May Day

Some customs and beliefs

Morris dancers along the Thames near Richmond, c. 1620.

May Day or La Bealtaine is one of the four quarter days in the year. Quarter days are so called because they are the solar festivals that occur between the solstices and the equinoxes. They mark the change in seasons and were pagan festivals but when Christianity came to Ireland the festivals were allocated saints thus retaining the pagan customs but in some way making them acceptable to the Christian religion.

Fire, Dancing & Flowers..

May Day marks the first day of spring in Ireland and festivities associated with the time include fire, dancing and flowers. ‘In Roman mythology Flora was the goddess of flowers and the season of spring. Her festival, the Floralia was held between April 28 and May 3 and symbolized the renewal of the cycle of life, drinking, and flowers’ [1] The selection of a May Queen is most likely associated with such a festival.

There are also floral festivals in Cornwall and Helston Flora Day occurs in early May.  A series of dances are performed from early morning and it is one of the oldest surviving May customs celebrating the end of winter and coming of spring. Flowers are strewn throughout.  In Padstow (also in Cornwall),  on May 1st the ‘obby oss’ (hobby horse) festival has been the custom since at least the 16th century.  The Morris dancers accompany the horse, a custom going back may centuries.

“Beltine (or Beltaine) was celebrated on May 1st, a spring-time festival of optimism. Fertility ritual again was important, in part perhaps connecting with the waxing power of the sun, symbolized by the lighting of fires through which livestock were driven, and around which the people danced in a sunwise direction.”[2]

Kindled anew

It was the custom that all fires be extinguished in order to be kindled anew from a coal from the May Eve bonfire. It is said that the Druids lit a ceremonial fire for the god Baal at Uisnech (traditionally the centre of the country) and from this all other fires were kindled. However when St Patrick came he is said to have made a fire on May Eve and celebrated the paschal mysteries and from then on Easter took the place of the Tara fire.[3]  It is also suggested that the May Day celebrations were transferred to St John’s eve at the end of June.

James MacKillop suggests that the speculation in the nineteenth century of a link with Baal is now rejected and that it is notable that ‘names for the day in the P-celtic languages allude only to the time of year, not a fire or a lost god’ [4] He accepts however that there are definite links with Flora the goddess of flowers and it is these celebrations that have been adopted or modified by the Catholic church such that the month of May is Mary’s month. It is customary to set up an altar in the home in her honour and decorate it with flowers.

No one either borrowed or loaned goods

There is a belief, that around the quarter days i.e. change of seasons, there are mystical forces at work hence the concept of the ‘evil eye’ – someone who has the power to confer bad luck or misfortune (possibly a witch). According to Joe McGowan… ‘On May eve marsh marigold, daisies and seapinks were placed along the eve of Inishmurray houses. No one either borrowed or loaned goods or utensils on either New Year’s Day or Mayday’[5]

The Mountain Ash has protective qualities

Kevin Danaher tells us that ‘almost anything taken from the house or, indeed, any part of the farm at dawn on May Day could be used to steal the butter, giving the evil doer a greatly increased quantity while the victim’s churn produced nothing but froth’[6]

There is a great need to protect ones property from the evil eye at this time of year and of particular concern is the safeguarding of the butter. The cows and milk could be safe guarded by attaching a red thread or rag to the cow’s tail or hanging a piece of mountain ash in the cow byre. The mountain ash or rowan tree has protective qualities and if a branch is incorporated in the roof, the house will be safe from fire for the year. It can also be used to protect the milk and butter from witches.

Driven between two fires

It was also thought that sprinkling holy water on the cows and around the byre would give protection as would keeping the St Brigid’s cross and palm from Palm Sunday in the building. It was not unusual for people to keep the cow byre locked on May Eve and May morning and not let cows out until after midday when there was no longer danger of being bewitched. Incidentally this was the day when traditionally the animals were sent to the summer pasture. It is said that before they left they were driven between two fires to protect them from ill. The people too passed between fires or over a fire in the hope of gaining protection from evil and have good luck.

