Lá Bealtaine aka May Day has officially heralded the beginning of summer in Ireland since pagan times. Many of the old Celtic traditions marking the festival of Bealtaine endured well into the 19th century and some still do!
Were any of these "sayings" passed on to you from your own grandparents? Some differed county by county and could give valuable clues to place of origin.
"A wet and windy May fills the haggard with corn and hay."
Mayday has long been the day for superstitions and forecasts for fertility and harvesting. The name Bealtaine is said to derive from Old Irish, meaning "bright fire" (Belenus was the Celtic sun and 'healer god'). Old traditions involved lighting bonfires at sunset on Oíche Bealtaine (or May Eve - April 30) on prominent local landmarks. The Hill of Uisneach in Co. Westmeath is the most famous example. These and other rituals (such as creating a May altar) still survive, particularly in the west of Ireland.
Our Irish ancestors' May Day customs and traditions were diligently recorded by Irish schoolchildren in the late 1930s when the Irish Folklore Commission enlisted schools across the Irish Free State to interview grandparents and elderly neighbours in an initiative to collect local folklore. Many of those interviewed at this time were alive in the mid-19th century.
So what Piseóga (Pishogues or superstitions) would your 19th-century ancestor have adhered to? Featured below are some of the most interesting sayings by county (each link will bring your to more from that county in "the School's Collection").
If you were entering a dwelling-house (on May Day) you would have to put your right foot inside the door first. No one ever gets married on May Day because it is counted as very unlucky. If a robin flew into the house on May Day it is supposed to be a sign of a death about to take place.
"Most of the people in Cavan still keep the old May Day customs. The children gather primroses, daisies, and buttercups and sprinkle them at the doorway. In the evening they collect all the flowers and have a huge bonfire usually on a hill or some slope. Other children get a whin bush or two (usually two and place one each side of the door then they throw the May flowers on the whins.
I heard at home that some children get a whitethorn bush and plant it at the door. They say that in the morning they will find a present from the fairies under the bush. It is really their parents who put the gift there."
On May Eve people stick "Quickbane" for fear that the fairies would take the land. Nobody redens the clay on May Day... People do lots of queer things with churn on May Day. Some women brought out their churns and lighted a candle inside in them. Others put herbs into them on May Day.
If a young girl met a white snail first on May morning it meant good fortune, and a good husband, but a black snail seen first was a harbinger of death. It was a good sign to see a white lamb on one's left side, but, a bad one to hear the little false cuckoo.
"There is a holy well near Castletown and people go there paying rounds on May Eve and also on May day morning. About 30 years ago crowds of people used go there but now the custom is dying out... On May day some people light a blessed candle under the cows to bless them. If you spill a drop of milk on May day they say you will be spilling it for the year. "
May Day is the 1st of May. It is also looked on as the first day of summer. On that day some people put May flowers in their windows and sometimes on their window sills and doors. This is a very old custom which is supposed to keep away fairy people and witches.
On 1ST MAY all the village children get a May bush draped with rags and go from door to door to collect pennies. When evening comes they collect on the village green and dance and sing:-
On May day, on May day,
A bird once sang to me,
The song I shall never forget,
Its notes, I often still repeat,
On May day, on May day.
When they have collected the pennies they buy candles to put on the May bush.
"Long ago people used to say if you throw out the ashes or dust of the house on May Day you throw out your luck for the year. Others say if you sweep the chimney on May Day you will have "smoke every day in the year. Long ago old women used to get up before sunrise and wash their faces in the dew. They would not get sunburnt for the year.
"Long ago when my Grandmother was a young girl there was some kind of charm or witchcraft worked by some old people. All the farmers at that time made their own butter as there were no creameries and some wicked people were able to take away by witchcraft their neighbour's butter. This was nearly always worked on May morning. Those old women would go out to their neighbours' cows before the sun rose on May morning and take a sheet with them and wave it over the cows and say some words."
It is said also that the threshold is to be swept clean and ashes sprinkled over it, and in the morning you will see foot-prints on the threshold. If the foot-prints are inward a marriage is to take place, and if outward a death will take place in the house before the year is out.
"On May day, people stick a piece of May-bush in the manure-heap & hang eggshells on it ... and it was left there during the month of May. Older Customs: "Skimming of wells" early on May morning was done to take other people's butter. Butter used be taken by persons not so long ago. The priest was often brought to read over, the cream in the churn, and he used to bring back the butter."
Even now, there are superstitious women who will not even sell milk on May day. They also say that it is unlucky to bring a May bush inside the door.
