We know very little about Lá Bealtaine of antiquity. A lot of conjecture is thrown about about the meaning of the name which I am not going to get into other than to share this entry from Cormac’s Glossary written in the 10th century.
Now granted at the time he wrote about it, he was still speaking of practices from centuries before him, but this is the oldest written documentation we have of what went on at Lá Bealtaine. Some 925 years later, Amhlaoibh Ó Súilleabháun wrote of watching this same event minus the Druids in Callan, Co. Kilkenny.
It is believed that the largest of these gatherings was held at Uisneach where there is a carved rock flat called Ail na Mireann or the Catstone which is the burial place of Ireland’s namesake Ériu according to ancient mythology. It is the very center of Ireland. From myths, we gather that people from the provinces of Connacht, Leinster, Munster, Mide (Meath) and Ulster gathered here and lit the Beltaine bonfire. The word bonfire literally means bone fire and has always held the implication of human or animal sacrifice.
We do know that because of its ancient origins as a fire festival, keeping the fire in your hearth going throughout the night later became an important aspect of the pisreóga surrounding the day.
Some rituals like the one above were passed down from the ancients, while others developed as the society evolved. For example, the custom of putting the livestock out to the summer pastures was undoubtedly an older tradition started by pastoral communities which persisted for quite some time in Gaelic areas.
Later, agricultural practices became integrated into the celebration. May Day became the day when rents were due to landlords and people were hired to work the fields for the season- gatherings became part festival and part employment fair which speaks to May Day’s modern association with the working class. Traditional fare started to include food made from grains such as making bannocks and rolling them down the hill to see if they broke or eating a stirabout made of corn meal and milk.
Of course, there was also divination about weather and plants. Rain on May day meant good crops for the year. A síol cuaiché was a seed that was not in the ground on May Day and not likely to mature.
We can surmise that some of the pisreóga are remaining fragments of indigenous belief in nature spirits I collectively call the Fae. Whether they were “evil” or not was a matter of perspective. The English did their best to demonize the ancestral spirits and indigenous spirits of the land. I refuse to participate in perpetuating that.
Even the kindest of the wee folk could be unseelie tricksters especially if people did not flatter and appease them, so sometimes you had to ward them off to keep them from doing things like stealing milk or poisoning the well. But those sorts of things were done every day—many women put embers under the churn and ashes on the eggs and crosses on their cows and hung plants in the byres, all of the time.
So, clearly there was more to the celebration. Some of it seems to hinge on the idea that on the at the quarters you were more likely to have otherworldly visitors. I don’t think that was unique to Samhain, and I do wonder if people just gave up on being able to keep them away these nights?
It was considered bad form to lock your door on that evening, and sometimes people would leave out food and jugs of milk for the wandering spirits of the dead because “on May Day long ago the Dead would come back and visit their friends.” Why would you leave food out for someone and the door unlocked if you didn’t want them to come in?
There are many stories of wandering fairies in the Schools’ Collection, also. This is one of my favorites:
There are many old sayings about May day. In olden times the people used to have the house very neat and tidy because on that night the fairies used to go from house to house dancing and playing music. It was not right to milk cows on that day.
There was once an old woman and she milked all her neighbour’s cows on May day and when her neighbours went to milk their cows they could not get any milk. They used to put a coal under the churn on May Day to have plenty of butter. The first to skim the well on May morning would have the most butter. It was not to put out ashes on May day or to clean out cabins on May day. The old people used to have everything done the evening before.
One May night as the fairies were going about they went in to John Machen’s house. They put down a fine fire and they began dancing and playing music and shouting. At last they went up stairs and they began shouting and they wakened John Machen. When John got up in the morning he saw the fire down and said that the fairies must play wondours…
So, again why would you clean your house for company you had effective warded off? Why leave your cows unmilked for the little kindred, unless by doing so you were assuring they would be guid neighbors and let your cows be the rest of the year? And since when are the Fae afraid of flowers, especially cowslips?
It makes far more sense that these things were offerings of reciprocity, rather than wards.
People would gather the yellow flowers and decorate their homes, byres, and animals. They would spill milk across their doorways to please the Fae so they didn’t make too much mischief in their homes that night. For example they would rub the nectar from crushed cowslips was smeared all over the cow’s udders to distract the Fae from the milk.
