The May-Day Festival in Ireland

From Ireland: Her Wit, Peculiarities and Popular Superstitions

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No doubt they rose up early, to observe
The rite of May; and hearing our intent,
Came here in grace of our solemnity.

Remembrances of Old May Day; a Dream of the Past--The Floralia and La Beal-Teine--The Ancient Irish Year--Bael Worship--Ancient Irish Authorities thereon--Bonfires--The May Day Fire in Dublin; a Scene in the Coombe--Bonfire Ceremonial--May Eve Festivities--The Snail Charm and the Yarrow--The Well Ceremonies upon May Morning--Cattle Charms--Nettling--The Hare Witch--Churning--The Butter Witchcraft--May Dew--The May Bush and May Pole--Finglas Sports and Dublin Revels--May Boys and Morris-Dancers--May Rhymes--Saura-Linn--Sonnoughing Sunday--May Day Legends.

WINTER and spring are over; the harsh east winds of March,—the sirocco of the British Isles,—have passed to other climes, and fitful April, now warm and witching, anon rough and gusty, or mild and melting, bright and gloomy, as alternate clouds and sunshine struggle for the mastery—like the face of angry, but forgiving woman, with pouting lip but dimpled cheek, ever smiling through her tears—charming April, the sweet, blue-eyed harbinger of summer, has breathed upon us once again—changing the russet mantle of seed-time into the verdant garment of May. "The middle summer's spring" has come, first budding in mottled green among our sheltered hedges and cultured gardens, then spreading with almost visible pace from shrub to tree, and tree again to lawn; while, as the leaves expand, and young shoots twine as if to screen and shelter from the vulgar gaze the loves of feathered warblers, the birds are mating in every bush, and welcoming the hour with joyous notes of passion or of praise.

The summer is bursting upon us. Even the rooks, that balance on the tops of the still grey and unleaved ash, have assumed a softened, cawing note, and the sharp call of the chaffinch assumes a melody in our ears, because we hail it as the season's chime. The timid, retiring primrose, peeps up from among the rib-grass and violets, and raises to the light its modest, sulphur-coloured face; the graceful cowslip, with the crimson star brightening in its calyx, now droops its modest head in the upland, daisy-spangled meadows; and the saucy yellow buttercup and golden Mayflower flaunts it in the deep pastures beside the streamlet's brink, inviting to their honey-cups the bee that now, warmed by the genial season, has shuffled off its lethargy, and is booming over glade and valley. The thorns are putting forth their white clusters, or are already bursting into flower and fragrance, as the sloe, the pear, and the apple are nodding beneath the shower, and strewing the ground with their silvery petals.

Do not our spirits attune with the seasons—springing and expanding with the early summer, but folding up within us as the bleak November blast, cold and cheerless, bursts upon us? Does not the heart gush, the eye brighten, the step become elastic, as we inhale the exhilarating spring breeze in our early country excursions; and again become languid as we seek the summer shade, or bask in the calm repose of autumn? Yes, all nature, marsh and meadow, hill and hollow, land, and sea, and sky, forest monarchs and nodding blue-bell'd florets, beasts and feathered fowls, and winged insects, the tiny myriads of creation—all hail the Sabbath of the year, and sing the matin of the dawn of summer. Let us then, also, hail the season, and for a while throw off the cares of life, as we do the dust of the city, and away to the greenwood shade—there to enjoy the bounteous blessings which nature pours around us; and at the same time revive the recollections of past days and ceremonies, such as our ancestors, simple-hearted, good-natured, superstitious folks, observed of yore upon the bridal of the year.

"Yes! the summer is returning,
Warmer, brighter beams are burning;
Golden mornings, purple evenings,
Come to glad the world once more.

Nature, from her long sojourning
In the winter house of mourning,
With the light of hope outpeeping,
From those eyes that late were weeping,
Cometh dancing o'er the waters,
To our distant shore." [1]

Now then, fair and gentle, rude and rustic readers—country swains and city dames—boys of the Liberty, from Blackpits to Mullinahack, from the banks of the Dodder to the heights of Ballynascorney—girls of Finglas and bucks of Fingal, how have you spent your May Eve?—how did you welcome May Morning, and how do you purpose to celebrate the birth-day of summer? Have you danced to the elfin pipers that played under the thorns of the Phoenix last night? Did you leap through the bonfires that blazed upon Tallaght and Harold's-cross Green? Were you out yester-eve to welcome the "Young May Moon?" or up before sunrise this morning to gather the maiden dew from the sparkling gossamer, to keep the freckles off your pretty faces?—or have you been—

——————————— "seeking
A spell in the young year's flowers.
The magical May-dew is weeping
It's charms o'er the summer bow'rs."

Have you found the name of your true love smeared by the snail you set between the plates last evening? and have you chosen a Queen of the May, whose path you'll strew with pasture flowers, as you lead her round the garlanded pole of the Tolka? Are your doors and windows decorated with primroses and cowslips, and May-flowers gathered by the meadows and green inches of your lovely Anna Liffey? Butchers of Patrick's Market and Bull Alley, and boys of the Coombe and the Poddle, are you ready, as of yore, to "cut de bosh, spite of de Devil and de Polis?" Up, weavers of Newmarket and Meath Street, and join with the Ormond boys; will you suffer the white-coated boddaghs of Meath to carry off the prizes at Finglas, and steal the May-dew from the rosy-lipped girls of Glasnevin?

