John McCullagh March 14, 2005
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LA BEALTAINE [MAYDAY]

In the Irish folk calendar there are four festival days separated by intervals of three months, so dividing the year into four quarters. 

 

Each of these Quarter Days has a very interesting range of beliefs and customs associated with it, many still observed in our community today. La Fheile Brighde (St. Bridget’s Day, 1 February) – generally regarded as the first day of spring – is the first of the Quarter Days. The next is La Bealtaine which occurs on the 1 May. It is generally regarded as the first day of summer and like the other Quarter Days is a landmark day in the Irish countryman’s calendar. Patricia Lysaght writing about Irish Maytime customs states that the beginning of May marked a new phase in the annual round of agricultural life and involved a considerable amount of reorganization on the farm. May Eve and May Day was regarded as a time when one’s luck for the coming year was in the balance. Every effort was made to protect the cattle and their produce of milk and butter from "butter stealing witches".


Replies to a questionnaire issued by The Department of’ Irish Folklore, University College Dublin to its collectors in 1940s indicated various tricks and activities aimed both at stealing and at protecting the milk "profit". Rites to charm away butter from houses could be performed at a common boundary point, such as the meeting point of three rivers, or the boundaries of farms, townlands or parishes. Froth – representing the cream [and hence the butter] – from the river or stream at these boundary marks would be collected. All the while the "profit stealer" would recite "All for myself and nothing for the rest of them". May morning dew according to traditional belief represents the cream of the milk and gathering the dew from another farmer’s land was another way to land the booty. The "buarach" or cow spancel was used or hay ropes or even items of the thief’s clothing, such as an apron or sheet.


A County Tipperary informant told a folk collector from the Irish Folklore Department, "When I came here as a teacher in 1905 there was a good deal of trouble over a woman who was supposed to have a charm and who was accused of going over her neighbours’ land on a May morning and dragging her bed sheet over the pasture. The R.I.C. were summoned for protection, but the sergeant informed me later that, although he was satisfied that the woman did actually try the charm, it had no effect on her neighbour’s butter." 

The first water taken from a well at daybreak on May morning – known by many as "the top of the well" or "the luck of the well" – was considered very powerful for the purpose of butter stealing. Many disputes took place at wells on May morns. An account from Wexford tells the story of a woman blamed on taking a local farmer’s butter by skimming the well. "Mr. Meehan stayed close to the well, but hidden behind bushes, and waited till dawn of a May morning. True enough, up came the woman at the dawn. As she was in the act of stooping to the well, off went a shot over her head from his gun. Away ran the woman as fast as her legs could carry her. Going over to the well he found a wooden plate (skimmer) used in making butter in those far-off days and a miniature churn. He took both home and burned them and ever after they had their butter intact.’ 

A hare was a dreaded animal to see on a May morn. An old Irish legend tells of a hare being spotted sucking milk from a cow. The hare was chased by hounds and received a bad wound and it made its way into an old house to hide. When the house was searched all that was found was an old woman hiding a wound. The woman of the house had a central role in dairy production. From this fact springs the idea that women were those essentially involved in the theft of the farmers "profit". Old, widowed, unmarried or independent women were usually pinpointed as the main culprits. To protect the cattle and their produce from theft, the farmyard gates and byre doors were locked. Great care was taken to ensure that nothing belonging to the farm and farmhouse was lent on a Mayday. In many cases flowers collected on a May Eve would be placed on the boundaries of the farmyard. The May whitethorn bush on a May Eve was placed before the door of the house, usually near a gate.

A correspondent in 1947 describes the custom in County Down, "I remember as a boy seeing a family of rather elderly farmer sisters go to our boggy land every May Eve and there gather bunches of May flowers. ‘They brought these home and placed them above the doors of the kitchen and outhouses. Special attention was given to the byre where a good supply of the May flowers was scattered on the thatch immediately above the door." Holy water would also be sprinkled on the dwelling houses and out-houses, on the livestock, on the crops and the fields. A cross was marked on the cows’ backs with ashes or cow dung. A twig of rowan or a wreath of cowslips was placed over the byre door or on the milk vessels. Salt or a piece of iron was thrown into the well. ‘March will search; April will try; and May will tell whether you live or die’, is a popular saying. 

May, states Kevin Danaher in his book The Year in Ireland, was thought to be a critical time for sick people, and any illness or injury on May Eve or May Day was especially dangerous and difficult to cure. It was also a time when it was felt that fairies were especially active. Considerable care was given to the protection of small babies whom the fairies were known to steal and leave a "changeling" in its place. It would be no surprise to enter a house and see a pair of tongs sitting crossed over a baby in a cradle! Many’s a man venturing home on a May Eve was led astray, wandering for the night, by mischievous fairies. It is also said that a child born on May Day had the gilt of being able to see the fairies. Those who are renowned in the craft of healing are aware that May Eve and May Day are among the very best days for gathering medicinal herbs. A girl who washes her face in the dew of a May morning will gain great beauty – whilst a man who washes his hands in it will receive the power to open any knot. "La Bealtaine" is a day to celebrate, as summer and all our hopes that go with it is officially recognized but make sure it is on your own patch or there may be a chance that you could be accused of stealing!

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