In later years, some more pious folks said the flowers were picked in honor of our Lady or of the Saints and they would decorate a little alter with the flowers and crosses. (Danaher, 1988, 89) They certainly weren’t trying to ward her off.
Other customs have to do with the water and wells as undoubtedly by this time they had all thawed and began to run. It was good luck to be the first to draw water from the well. You could also do mischief yourself if you were so inclined. If you threw the water in the direction of a certain neighbor’s house, it would bring the family bad luck. If you went out early in the morning and washed your face with the dew should be healthy the whole year long.
Then we come to the custom of the May-bushes and May-poles.
The modern streamlined version of the story is that Irish people cut hawthorn branches and place them outside their home to be decorated with bits of bright ribbon called clooties to scare away evil spirits, which is a fairly horrifying and problematic conclusion.
1. E.E.Evans wrote in Irish Folkways that this was only a practice in areas with strong English influence and that the Irish never fully adopted it, preferring instead to pour a bit of milk at the root of the fairy thorn where it stood. It’s possible that the May-bush custom is better more documented, but that’s because people with English backgrounds were probably more educated. Evans quotes an newspaper article from the Leinster Journal written in 1768 which laments that “the hedges and fences, in the outlets of our city are stripped of full-grown hawthorns, whose late blooming pride and fragrancy is now miserably dying away on dunghills before cabin doors, by way of May-bushes.”
2. Even in areas where the practice was common, people from other communities would sometimes sneak into town and steal the May Bushes to steal the town’s luck which makes no sense if they were used to “ward off” things that go bump in the night.
Secondly, customs were never, ever uniformly “Irish.” The provinces had, and still have, unique cultural practices. Depending on what province a person lived in, they might cut branches from holly, hazel, elder, rowan or white ash. In Co. Mayo, the tradition went that if you put a rowan branch up the chimney nothing can bring the butter out of the house.
Like Evans, I would wager that if they did cut a hawthorn they were of English ancestry. It was usually considered a fair bit of bad luck in most Irish communities to harm the fairythorn such as — huath (whitethorn, hawthorn) or blackthorn.
In some communities they would plant hawthorn near their wells and people would hang clooties on this tree, although based on some records I’ve seen I’d say in Ireland, this was an adopted practice.
There are still some places in Ireland, Scotland, and Cornwall where these community hawthorns can be found and people still decorate them with clooties to ask blessings from their saints, gods or the Fae depending on their beliefs.
(Honestly, its kind of like giving Dobby a sock, so he has your back later. Given the amount of random clothing found on Clootie trees in the UK, I wonder if Rowling had that in mind when she wrote that part?)
This is just something I threw together quickly from some notes. Someday, I promise that this discussion will take up a whole chapter in a nice long book that at least two of you will want to read.
I want to end by responding to something that made me crabby, today. In some places, you may read of May Day gatherings held at crossroads near a town and see it given some vague esoteric meaning. These types of crossroads gatherings were a result of political persecution.
During the Cromwell years, when that butcher popularized the phrase “To Hell or to Connacht” as he pushed the Gaels into the bogs, Catholic churches were burned; parish records destroyed, local gatherings were outlawed, and the Gaelic culture was in hiding for centuries. The painting below by Martin Driscoll illustrates crossroad dancing, one of the practices that developed in defiance of this oppression and which continued in some places into the early twentieth century.
One account of such events held in Co. Longford tells that:
“At a lonesome spot on the road there would be at least 300. Ally Dunne, and old woman, would be going around selling whiskey at 2d a naggin. There would be men as pickets on the road looking out for the R.I.C. so that Ally wouldn’t be caught selling the whiskey. If the R.I.C. came, the dance would be scattered.”
You might wonder why I think this is important? It is just one small example of the way atrocities of the colonizers were swept under the rug by historians writing things like “Look at the silly peasants with their superstitions gathering in the crossroads” rather than acknowledging the horrors of colonization that drove away from their homes and sacred places.
I think that is important to understand about on May Day of all days.
 The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0108, Page 169  The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0096, Page 645  The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0096, Page 677  The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0300, Page 211  The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0152, Page 412  Eileen Brennan, The Story of Irish Dance. (Landham: Roberts Rineheart Publishers.1999), 118.