“Man is weary waiting, waiting for May,
Waiting for pleasant rambles,
Through the fragrant hawthorn brambles” – Walter Furlong, September 1954
Today, May 01st, marks the feast of Bealtaine, the arrival of summer and a day steeped in folklore. Many different traditions and customs were practiced in the past on this day. In a superstitious world full of balances, May split the year in half between two feasts of Samhain (Halloween). Given the beliefs associated with Samhain and the arrival of winter, it is no surprise that Bealtaine held a similar position of importance and folklore which has been lost in the last century. The following is some information recorded in the National Folklore Collection held in UCD relating to the feast day in the Blackstairs Mountains region. It was collected in September 1954 by the full time collector J. G. Delaney from two sources; Mrs. Elizabeth Byrne, Rathnure, Wexford who was 87 at the time (born 1867) and Walter Furlong, Carrigeen, Wexford aged 83 (born 1871). Mr. Furlong, whose information is much more detailed, noted that the feast was very important in his youth. By the time of collection many of the traditions and customs associated with Bealtaine seem to have died out in this region so it is not as rich a resource as in other regions. Information was also collected by P.T. O’Riain from John Long (70) and his wife of Rossard, Carlow in June 1940 (born 1870), J. G. Delaney from Patrick Leary, Rathnure, Wexford (71) in August 1973 (born 1902) and E. Mac Niocláis in the Bunclody region, Carlow/ Wexford in June 1947. For more folklore and history of the feast elsewhere in Ireland, you can check out other blogs such as Irish Archaeology or Vox Hiberionacum.
May 03rd saw the arrival of the hiring season for labourers in Wexford so the feast of Bealtaine gave young people the chance to celebrate and relax for a few days before the busy summer. Workers on the Carlow side didn’t seem to get any break however as the Borris Hiring Fair was held on May Day. Cattle and sheep were also bought and sold at these fairs.According to E. Mac Niocláis, a fair was also held in Bunclody on May Day which was known as “Ladies Fair”. Here young women would dress in their best in anticipation for a June wedding (see below) just as occurred in the “spotting fairs” in the West.
May Day traditions from across the country and in the Blackstairs show that it was considered ill advised to give or throw away butter, fire, dew from the fields and many other objects on this day as to part with such objects was to part with luck. This did not seem to transfer to money as rents had to be paid by May 01st.
Despite their proximity, the tradition of having people on the land on May Day contrasted greatly between two sources which noted it. Mrs. Byrne in Rathnure noted how neighbours were invited over by farmers to walk the land. Mr. Furlong in Carrigeen, stated that it was very unlucky to have people on the land on this day. He also warned that wells had to be watched on May Eve and Day for fear of the local fairy women who “were able to work some divilment”. Unwary farmers could have the top of the well skimmed by this woman. In doing so she took their butter for the year through the magic of transfer and no matter how much the milk was churned it would not form butter. He recalled how his father and Jim Kehoe of Tomenine, Wexford were in a pub in Aughtiegemore (sic.) on May Eve one year. As they were “walking home they saw an old woman sitting beside a well. “What are you doing there this time of night” says Jim. “This is a fine airy place” says she. “Airy as it is” says he “we’ll give you a bath” and he thrun (sic.) her in body and bones”. John Long recalled how his family fell foul of such magic when his family lost their butter to a fairy woman who took grass from their field. His mother walked into the cowhouse one May morning to find what looked like butter with milk dripping from it hanging on the piece of wood where the cows were tied up to be milked. She threw it in the fire out of suspicion but in the coming weeks no matter how much she churned, she could get no butter from the milk. She went to the parish priest who told her to put only salt and water into the churn and to place the Gospel of St. John underneath. She did this and got the butter back!
