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This essay explores the various aspects of the Irish Bealtaine festival by looking at traditional activities across different regions of Ireland, the meanings behind each element that make up the festival, and the beliefs that shaped the customs of this day. It discusses the various forms of festivities that took place on this day such as putting up a May bush or gathering May dew, and what they meant to the Irish people (Danaher, 1972). There were many beliefs and customs surrounding Bealtaine, but the most striking beliefs were the ones that involved the popular activity of butter-making on May morning and the influence of supernatural beings on May Eve (Danaher, 1972). These beliefs were an important aspect of the Bealtaine festival because they gave rise to many interesting traditions that made Irish culture quite distinct (Danaher, 1972).
The Irish Bealtaine festival, held on the first day of May, was one of the four seasonal festivals that celebrated the beginning of summer (Danaher, 1972: 86). To the Irish, summer was the season to let cattle out into the fields to graze after being indoors throughout winter and spring (Danaher, 1972: 86). It was also a time for young people to start looking for jobs and a time to protect oneself from bad luck (Danaher, 1972: 86, 89). On this day, it was customary to have stirabout or hasty pudding as the main dishes of the summer feast because having leftover wheat and bread was considered a sign of good resource management (Danaher, 1972: 87). Thus, families would save up bread from the previous seasons to have enough for this dish on May Day (Danaher, 1972: 87). The most well-practised custom was not to give away any personal belongings because people believed evildoers could use them to cast charms and steal butter (Danaher 1972: 110). Giving away bread or butter meant giving away all the luck (NFCS 96: 642) and giving away coal meant the owner would have no fire for the rest of the year (NFCS 96: 643). In extreme cases, people avoided spending money, throwing out any scraps of food, cleaning their homes, smoking their pipes outside their homes, and lighting the fireplace because the smoke could get out (Danaher, 1972: 110-112). Therefore, it was customary for people not to ask others to borrow anything on May Day, and any borrowed items should be returned before the day comes to avoid arousing suspicions of any mischievous activities (Danaher, 1972: 112).
A common tradition of May Day was the gathering of May flowers by the children to decorate around the house (Danaher, 1972: 88). May flowers were any flowers with bright yellow colours to represent the sun and the summer season (Danaher, 1972: 88). May flowers were also put onto cows’ horns and butter churns as good-luck charms for a plentiful harvest of butter (Danaher 1972: 89). Along with May flowers, children also collected materials such as ribbons, egg shells, coloured papers, and candles to put on the May bush (NFCS 893: 62-63). The May bush was an old tradition where every family would cut down a white thorn bush on the night of May Eve and the children would decorate it (NFCS 882: 7; Danaher, 1972: 88). Then, they would illuminate the bush with candles and dancing and singing would take place around it (Danaher 1972: 88-90). It is quite interesting that the May bush tradition is very similar to the Christmas tradition of putting up a decorated pine tree. However, the meaning of the May bush was not well understood, only that bad luck would result if it was taken down before sunrise of May Day (O’Kearney, 1851: 379). Some regions of Ireland such as Dublin put up a May pole instead of a May bush (Danaher, 1972: 96). Similar to the May bush, the May pole was a tall tree decorated with ribbons and flowers put up the in centre of the town and dancing also took place around it (Danaher, 1972: 96). The book While Green Grass Grows mentions how couples dressed in elaborate clothing would dance around the May pole and around the bonfire as a performance for the festival (Mahon, 1998: 147). The May pole was also a source of competition where dance teams would show off their skills (Mahon, 1998: 148) and young men would try to climb the well-soaped pole and obtain prizes at the top (Danaher, 1972: 98). These were perfect activities to welcome summer because they featured people celebrating and enjoying each other’s company around the bon fire and the illuminated May bush, representations of the sun.
Gathering May dew was another popular tradition that women liked to take part in (Danaher, 1972: 108). Women would go out before dawn and scoop up dew from the grass with their hands or use a clean cloth to absorb the dew (Danaher, 1972: 108). The dew was then stored in a glass bottle to be used as medicine or skin-care product (Danaher, 1972: 108). Women believed that washing their faces in May dew would make them more beautiful and that the dew would prevent the sun from ruining their complexions (NFCS 655: 289). People believed that May dew had magical healing properties that could cure diseases and give the users special skills (Danaher, 1972: 109). For example, applying the dew on the eyes was believed to give the users clear eyes, washing hands in it would allow the users to untangle any knots and mend nets with ease, and walking barefoot over it would cure any feet problems (Danaher, 1972: 109). Another significant source of water known for its magical properties was the first water taken from the well on May morning (Danaher, 1972: 113). It was believed that whoever obtained the first water would inherit many benefits such as good luck, protection and healing (Danaher, 1972: 113). This inspired friendly neighbourhood competitions to see who would be the first to get the water (Danaher, 1972: 113-114). On the other hand, the water was also used by evildoers to cast charms and bring misfortunes upon others (Danaher, 1972: 113). Thus, people who have their own wells would be outside on the evening of May Eve guarding them (Danaher, 1972: 113).
