The May-Day Festival in Ireland

From Ireland: Her Wit, Peculiarities and Popular Superstitions

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CHAPTER II...continued

The English ceremonial of May Day has been fully and graphically described by the industrious Brande, and by Sir Henry Ellis, in his modern edition of the work of that author in Hone's "Every-day Book," in Strutt's "Sports and Pastimes of the People," and in several minor works and periodicals. But in describing the Irish observances of this institution, we shall only make use of these and other authorities where they serve to illustrate, by their more ample details, our now almost forgotten Irish customs. It is scarcely necessary to inform the reader that a superstitious creed, and certain mystic rites derived from the remotest times, attach to almost every nation in a certain state of society, and are not peculiar to either race or creed; that some of these are of almost universal acceptation; that others belong to peculiar localities, and that their geographical distribution is a source of interesting investigation both to the historian and to the ethnologist.

In many countries these rites and practices are still prevalent; in others more advanced in civilization, or the society of which has suffered some sudden and violent disruption, they are merely preserved in the ancient ballad, the bardic legend, or the traditional romance; or dimly appear referred to in the sayings and proverbs of the old people, or have been preserved like lingering shadows amongst the amusements and customs of modern times. In describing any peculiar rite or custom, we shall give it in as full and ample a manner as we have ever heard or known it to be observed or enacted. But as many of these usages are now obsolete, others only partially preserved—some being very local, one custom being confined to the north, another being peculiar to the west, and several only seen in the south, or in the adjacent parts of Leinster—our country readers are not to suppose that, because only a mere vestige of the rite or type of the ceremonial exists in their neighbourhood, we have in any way enlarged these descriptions by fancy or conjecture.

This little work is not intended for antiquarian purposes. We have neither the leisure nor the research necessary to render it learned in an archaeological point of view, but it is our earnest desire, as far as our knowledge enables us, not to propagate, even in a popular legend, the usual historic fallacies, conjectural etymologies, and far-fetched and often inapplicable and unmeaning analogies to Egyptian, Hindoo, and Persian mythologies—high sounding names often used to cloak the ignorance of writers or to mystify the simplicity and credulity of readers,—which obtained credit with Irish readers some years ago; and it is our wish, as far as possible, to correct those opinions which the simplicity or ignorance of our forefathers disseminated.

It is more than probable that the ancient pagan Irish worshipped the Sun, but whether under the name of Beal, or with what symbolic idols, is as yet undetermined; we also know that the first great division of the year [6] was into summer and winter, Samradh and Geimhredh; the former beginning in May, or Bealtine; and the latter in November, or Samhfhuim, Summer-end. Now most credible authorities are agreed that the first great Druid feast, or fire-offering of Beal, Bel or Baal, was originally kept on the first of May, though afterwards altered, it is said, by the early Christian missionaries [7] to midsummer, when it celebrates the Eve of St. John the Baptist's Day (the 24th of June), under which head we purpose describing this very ancient pagan custom, with all the Irish rites attending it more particularly on another occasion. But we have still stronger proof than either that derived from learned writings, or the very name itself, in the fact that bonfires are still lighted in some places in Ireland on the last evening in April, and in others on the 1st of May. We have seen them but a very few years ago in the county of Wicklow, and in the neighbourhood of Dublin, and several used to be lighted in the back streets and lanes, particularly in the Liberties of this city, until the establishment of the present admirable police force. Vallancey—whose opinions, though deserving of little weight, when questions of history or the discussion of theories relative to antiquities and etymologies are concerned, is fully worthy of credence when mere matters of fact, or circumstances passing beneath his own knowledge, are under review—says speaking of the Scottish Beltin:—"The Irish still preserve this custom, for the fire is to this day lighted in the milking yards; the men, women, and children, for the same reason, pass through, or leap over, the sacred fires, and the cattle are driven through the flames of the burning straw on the 1st of May."[8]

A correspondent to "Hone's Every-day Book" (vol. ii., p. 595) thus describes the Dublin bonfire so late as 1825. A portion of the collection made by the May-boys was "expended in the purchase of a heap of turf sufficient for a large fire, and, if the funds would allow, an old tar-barrel. Formerly it was not considered complete without having a horse's skull and other bones to burn in the fire. The depots for these bones were the tanners' yards, in a part of the suburbs called Kilmainham,[9] and on May morning groups of boys dragged loads of bones to their several destinations." This practice has given rise to the threat still made use of, "I will drag you like a horse's head to a bonfire." The great Dublin bonfire, which used in former times to blaze in the open space leading from St. Patrick's Cathedral to the Coombe, upon May Eve, is still within the recollection of the old inhabitants. And up to this very time the May-bush in the neighbourhood of Swords and other places is, at dusk, decorated with a number of lighted candles, like the Heilege-nacht-Baum, the good, or holy, or lucky tree of Christmas in Germany. May bonfires are not common in Connaught or Ulster, but they still maintain in Cork, and in parts of Kilkenny, Limerick and Kerry.

