In Ireland Mayday is surrounded by a rich folklore tradition, most of which dates from 19th century. These beliefs give an insight into the mindset of a earlier, more rural Ireland where the spirit world and superstition still prevailed. While archaeologists are mainly concerned with the physical remains of past cultures, folklore can help us understanding how some of these people thought and why they carried out the actions they did.
Mayday corresponds with the Irish festival of La Bealtaine, which officially heralded the beginning of the summer. Its name appears to derive from the Old Irish words Bel taine meaning ‘bright fire’ and it was surrounded by a large number of folk beliefs some of which had obvious pagan origins. As the name of the festival suggests bonfires played an important part in the activities and were often lit on prominent local landmarks with the Hill of Uisneach in Co. Westmeath being the most famous example.
A particularly common tradition involved driving herds of cows between two bonfires in the belief that this would purify the herd and also bring luck. It was also deemed unlucky to give away salt, fire or water on Mayday as the luck and profits of a farm went with these gifts. Witches and the fairies were also believed to be unusually active during this period and a number of actions could be taken to protect your home and especially your livestock. Milk could be poured across the threshold of the house or byre to prevent entry by the ‘wee folk’ or more gruesomely the cattle could be driven to the nearest ringfort or “fairyfort” and some of their blood spilt on the ground to appease the spirits. Ringforts are the classic early medieval settlement type and were long abandoned by the 19thand 20th centuries when they had become associated with the fairy folk.
May flowers, such as primrose, gorse or hawthorn blossoms, were gathered before dawn and placed in bundles on door posts to ward off evil. Similarly sprigs of rowan or hawthorn could be placed over the byre door or even across the horns of the cows to prevent ‘milk thieves’, the prevalent belief being that someone could steal your summer’s milk supplies through the incantation of specific curses. ‘May bushes’were also erected in farm yards and around villages. These normally consisted of hawthorn branches that had been driven into the ground and then decorated with rags and other items. The following account from the 1930′s details the erection of a May bush in Taghmon, Co. Wexford.
‘It is a custom in the Taghmon district to hold celebrations on the first day of May with a May bush. A number of boys go out in the country armed with a saw or hatched. They cut a blackthorn bush or sceach. They then get an old bucket and fill it with clay. They stick the bush down in it and take it to a waste bit of land in the neighbour-hood of the village. Then they start to decorate the bush with coloured papers, candles, painted eggshells and pictures. Then they select a king and queen. The king and queen take it up and march around the streets with it. The people give them pennies. Then in the end they burn the May bush and spend their money. This custom has been carried on in Taghmon as long as the oldest resident can remember‘
Some traditions also surrounded human fertility, such as the creation of May babies. In this curious custom a figure of a female (the May baby) was placed on a pole and then covered in flowers, ribbons and straw. A man and a woman, also dressed up in costume, would then dance around the figure and make vulgar displays to the on watching crowd. It was believed that attending this spectacle would help people trying to conceive.