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May Day – custom made

May 1, 2014

May Day gorse on my front door. Ballyvaughan 2014. Photo c. Karen McDonnell

May Day gorse on my front door. Ballyvaughan 2014.
Photo c. Karen McDonnell

Yesterday, I set off in Mighty Aphrodite, that trusty Blue VW Polo. Our mission was to find a gorse bush accessible to me and my scissors. It was May Eve after all.

I grew up in a county town, and my childhood was full of the flowers of the May, and altars at the back of the primary school classroom laden with jam jars of cowslips  and primroses. We played in the fields across the road and cycled down local lanes in search of blackberries. Despite the countryside being on my doorstep, I had never encountered the custom of the May Day gorse until I moved to Ballyvaughan.  On my first May Day in residence, many doors were garnished with yellow and grey-green prickly sprigs. Even the shuttered front of the old garage  in the centre of the village wasn’t forgotten.

Yesterday I found myself wondering if it was a custom peculiar to this area. My trusty Danagher might supply an answer; indeed he devotes a whole chapter to the subject. But Dear Reader, I decided to spare you my Danagher on this occasion and I consulted another book that has been languishing on my shelves. I give you Speranza, Jane, Lady Wilde – mother of Oscar. I opened Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland. With Sketches of the Irish Past. 

Before I launch into May Day customs, I have to tell you about this book. It’s falling apart at the seams, even though it hasn’t been opened in many a year. It is a facsimile of the 1888 edition published in London by Ward & Downey – reprinted in 1971 by O’ Gorman Ltd., in Galway with an introduction by Terence de Vere White, then literary editor of The Irish Times. 

The O'Gorman 1971 edition of Speranza's Ancient Legends..

The O’Gorman 1971 edition of Speranza’s Ancient Legends..

The greatest peril of the researcher is not heeding lessons from Homer’s Odyssey. Sometimes a gal needs to stop her eyes, if not her ears, to avoid the sirens that pull one down byways and off the main subject. But I’m with Robert Frost on this one: take the road less travelled by all means but – like Hansel & Gretel – leave enough of a trail to get back to the main path.

Off down the Googley road I went, in search of Galway O’Gormans and I found this article in the Galway Review  about Ronnie O’Gorman, founder and publisher of the Galway Advertiser.  Is Ronnie part of the family firm that printed my copy of Speranza’s Ancient Legends?  I only studied in Galway; not being a native girl I’m not in the loop! So, comments welcome below.

And so back along the metaphorical trail of breadcrumbs to May Day. Bealtaine, or Bel tine; Baal’s fire.  A weird marrying of the pagan, – the beginning of our Irish summer – and the international celebration of the worker.

Here is our Jane on two of the great Irish festivals:

‘The great feast of Bel, or the Sun, took place on May Eve; and that of Samhain, of the Moon, on November Eve; when libations were poured out to appease the evil spirits, and also the spirits of the dead, who come out of their graves on that night to visit their ancient homes. The Phoenicians, it is known, adored the Supreme Being under the name of Bel-Samen, and it is remarkable that the peasants in Ireland, wishing you good luck say in Irish, “The blessing of Bel, and the blessing of Samhain, be with you,” that is, of the sun and of the moon.’

Having a particular love of the Middle East and North Africa, and a fondness for poor Dido, I’m rather taken with that excerpt.  I’m sure Bob Quinn – who wrote and filmed Atlantean – might like it too!

But the dangers from the Otherworld were not just present during Samhain. Many of the customs of Bealtaine focus on placating the fairies, who might curse farm production or kidnap a child and replace it with a fairy changeling. A burnt-out coal might be put under a butter churn, or a child’s bed. And here is where my little sprig of gorse enters the story: primroses or yellow flowers were ‘scattered before the door, for the fairies cannot pass the flowers.’  Primroses were also tied to cows tails to prevent the supernatural theft of milk. Maybe the hanging of yellow gorse was just a ‘step up’ from scattering or perhaps it makes more sense to hang a thorny plant where bare feet can’t step on it. Branches of the sacred ash tree and the later flowering whitethorn also feature in May day customs.

All through the night of May Eve fairy music might be heard as fairy dances were held at raths; Speranza says there was a tradition ‘in the old times’ of dancing around a May-bush, a custom also prevalent in the Slavonic countries and Italy. Dante, she states, fell in love at a May Day festival.

Fire and salt were two sacred possessions of man – to give them away on May Day was to court bad luck for the rest of the year. No salt, lighted sods of turf, or milk left the house.

Lady Wilde writes that the way the wind blew on May mornings was a means of prophecy. She tells a story relating to ’98  [1798 – the year of the Rebellion]  –

‘An old man, who was drawing near to his end and like to die, inquired from those around him –

“Where did you leave the wind last night?” (May Eve.)   They told him it came from the North.

“Then, ” he said, “the country is lost to the Clan Gael; our enemies will triumph. Had it been from the South, we should have had the victory; but now the Sassenach will trample us to dust.”      And he fell back and died.’

And… he was right!

I could go on and on – that’s the nature of customs. I’ll end with one of my own customs for this time of the year: seeking out the gentians. This beautiful flower is the symbol of the Burren. It grows in secretive patches on spring grass under the shadow of limestone cliffs, near the sea, or in inland fields. Locals – and those who come here every year on botanical expeditions – know where to find them. I photographed these last year, on a pet May day when sitting on the grass wasn’t going to result in pneumonia.

Gentians in the Burren. Photo c. Karen McDonnell

Gentians in the Burren. Photo c. Karen McDonnell

Known as the Banner County, the Co. Clare colours are blue and saffron yellow. In the month of gentian and gorse it seems appropriate to sign off with a hearty ‘UP THE BANNER!’

Happy May Day. Wherever you are, may l’Internationale be your companion – there’s always room for old stories and anthems.


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