May Customs Survey
Welcoming the summer in the 21st century
‘May Day is the second of the old quarter days, and is linked to the others by a remarkable series of beliefs and customs which are concerned with time of year, the weather, seasonal work, magical protection, divination, farm produce, assemblies, processions and the activities of supernatural beings. Those associated with May Eve and May Day mark the coming of Summer; they welcome the season and make provision for it in both the natural and the supernatural planes’ Caoimhín Ó Danachair (1965)
Each year at the National Museum of Ireland – Country Life we mark the coming of Summer with talks and activities that celebrate Ireland’s May traditions. Visitors to the Museum have enjoyed churning butter, gathering wildflowers to make May posies and decorating the May Bush. By participating in these events visitors discover why the coming of Summer was so important to our rural ancestors.
We have long been aware that there are customs associated with the passing of the seasons that continue in the present day; the making and hanging of St Brigid’s Crosses, St Patrick’s Day parades and the wearing of masks on Hallowe’en.
What we didn’t realise, is that a colourful and heartwarming celebration of May is happening right under our noses.Early morning on May 1st 2011, photographer Michael Gannon captured a series of images of flowers left on the doorsteps of houses in Castlebar, Westport and Newport in Co Mayo.
That this ancient tradition, rooted in celebration and superstition, is still prevalent in these towns, got us wondering where else in Ireland May customs are being carried out. It seems wondrous and magical that summer’s arrival continues to be rejoiced, quietly and modestly, in this technological age.
This led to the idea of conducting an Ireland-wide survey of May Customs in the 21st century using 21st century methods. Information submitted via our online form will help build a Google map showing the variety and distribution of May Customs across the island of Ireland. Over the next 3-5 years we hope that this map will grow to provide a picture of how we continue to welcome the coming of summer.
In 1979, distribution maps of May Customs collated by Kevin Danaher (Caoimhín Ó Danachair) appear in the Atlas of Ireland, Royal Irish Academy, Dublin. These maps were compiled using information collected by primary schools of the Irish Free State in 1937-8 (now known as the Schools Manuscript Collection, available on microfiche in County Libraries), from a series of questionnaires circulated by the Irish Folklore Commission between 1940 and 1960, supplemented by a further series of questionnaires in 1974. Additional information on Northern Ireland was provided by the Ulster Folk Museum.
You can download the 1947 Irish Folklore Commission questionnaire on May Eve & May Day below. This questionnaire is in Irish & English and gives a fascinating insight into the wealth of tradition associated with this time of year.
Continuity in a changed Ireland?
The Atlas of Ireland maps provide us with baseline information on the distribution of May customs in the mid 20th century and show that certain customs are more prevalent in some areas of the country and are absent from others. How will our 21st century map compare?
The May customs that we believe may still be celebrated today include:
- Flowers on the doorstep
- Flowers/boughs above the threshold
- The May Bush
- The May Fire
- The May Altar
- The May Pole/Dancing
- May Queens
If you have information on any of these (or other associated traditions) being carried out in your area this year, please share them with us here and help build a 21st century map of Irish May Customs.
Danaher, Kevin The Year in Ireland – Irish Calendar Customs’ (1972) Mercier Press
Ó Danachair, Caoimhín Béaloideas The Journal of the Folklore of Ireland Society IML XXXIII 1965 (1967)
Ó Danachair, Caoimhín in Atlas of Ireland Royal Irish Academy (1979)