Butter-making during Bealtaine was a special tradition that people took very seriously, and they went to great lengths to prevent anyone from ‘stealing’ their butter (Danaher, 1972: 109-119). On May morning, people would start by milking all the cows in the barn and then churning would take place later in the day (Danaher, 1972: 114). The milk was put into a churn barrel and two people would take turns churning it or just one person would be churning (NFCS 640:429). People took careful precautions in the milking ritual and did not let the cows out on this day because they believed the cows could be influenced by evil spirits (Danaher, 1972: 114-115). During the churning people often dropped a pinch of salt, a piece of iron, or a drop of holy water into the churn for good luck (Danaher, 1972: 115). Additionally, they would draw a cross on the cows’ backside with the first milk or with fresh cow dung and tie a rag to their tail for protection (Danaher, 1972: 114). Saint Brigid’s cross was also hung on the wall of the barn as another safety measure (Danaher, 1972: 115). Some people even went on pilgrimages on May Eve to visit holy wells and obtain holy water to bless their cows (Danaher, 1972: 127).
When there were people who worked hard to make butter, there were of course those who worked hard to ‘steal’ butter (Danaher, 1972: 110). Butter stealing was not done by physically going into someone’s house to take the butter, but by stealing small objects belonging to the butter makers to cast charms against them (NFCS 397: 13). On May Eve, the charms would be cast so that butter would ‘magically disappear’ from butter makers’ churns and ‘reappear’ in the evildoers’ churns (NFCS 397: 13). Examples of objects people would steal were a cow’s tail hair, straws from the roof of their neighbours’ house, ropes to halter the cows, and even cow dung from the barn floor (Danaher, 1972: 111). People also believed the first smoke from their chimneys could be taken to cast charms (Singleton, 1904: 457). Another strange charm people used was to bury meat or eggs into their neighbours’ fields so that their crops would fail and the evildoers’ crops would double (Danaher, 1972: 111). Thus, people took every precaution and set various countercharms as a safety measure against charm-setters (Danaher, 1972: 112). They avoided being the first to light the fire of their furnace, nothing was allowed to leave the house, even floor sweepings and food scraps must stay inside and be burned (Danaher, 1972: 112). During the churning process, anyone who enters the room must take a turn twisting the handle in order to prevent any butter from ‘leaving’ the churn (Singleton, 1904: 458-459). These superstitions led people to become highly suspicious of others, for anyone who asked to borrow things could be an evildoer looking to steal butter (Danaher, 1972: 113). Thus came the custom of not giving away anything on May Day (Danaher, 1972: 113). If a person’s butter did not appear after a reasonable amount of time, he or she would get a piece of the thief’s coat and burn it, then tie the ashes around the cow’s tail to bring back the butter (Singleton, 1904: 458). Another strange countercharm was heating a hot piece of iron and then dropping it into the churn along with an incantation, supposedly causing great agony to the evildoer and ultimately restoring the butter (Danaher, 1972: 115).
Aside from all the summer festivities and the business of butter making, Bealtaine was also a time to protect oneself from the ‘other world’ (MacLeod, 2003: 266). People feared the evil influence of supernatural beings who tended to cause mischiefs on May Eve and May Day (MacLeod, 2003: 266). The witch turning into a hare was a popular legend in Ireland (Dhuibhne, 1993: 77). People often told the story of an old woman who could transform into a hare (NFCS 326: 353). In the morning, a farmer would discover her suckling from the cows’ teats, stealing his milk and butter (NFCS 326: 353). Then, the farmer would inflict harm upon the hare with a gun or a pike and follow the trail of blood to find an old woman bleeding from the same spot where the hare had been injured (Dhuibhne, 1993: 77). The hare was incorporated into many imaginative legends and folktales because it is a cunning animal with many unusual biological features that made it unique from other animals (Moffat, 1927). For example, the hare is commendable for its extremely fast speed and its abilities to evade capture (Moffat, 1927: 272). People believed that only a true black hound would be able to match its speed and capture it (Dhuibhne, 1993: 77). The hare also could change its coat colour depending on the season, allowing it to camouflage into the environment (Moffat, 1927: 271). Unlike rabbits who live in communities, the hare is solitary and can take shelter under any large stones and trees (Moffat, 1927: 272). When disturbed, they do not immediately run away but nonchalantly stand on their hind legs to observe their foes (Moffat, 1927: 272). These features are the reasons why people feared the hare. Its intelligence and stealth led people to believe that they were ‘witches in disguise’ (Dhuibhne, 1993: 77).
