The May-Day Festival in Ireland

From Ireland: Her Wit, Peculiarities and Popular Superstitions

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CHAPTER II...continued

The Nech-na Bealltaine, or May Eve, has been from time immemorial a season of rejoicing and festivity, although we are not aware of any games or pastimes peculiar to it; but the advent of the first day of summer is always hailed with delight by the peasantry, who then meet in the evening upon village-greens, or at cross-roads, and such other assembling places of the people. The May bush, though seldom decorated, was always erected then; and, if the weather was fine, dancing and music gladdened the hearts of the old crones and shanaghies that gathered round the neighbouring doors, or leaned against the adjoining ditches, and compared the present with the former times, when they, too, could fut it to "Morgan Ratler" or "Planxty Conor," or listen to the Irish song of "Summer is coming." If there is any one scene in the Irish peasant's life which approaches the description of the dance given in Goldsmith's "Deserted Village," it is that observed upon May Eve. At this time, also, small-plays and various rural games are resorted to, as "dance in the ring," and "threading my grandmother's needle;" in which latter the boys and the girls join hands and dance a sort of serpentine figure up and down the roads, sometimes for a mile in extent [15]—the men generally carrying green boughs, or sprigs of sloe and white-thorn, then in blossom, and the girls decked with posies, wreaths of noneens (daisies), and garlands of May-flowers and buttercups.

As the evening advances, and the assembly breaks up into small parties, lovers seeking the greenwood shade, and crones retiring to the hob, a few solitary individuals may be seen walking out in the gloaming, courting the moonlight by the ancient rath, or wandering into the lone fairy-peopled valley, or the dreary fell, in hopes of hearing the mystic pipers of the sheogues, which on that night, more than any other, are said to be on the alert, and to favour mortals with their melodies. Great is the agility and grace believed to be conferred on those who are fortunate enough to trip it to the music of the fairy pipes; so great that it has become a proverb in Connaught, upon seeing a good dancer, to say, "Troth, ma bouchel, you listened to the piper on May Eve."

The hearth is always carefully swept on May Eve, and then lightly sprinkled over with some of the turf-ashes; if, in the morning, the print of a foot is seen on it pointing towards the door, it is fully expected that some one will die before that day twelvemonth.

The snail charm, described by Gay in the "Shepherd's Week," though probably of English extraction, is even yet very general in Ireland, but is chiefly performed by the girls. The little animal pressed into the service on this occasion is not the box-snail (or shellemidah), but what is commonly called the Drutheen, or slug, and should be discovered accidentally, not sought for; when found, it is either placed between two pewter plates, or upon a table previously sprinkled with ashes or flour, and covered with a mias, or wooden bowl; and in the morning the anxious maid seeks to discover in the slimy track left by the snail's nocturnal peregrinations, the initial of her secret lover's name:—

"Slow crawl'd the snail, and if I right can spell,
In the soft ashes marked a curious L;
Oh, may the wondrous omen lucky prove!
For L is found in Lubberkin and Love."[16]

In the North, particularly in Raherty Island, several May Day superstitions, resembling those usually performed at Hollandtide, still remain. If a young woman wishes to know who is to be her future spouse, she goes, late on May Eve, to a black sally-tree, and plucks therefrom nine sprigs, the last of which she throws over her right shoulder, and puts the remaining eight into the foot of her right stocking. She then, on her knees, reads the third verse of the 17th chapter of Job; and on going to bed she places the stocking, with its contents, under her head. These rites duly performed, and her faith being strong, she will, in a dream during the night, be treated to a sight of her future husband.

Another mode of obtaining the same knowledge consists in going, after sunset on May Eve, to a bank on which the yarrow (ahirhallune) is growing plentifully, and gathering therefrom nine sprigs of the plant, while she repeats the following words:—

"Good morrow, good morrow, fair yarrow;
And thrice good morrow to thee;
Come tell me before to-morrow
Who my true love shall be."

The yarrow is brought home, put into the right-foot stocking, placed under the pillow, and the mystic dream is confidently expected. But if the girl opens her lips to speak after she has pulled the yarrow, the charm is broken.

In another mode of consulting the oracle of love, often resorted to in the South, the maiden seeks a neighbouring well and dropping a noggin into it, while she repeats the name of the object of her affection, leaves it there for the night, but returns to the spot by daybreak next morning. Should the vessel be found floating on the surface, she may fairly hope for the consummation of her heart's ambition; but if it has sunk she despairs of such a happiness, "for that offer, anyhow."

Wells, whether blessed by saint, or consecrated by pilgrim's "rounds," or merely furnishing the healthful spring, are objects of especial care and attention at May time; and, in former years, were frequently watched all night, particularly in pastoral districts, to ensure them against being "skimmed" with a wooden dish, or cuppaun, by some butter-abducting hag, as the sun rose on May morning. This was called "taking the flower of the well;" and the words, "Come butter, come," were then repeated.

Farmers drive their flocks by daybreak to the wells, that they may drink there before those of their neighbours, and the greatest rivalry prevails amongst the servant-girls and milkmaids, as to who should first draw water from the spring-well upon May morning.

When potatoes were plenty, and before Free Trade had smashed the cattle-feeding small farmer, it was customary for every member of the family to go out to these well-gatherings for syllabubs early in the morning, each with a small vessel in his hand, containing a drop of whiskey, on which the cow was milked; but cattle and farmer, whiskey and noggin, servants and all—are gone.

