In many areas of Ireland New Year’s Day is overshadowed by the traditional observances and festivities that accompany the Twelve Days of Christmas, which run from Christmas Eve to the Feast of the Epiphany, 6 January. In many Irish Protestant communities New Year’s Day was traditionally believed to mark the end of the Christmas season, and was often referred to in nineteenth century sources as ‘Little Christmas’ – one of the many names applied to the Feast of the Epiphany, 6 January, which marked the end of the Christmas season in Catholic households.
As the first day of the year many traditions associated with New Year’s Day are tied up with encouraging luck for the coming year. No dust, dirt or slop should be brushed out of the house on New Year’s Day, as it was believed that in carrying out these tasks the…
The custom of lighting candles or rush-lights in honour of the Twelve Apostles is traditionally carried out by families on Twelfth Night, which is observed on the fifth or sixth of January.* The number of candles used in this ritual varied between one district and another, with some areas lighting twelve candles to represent the Twelve Apostles, while in other areas a thirteenth candle, usually larger and generally placed in the centre of the original twelve, was added to represent Jesus. Whilst the candles melted prayers and decades of the rosary were recited by those present. Traditionally each member of the family lit one candle, the flame of which was said to signify that person’s longevity. In this way the first candle to burn out was supposed to indicate the member of the household who was destined to be the first to die.
In the old days, when candlesticks were scarce, candles were stabilised in a bed of ashes, cow-dung, mud, or even graveyard clay, while sieves of oats were used, for the same purpose, at least in County Westmeath at the end of the seventeenth century. Once the candles had consumed themselves a ball would be made of what remained, if the candles were supported using cow-dung the ball was placed above the door of the cow-house to encourage an increase in the herd of cattle for the coming year, while if the ball was made of mud or clay it was often placed above the main entrance of the home, where it was believed to protect the inhabitants till the next Twelfth Night.
*In Ireland, and indeed internationally, there is some contention as to when Twelfth Night falls, with some observing Twelfth Night traditions on the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany, 5 January, while for others the Feast of the Epiphany, 6 January is believed to be the proper date.
Danaher, Kevin. The Year in Ireland. Dublin 1972.
Duncan, Leland L. ‘Further Notes from County Leitrim.’ Folklore 5, no. 3 (1894), pp. 177-211.
Mason, William Shaw. A Statistical Account or Parochial Survey of Ireland. Dublin, London and Edinburgh, 1814-19.
Piers, Sir Henry, A Chorographical Description of the County of West-Meath, 1682
Wilde, Lady Jane, Irish Cures, Mystic Charms & Superstitions, London 1890.
‘The 11th of February is the Feast of St Gobinet. At this date a large cattle fair – “the fair of St Gobinet’s Well” – was, up till recent times, held in the townland of Kilgobinet (“Gobinet’s church”), near Ballyagran (Baile Atha Grean “the ford mouth of gravel”) village, about four miles west of Bunree, county Limerick. “Rounds” were also paid to St. Gobinet’s Holy Well there, and all the marriageable young men took care to stand on the hillock in the fair green, locally known as Cnocán a bouchailli ie. “the boy’s hillock,” or, literally, “the hillock of the cowherd.” For it is a well-known fact that the young man who stood on Cnocán a bouchailli on St Gobinet’s Day and invoked her intercession was certain (unless his own fault) to be “well married” – that is, a prosperous or wealthy match – against that day twelve months. The fair, notwithstanding this paramount attraction, is extinct for the past dozen years, and with the fair is also gone the custom of standing on the “cowboy’s hillock.”
In this (the county Limerick) district, Gobinet is translated into Deborah, while in the county Cork it is rendered Abina or Judith.’
Journal of the Cork Historical & Archaeological Society, 1895
‘Candlemas Day, the 2nd of February, used to be held in old pagan times as a kind of saternalia, with dances and tourches and many unholy rites. But these gave occasion to so much ill conduct that in the ninth century the Pope abolished the festival, and substituted for it the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin, when candles are lit in her honour. Hence the name of Candlemas.
The people make a cake of yellow clay taken from a churchyard, then stick twelve bits of candle in it, and recite their prayers, kneeling round, until all the lights have burned down. A name is given to each light, and the first that goes out betokens death to the person whose name it bears, before the year is out.’
