Bealtaine heralds the beginning of Summer in the Celtic Calendar. This is traditionally the half way point between the Spring Equinox and the Summer Solstice thus linked to the one of the quarter points in the Earth’s navigation around the Sun. Of course our ancestors may not have known about such matters. They were however keen enough observers of the seasons and the sky above them to appreciate the significance of this time of year. Bealtaine is also used in Modern Gaelic to refer to the entire month of May.
The Celts believed that at this time of year the little people and spirits were particularly active, just like at Samhain. As they moved their cattle out to summer pastures and sowed their crops the people also paid homage to the spirits, and especially the Sun God Bel, praying that he would protect their livestock and bring a good harvest.
Bealtaine and Samhain (Haloween) are also associated with the lighting of bonfires. One of the most important ritual sites was the Hill of Uisneach in Co. Westmeath. Uisneach was deemed to be the centre of Ireland physically and spiritually, and therefore symbolic as the navel of the country. Although the Hill of Uisneach is not exactly a big Hill (596ft above sea level) from its summit you can enjoy a panoramic view that stretches to all corners of Ireland. It was said that on Bealtaine all the fires and hearths in the land were extinguished. Once the fire was lit at Uisenach it could be seen far and wide and this signalled that the fires elsewhere could be lit again. The short period of darkness was believed to have purified the land. It is also said that the God Lugh drowned in the small lake near the summit of Uisneach. Lugh gives his name to the Festival of Lughnasa held on 1st August and which heralds in the harvest season (first fruits).
When I was growing up in Leitrim the tradition of placing flowers at doorways was still very common. We would pick primroses the night before May Day and lay them at our door and that of our grandparents. We also placed the flowers on windowsills. Sometimes the flowers were even placed in the byres and cattle sheds. Often garlands were made of the buttercups and primroses. I don’t know if the yellow colour of the flowers might have mirrored that of the sun? This custom has echoes around Europe and across many cultures..
There were many other customs on May Day too. It was the only day that the ashes weren’t put out of the house. This was for fear of giving away the luck of the house. If a neighbour called for milk or butter they were likely to go away empty handed for the same reason. Although some less superstitious people might give away milk or butter they would still take the precaution of throwing a bit of salt in it before it left the house.
I don’t ever recalling any history of dancing around a maypole but understand it was common in some parts of the Country. It is likely this tradition was imported from England in from the late medieval period on and therefore is more common in Leinster and the North East being the area first occupied. In the Midlands and Leinster however there is also a tradition of decorating the ‘May Bush’ usually a hawthorn. People place ribbons, streamers and pieces of clothing on the bush and it would ward off evil and bring good luck to the household.
Prior to the Land Acts the 1st May was also noted as one of the ‘Gale days’ when tenant farmers paid half of their yearly rent to their landlord. The second payment was due on the 1st November.
Another recollection of my youth is of my Grandmother scolding me for taking off my jumper, on the grounds that I shouldn’t shed my ‘Geansai’ until after May Day. There was of course genuine wisdom behind this. We often have nice warm days coming up to May but the nights tended to be cool, perfect for picking up colds and coughs.
As I walked the promenade at Dun Laoghaire yesterday afternoon, I realised that although many customs are falling away, there were still plenty of sun worshippers to be had in modern Ireland. Bel would be appeased.