Sir William Wilde [7] tells us that it was also not unusual to bleed cattle and then dry and burn the blood in order to protect them. “We have more than once when a boy, seen the entire of the great Fort at Rathcroghan, the centre of one of the most extensive and fertile grazing districts of Connaught, literally reddened with the blood thus drawn upon a May morning. Bleeding cattle at this period of the year was evidently done with a sanitary intention, as some of the older medical works recommended in the human subject; but choosing that particular day, and subsequently burning the blood, were evidently the vestiges of some Heathen rite. In some districts, and particularly during hard times, some of the blood thus drawn used to be mixed with meal, boiled into a posset, and eaten by the herds and the poor people. But many of these ceremonies, having been laughed at or positively interdicted by the more educated Roman Catholic clergy, are fast falling into disuse.”

[It is known that in times of famine this was done by people who had very little to eat and the blood mixed with meal or flour for sustenance but it is unlikely that the latter occasion had anything to do with the former].

The ‘top of the well’

It was also necessary to protect the water supply – usually a well. It was not unheard of for a farmer to sit up all night on May Eve guarding the supply. Then he would be the first person to access the well on May morning thus getting the first water – this was known as the ‘top of the well’ and brought luck protection and healing. This water was usually kept for the year and used as protection against evil. The important thing was that no one with evil intent accessed the ‘top of the well’ thus preventing harm. Precaution could also be taken by sprinkling holy water on the well, dropping a grain of salt into it or a rowan twig or a piece of iron while repeating some prayers.

It was assumed a spell had been cast

If at all possible churning was deferred until after May Day. If this was not possible however it took place before dawn and precautions were taken to ensure that it was successful. For example a pinch of salt or some holy water could be put in the churn. Likewise a piece of iron like a nail or some of the first water taken from the well on May morning was put in the churn. If anyone entered the kitchen while the churning was happening they had to take a turn in order to safeguard the arrival of the butter.

If it seemed that the butter would not come it was assumed that a spell had been cast and therefore it was necessary to act to counteract this. An excellent remedy was to heat an iron bar in the fire and plunge it into the churn while reciting a counter charm. Immediately the one who set the charm would be in agony and would undo the curse.

Where timber was plentiful a tall tree would be erected

The May Pole dance is a symbol of fertility and is most likely adopted from England as references to it tend to be in the east and north of Ireland. ‘English peasants danced around the beribboned maypoles until the Puritans, noting their unmistakable phallic symbolism, supressed them in the mid – seventeenth century.’[8] There is however reference to a May Pole dance in the parish of Kilglass, Co Roscommon in the 1940s and although this may have referred to a dance hall it is still evidence of knowledge of the custom.[9] In Ireland in general, it appears that where timber was plentiful a tall tree would be erected in the centre of the town or at a crossroads in rural districts. The pole is decorated with ribbons or streamers and as the dancers circle the pole they weave ribbons around it resulting in a decorative pattern. However, there was a tradition in Harold’s Cross and Finglas (Dublin) that the pole could also provide entertainment by greasing it and having people climb it to retrieve prizes placed at various heights on the pole.

Another custom was that of the May bush. This varied from being a small bush of whitethorn or furze to a living tree that was decorated with ribbons, coloured egg shells saved from Easter and flowers. In general it was burned at the end of the day but in some areas it was retained for the month of May. As with a lot of the customs the bush brought good luck and repelled evil.

It could be used for evil purposes

The dew on May morning was gathered and kept for the next year. The very best dew was that of May morning but it could be gathered throughout May and early June. It was said to have a great many attributes and was kept both as a medicine and a beauty wash. It supposedly prevented freckles, sunburn and wrinkles as well as curing headaches and sore eyes. It could also be used for evil purposes such as setting spells. It was collected by going out to a green field before sunrise on May morning and collecting the dew in a dish. A cloth could also be employed by spreading it on the dew laden grass to soak it up and then wringing the cloth into the dish.

The fairies would not pass flowers especially yellow ones

The most common custom that still prevails is the scattering of flowers on the doorstep of houses. These are mostly yellow flowers such as primroses, cowslip and marigold. The furze bush (yellow flowers) was also acceptable – the fairies would not pass flowers especially yellow ones. The entrance to the barn or cow byre would also have flowers as would the well and paths leading to it. Posies might be tied to cows’ tails or horns and also to a horse’s bridle. All of these protect from the forces that are evil.