‘In parts of Ireland – especially throughout the dioceses of Kildare and Leighlin – it was customary with the young people to assemble on the eve of St. Bridget’s festival, observed the first day of February, and to carry with them what had been demoninated a Bride-oge, which means in English, The Virgin Brigid. This was formed of a churn-dash, covered with stuff of materials, to fashion it, as near as possible, like a female figure. These materials were usually covered with white calico. A dress of some village belle covered the whole, with an elegant bonnet and fashionable cap surmounting the figure’s head. The Brideoge’s face, however, was round, and perfectly featureless. Frills, tuckers, necklace, and a handsome sash usually decorated this grotesque figure.
A piper and fiddler marched before, playing lively and popular airs; and especially when the crowd of accompanying idlers stopped at each door, in country places and villages, the Bride-oge always obtained an entrance for its bearer.
Young children were often greatly frightened at the unexpected arrival of this unclouth visitant. A lad and lass were told off, footing it merrily to a jig or reel, and, after its conclusion, the director of such proceedings, – his hat decorated with boughs and ribbons – went round with a purse to collect offerings for the Bride-og. These were seldom or ever refused, and they were usually in keeping with the means of liberality of the householder.
Proceeds thus collected were expended on Bridget’s day, in getting up a rustic ball, where tea, cakes, and punch, were in requisition as refreshments. A dance and plays were also organized as part of the evenings amusements. This festive celebration was probably derived from carrying St. Bridget’s shrine in procession, at some remote period. The later travesty, and disorders accompanying it , induced many of the Catholic clergy to discourage such odd practices, and we believe that at present they are almost entirely obsolete.’*
Irish Folk Lore
* Caution should be taken when it is stated that a custom has become, or is becoming obsolete, accounts are often based on personal experience, and customs often decline only to be revived again.
The Bride Oge tradition, described above, continued to be practiced widely throughout Ireland, well into the twentieth-century by both adults and children, with the tradition still continuing in many areas.
‘Among them (tombstones in the graveyard) was one that could have been considered relatively modern. That was the one erected over the grave of Robert Burn’s sister.* This monument, erected by the poet’s admirers in the town, stood prominently in the forefront of the cemetery, and through the railings on the low wall between the cemetery and the Church Street, was easily visible to passers by.
For a few years my father (Patrick Swift) and some of his Templar colleagues had, on the poet’s birthday, the 25th of January, made pilgrimage to the hardly substantial mecca in Church Street. Gathered at the railings near the grave, my father would start a recital of Burns’ poems.
Coming towards the end of the rectial the reciter would turn in the direction of the Roden demesne gate declaiming from A Man’s a Man for a’ That, rendered, not in the Burns Doric but in the plainer English –
You see yon birkie, called a lord,
Who struts and stares an’ a’ that;
Tho’ hundreds worship at his word,
He’s but a coof for a’ that,
For an’ that, an’ a that,
His ribband star, an’ a’ that,
The man of independent mind,
He looks an’ laughs at a’ that.
A prince can make a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an’ a’ that;
But an honest mans above his might,
Good faith he needed for that,
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
Their dignities an’ a’ that,
The pith o’ sense an’ pride o’ worth,
Are higher rank than a’ that.
Then let us pray that come what may,
(As come it will for a’ that);
That sense and worth o’er all the earth,
Shall make the rank an’ a’ that,
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s coming yet for a’ that,
That man to man, the world o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.
Told in Toberona, 2008
*Agnes Burns, 1762-1834, was the sister of Robert Burns. In 1817, along with her husband, she moved near Knockbridge in County Louth, and was later buried in Saint Nicholas Graveyard in Dundalk.
John Swift 1896-1990 spent the formative years of his life in Dundalk, County Louth, before moving to Dublin in 1912.
‘In the south and west of Ireland marriages amongst the peasantry, with rare exceptions, take place during Shrove-tide.* Many of the people think it would not be lucky to be married at any other time of the year; consequently the priest always, when it was possible, visited the island during Shrove for the purpose of solemnizing any weddings which had been arranged. It, however, sometimes happened that the weather was so stormy for weeks together that no boat could approach the island, so it had been arranged that, when this occurred, the engaged couples should at an appointed hour assemble on the east shore of the island, while the priest, standing on the shore of the mainland opposite to them, read the marriage ceremony across the water. As soon as the storm abated he went to the island and did whatever more was necessary to render the marriages valid in the eye of the law and of the Church.