Alas! what are we dreaming about—things that were, not are—memories of other, of better and happier times—of ancient customs sneered away by modern utilitarianism—of ceremonies almost forgotten, and healthful rustic sports and pastimes, now prohibited by law, put down by force—starved out of our light-hearted people, or carried beyond the blue waves of the broad Atlantic? Politics have of late years occupied the place of pantomimes—our Finglas sports were interdicted by a special act of the Privy Council—fairy lore has given place to a newspaper political religion—the new police banished the bonfires: and where is the piper or fiddler would enliven the gardens of the "Grinding Young"[2] after hearing a temperance band, all dressed like Jack Puddings and drum majors coming down the road from Kimmage or Dolphin's Barn?

All gone, dead and gone, save a few dirty urchins in the suburbs, who, with the twigs of a second-hand broom, decked with stinking daffydowndillies, annoy the passengers by asking "a hay'penny to honour the May."

Burgesses and 'prentice boys of Atha-Clea, kings of Dalkey and Mud Island, sweeps of Kevin's Port and the Cabbage Garden,[3] and coal-porters of Ringsend and Wood Quay, you have either voluntarily surrendered, or been deprived of your ancient sports and pastimes, your festal days, and civic shows. But, "every dog will have his day." Little thought the fat corporators that the hours of the Fringes [4] were numbered, and that it would require an I O U from the Lord Mayor to bring out the glass coach on a Candlemas Day.[5] Well, have you not had your revenge? The times of Viceregal pageants have passed by; processions, barring a stray funeral up Granby Row, are at an end; Ulster King-at-Arms has become as fabulous a personage as Fin-Ma-Coul, and his tabard and sword have gone with those of the Athlone Herald, to be hung up among the dresses and ornaments of the ancient Celts at the Royal Irish Academy. Guard mountings are mere matters of history; Levees and Drawing-rooms will soon have become stories wherewith to amuse our children, and the shamrock-dressed lady has, perhaps, danced her last in St. Patrick's Hall, and kissed the knocker of Dublin Castle, as she called a sixpenny covered car to carry her home from the wake of our Patron Saint.

Well, happy were the days in Merry England, when blithe King Hal, with Katherine, his Queen, went out a-Maying, and the people walked "into the sweete meadowes and greene woodes, there to rejoice their spirites with the beauty and savour of sweete flowers, and with the harmony of birds"—when royal pageants, with Maid Marians and Morris-dancers, Robin Hoods and Friar Tucks, were considered more wholesome for the people than ale-house polemics; and rustic sports and village pastimes cheered and solaced the poor man's holiday, and all who met, like Hermia and Lysander of old in the Athenian grove—

"To do observance to a morn of May."

We sat down, however, to describe Irish, not English sports and ceremonies, and therefore must to our subject at once; for materials abound on every hand upon the May Day customs of the English, and there have been few poets of note in that happy land who have not sung the praises of this blithesome, merry season, when

"Land and sea
Give themselves up to jollity;
And with a heart of May
Doth every beast keep holiday."

Except in some cursory allusion or incidental notice, May Day in Ireland has not been described by any of the writers with whose works we are familiar. In laying down for ourselves the plan of these popular superstitions of the Irish peasantry, and the humble classes who are still simple-hearted enough to adhere to the old customs of their forefathers, we originally intended to devote a few chapters to the several festivals, as St. John's Eve, Lady Day, Garland Sunday, St. Martin's Day, Holly Eve, Christmas, Twelfth Night, Candlemas, &c.; and it seems fitting to commence the series with the May festival, May Eve, and May Day, as formerly kept by the Irish, or still, in part, observed by the present generation. But as cows, milk, and butter are supposed to be affected by fairy influences and witchcraft, &c., at that time more particularly than at any other period of the year, we shall now detail so much of the cattle charms from our notes and manuscripts as have immediate reference to the season of the May festival; and reserve for a future period the tales and legends still living in the mouths of the people, and which, better than any description of ours, serve to illustrate the popular opinions as to the causes which produce the various mischances daily occurring to horned cattle, and their produce.

In treating the subject of a festival where a multiplicity and a great variety and diversity of topics must necessarily be introduced, it is not possible to weave it, as in our subsequent chapters, into the form of a tale or legend, expressive of the opinions, as well as descriptive of the phraseology and national character of the people or the scenery of the country.

Many of our May Day customs, sports, and games, are of English origin, and were, no doubt, introduced by the Anglo-Saxons. These pastimes are not, however, confined to the British Isles; many of them are common to all Europe, and several of them have descended to us from the Roman Floralia, or feast of Flora, the goddess of fruits and flowers, which was celebrated of old with great festivity, and sometimes with excessive licentiousness, during the last few days of April and few first of May, when the sun entered the summer solstice. From such customs came down to us the maypoles, and garlands, and floral decorations, the last traditional institution of the summer's welcome; while from our Scandinavian and Celtic great ancestors, we may fairly trace the bonfires—the lucky, or propitiatory, fires which were formerly, and are still in some places, lighted on La-Beal-teine; the Beltin of Scotland, the day of the Beal fire, the Gaelic name by which the period is still called.

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[1] Mac Carthy's "Bridal of the Year."

[2] Grinding Young. One of the last old Dublin signs, and one of the best executed, too—formerly swinging from a pole, but now nailed to the wall of an almost deserted "public" at Harold's-cross Bridge. In its old tea-garden may still be seen several decayed swing-swongs and merry-go-rounds, now too crazy to make the annual excursion to "the Brook"—Donnybrook Fair.

[3] Cabbage Garden. The Capuchin's garden—an old burial ground opposite the Meath Hospital.

[4] Fringes. Alluding to the old Corporation custom of Riding the Franchises.

[5] Written in April, 1850.