Ireland XO Insight - May Altars

Monday, 2 May, 2016
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May has traditionally been known as the 'Month of Mary' and the annual setting up of the May Altar heralds the start of summer

Stained Glass Window

Building the May Altar

Over the years, the tradition of building the small May Altar in the kitchen window has brought the colourful primroses, cherry blossom and daisies in to the house. In our younger days our mothers would add the statue of the Blessed Virgin and surround it with flowers and perhaps a votive candle. The same statue was used every year, usually purchased from Knock Shrine, (depending on what part of the country you lived in) or further afield from Lourdes in France. These were small plastic statues of what was called the "Holy Lady" about 6 inches in height, though any statue could be used. When purchased, they were filled with holy water and topped with a blue crown. Almost every house in the country had one and most houses still have them today.

The May Altar would be erected on the 1st of May until May 31st and it is surprising the amount of small, colourful flowers that are available at that time of year. Usually the weather hasn't warmed up but in looking for those flowers you discover that indeed, the land has certainly awakened from its winter hibernation.

Bring flowers of the rarest... 

Almost every town and village in Ireland has a few Marion Shrines, with many houses and communities creating these quiet corners of reflection, adorned with a statue of Mary and usually with a place to sit or kneel.  Spotting these can be a great way to pass the time on long car journeys around Ireland and they are particularly interesting in May when Marion Shrines will be decorated too with the simple flowers. Some of these shrines are associated with apparitions or healing cures or just mark the paths along places of devotion. 

The old hymn records the act of veneration of the Blessed Virgin:

Bring flowers of the rarest
bring blossoms the fairest,
from garden and woodland and hillside and dale;
our full hearts are swelling,
our glad voices telling
the praise of the loveliest flower of the vale!

O Mary we crown thee with blossoms today!
Queen of the Angels and Queen of the May.
O Mary we crown thee with blossoms today,
Queen of the Angels and Queen of the May…

The tradition of the May Altar has been handed down in many parts of the country, usually from mother to daughter but since the decrease in mass-going it might not be as popular as it once was. Even if it is less practiced today, it is nice to think that in this quiet, simple task each year we remember our mothers and our connection to her mother and all those who came before.