In addition to the hare, the fairies were another supernatural figure recounted in many traditional Irish folk stories (hEochaidh and Neill, 1977). What people knew about fairies was that they were angels cast out of Heaven by God and had to dwell on Earth, waiting for judgment day to come in the hopes of getting back into Heaven (hEochaidh and Neill, 1977: 35). From the sunset of May eve to the sunrise of May Day, fairies were known to come out and abduct people, usually infants and young women, and then leaving a ‘changeling’ behind in their place (Danaher, 1972: 122). This belief drove many people to harm their own loved ones with the intentions of ‘curing’ them or ‘restoring’ the real person (Danaher, 1972: 123). Fairies were also known to lead people astray if they ventured out late at night (Danaher, 1972: 122) and help evildoers steal butter on May morning (NFCS 315: 68). However, hEochaidh and Neill (1977: 37) mentioned that fairies did not necessarily harm people as long as people did not interfere with their activities or make them angry. To guard themselves against fairies, people avoided leaving the house and carried with them a piece of iron or ashes from the furnace as a protective charm (Danaher, 1972: 121). Some even went as far as washing themselves in urine, believing that fairies hate dirty things and that the strong stench would drive them away (Danaher, 1972: 122). Humans were not the only beings that could be affected by fairies, cattle were just as susceptible to being ‘fairy struck’, causing them to become weak or stop producing milk (Danaher, 1972: 125). hEochaidh and Neill (1977: 79-80) mentioned how people would ‘cure’ fairy-stricken cattle by using a Mary Candle to make the signs of the cross around the animal, or by scraping the cow’s horns and teats and then burning the ashes under its muzzle. Fairies were one of the most interesting aspects of Irish folklore, but they were also one of the most horrific because terrible crimes were committed against countless innocent people (Danaher, 1972: 123-124).
Overall, Bealtaine festival was very special because it contained many traditions and customs that are unique to Ireland. There was the typical festival atmosphere where people celebrated together with dancing and singing as well as enjoying an elaborate feast. The abundant yellow colour of May flowers and the lighting of large bonfires in the centre of town were represented elements of summer. Caring for herds of cattle was one of the main focuses of Bealtaine because they provided wealth in the forms of milk and butter. Butter-making traditions brought along other absurd superstitions and customs that almost everyone believed in and practiced. Everyone wanted to have the most wealth, but of course there were always those who were luckier than others and many factors could have contributed to the variations in butter yields. As a result, people came up with magical occurrences and supernatural beings in order to explain the things they did not understand and hold others accountable for their deficits. These beliefs ultimately shaped the culture and ways of life of traditional Irish people, making them an important aspect of Irish folklore.
- Danaher, K. (1972) The year in Ireland. Cork: Mercier Press.
- Dhuibhne, E. N. (1993), ‘The Old Woman as Hare’. Folklore, 104: 77-85.
- hEochaidh, S. O. and Neill M. M. (1977) Fairy Legends from Donegal. Dublin: Dundalgan Press.
- MacLeod, S. P. (2003) ‘Oenach Aimsire na mBan: Early Irish Seasonal Celebrations, Gender Roles and Mythological Cycles’. Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium, 23: 257-283.
- Mahon, B. (1998) While green grass grows. Cork: Mercier Press.
- Moffat, C. B. (1927) ‘The Irish Hare’. The Irish Naturalists’ Journal, 1(14): 271-273.
- O’Kearney, N. (1851) ‘Folk-Lore. No. III. May-Day and Midsummer.’ Transactions of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society, 1(3): 373–382.
- Singleton, A. H. (1904) ‘Dairy Folklore, and Other Notes from Meath and Tipperary’. Folklore, 15(4): 457-462.
- NFCS 96: 642, Mrs Joyce, Ballindine, County Mayo. Collector: May Joyce (48), Baile an Daingin, Ballindine, County Mayo. Teacher: Maire de Staic.
- NFCS 96: 643, Mrs French (60), Killeen, County Mayo. Collector: Kathleen Fahy, Baile an Daingin, Ballindine, County Mayo. Teacher: Maire de Staic.
- NFCS 893: 62-63, Marshalstown, County Wexford. Collector: Unknown, Marshalstown School. Teacher: Seosamh O Machain.
- NFCS 655: 289, Louth, County Louth. Collector: Eveline Byrne, Chanonrock, County Louth. Teacher: M. Ni Chasaide.
- NFCS 397: 13, Mrs. E. Walsh (50), Ballyre, County Cork. Collector: Veronica Walsh (16), Ballyre, County Cork. School: Cill Condae, Kilcounty, County Cork. Teacher: Bean Ui Rioghbhardain.
- NFCS 640: 429. Collector: Christina Murphy, Coolbagh, County Waterford. School: An Chlais Mhor, Eochaill, Clashmore, County Waterford. Teacher: Liam Suipeal.
- NFCS 326: 353. Collector: Kate Casey, Carrigaphooca, County Cork. School: Gurrane, Clondrohid, County Cork. Teacher: Eibhlín Ní Shéaghdha.
- NFCS 315: 68. School: Gurranes, Bandon, Garranes, County Cork. Teacher: Nora O Halloran.
- NFCS 882: 7. Collector: Breda Roche, Wexford, County Wexford. School: Faythe, The Faythe, County Wexford. Teacher: An tSr. Columcille.
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