I cannot vouch for the truth of this, though I heard it from a very trustworthy man. He said the young people were not considered really married till after the visit of the priest; but “that they liked to be, at all events, partly married before Shrove was over.”‘
Seventy Years of Life in Ireland, 1893
*Traditionally the period between Christmas and Shrove Tuesday was known as Shrove-tide throughout Ireland. Generally it was the most popular time to get married, as the Catholic Church refused to sanctify marriages during Lent and Advent, both of which were times of abstinence and devotion, while at other seasons the people were generally too busy with farm-work or fishing to contemplate marriage.
Incidentally William Le Fanu was the bother of the Irish Gothic writer Sheridan Le Fanu.
‘Hansel Monday. – The first Monday in the year when formerly a present or hansel was given by a master or mistress to the servants, and by fathers or mothers to children. On that day people salute one another with “My Hansel on you.”
Anything that comes into your possession that day indicates luck, such as a child, calf, lambs, or money. If you receive on Hansel Monday you will sure to be lucky the rest of the year.’
‘It was customary on New Year’s Eve to bake a large barn-brack, which the man of the house, after taking three bites out of it, dashed against the principal door of his dwelling, in the name of the Trinity, at the same time expressing the hope that starvation might be banished from Ireland and go to the King of the Turks. The fragments of the cake were then gathered up and eaten by all members of the household. Before retiring to rest, twelve candles were lit in honour of the twelve Apostles and family prayers were said.’
Omurethi, Journal of the Kildare Archaeological and Historical Society, 1906-08.
B. N. Hedderman, a nurse from County Clare, stationed on the Aran Islands in the first decades of the 20th Century;
‘The particular day of the week in each year is the one on which we keep the feast of the ‘Holy Innocents.’ If this feast happens to fall upon a Monday, for instance, then every Monday throughout that year will be a ‘Cross day.’ : On these days no person in the South or Middle Island would transact business, commercial or otherwise, have a marriage solemnized, or open a grave; neither would they start the spring planting or the harvest gathering. However, “Mother Nature’ dissents, and permits the arrival of births.’
‘some say that in ancient days there was a city where the lake is now, before an earthquake threw up the hills and filled the hollow with water so that the city was submerged. Even now, the peasants say, when the surface of the lake is smooth one may see from a boat, far down and down again, the drowned city, its walls and castle, houses and church, perfect and intact, waiting for the Day of Resurrection.
And on Christmas Eve, a dark night without moon and stars, if one looks down and down again, one may see lights in the windows, and listening with the ears of the mind, hear the muffled chiming of church bells.’
‘The eight of December is a Catholic holiday. Since nineteen hundred and twenty-two, my career as a young gangster touched the high spot, fused and went out.
‘Will ye come out with the Mummers?’ a fellow asked me.
‘I wouldn’t think twice of it if I knew the rhymes,’ I said.
‘Rhymes be hanged,’ he said, ‘ye know enough.’
There were about fifteen lads in our troupe of Mummers. I had an insignificant role at the tail of the play. I wore an old black bowler hat and a cardboard false face.
We headed across, jumping drains and scrambling over hedges. We were well received by the people, hardly any house barred its door against us. We carried a melodeon though none of us could play the instrument. The old folk in the little houses gave us a warm welcome: they looked upon the Mummers as an old Irish custom, which it was not. The big houses looked upon us as hooligans and it might be they were right. During our travels a bottle of poteen made its appearance. One of our characters, Oliver Cromwell, had the bottle on his head…..
In one big house to which we forced our way we were met by silence. A side of bacon hanging from the rafters dangled above our heads. One of our fellows snatched the bacon from its hook and we all ran out.
We went up to a house in a bog village known as Sooty Row. The door was slammed in our faces The ‘Doctor’, part of our cast, carried a huge wooden beetle which he had taken from a tub of pigs’-mash in one of the houses. Bang! Bang! Crash! He struck the closed doors and smashed them to smithereens. Then we all ran.
In another house we got eighteen pence and a warm welcome. That should have satisfied us but it did not. A pile of griddle-cakes stood on the table near the door, one on top of the other. The bottom cake was a lovely fruit cake with cherries and raisins sticking out its sides. As I went out the door I heard a noise and a commotion. I looked around and saw five or six cakes – like the wheels of turf-barrows – rolling about the floor: the fruit cake wasn’t among them. One of our number dashed past me hugging that cake. The man of the house stood in the doorway and we heard him say, very politely: ‘A meaner lot of young men I have never known.’ The cake was devoured in a minute. I got very little, just a crust from which the donor had carefully picked the raisins and cherries.
