiculed as part of a noisy parade. This is marked in the wonderful painting (see below) ‘Whipping the Herring’ by Nathaniel Grogan (1740-1807) in Cork’s Crawford Gallery of Art https://crawfordartgallery.ie/work-of-the-week-6-april-2020/
On the morning of Easter Sunday many people rose early to see the ‘dance of the sun’. It was believed that the sun would ‘dance’ in the sky only at sunrise on Easter Sunday morning. People would gather on a high vantage point to witness the spectacle, but it was advised not to look directly at the sun (as in an eclipse) in case of damage to the eyes. Therefore, people observed the sun reflected in a pan of water. If the sun did not dance as expected, the pan of water was shaken so observers, especially children, could see the ‘dance’.
In Co. Fermanagh, pilgrims on Inishmacsaint on Lough Erne hold an all-night vigil on Easter Eve. The cross on the island is supposed to turn itself about three times on Easter morning to greet Jesus rising from the dead.
Below: Inishmacsaint (picture from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inishmacsaint )
Easter eggs and a holiday weekend
The use and decoration of Easter eggs is customary throughout Europe and Irish traditions are not that different. There would have been an abstinence from them for Lent, and a large glut available. A feast of eggs was enjoyed for breakfast on Easter Sunday. Boiled eggs were painted and decorated and either eaten, displayed or played with, eggs were rolled down hills in racing competitions by children. Easter dinner was second in importance to the Christmas dinner, and seasonal produce such as lamb was popular for those who could afford it.
Easter Sunday and Monday was associated with leisure activities and a time for showing off new clothes: women wore new bonnets and men also wore their just-purchased summer clothes. In a response to this and the finer weather, outings to the countryside took place, people visited landmarks and holy wells. As people gathered, festive bonfires were lit and celebrations ensued. Then, on Easter Monday fairs took place consisting of the usual trading and games, sports, sideshows, food, music, gambling and (occasionally) organised faction fighting.