My mother was christened Mary but all her life she was known as May.
In Ireland May is a common diminutive for the name Mary, so there was nothing strange in that. Besides, she was born in May. I can remember picking blossom to celebrate her birthday. Never may blossom which in Wexford, where she grew up, was considered unlucky to have in the house. Sometimes cherry blossom. And often apple blossom, warmed by the sun and powdered with pollen spread by black and golden bees.
In the Christian tradition May is Mary’s month, dedicated to Mary, mother of Jesus. But, as always in Irish Christianity, the calendar feasts that celebrate Mary hold echoes of an older goddess.
She was the Good Goddess, the bride of the God, and the earth mother of the ancient Celts.In the pagan Celtic tradition May is the first month of Bealtine, the third season in the Celtic calendar. The Celts believed that as the seasons change the edges of the fabric of time give way, allowing powerful forces to seep through. At those shadowy points between one thing and another ritual was important, as a means of channeling and controlling the energy of the universe.
In Ireland, for thousands of years, Bealtaine’s been celebrated with fire and flowers. And for centuries echoes of those older rituals have continued to reverberate in Christian imagery associated with Mary.
I remember sitting in London when I was a student, typing out a copy of Gerard Manley Hopkin’s May Magnificat and sending it to my mother in Dublin for her birthday. Hopkins was an English poet who had little time for Irishness or Ireland, though he ended up working and dying there as a Jesuit priest. He was a strange, troubled man with a deep awareness of nature.
This morning I read the May Magnificat again. Now, over thirty years after I typed it out for my own mother’s birthday, I’m astonished by the resonance of its echoes of the earth mother.
MAY is Mary’s month,
and I Muse at that and wonder why:
Her feasts follow reason,
Dated due to season—
Candlemas, Lady Day;
But the Lady Month, May,
Why fasten that upon her,
With a feasting in her honour?
Is it only its being brighter
Than the most are must delight her?
Is it opportunest
And flowers finds soonest?
Ask of her, the mighty mother:
Her reply puts this other
Question: What is Spring?—
Growth in every thing—
Flesh and fleece, fur and feather,
Grass and greenworld all together;
Throstle above her nested
Cluster of bugle blue eggs thin
Forms and warms the life within;
And bird and blossom swell
In sod or sheath or shell.
All things rising, all things sizing
Mary sees, sympathising
With that world of good,
Their magnifying of each its kind
With delight calls to mind
How she did in her stored
Magnify the Lord.
Well but there was more than this:
Spring’s universal bliss
Much, had much to say
To offering Mary May.
Bloom lights the orchard-apple
And thicket and thorp are merry
With silver-surfèd cherry
And azuring-over greybell makes
Wood banks and brakes wash wet like lakes
And magic cuckoocall
Caps, clears, and clinches all—
This ecstasy all through mothering earth
Tells Mary her mirth till Christ’s birth
To remember and exultation
In God who was her salvation.
Felicity Hayes-McCoy: A life spent half in inner-city Bermondsey, in London, and the other half in Corca Dhuibhne, Ireland’s Dingle peninsula Visit Felicity’s website