In Irish folk tradition, the calendar is principally split into ‘Quarter Days’, so called as they divide the year into each of its four seasons of autumn (Lammas / Lúnasa), winter (Halloween / Samhain), spring (St. Brigid’s Day / Imbolc), and of course summer (May Day / Bealtaine), which falls on the 1st of May. In marking the transition from one season to the next, May Day has long been an important date in the Irish calendar year, being known as a ‘gale day’ (from the Middle English gavel meaning ‘rent’ or ‘tribute’); a set date on which the first half of the year’s rent was due, or on which tenancy agreements would commence or come to an end. May Day also marked the beginning of the turf-cutting season, as the community looked to prepare and gather fuel to support them through the winter ahead. Cattle (having wintered in the byre) were also sent to graze on higher pastures for the summer at this time, in a process known as ‘booleying’.
‘Booleying’ (from the Irish language word buaile meaning ‘cattle-fold’ or ‘summer pasture’) is a very old tradition in Ireland, and typically commenced on May Day, with unmarried girls of the district bringing the cattle up to higher ground some miles from home. Here they would reside together until October, being responsible for herding and milking of cattle, along with the production and storage of butter. The bothógaí or ‘booley huts’ in which they lived were simple, unadorned dwellings being constructed of thatch, stone or sodwork, the remains of which still dot the the rural landscape.
While practical and economic concerns formed a large part of May Day considerations, a great deal of customs observed at this time were altogether more abstract, involving the re-assertion of communal boundaries and the protection of the home from magical interference. Easter Water was sprinkled in the fields on May Eve or May Day in order to prevent malevolent neighbours interfering with the homestead through the use of charms, and there was a great reluctance on May morning to let anything out of the house, lest the luck or profit of the home go with it. Even the fire was not lit on May morning, for fear that the profit or luck of the house could be stolen away by means of a charm; an evil-minded neighbour might, on seeing the smoke rising from the chimney of your house, recite the charm ‘im an deataigh sin ar mo chuid bainn-se’ (‘the butter of that smoke upon my milk’) which would have a particularly deleterious effect on your dairy. The effect of this charm was to render the victim’s churning useless – their efforts would bring no butter, whereas the charmer’s would produce double the amount.
A particular suspicion was levelled against women in this regard, who, being principally concerned with the work of dairying in tradition, were believed to transform themselves into hares and roam the hillsides, suckling the milk from neighbouring cattle, a description of which (among other ‘Manners of the Irishry’) was made by William Camden in his 1607 text Brittania:
‘They take her for a wicked woman and watch what ever shee bee, that commeth to fetch fire from them on May-day… for because they thinke the same woman will the next summer steale awaie all their butter. If they finde an hare amongst their heards of cattaile on the said May daie, they kill her, for they suppose shee is some old trot that would filch away their butter.’
Altogether more recent accounts in the holdings of the National Folklore Collection further attest to this belief, with a legend widespread in Irish tradition relating how the offending ‘hare’, having been wounded by a shot from the farmer, is tracked by its blood into a house in which an old woman resides. On entering the house to enquire as to the whereabouts of his maimed target, the farmer notices the old woman has the same wound as the creature he shot – case closed! If shapeshifting hares weren’t enough trouble, milk profit could also be stolen by ritually skimming a neighbour’s well, or by trailing a spancel across your neighbour’s land. The likelihood of such magical attacks taking place this year are greatly diminished under current social distancing guidelines and general restrictions on movement of course, though people (or animals) attempting to exercise on your land with spancels, ropes or wisps of thatch this coming May morning should be treated with a certain caution (though it’s probably best not to shoot anyone).
Paranoia and otherworldly misfortune aside, readers will be no doubt glad to learn that May Day was the traditional day on which the summer was welcomed in, and all over Ireland garlands and poesies of flowers were gathered and strewn on windowsills, over doorways, in outhouses to mark the occasion. Indeed, even livestock were spruced up for the day, and in Amhlaoibh Ó Súilleabháin’s 1829 ‘Diary of an Irish Countryman’ the writer notes ‘May 1st… Sunny May Day… Green blossoming branches… on the mail-coach horses coming from Dublin’. In Leinster the May Bush was erected outside the house, being decorated in ribbons, streamers and eggshells. The people of Munster however, preferred the May Bough, a green branch hung outside the house on the eve of the feast for good luck, while the Maypole, bedecked in ribbons and wildflowers, also featured in the May celebrations of parts of Connacht, Leinster and Ulster and involved dance, music and merrymaking. We hope you will agree that all of course, are fitting ways to mark the joyful peace that is summer.
- This post was researched and written by Jonny Dillon, Assistant Archivist, National Folklore Collection.