Emerald Isle

Bealtaine the Month of May

Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales tales of Ireland

Farewell to the rough month of the cuckoo

May is a magical month in more ways than one! The beginning of May marked one of the cross quarters of the year, when the world grew thin in certain places, as the old folks used to say, and the Sidhe and other spirits could travel over and back between our world and theirs. The exact date wanders from year to year mind you, sometimes earlier, sometimes later.

This was particularly true on May eve, before the festival of Bealtaine, for this was when the fairies held their conclaves on hilltops and looked for satisfaction in their feuds, so it was a wise mortal who stayed indoors at this time of year!

But even keeping your own door locked tight was not enough to be sure and safe, so for extra protection people might strew May-flowers as they were called, primroses and marigolds, or any yellow flower, across their window ledges and doors. Livestock, barns and byres were likewise protected, or if you had holy water it would do just as well.

Another method to frighten off the Good Folk was to tie a sugán or carefully woven straw rope around the necks of cattle, or you could singe the hair on their heads. A red and burning sod of turf was put on the shovel and walked around the cattle, or some would leave milk out for the Sidhe as an offering.

But never do so on May day or May eve, for that would give away the household's good fortune for the year! A witch might steal their neighbours' milk or butter, so that anything churned would go to the witch, and not the one who churned it! They would never give away fire, milk, salt or water on May eve or May day either. Tradesmen who worked about the house would have to smoke by the hearth and put their pipes out before leaving, and beggars went hungry on that day.

If a witch managed to steal a cinder from your fire and drop it down your well on May day, no profit would come from your labours that year, which was called “burning the well”. Witches could also change shape on May day, becoming hares or rabbits to better steal from their neighbours. In county Leitrim they would get a pile of rowan leaves and tie it up the chimney to dry, then on May morning, lit it to be the first smoke to go out of the chimney, for witches could do nothing with it.

May Eve or Oíche Bealtaine is one of those rare and mystical nights when the music of the fairies can be heard by mortal ears, and there are many stories of mortals learning beautiful music from the fairies. In the middle of the nineteenth century a popular method of complimenting a musician was to tell them that they must have listened to the piper on May eve!

In parts of the east and midlands of Ireland, a May bush was prepared, decorated with ribbons, flowers, or the leftover coloured eggshells painted for Easter. Some people even put candles among the branches, and in others the bush was burned as part of May festivities. Groups might carry the bush from place to place, keeping a watchful eye in case villains from another viallge might try to steal their bush, and their luck along with it!

If you got sick on May eve, some said you were a goner, while others though it was the very best time of year for healing, and perhaps both were true depending on who you asked. The man of the house upon May eve would break the spindle of a wooden wheel over the head of the sick person, and death or recovery were confidently anticipated within three days. The first water drawn from a spring or well on May was thought to be a very potent healer, as was the first dew on the grass.

"I wash my face in water that has never rained nor run and dry it in a towel that was never wove on spun" is an ancient Irish riddle, referring to a face washed in May dew and dried in the open air.

Old traditions involved lighting fires at sunset on May eve, and all fires throughout the country were extinguished save only one, the High King's fire at Uisneach near to Tara. People would leap between two bonfires to be purified, or even leap over them to show their daring and courage! The fire, smoke and ash from these bonfires was considered sacred, and the remains of enormous feasts have been found at Uisneach. Sometimes livestock was driven across the embers of these fires to protect them from evil influences and sickness.

Mide it was, lord of the Gaels, who began this tradition and his fire on Uisneach burned for seven years without interruption so that he could claim the lands about as his own.

May day as the old druids reckoned it was the time for the pagan festival of Bealtaine, or Beal-tine, bright fire. Many cultures across ancient Europe celebrated on this day going back far into the unknown mysteries of prehistory. Beltany stone circle is aligned to help determine the exact date of the cross quarter, between the dark half of the year and the bright half, and many other ancient monuments in Ireland were laid out for these special days.

Exactly six months away from Samhain, people would seal up their homes on May day, turning away all guests, since anything taken from their house on this day could be used against them by wicked magicians, and you couldn't be sure if your visitor was human or not! Strangers were avoided and nothing was shared, and those visiting unexpectedly on these days were viewed with great suspicion. You might also “beat the bounds” as it was called, walking the circuit of your property, before going feasting, dancing and drinking.

Summer sports began on May day and in Kilkenny, home of the infamous cats, men were given new hurling balls by the womenfolk on this day. Originally these balls would have been woven from horsehair and other materials. In certain parts of Ulster a straw effigy of a May queen was decorated with flowers and borne about on a pole.

The events which took place on May day were seen as an omen of the year to come, so if there was a misfortune, it was cause for great misery. Divination was popular at this time of year too, since the veils between the worlds were so thin offerings were made to the spirits and gods to reveal the future. Women would put snails in pans of flour and try to foresee by their movements the man they were to marry.

May is also called “the rough month of the cuckoo,” or garbh mí na gcuach, the name given to the scairbhín or scaraveen weather, which is cold, wet and windy, usually lasting from mid April to mid May. Farmers used to believe that the extremes of heat and cold during this month all worked for the health of their plants –  wind to scatter the pollen, sunshine for growth and cold to harden them against disease.

As to why it was called the month of the cuckoo, it was traditionally around mid April that the cuckoo's call was heard, heralding the start of the rough month.

Beltany stone circle can be found on the map below!

Further Folk and Faerie Tales of Ireland

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