The May ball referred to decorated hurling balls that were given as gifts by newly married couples to the young men of the neighbourhood. They were made of hair (tightly wound) and on occasions would have been carried in the May bush and were given to the men for a game of hurling. It was not always peaceful however and it is documented that ‘they sally out with herculean clubs in their hands and…such bloody battles ensure…confusion and uproar’ [10]

A spent coal must be put under the churn

There are a number of superstitions associated with May Day documented by Lady Wilde.[11] A hare seen on the day is in reality a witch. It is dangerous to sleep out in May as one could be taken by the fairies and a changeling left in their place. ‘But the fairies have great power at that season, and children and cattle, and the milk and butter, must be well guarded from their influence. A spent coal must be put under the churn, and another under the cradle; and primroses must be scattered before the door, for the fairies cannot pass the flowers. Children that die in April are supposed to be carried off by the fairies, who are then always on the watch to abduct whatever is young and beautiful for their fairy homes.’

It is unlucky to hear a cuckoo on May Day

Ashes are sprinkled on the doorstep on May eve and if the footprint in the morning is turned inward it means marriage and if turned outward death is certain. It is also a time for divination and snails are used to foretell a lover’s name, the initial being left by the snail’s trail in the clay. It is unlucky to hear a cuckoo on May Day and in fact in Norway dating back to pre-Christian times the direction of the call signals various happenings.

If the call comes from the south, the year will be good. If it is heard from the north, it is forecasted as a year of ill luck. If it comes from the west, one will be successful, and if it comes from the east, one will be lucky in love. For this reason, traditional Norwegian calendars show a bird perched in a tree on the mark for May 1st. In Ireland the direction of the wind on May morning is likewise a portent for good or evil depending on direction – from the south being good.

Some of the customs are still retained in Ireland although this varies depending on the part of the country. Internationally however there appears to have been something of a revival of the bealtaine customs as can readily be divined from a web search. The common cause of all celebrations around the beginning of May is the end of winter and a welcoming of the summer.  In the northern hemisphere early May  indicates the quarter of the year that is the most fertile time as the earth is warm and the days are long.

It would appear that there is something of a revival

In conclusion, we have had a look at a variety of customs and superstitions associated with May Day. The festival is celebrated internationally and we appear to share some of the celebrations such as the maypole, bonfires and the strewing of flowers with a lot of Europe especially the Celtic nations. It would appear too that there is something of a revival of the fire festivals and it is likely that groups such as Irish Heritage together with courses such as the Diploma in Arts (Folklore and Heritage of the Northwest) at St Angelas Sligo (NUIG) will contribute to the retention and revival of a lot of the older customs.


2 N Chadwick  The Celts   p. 181



4 James MacKillop Myths and Legends of the Celts  p 102

5  J Mc Gowan Island Voices  p87

6 K Danaher The Year in Ireland p110

7  W Wilde  Ireland :Her Wit, Peculiarities and popular superstition  ChII

8 J Mac Killop Myths and Legends of the Celts p103

9 L Coyle A Parish History  p185

10 K Danaher The Year in Ireland p105

11 F Wilde Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and superstitions of Ireland

References and Bibliography

Chadwick, N (1970)   The Celts. Penguin London

Coyle, L (1994)    A Parish History of Kilglass, Slatta, Rooskey.

Roscommon Herald Boyle

Danagher, K. (1972) The Year in Ireland   Leinster Leader Ltd  Naas

Ellis, P. B. (2003)   A Brief  History of the Celts  Robinson  London

McGowan, J  (2004)  Island Voices   Aeolus

MacKillop, J. (2006 )  Myths and Legends of the Celts  Penguin London

Wilde, Lady F. Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland accessed May 12th 2012

Wilde, Sir W. (c1850)  Ireland :Her Wit, Peculiarities and popular superstition

The Dublin University magazine  (Lady Wilde)

Traditional May Day Customs in Ireland (Clodagh Doyle)






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