The May-Day Festival in Ireland

From Ireland: Her Wit, Peculiarities and Popular Superstitions

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CHAPTER II...continued

The two Dublin May poles were erected outside the city. One of these stood in the centre of Harold's-cross Green, and existed within the memory of some of the present generation. After its decay, an old withered poplar supplied its place for many years; and so recently as the year 1836, the publicans of the village erected a May pole, decorated it, and gave a number of prizes, in order to collect an assemblage of the people, by restoring the ancient festivities. The chief May pole of Dublin, however, was erected at the pretty suburban village of Finglas, to the north of the city, near the Glasnevin Botanic Gardens, a spot which combines the most delicious sylvan scenery with the charm of the associations connected with the names of Swift, Addison, Tickel, Delany, and in our own day of our distinguished fellow-citizen Doctor Walsh. Here it stood until within the last few years;—a very tall, smooth pole, like the mast of a vessel, and upon every Easter Monday it was painted white and encircled with a red and blue spiral stripe like a barber's pole. In latter years, at least, it was not decorated with floral hoops and garlands like the usual English May pole, but was well soaped from top to bottom in order to render it the more difficult to climb; and to its top were attached, in succession, the different prizes, consisting generally of a pair of leather breeches, a hat, or an old pinchbeck watch. Whoever climed the pole, and touched the prize, became its possessor.

"All Dublin" turned out to Finglas upon May Day to witness the sports and revels of the people, and the streets of the little village, and the adjoining roads were thronged with carriages, hackney-cars, jingles, and noddies, filled with the better class of citizens. There were also a gaudily-dressed king and queen of the May, chosen from among the villagers, hut they were the least attractive portion of the assembly. The revels consisted of climbing the pole; running after a pig with a shaved and well-soaped tail, which was let loose in the middle of the throng; grinning through horse-collars for tobacco; leaping and running in sacks; foot races for men and women; dancing reels, jigs, and hornpipes; ass races, in which each person rode or drove his neighbour's beast, the last being declared the winner; blindfolded men trying to catch a bell-ringer; and also wrestling, hopping, and leaping. An adjoining field was selected for the celebration of the majority of these sports. Stewards were appointed to keep the course, and see fair play, and twenty or thirty pounds' worth of prizes, consisting of shawls, hats, frieze-coats, handkerchiefs, and women's gowns and bonnets, were often distributed among the winners. Tents were erected, and bands of music paraded through the assembly; and even shows and booths were to be seen scattered throughout the village. In the evening the crowds collected round the May pole, where the boys and girls danced in a ring until a late hour, before the king and queen, who, attended by a man dressed as a Highlander, sat on a raised platform. Some thirty years ago, the Finglas sports were rendered particularly attractive by the exertions of three celebrated characters—Watty Cox, the notorious seditious libeller; Bryan Maguire, the celebrated duellist; and Michael Farrell, the well-known police-officer, who all lived in the neighbourhood.

The May sports, however, had been gradually declining till about the year 1826, when a number of the traders and citizens of Dublin, chiefly those who had country houses in the vicinity of the village, formed themselves into a social society, at first called the "Tolka Club;" but afterwards they assumed to themselves the title of the "Corporation of Finglas," and elected a lord mayor, recorder, member of Parliament, sheriff, aldermen, and other officers, as well as a chaplain, with the title of Bishop of Fingal.[19] These jolly companions dined at one another's houses weekly during the summer months, and generally "made a night of it." The chief object of the institution, however, was to keep alive the May Day sports, and the "humours" of Finglas. More than one application was made to the government to interdict the Finglas amusements, by some of the gentry residing in the neighbourhood; and the subject was even considered grave enough to be referred to the Privy Council; but what official interference was unable to put down—first, the cholera panic, in 1833, and then teetotalism, completely abolished. The "Tolka Club" was broken up, Finglas became deserted, cold water damped the ardour of the revellers, the king and queen of the May were threatened with the watch-house; the festivities ceased when the prizes were omitted, and the May pole was neglected, when it, like Brian O'Lynn, "had no breeches to wear," and the old song, of which we recollect but the following verse, is now scarcely remembered:—

"Ye lads and lasses all, to-day,
To Finglas let us haste away;
With hearts so light and dresses gay,
To dance around the May pole."

The May boys and morris-dancers went their rounds, particularly in Connaught and Munster, even so late as within the last twenty years. They consisted of a dozen or two of the "cleanest and most likely" boys in the vicinity, who took off their coats, and decorated themselves with garlands, ribbons, and silk handkerchiefs of the brightest colours, generally furnished them by their sweethearts, who vied with each other in dressing their lovers to the greatest advantage. One of the most effeminate of the number was dressed in female attire as queen of the May (in the country parts we never heard of a girl having acted the part); a king or captain was appointed, as also a spokesman, who repeated the rhymes; a treasurer carried the money-box, and a fool or devil, (like that of the wren-boys and mummers at Christmas), a sort of "Lord of Misrule," cleared the way, frightened the children, bespattered the crowd, uttered the broad rustic jokes current among the people at that time, and capered for the general amusement. This person wore a sort of loose garment covered with many-coloured shreds and patches of cloth and rags tacked to it; a large, brimless hat, with the front of it formed into a hideous mask, came down over his head; a row of projecting pieces of stick made to resemble teeth surrounded the mouth; a piece of goat-skin formed the beard, and the eye-holes were surrounded by circles of red cloth. To the back of it was fastened a dried hare's skin. In his hand he carried a long wattle, to which an inflated bladder was attached, and a very formidable weapon it was, particularly against the women and children.

In the south, we understand, the May boys used to sport a female fool—a sort of Audrey for their Touchstone. Thus attired, and accompanied by fiddlers, fifers, and tambourine players, and escorted by a great concourse of idlers, the May boys used to perambulate the country for a week together at May time, visiting the different gentlemen's seats, where they danced, repeated their rhymes, and were generally entertained with true Irish hospitality. They always got a bottle of whiskey and some money, with which they made merry at their resting-place in the evening. Some parties carried a May bush before them, and sometimes they managed to seat the piper on the bush, when they commenced their rhymes. In the county of Clare, about fifty years ago, the May boys used to mount their captain or king of the May on horseback, who carried in his hand a long pole decked with ribbons and flowers, and bearing a garland at the top.

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[19] One of the last remaining members of the "Tolka Club" is Mr. Ross Cox, the South American traveller, to whom we are indebted for a most interesting account of this Society. The bishop was a worthy and facetious Roman Catholic clergyman, still living.