The May-Day Festival in Ireland

From Ireland: Her Wit, Peculiarities and Popular Superstitions

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CHAPTER II...continued

Many ancient ceremonies, as well as bonfires, attached to Midsummer Eve in England, up to a comparatively recent period; but, with the exception of the rites performed in connexion with the fire itself, we know of no Irish usages peculiar to the Christian festival of St. John's Eve; while numberless were the ancient customs observed either on the vigil of the summer quarter, or on May Day, in Ireland, vestiges of which still linger among the people—facts strongly corroborative of the supposition that the Midsummer fire is but the ingrafting of an ancient pagan rite upon a comparatively modern Christian festival. Let those who daily boast of adult conversions from one creed to another look well to the fact, that notwithstanding all the efforts of a most powerful Church, and all the influence of the Irish clergy, of every denomination, the May Day bonfire, the pagan fire which Cormac Cullinan told us was lighted in honour of the god Bel, in his time, still exists in many parts of the country, and still lingers in the remembrance of all our old people, now after fourteen hundred years of so-called conversion to Christianity.

We might reserve the details of the Midsummer fire until we came to describe that festival more particularly; but any account of the ceremonial attending the fire lighted upon St. John's Eve is much more applicable to the May fire; and much of the ceremonial of the former is still retained wherever the Bealtaine is even partially observed. The preparations for the May Day sports and ceremonial in Dublin, commenced about the middle of April, and even earlier, and a rivalry, which often led to the most fearful riots was incited, particularly between the "Liberty boys" upon the south, and the "Ormond boys" upon the north side of the river; and even among themselves, as to which street or district would exhibit the best dressed and handsomest May bush, or could boast the largest and hottest bonfire. Upon one of the popular outbreaks resulting from the abduction of a May bush, was written the song, in old Dublin slang, of—

"De nite afore de fust of Magay,"

so spiritedly described in that graphic record of the past, "Sketches of Ireland Sixty Years Ago," now republished as a part of this series. For weeks before, a parcel of idle scamps, male and female, devoted themselves to the task of "collecting for the May;" and parties, decorated with ribbons, and carrying green boughs, and sometimes escorted by itinerant musicians, went from house to house soliciting contributions of ribbons, handkerchiefs, and pieces of gaudy silk—materials then manufactured, and consequently more common in the Liberty than now—to adorn the May bush. Turf, coals, old bones, particularly slugs of cows' horns from the tan-yards, and horses' heads from the knackers, logs of wood, &c., were also collected, to which some of the merchants generally added a few pitch and tar-barrels. Money was solicited to "moisten the clay" of the revellers; for, whether from liking, or from fear, or considering it unlucky, few ventured to refuse to contribute "something toste de May bush." The ignitable materials were formed in depots, in back-yards, and the cellars of old houses, long before the approaching festival; and several sorties were made by opposing factions to gain possession of these hordes, and lives have been lost in the skirmishes which ensued.

In Dublin the bonfires were always lighted upon the evening of May Day, and generally in the vicinity of the May bush. The great fire was, as we already mentioned, at the lower end of the Coombe; but there were also fires in the centre and at the top of that classic locality. The weavers had their fire in Weaver's Square; the hatters and pipemakers in the upper end of James's Street; and the neighbourhood of St. John's Well, near Kilmainham, beside Bully's Acre, generally exhibited a towering blaze. Upon the north side of the city, the best fire blazed in Smithfield. With the exception of one ancient rite—that of throwing into it the May bush—there were but few Pagan ceremonies observed at the metropolitan fires. A vast crowd collected, whiskey was distributed galore both to those who had, and had not, gathered the morning's dew. The entire population of the district collected round the bush and the fire; the elder portion, men and women, bringing with them chairs or stools, to sit out the wake of the winter and spring, according to the olden usage. The best singers in the crowd lilted up, "The Night before Larry was Stretched," or "Hie for de Sweet Libertie;" but the then popular air of "The Baiting of Lord Altham's Bull," and "De May bush;" and another local song of triumphful commemoration of a victory over the Ormond-market men, a verse of which we remember:—

"Begone, ye cowardly scoundrels,
Do ye remember de day,
Dat yes came down to Newmarket,
And stole de sweet May bush away?"

were the "most popular and deservedly admired," from their allusions to the season and the locality. Fiddlers and pipers plied their fingers and elbows; and dancing, shouting, revelry, and debauchery of every description succeeded, till, at an advanced hour of the night, the scene partook more of the nature of the ancient Saturnalia, than anything we can at present liken it to, except that which a London mob now exhibits the night preceding an execution in the Old Bailey or at Horsemonger Lane Gaol.

In country parts, however, besides the ordinary expressions of delight, generated by the amusement of the bonfire, the ancient Druidical custom of leaping through the flames, was practised at May as well as upon Midsummer Eve, as of old at the Roman Palilia—

"Moxque per ardentes stipulae crepitantis acervos,
Tiajicias celeri strenua membra pede."

