The May-Day Festival in Ireland

From Ireland: Her Wit, Peculiarities and Popular Superstitions

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CHAPTER II...continued

The references to the Belteine period are scarce in the Irish annals. In "The Restrictions and Prerogatives of the Kings of Eire," given in the recently published "Book of Rights," to the learned introduction to which we referred in a previous note (p. 38), all the authorities are cited. In the text of that work we read that the monarch was not "to go in a ship upon the water the Monday after Bealltaine (May Day)." Again, in the poetic description, we find, among the restrictions of the Ultonian monarch, that he was not "to bathe on May Day eastwards in the bright and beautiful Loch Feabhail;" probably from some such superstititious fear like that which the present inhabitants of England, as well as Ireland have with respect to going near water on Whit Monday.

In an ancient Irish manuscript, in Trinity College Library, we find this reference to the Summer-Advent fire:--

"Beltine, i.e., Biltine, i.e., lucky fire (bon-fire), i.e., two fires which used to be made by the lawgivers, or Druids, with great incantations, and they used to drive the cattle between them (to guard) against the diseases of each year. Or Bel-dine: Bel was the name of an idol god. It was on it (i.e., that day) that the firstlings of every kind of cattle used to be exhibited as in the possession of Bel; vide Beldine."[11]

In "Cormac's Glossary," we read the following explanation of Bealtaine, as well as the form of purification of the cattle, which was observed at this great Pagan ceremonial:--

"Belltaine, i.e., Bill-tene, i.e., tene-bil, i.e., goodly fire (bon, or bonus fire), i.e., two lucky fires the Druids used to make with great incantations over them, and they used to drive the cattle between them (to preserve them) against the diseases of each year."

In another part of the "Glossary," however, Cormac explains Bel as an idol or false god.

Keating has the following notice of the fire lighted at Uisneach, close to Ballymore, in Westmeath, in the reign of Tuathal Teachtmhar:--

"He (Tuathal) erected the second palace in that part of Meath which was taken from Connaught, viz., at Uisneach, where was held a general meeting of the men of Erin, called the meeting of Uisneach. This fair, or assembly, was held on the first day of the month of May; and they were wont to exchange and barter their cattle, jewels, and other property there. They were also accustomed to make offerings to the chief god which they worshipped, named Bel; and it was a custom with them to make two fires in honour of this Bel in every cantred of Ireland, and to drive a couple of every kind of cattle in the cantred between the two fires, as a preservation, to protect them against every disease during that year. And it was from this fire, made in honour of Bel, that the noble festival of Phillip and James (i.e., the 1st of May) is called Beilteine, i.e., the fire of Bel."

"I never could discover," writes Mr. O'Donovan, in answer to a query of ours on the subject, "where Keating found authority for lighting this fire at Uisneach; and I have been long of opinion that this fire was lighted at Tlachtgha, a hill near Athboy, in East Meath, where the same King Tuathal is said to have erected another palace. I ground this opinion upon a passage in a MS. in the library of Trinity College, Dublin, which runs thus:--

"The fair of Tlachtgha (which belongs to that part of Meath taken from the province of Munster) was celebrated by the youths of Munster; and a fire was lighted thereat, from which all the fires lighted in Erin were kindled, which were purchased from them (the youths of Munster); and a screpall of gold was paid them out of every territory in Erin for the fire, and a sack of wheat, and a hog from every chief hearth in Erin, were given to the Comharha of Meath, i.e., O'Kindellan, for this fire."--H. 3, 17, p. 732.

Bon, not bone-fires (teine rommec), are evidently synonymous, if not identical, with Beal-fires; but if Bel, Belus, or Beal, was really a god worshipped here, there is no reason why the name of the festival and the rite should not have been derived from his name; but except in Keating, and the hint in Cormac Mac Cullinan's Dictionary, there are, we understand, no other Irish authorities for it. The virtues of fire as a disinfectant of the atmosphere, and a preventive to the spread of contagious diseases, is a very popular and widely-spread belief among the Irish peasantry; and it is remarkable that, on the first approach of cholera here, in 1831, a sacred purifying fire --by some wise heads supposed to be of a political nature--went the round of the island, under the name of The Blessed Turf. It was carried from house to house with such rapidity, that it traversed the whole island in a single night. A remnant of the people still believe in the efficacy of fire as a preservative against pestilence, and sew up a piece of charmed turf in their dress for that purpose.

