Bealtine marks a cross-quarter day, the midpoint in the Sun’s progress between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. The astronomical date for the midpoint is closer to 5 May or 7 May but the actual date varies each year. In Ireland Bealtine or May Day is celebrated on the first Monday of the month. It is also known as Labour Day, celebrating the labour movement and the campaign for workers rights. This may originate in the U.S. as on 1 May 1886 unions across the country demanded an eight hour day. In Ireland the first Monday in May became a public holiday in 1994.
The celebration marks the end of spring and start of the summer. Bealtine signifies the beginning of the season of blossoming flowers and fruit trees. The name is derived from the bright fires or the fires of the Celtic god Belenus.
Bealtine was celebrated by a ceremony at the Hill of Uisneach when the first fires of the season were lit. Beacons on the summits of hills and mountains carried the flame right across the country. No one was to kindle a fire in Ireland before the High King ignited the first flame. Some say that St. Patrick’s Pascal blaze challenged the fires of Bealtine. The fire and smoke from the fires protected stock and humans from the otherworld. Bonfires were used for purification purposes with cattle being driven between them to keep them healthy for the year. Traditionally cattle were driven to the high pastures about Bealtine. Some writers suggest that with the arrival of Christianity the lighting of fires was transferred to St. John’s Eve closer to the summer solstice and that the fires of Bealtine were discontinued. This could have occurred at St. John’s Well at Warrenstown. Others suggest that the Easter festival superseded the Bealtine fires.
Women believed that if they bathed in the morning dew that their beauty and youth would be maintained. A man who douses his hands in May Day dew is said to gain skills in opening knots and locks. One method of capturing the dew is to leave a washcloth out overnight.
The Hawthorn bush is also known as the White Thorn and May bush. The hawthorn comes into blossom about this time of year. By hanging a branch from the May bush outside the entrance to the house the inhabitants were protected from evil during the following year. The Hawthorn is generally associated with the fairies and the tree is not to be damaged during the rest of the year. Branches may not be taken into the house. A branch of the mountain ash or rowan tree was sometimes substituted for hawthorn. The rowan also blooms about this time and also provides protection against the fairies. The May bush was recorded as being at almost every door in parts of Meath in the early nineteenth century. Flower petals were strewn in front of the doorway of each house to prevent the entry of fairies.
Similarly sprigs of hawthorn or rowan were placed over the byre door to prevent milk thieving by witches or fairies. Farmers and their wives were very afraid of having their butter stolen by a witch’s spell. Iron was placed under the butter churn to protect it. Most households would not churn butter on May Day. It was considered unlucky to give milk or butter to anyone on May Day as it is believed that this would result in a shortage during the year. Just as at Samhain or Halloween the veil between this world and the other world became very thin and it was possible for entities from the other world to enter this world and do damage. Witches and fairies were believed to be particularly active during this period. Holy water was sprinkled on the animals to protect them from malign spirits.
Maypoles and dancing around the maypole are more generally associated with England but there were many maypoles erected in Ireland in the eighteenth century. Dancing around the maypole signified the start of the courting season. These celebrations became rowdy and the clergy prohibited the festivities. Finglas was one of the last places in this area to have a maypole, where an annual fair was held. Today the only permanent maypole in Ireland is in Holywood, Co. Down.
Many hiring fairs took place on 1st May. The first of May was also a Gale day when the half-year’s rent had to be paid. By Bealtine crops had been planted and so rain was required. “A wet and windy May fills the barns with corn and hay”. Since medieval times there has been a strong association with devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Queen of the May, during the month. In the Irish language the festival gives its name to the month of May.