"Some of the old farmers of this district, sit up all night before May-day to guard the cows. It is believed that if any of the neighbours milk the cows that night, you will have no butter on the milk from that on."
On May eve the priest has always a large amount of holy water put in the chapel and each household brings a bottle of it home and sprinkles it all around the house so that no harms will come to them. This water is known as the May water.
"On May day people make altars in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary because May is the month of Our Lady. In our church, we have May devotions in her honour."
Another May Eve custom was to erect a May Bush and dress it with flowers and coloured ribbons and in the evening all the young people of the place would gather together and they would dance and sing around the bush and they would have great sport until bedtime.
" The old people used to tie the May flowers round their cows' horns so that their cows would have a lot of milk for that year. It is not right to let out any cow until after twelve o'clock on May Day because the fairies might steal them. If you cut your finger with a stone on May Day it will never get better. You will have bad luck for the year if you give away salt or coal on May Day."
On May Day a number of boys gather together and go around from house to house with decorated bushes singing the following song
"A long life,
A happy wife,
A penny for the May Bush"
On the evening before May Day the wells were cleaned out. The man of the house would remain up till 12 o'clock. He would then go to the well for a can of water. Before returning he would drop a lump of red hot coal into the well. This was to bring good luck.
The children are al delighted when May day is approaching. A day or two previous the children go out looking for a nice bush and the wild flowers that grow in the fields, mostly the cow slips. They also collect the egg shells from Easter Sunday and place them on the May bush. They tie the flowers on the bush with thread and put it in the garden.
"There are any amount of customs observed on May Eve and on May Day. One custom which the children delight in is the crowning Queen of May the prettiest school girl in every school. This girl is taken out on May Day and set up on a high arm-chair, the other children then gather around her and dress her up with flowers. They then make a crown of flowers and place it on her head when this is done they all catch hands and dance around her singing the little song known as "Nuts and May."
In some houses, the dwellers never lit a fire until the saw smoke coming form every chimney in the vicinity and it was usually mid-day before a fire was lit in that house. People considered it unlucky to light a fire first thing in the morning. That custom is no longer carried out now.
Monán Muire (Méara Muire = Kidney Vetch) is a weed that grows about 1 foot high, a white blossom comes on it. Sometimes it is a shade of pink or yellow. The old people used to pull it on May Day and keep it all through the year. It is a cure for some disease on animals.
Old May day was a day much looked forward to long ago by the working people of this locality but it is forgotten now. The working people used to be hired on that day by the farmers for a year. May day and the boys and girls used then take a week's holiday. It was the greatest event of the year to them and they used to spare up during that week.
It was believed that witches etc could take the profit of the milk by taking the dew off the grass on May morning. To overcome the power of the witch and to retain the profit of the milk and to prevent disease coming on the cattle, the cows were driven out to the fields on May Day with a hazel stick. This custom still is observed by farmers in Redcross district.
Some people around our locality consider it most unlucky to whitewash or paper their homes on May Day or during the month of May as they believe it brings sickness and misfortune to the family and if they have any suck work in progress it is discontinued if there is no possibility of finishing it before the month of May. They also consider it a very bad sign for the fire to go out on May Day or to meet a red-haired woman on that morning.
It is a local May Day Custom to start children schooling on May Day. Most children commence their school career on May Day... Long ago the people would give up buying candles on May Day because you were supposed to do all your work in the daylight. It was an old saying "May day throw the candle away".
SOURCE: May Day - Pishogues | dúchas.ie
The counties of Antrim, Armagh, Derry, Down, Fermanagh, and Tyrone were not included in Schools Collection (1937-1939) for the Irish Folklore Commission. However, by posting to our Message Board HERE, you can ask our local volunteers about any Irish customs or traditions specific to any county or district!
A special thanks to dúchas.ie for providing the following additional information for Northern Ireland from their main collection:
"May flowers plucked and spread around the stables and byres on May Eve was also considered very effective in respect of the fairies who were believed to be very active on that particular night. They were even pushed into keyholes and odd "crannies" so that the fairies should be kept outside."
ARMAGH (not online)
See the highly entertaining chapter on "May Customs" in M. J. Murphy's "At Slieve Gullion's Foot" (pub. 1940)
"The egg-shells on the bush bring good luck to the layin' hins for the year; and the crushed May flowers on the roof (over the door) keep harm away – divilry and hellary of there's any about!"
"On May Eve the doorsteps are strewn, last thing at night, with buttercups and daisies in honour of Our Lady".