Both Mrs. Byrne and Mr. Furlong noted that there were no traditions of moving cattle or sheep to the upland grazing pastures on this day specifically as in other regions. The Bealtaine tradition of driving cattle between two bonfires to ward off illness or bad luck found in other parts of Ireland was something Mrs. Byrne noted as having no memory of in her childhood either. What Mr. Furlong did remember was that cattle were brought into the cowhouse and sheep into the farmyard where they were blessed with holy water called “cattle water” which was specially blessed for purpose by a priest in the days preceeding. This act protected them from illness and harm for the year. Bonfires in the Blackstairs were reserved for St. John’s Eve (23rd June) according to Mr. Furlong however they are recorded as having once occurred in the Bunclody region by E. Mac Niocláis, the tradition long dead by 1947.
Given that the month was considered magical and full of the supernatural there were many traditions associated with luck and prophesying some of which were recorded by Mr. Furlong. Farmers whose livelihood depended on the weather, looked to the skies during this month as “A wet and windy May, fills the haggard with corn and hay”. May was the month people looked forward to and dreaded as it sealed the faith for some of those who might be sick at the time; “March will search, April will try and May will tell if you live or die” (“May kills and cures” recorded by E. Mac Niocláis. And for those who were considering tying the knot “Marry in May, rue the day” (no marriages in May also recorded by E. Mac Niocláis).
One of the few customs Mrs. Byrne did note was that a branch from a mountain ash was cut on May morning and placed over the cowhouse door for luck. She also recalled how fields were blessed and some farmers also had the priest bless their water. Farmers would also walk the land by walking diagonally across each field from one corner to another and then walking between the other two corners forming the shape of the cross in the field. Holy water was sprinkled with a feather as he did this. She noted that no prayers were said during this process but the farmer would bless himself as he entered each field. The blessing of the fields was done ten times a year on other feast days but Mrs. Byrne did not remember on which days the practice was carried out other than Bealtaine. Mr. Furlong stated that it was fairy butter that was placed at the cowhouse door on this day for luck.
Altars were set up in the house on this day devoted to The Virgin Mary as May was known as “Mary’s Month”. Children would pick primroses to be placed on the altar. A May Bush was also put up on this day by decorating a hawthorn with candles, ribbons, egg shells and flowers. Once evening fell the candles were lit and locals would gather together for music and dance. John Long stated that this hawthorn bush was cut and placed on a dung heap before being decorated. It was then carried around the fairs such as Borris by children who asked for money just as occurred on “Wren’s Day” (26th December). E. Mac Nioclais recorded how children would carry the May Bush from house to house collecting money in the Bunclody region. In the town itself every street had its own tree and holly formed an alternative for those who did not have access to a hawthorn tree.
And in a world full of superstition, what of the fairies? Mr. Furlong noted that as May saw the arrival of summer, poorer weather such as strong gusts of wind were considered the actions of “the good people” or fairies. He recounted how he was working one May day in a field with another man named only as Nick. Suddenly a north wind began to blow in from the Blackstairs Mountains above them which he referred to as a “hurl wind” which you could see plainly with the eye. “Here’s the shee-gee” says Nick. “What’s that” says I. “Never mind” says he “but stay away from it”. It was 30ft high and cone shaped with the point on top. The field they were working in had a gap in the middle of the hedge leading to a lane. The wind crossed the field and passed the gap but doubled back on itself and made its way out onto the lane. “If the divil is not in that” says Nick “he’s nowhere”.
National Folklore Collection Manuscript Collection 1063, p 7-8. Information collected by P.T. O’Riain from John Long (70) (born 1870) and his wife, Rossard, Carlow, June 1940.
National Folklore Collection Manuscript Collection 1097, p. 243-244. Information collected by E. Mac Niocláis in the Bunclody region, June 1947.
National Folklore Collection Manuscript Collection 1344, p. 178-179. Information collected by J. G. Delaney from Mrs. Elizabeth Byrne, Rathnure, 87 (born 1867), September 1954.
National Folklore Collection Manuscript Collection 1344, p. 262-263. Information collected by J. G. Delaney from Mr. Walter Furlong, Carrigeen, Wexford 83 (born 1871), September 1954.
National Folklore Collection Manuscript Collection 1796, p. 470-476. Information collected by J. G. Delaney from Patrick Leary, Rathnure, 71 (born 1902), August 1973.