The May-Day Festival in Ireland

From Ireland: Her Wit, Peculiarities and Popular Superstitions

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CHAPTER II...continued

Every one who can, wishes to churn before sunrise upon May morning, and those who possess the means commence their lacteal operations at an early hour; but as churning is a ceremony always attended with a certain degree of risk, whether owing to the evil influences of fairyism, or witchcraft, or, as some of our modern philosophers would have us to believe, arising from certain defects in the manipulation of this chemical process, or some deleterious qualities in the fodder or pasture of the cow, it here matters little. The fact is believed, and the precautions are taken accordingly. The cabin door is always closed, and should any person enter inadvertently, whether a stranger, or one of the family, they are at once invited to "take the dash," if only for a few minutes. To refuse would be considered, in one of the upper ranks, not only unpolite, but unlucky, and in one of the poor people, the height of witchcraft.

Curious and many are the means taken by the peasants' and farmers' wives to ensure success, and to gather a plentiful mischaun of butter, when the milk cracks and the boiling water is added; such as putting a coal of fire and some salt under the churn, inserting a piece of charmed writing between the hoops, nailing an old ass's shoe to the bottom of the churn-dash, &c.—superstitious rites which appertain more particularly to milk and butter cures and charms, to be detailed hereafter. But the great means of averting the threatened danger resides in the employment of the mountain-ash, or rowan-tree (the crankeeran), for which purpose a branch or sapling of that sacred tree is procured at May Eve, and bound round the churn before the churning is commenced; and every vessel containing milk or butter, or in any way connected with the dairy, is also encircled with carefully peeled gads or switches of the same material. This rite, which is not confined to the Roman Catholics, or the lower orders, is still practised, even by the educated. Among the English settlers, who still retain the old Saxon legend of Robin Goodfellow, it is feared that he may

——"fright the maidens of the villagery;
Skim milk; and sometimes labour in the quern,
And bootless make the breathless housewife churn."

Some of the people, if asked for a reason for not permitting fire to leave the house on May Day, tell you that it is to prevent the fairies taking possession; and assign as a reason for not giving away milk, that if it was used to boil herbs, or for any charm-working purpose, particularly against the gentry, the cow would assuredly be taken as a substitute for the person relieved by the charm.

Do not all these observances with respect to cows, and all these precautions relating to butter and milk, go some way to establish the fact of the primitive Irish being a pastoral and cattle-feeding people?

If a person has been unwell, particularly of any chronic disease, for any length of time, "the man of the house," upon May Eve, breaks the spindle of a woollen wheel over the head of the invalid, and death or recovery is confidently anticipated therefrom within three days.

In Cork there is a custom amongst the children, especially the girls, both on May Eve and May Day, of running a muck with bunches of nettles, stinging every one they meet, Fortunately this is a very local amusement.

The May dew, as everyone knows, possesses peculiar virtues. If an old woman be seen gathering it in a sheet, or with a sieve, or with her hands, upon a May morning, nothing will persuade the people that she is not performing a charm by which she can steal the butter of all the cows that graze upon that pasture from which she selects it. There is only one other more efficacious mode of butter-stealing (always excepting the dead man's hand, which we shall describe another time), and that is to follow the milch-cow, as she walks either field, or road, or boreen, and pick up the tracks made in the soft earth by the four feet of the animal, or gather the bits of clauber that stick between the clefts of the feet. Should a set of these be thus acquired, the farmer may expect but a poor return of butter for the next twelve months: but if procured by the owner of the beast, she is henceforth invulnerable.

The girls rise early on the first of May, and kneeling down over the glittering gossamer,

"Brush, the light dew-drops from the spangled lawn."

and bathe their necks and faces therewith to keep off the freckles and beautify their skin, like Mr. Pepys's his wife, who went to Woolwich, in olden time, for "a little ayre, and to gather May dew." It is not alone for its cosmetic power, however, that the Irish girls employ it, as Sam. Lover has touchingly described in his "Song of the May-dew," but as a bond of peculiar power among lovers.

