May Customs and Bealtaine Celebrations in Ireland
May Day in Ireland was traditionally a celebration to welcome the summer.
The 1st May brings the start of summer and with it a range of customs and traditions that were practiced across Ireland. May Day or Bealtaine, as it is known in the Celtic calendar, was traditionally a fire festival, a time to embrace the summer, bidding farewell to the dark winter months. Flowers, dancing, and bonfires featured strongly in the festivities. People also sought protection for themselves, their homes and livestock against superstitions.
Flowers and May Eve
Traditions associated with May include May Bushes, May Flowers, May Boughs, May Poles and May Bonfires. All are associated with luck and protection. Where I live, in County Down, May Poles and May Flowers would have been common.
The May Bush was a decorated bush that was displayed outside homes or in communal places. It was often a hawthorn and was decorated with ribbons and cloth.
May Poles were popular in some large towns and possibly indicate a certain influence of English traditions. May Poles were community celebrations, which involved dancing and decorating the May Pole with flowers and ribbon.
Indeed, May Eve was an important time and flowers would be gathered and hung in the doorways or placed in windows as posies. Gathering or ‘garlanding’ for flowers would take place at dusk on May Eve and was usually carried out by children. Posies would also given to neighbours as a symbol of good luck or scattered over a threshold, such as doorway. Sometimes the flowers would be made into Crowns and worn, for example the crown worn by a May Queen during May Day celebrations and parades in towns and villages.
Yellow flowers were favoured and they reflected the sun and summer. So Gorse or Whin bush flowers (known for their subtle scent evocative of coconut), Marsh Marigolds also known as King Cup, Primroses and Buttercups were popular choices. The posies were decorative and the collecting of flowers was a tradition passed down through the generations. There were also superstitions attached to the gathering of flowers and the protection it was thought they could bring.
Bring flowers of the rarest
bring blossoms the fairest,
from garden and woodland and hillside and dale;
our full hearts are swelling,
our glad voices telling
the praise of the loveliest flower of the vale!
The Celtic Seasons Collection
My Celtic Seasons Collection art prints celebrates each of the key phases of the Celtic calendar through the changes in nature and Ireland’s landscape as brought by the seasons; Imbolc (Spring), Bealtaine (Summer), Lughnasa (Autumn) and Samhain (Winter).
For Bealtaine, I created an artwork (originally on Irish linen but now produced on Hahnemuhle Textured Etching Paper) inspired by Irish Summer Meadows, which are abundant during May. I created a tangle of summer grasses, clover and buttercups to create the impression of a dew-soaked May meadow warming in the early May Day sun. It’s an artwork I see as full of the hope and light that summer brings (although often marred by the dampening Irish weather) and has a nod to the symbolic importance of yellow blossoms in Celtic heritage and the gathering of wild flowers to mark the celebration of May Eve and May Day.
You can view the full Celtic Seasons Collection here.
For further reading:
- The National Folklife Collection at UCD is a wonderful resource for all things folklore related in Ireland: https://www.ucd.ie/irishfolklore/en/
- ‘A Year in Ireland’ by Kevin Danaher (1972)
- The National Museum of Ireland has an excellent summary of all the May customs and traditions: https://www.ouririshheritage.org/content/archive/topics/celebrating_may/may_customs_traditions/traditional_may_day_customs_in_ireland