In early scripture history, we read that the people not only passed their cattle, but their children, through the idolatrous fires of Baal and Moloch. In that most charming work, "Martin's Description of the Western Islands of Scotland," (1703), which is, perhaps, the best account extant of the superstitions, manners, customs, and popular opinions of the Celtic people, we have the following account of La Bealtaine in the Hebrides:--

"Another god of the Britains was Belus, or Belinus, which seems to have been the Assyrian god Bel or Belus; and, probably, from this pagan deity comes the Scots' term of Beltin, the first day of May, having its first rise from the custom practised by the Druids, in the isles, of extinguishing all the fires in the parish until the tithes were paid; and upon payment of them, the fires were kindled in each family, and never till then. In those days malefactors were burnt between two fires; hence, when they would express a man to be in a great strait, they say, 'He is between two fires of Bell.'" And again, in another place, he says, "The inhabitants here did also make use of a fire called Tin-Egin, i.e., a forced fire, or fire of necessity, which they used as an antidote against the plague, or murrain, in cattle; and it was performed thus: all the fires in the parish were extinguished, and then eighty-one married men, being thought the necessary number for effecting this design, took two great planks of wood, and nine of them were employed by turns, who, by their repeated efforts, rubbed one of the planks against the other until the heat thereof produced fire; and from this forced fire each family is supplied with new fire, which is no sooner kindled, than a potful of water is quickly set on it, and afterwards sprinkled upon the people infected with the plague, or upon the cattle that have the murrain, and this they all say they find successful by experience. It was practised in the main land opposite to the South of Skie, within these thirty years."

There is but one other inquiry connected with Bealtaine, which here claims our notice. The ingenious and learned Dr. O'Conor, of Ballinagar, supposed that the fire which was lighted on Tara Hill, by the Druids of King Laeghaire, upon the night of St. Patrick's encampment at Slane, was the Bealtaine, or Fire-Feast of Samhrath; but if the earliest and most authentic biographers of Patrick are to be credited, that night was Easter-eve, or Holy Saturday, the 21st March, A.D. 433, and not May Day; and the Stowe librarian has not, it appears, sustained his position by arguments sufficient to convince our modern investigators, Dr. Petrie and Professor O'Donovan, the latter of whom writes:--"The probability then is, that the fire lighted at Teamhair on Easter Eve, A.D. 433, was not the Bealtaine, but some other fire; and it is stated in the second life of St. Patrick, published by Colgan, that it was the Feis Teamhrach, or Feast of Teamhrach, that Laeghaire and his Satraps were celebrating on the occasion; while the author of the Life of St. Patrick, in the 'Book of Lismore,' asserts that Laeghaire was then celebrating the festival of his own nativity, which appears to have been the truth; and if so, it was not the regular septennial Feis which met after Samhain, but one convened to celebrate the king's birthday.

From these notices, it is quite clear that O'Conor's inference, that the Bealtaine was lighted on the 21st of March, by the pagan Irish, is not sustained. In the accounts given of the Bealtaine, in 'Cormack's Glossary,' and in H. 3, 18, p. 596, as quoted in 'Petrie's Antiquities of Tara Hill,' no time is specified for the lighting of it, nor could we be able from them, or from any other written evidence yet discovered, to decide at what season it was lighted, were it not that the first of May is still universally called in Irish La Bealtaine. But Dr. O'Conor argues that this name was applied in pagan times to the 21st of March, and that it was transferred to the 1st of May by the early Christians, to agree with a Christian festival. This, however, is contrary to the tradition which still prevails in many parts of Ireland, namely, that the fires lighted in pagan times, on the 1st of May, were transferred by St. Patrick to the 24th of June, in honour of St. John the Baptist, on the eve of whose festival they still light bonfires in every county in Ireland."[12]

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[11] See Dr. Petrie's learned "Essay on Tara," p, 84; and Professor O'Donovan's "Introduction to the Book of Rights," p. 43.

[12] O'Donovan's "Introduction to the Leabhar na g-Ceart," p. 50. See also Petrie's "Essay upon Tara," in the Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy, p. 84.