Cutting the May bush, upon May Eve, is one of the longest established ceremonies connected with this festival. A full-grown thorn was, in former times, generally selected; often months before the day, and no matter where it might grow, it was considered the property of the May, and to be procured at all risks, even of limb or life. Much as the people venerated, at all other times and seasons, their indigenous thorns, especially when growing on some of the ancient raths, they paid no respect to the sanctity of their character or position if marked for the May bush. In fact, in some places, the ancient thorn of what is called a fairy rath was considered more applicable than any other. Upon May Eve a crowd of persons, often numbering several hundreds, resorted to the spot previously arranged, with saws, hatchets, ropes, cars, horses, and all the necessary tackle for cutting and carrying home the May bush, and were generally escorted by fifers and fiddlers. Serious rencontres very often ensued upon these occasions, particularly in the neighbourhood of Dublin, where the authorities had frequently to interfere to prevent some lawn or demesne being despoiled of its wide-spreading thorn. The trophy was, however, generally carried off in triumph, amidst the shouts and rejoicings of the people, and erected in its allotted station, and upon its branches were fixed a number of small candles, which at night-fall were lighted, and afforded a brilliant illumination for the dancers, who tripped it round this emblem of the vernal light, as is still practised in Germany on Christmas Eve.

In some parts, particularly in Monaghan, the May bush used to be erected several days before the festival, and was illuminated every night; and in addition, pyramids of "penny dips," fixed in lumps of yellow clay, used to be erected in the neighbourhood of the bush, which always stood upon some green or common, or at the cross-roads, or in the market-place of the town or village. Early upon May morning the bush was decorated with flowers, ribbons, and pieces of silk of the most gaudy colours; and at the conclusion of the festivities the bush was consigned to the flames of the expiring bonfire. In former days the Liberty bush was cut in Cullen's Wood. Efforts were often made, particularly in the city of Dublin, to steal away the May bush, to avert which a guard of stout fellows was set to keep watch and ward nightly, from the time of its erection until after the festival. The abduction of the Smith-field May bush gave rise to the old slang song to which we have already alluded at page 47, when Bill Durham, with the fishwomen of Pill Lane, sallied forth to recover the palladium of Ormondtown,—

"From de lane came each lass in her holiday gown,
Riggidi ri dum dee;
Do de haddocks was up, and de lot was knocked down,
Dey doused all dere sieves till dey riz de half crown,
Ri riggidi ri dum dee."

Besides the grand May bush of the locality, each house especially in the rural districts, had its little bush, generally a branch of thorn, decorated with flowers, and most usually placed on the dunghill, so high that any passing witch could not easily leap over it. "April showers bring May flowers" is an old saying; and their welcome has grown into the sweet proverb of "you're as welcome as the flowers in May," so charmingly harmonized by our own dear Slingsby.

The custom which has remained longest and most perfect amongst us is the floral decoration of the doors and windows, chiefly with May flowers, then found in full blow in deep meadows and moist places. This gay plant, the marsh-marigold (Catha palustris), called in Irish the shrub of Beltine, Bearnan Sealtaine, or the Lus-ubrich Bealtaine, always forms the chief ornament of the garlands and other floral decorations, and is generally strewn plentifully before the doors and on the threshold; but when such can be procured, wild flowers, white or yellow (butter or milk colour), and those that grow in meadows and pastures, are ever preferred to garden flowers, to place in the cottage windows, scatter round the doors, or adorn the May bush and May pole.

The May pole never appears to have been in general use in Ireland, and is evidently of English introduction. In Connaught it is unknown; and even those places where it obtained most repute in other parts of the country were generally English settlements, as in Westmeath, where it was constantly to be found as described by Sir H. Peirs, in "Vallancy's Collectanea."

The only authorized pole now standing which we know of is at Hollywood, near Belfast, where it is used to bear the orange-and-blue flags and streamers on the twelfth of July, equally with the flower-decked hoops and green garlands of the first of May. When we last saw it, it was decorated with miniature ships, emblematic of the calling of the villagers. There formerly existed one at Mountmellick, which was applied to a similar purpose; but that which stood upon the mall at Downpatrick, some thirty years ago, was one of the most celebrated in Ireland. Among the rites and ceremonies which attached to this latter was one somewhat similar to the privilege assumed, if not granted, under the Christmas mistletoe in England. Whenever a lady appeared in the vicinity of the May pole, or went to visit the revels upon Downpatrick mall on May Day, she was liable to be asked by any of the tradesmen present to take a turn round the pole, and, at the end of the dance, if her partner was so inclined, they concluded with a kiss. The omission of the latter part of the ceremony was often purchased with a bribe. A milk offering used, in former times, to be made at the foot of the May pole.[18]

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[18] "Strutt's Sports and Pastimes" may be consulted with advantage by those who would wish to know more of the May Day customs in England.