With some, particularly the younger portion, this was a mere diversion, to which they attached no particular meaning. Yet others performed it with a deeper intention, and evidently as a religious rite. Thus, many of the old people might be seen circumambulating the fire, and repeating to themselves certain prayers. If a man was about to perform a long journey, he leaped backwards and forwards three times through the fire, to give him success in his undertaking. If about to wed he did it to purify himself for the marriage state. If going to undertake some hazardous enterprise, he passed through the fire to render himself invulnerable. As the fire sunk low, the girls tript across it to procure good husbands; women great with child might be seen stepping through it to ensure a happy delivery, and children were also carried across the smouldering ashes, as of old among the Canaanites.

When the fire has nearly expired, and the dancing, singing, and carousing are over, each individual present provides himself with a braune, or ember of the fire, to carry home with him, which, if it becomes extinguished before he reaches his house, it is an omen of impending misfortune. The new fire is kindled with this spark. They also throw some of these lighted coals, or ashes, into the corn-fields, or among the potato crops, or the flax, to preserve them from witchcraft, and to ensure a good return. Portions of the extinguished fire are generally retained in each family, and often sewed into the dress of an individual about to cross the sea.[13] Hecker, in his description of the Epidemics of the Middle Ages, relates many curious usages formerly resorted to upon the kindling of the "Nadfyr" on St. John's Day (when the dancing mania first commenced in Germany), which are equally applicable to the May festival.

As at the Midsummer festival so at the May fires, the boys of an adjoining bonfire often made a sudden descent, and endeavoured to carry off some of the fuel from a neighbouring bonfire, and serious consequences have resulted therefrom. When all was over, it was no uncommon practice, in Connaught at least, at the Midsummer fire, to drive the cattle through the greeshagh, or warm ashes, as a form of purification and a preservative against witchcraft, fairies, murrain, blackleg, loss of milk, and other misfortunes or diseases. Even the ashes which remain bear a charm or virtue, and were sprinkled about like the red and yellow powders at the Hindoo festival of Hoolie. In former times some used to be collected and mixed with water; and this liquor, after some days, when the ashes had precipitated, was poured off, and used as a wash for sores of different descriptions. To this day the annual, or half-yearly rent paid by the farmers in the south of Ireland in May, is called Cios na Bealtaine, or the rent of Baal's fire.

Do not the following lines from Barnabe Googe's translation of Neogeorgus' quaint old poem,[14] descriptive of the Midsummer Eve festival, appear to describe some of our May Day rites, particularly that of looking through the flower-decorated bush into the bonfire:—

"When bonfires great with loftie flame in every towne doe burne,
And young men round about with maides doe dance in every streete,
With garlands wrought of mother-wort, or else with virvaine sweete,
And many other flowres faire, with violets in their handes;
Whereas they all doe fondly thinke that whosoever standes,
And, throw the flowres, beholdes the flame, his eyes shall feel no paine;
When thus till night they daunced have, they through the fire amaine
With stormy wordes doe runne, and all their hearbes they cast therein,
And then with words devout and prayers they solemnly begin,
Desiring God that all their ills may there consumed bee,
Whereby they thinke through all that yeare from agues to he free."

We have never heard of any floral accompaniments to the St. John's Eve fire in Ireland.

Cattle are carefully watched about May time, but particularly upon May Eve and May Day. In the South and West they are invariably housed or confined in an inclosed paddock, and carefully watched during the night, particularly milch cows, calves, and heifers; for, if any one was to milk three titfuls in the name of the devil, or even go through the form of milking the spancel, or langling, as it is called in some of the counties of Leinster, there would be but a Flemish account of the butter for the next twelvemonth.

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[13] In addition to the references and quotations given in the foregoing notices of Bealtaine, the following works may be consulted:—Wood's "Inquiry concerning the Primitive Inhabitants of Ireland," p. 170; "The Penny Magazine;" "Notices of May Day and Midsummer;" "The Philosophical Survey of the South of Ireland," p. 233; Crantz' "History of Greenland," Vol. II.; "The Mount of Dromore," in Stott's "Songs of Dearded;" Moore's "History of Ireland" (Cab. Cyclo.), Vol. I, pp. 22, 24, 205, 216; "Transactions of Royal Irish Academy," Vol. I., Antiq. pp. 4 and 7; Vol. II., p. 78, giving an account of the "Hobby Horse," now obsolete; Vol. XX.; Petrie's "Round Towers;" Croker's "Researches in the South of Ireland;" Train's "Historical and Statistical Account of the Isle of Man;" Sir Wm. Betham's "Gael and Cimbri," p. 222; Vallancey's "Collectanea," Vol. II., p. 286; Duffy's "Irish Catholic Magazine;'' Vol. I., p. 12, &c. In the "Dublin University Magazine," for Oct. 1849, see "Song of the Ramoan Peasantry on May Eve;" Betham's "Etruria Celtica;" Pennant's "Tour in Scotland, 1769," p. 110; "The Newry Magazine;" O'Halloran's "History of Ireland;" "Rees' Cyclopaedia," Art. Beltine; Borlase, p. 134; Higgins's "Celtic Druids," p. 150; "Archaeologia," Vol. VII., p. 102, X., 181; Toland's "Druids;" Campbell's "Ireland." See also the German works of Grim. The discussion of the opinions of these various authors, or even an enumeration of the subjects relating to May Day customs contained in their works, would occupy more space than we could here devote to this matter.

[14] Translated in 1750, and dedicated to Queen Elizabeth. See Brand's "Popular Antiquities," and Strutt's "Sports and Pastimes."