Now, it is remarkable that while the May bonfires are always lighted upon the evening of the 30th of April or the 1st of May, the midsummer fire is, in many places, repeated twelve days after the 21st of June, that period marking the difference between the Old and New Style, a fact which goes a good way to prove that the institution of the midsummer fire is of comparatively modern date. The 29th of June—St. Peter and St. Paul's Day—has also of late years been in some places honoured with a bonfire; so that soon the people will have altogether forgotten the original institution of the bonfire, and, perhaps, have given it up altogether. Some old persons, still alive, tell us of the cattle having been driven through the half-extinguished bonfire, as a preservative against witchcraft, and people used to leap through it, and carry off a coal from it, as at the fire of St John's Eve; and the ceremonial observed in Scotland, up to a very recent date indeed, of which accounts have been preserved by Campbell [10] and others, afford us ample food for speculation and conjecture (even had we no Irish authorities to consult) as to the pagan rites originally enacted at this festival, which, it would appear, in times of remote antiquity, evidently partook of the nature of a sacrifice, or propitiatory offering to the sun.

Mr. W. Grant Stewart, in his "Popular Superstitions and Festive Amusements of the Highlands of Scotland," (1823), has given an account of several curious rites performed even in modern days in that country. "At Belton Eve," he says, "messengers are dispatched to the woods for cargoes of the blessed rowan-tree, the virtues of which are well known. Being formed into the shape of a cross, by means of a red-thread, the virtues of which, too, are very eminent, those crosses are, with all due solemnity, inserted in the different door-lintels in the town, and protect those premises from the cantrips of the most diabolical witch in the universe. Care should also be taken to insert one of them in the midden, which has at all times been a favourite site of rendezvous with the black sisterhood. This cheaply-purchased precaution once observed, the people of those countries will now go to bed as unconcernedly, and sleep as soundly, as on any other night.

"While those necessary precautions are in preparation, the matron or housekeeper is employed in a not less interesting avocation to the juvenile generation, i. e., baking the Belton bannocks. Next morning the children are presented each with a bannock, with as much joy as an heir to an estate his title-deeds; and having their pockets well lined with cheese and eggs, to render the entertainment still more sumptuous, they hasten to the place of assignation, to meet the little band assembled on the brow of some sloping hill, to reel their bannocks and learn their future fate. With hearty greetings they meet, and with their knives make the signs of life and death on their bannocks. These signs are a cross, or the sign of life, on the one side; and a cypher, or the sign of death, on the other. This being done, the bannocks are all arranged in a line, and on their edges let down the hill. This process is repeated three times, and if the cross most frequently present itself, the owner will live to celebrate another Belton day; but if the cypher is oftenest uppermost, he is doomed to die, of course. This sure prophecy of short life, however, seldom spoils the appetites of the unfortunate short-livers, who will handle their knives with as little sign of death as their more fortunate companions. Assembling around a rousing fire of collected heath and brushwood, the ill-fated bannocks are soon demolished, amidst the cheering and jollity of the youthful association."

The Gaelic appellation Bealtaine, the Beal-fire, has given rise to many conjectures, and would, at first sight, appear to be strongly corroborative of the Syrian or Phoenician origin of the Irish, from the circumstance of the name of the chief deity of the two nations being the same, and from the fact of fire being considered propitiatory in both countries. It remains, however, to be proved that the Irish had a god called Baal or Beal, unless it can be shown that they worshipped the sun under that title or name. It is asserted that if the Pagan Irish worshipped Baal, there would be more places called so in ancient topographical descriptions, or preserved in modern names; but it is not so. Thus, to our inquiry on this head, Mr. O'Donovan writes:—"There are no places called Baal in Ireland. I met some places called Bealtaine, from May-fires having been lighted there. The Balls in Achill Island, in the county of Mayo, are portions of land allotted to individuals, as Conor Patten's Ball, Denis Toland's Ball, &c. In this sense, the word ball denotes a SPOT (of land). Ball, the village in Mayo, is from BALLA, a wall. The Ballys are from baile, Villa, πολις, ville; and the Bellas, from Bel-atha, i. e., mouth of a ford, os vadi." But it may be said, on the other hand, that there are not places called after any other Irish Pagan deities either.

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[6] See "O'Donovan's Introduction to the Laebhar na g-Ceart, or Book of Rights," published by the Irish Celtic Society, "On the Division of the Year among the Ancient Irish," p. xlviii. Other divisions into quarters, or ratha, as Samh-ratha, Foghmhar-ratha, Geimh-ratha, and Iar-ratha, or Earrach, corresponding to our summer, autumn, winter, and spring (see Dr. O'Conor's "Rerum Hib. Scrip. Epistola Nuncupatoria," lxxi.) were also made; but these do not concern our present purpose.

[7] We do not know when this actually occurred, or through whose instrumentality. The country people attribute it to St. Patrick, but we know not from what source. Can any of our readers enlighten us upon this point. Do the Bollandists allude to it?

[8] See Vallancey's "Enquiry into the First Inhabitants of Ireland," vol. ii. of the "Collectanea de Rebus Hibernicis," p. 64.

[9] There are but few tan-yards in this or any other part of Dublin now, and the value of bones is too well known at present to permit of their ever being used for mere matter of amusement.

[10] See "Journey to Edinburgh." Consult, also, Dalzell's "Darker Superstitions of Scotland," pp. 167 and 177. George Cruikshank has given a graphic illustration of the May-dew dancers at Arthur's Seat, Edinburgh, in "Hone's Every-day Book," vol. ii., p. 610. See also Martin's Description of the Western Islands of Scotland p. 7.