"My grandfather," writes one of our correspondents, "once came upon an old woman mixing a small piece of what appeared to be butter, on a May morning, and muttering strange words over it. She was sticking it against the door of a cow-house; and when she found that he perceived her, she suddenly fled, leaving the piece of butter behind, stuck like putty to the jamb of the door. He took it home, and found it to be not butter, but a mixture of flour and other things, which he believed was intended by her as a charm. He also caught an old woman, on a May-morning, at a spring well, cutting the tops of water-cresses with a pair of scissors, muttering strange words, and the names of certain persons who had cows; and also the words, Ir liom-ra leat do coda-ra,—i.e. half thine is mine. She repeated these words as often as she cut a sprig of watercress with the scissors, which sprig personated the individual whom she intended to rob of his milk and butter. After listening to her for some time he rushed from his place of concealment, and making towards the well, cried out, Ir liom-ra leat do coda-ra; but the affrighted cailleach fled, leaving behind a lump of butter, a baurach, or cow spancel, and other things which I now forget."

On no account would either fire or water—but, above all things, a coal of fire, even the kindling of a pipe—be given, for love or money, out of a house during the entire of May Day. The piece of lighted turf used to kindle another fire is styled the seed of the fire; and this people endeavoured to procure from the bonfire of the previous night, and to keep it alive in the ashes to light the fire on May morning; but a large fire should not be "made down" early on May morning, as it is believed that witches and fairies, whom they desire to propitiate, have great horror to the first smoke.

Milch cows, heifers, and calves, are the objects of peculiar care at May time, from the very popular and widely-spread belief in their being then, more than at any other time, susceptible of evil influences, and when not housed early upon May Eve, are driven into an inclosed paddock, the four corners of which, as well as the cattle themselves, used in former times to be sprinkled with holy water, and in some places, every angle of the land, and every four-footed beast belonging to the farm was subject to the like purifying process, particularly with the water blessed upon Easter Sunday. The more superstitious among the people, and those who adhered to the remnants of the Pagan customs of their Celtic ancestors, put a soogaun of straw round the neck of each cow upon May Eve, in order to preserve it from ill luck or the good people; and should the cattle be kept in a confined yard or field, every precaution was taken to prevent their breaking the bounds of their inclosure during the night. We have known each head of cattle to be slightly singed with lighted straw upon May Eve, or to have a lighted coal passed round their bodies, as is customary after calving; and it was not unusual, some fifteen or twenty years ago, to bleed a whole herd of cattle upon a May morning, and then to dry and burn the blood.

We have more than once, when a boy, seen the entire of the great Fort of Rathcroghan, then the centre of one of the most extensive and fertile grazing districts of Connaught, literally reddened with the blood thus drawn upon a May morning. Bleeding the cattle at this period of the year was evidently done with a sanitary intention, as some of the older medical works recommended in the human subject; but choosing that particular day, and subsequently burning the blood, were evidently the vestiges of some Heathen rite. In some districts, and particularly during hard times, some of the blood thus drawn used to be mixed with meal, boiled into a posset, and eaten by the herds and the poor people. But many of these ceremonies, having been either laughed at or positively interdicted by the more educated Roman Catholic clergy, are fast falling into disuse. Not only is it considered unlucky to permit fire to be removed from the house until after the meridian at least, but many people would not give away, even in charity, a drop of milk, or a bit of bread or butter, on May Day, or lend churn, churndash, or any of the apparatus or furniture used in churning. "They take any one for a witch," we read in Camden, "that comes to fetch fire on May Day, and therefore refuse to give any, unless the party asking it be sick; and then it is with an imprecation, believing that all their butter will be stolen the following summer by this woman. On May Day, likewise, if they can find a hare among their herd, they endeavour to kill her, out of a notion that it is some old witch that has a design upon their butter." [17]

This legend about the hare is still universally believed throughout Ireland, and must be based on some ancient general superstition. The tale goes that witches have then the power of transforming themselves into hares, with the intention of more secretly and securely milking or sucking the cows; which, if they can effect, they become possessed of the power of having in their own churn, during the next twelve months, the butter of all the cows so circumstanced. You will still be told, with various readings, in almost every county in Ireland, with all the accurate recital of the names of persons and localities, how such and such an hare was once hunted, and so closely pressed by the dogs, that she was wounded in the thigh, but eventually escaped by leaping into the window of a small cabin "hard by the bog;" and how, that upon the hunters coming up and entering the hovel, lo! no hare was to be seen, but an old hag smoking her dudeen sat by the fire, or was rolled up in the bed-clothes, who, when examined, exhibited a recent wound, still bleeding, in identically the same part on which it had been inflicted on the hare. This legend is detailed circumstantially in Anthony Bruodine's old work, "Œcodomia Minoriticae Scholae Salamonis," Pragae, 8vo, 1663. Has not the adage, "I'll make a hare of you," arisen from the belief of hares being occasionally bewitched? The Graunogue, or hedgehog, is worried by idle, mischievous boys, chiefly on account of the belief that it milks the cows.

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[15] For a particular account of this dance, see the third chapter of "Jenny Ramsay," lately published by Mr. Francis Davis, in the "Belfast Man's Journal" for January 26th, 1850. To the talented and enthusiastic author and editor of that work, we are much indebted for valuable information upon the northern superstitions. We have seen this dance performed on the Araeopagus of Athens by the Greeks upon Easter Sunday. Dancing in a circle and performing other similar evolutions, like the Le Bal of the people of Brittany, though resorted to merely as an amusement now, is evidently the relic of the ancient mystic dance of Druidism.

[16] Were the snails so employed under mesmeric influence, like those lately described by a learned Scotch professor?

[17] See also Laurence Echart's "Exact Description of Ireland." London, 1691.