By the roadside we sat down to count the money. There was a row.
”Yer keepin’ some of it,’ the purse-bearer was told. He got raging mad. ‘There’s the rotten money,’ he said, as he scattered it on the road. One more instance of the saying: ‘A narrow gathering gets a wide scattering.’
We split: it was more or less a political split. The Free Staters turned for home, the Republicans continued ahead.
There was a dance in a near-by hall. I didn’t want to go as I was fagged out.
For my part the dance was a complete flop. I couldn’t see a nice girl in the place.’
Despite having spent all of her short life in Egypt Saint Catherine Alexandria was, at one time, among the most revered saints in Ireland. The many religious institutions named after Saint Catherine give some indication of the saint’s widespread veneration in Ireland over previous centuries, but it is perhaps Saint Catherine’s Bed, one of six penitential beds, at Lough Derg that gives the greatest indication of the high position she previously held among the saints of Ireland.
As Saint Catherine is considered, at least in Ireland, to be the patron saint of seafaring* it is natural that her cult has remained strongest in places like the coastal parishes of Killybegs in Donegal and Ventry in Kerry, both of which have Catherine as their patron saint. Saint Catherine’s Feast Day, 25 November, has continued to be observed in Killybegs and Ventry with pilgrimages and patrons at holy wells which, according to legend , were long ago blessed in Saint Catherine’s honour by survivors of shipwrecks, often monks, who believed the saint had intervened to spare them being drowned. In Killybegs there is also a more recent legend, dating from the middle of the nineteenth century, in which a Protestant rector named Lodge decided to fill the holy well with soil, in an effort to put a stop to the well worship in the area, only to discover that after doing so a spring shot up through the floor-board of his house flooding his drawing room, leading the rector to have the holy well restored to its previous state.
* Internationally and in the Roman Catholic tradition Saint Catherine of Alexandria is considered to be the patron saint of many occupations including unmarried women, millers and archivists, however to the best of my knowledge, seafaring is only ascribed to her in the Irish tradition.
The tradition of sacrificing a fowl or a farm animal on Saint Martin Eve was once widespread in Ireland, and was still strong in many parts of the country into our grandparents’ times. The type of animal slaughtered depended on the means of the household; in wealthier households a pig, lamb, calf, or other animal was generally chosen, while in the majority of households, especially as the nineteenth century progressed, the slaughter of a fowl, generally a goose, chicken, or duck became the most widespread offering to the saint.
Once the creature was slaughtered, to protect the household from evil and to encourage prosperity in the coming year, the blood was spilled and sprinkled over the threshold, about the windows, and in each corner of the dwelling, in some cases, the byre, stables and other outbuilding were protected in a similar manner. On Saint Martin’s Eve the spilling of blood was considered so essential that, in cases where a household could not procure an animal a member of the family would spill some of their own blood, by cutting the finger, to maintain the custom and ensure the household’s safety.
The slaughtered foul or beast was eaten on Saint Martin’s Day which along with Michaelmas and Christmas day were the only holy days when the consumption of meat was permitted.
There are many legends relating to the importance of killing a creature on Saint Martin’s Eve, for example, versions of the legend below were well known in county Leitrim at the turn of the twentieth century;
‘A man who, having nothing else, killed his only cow in honour of the saint, who rewarded him by increasing his riches in the following year, so that when St Martin’s Day came round again, he was the possessor of many beasts. Then in his plenty, he grudged even a fowl, and by the following 11th November was as poor as he ever was.’
Mason,William Shaw. A Statistical Account or Parochial Survey of Ireland. London, 1814-1819
Wilde, Lady Jane. Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland. London, 1888.
‘”St Ita’s Day” falls on the 15th of January, on which day a large gathering – “Pattern,” ie “Patron” is held at Killeedy [Ita’s Church], a rural district about six miles south-west of Newcastle West, and about an equal number north-west of Dromcolloher.
The Catholic clergy of the deanery have developed a most praiseworthy method of having this “patron day” properly observed. On each 15th of January they also assemble here, and at the little rural chapel of Raheena a solemn high mass is celebrated, and a suitable sermon on the life and distinguishing characteristics of the saint is preached. No manual work is done on St Ita’s Day in the Parish of Killeedy, and female children born in January in this parish are usually christened Ita, in honour of this saint – “The Mary of Munster,” as she is sometimes called.
“Rounds” are paid to St Ita’s Well, and an oblong hole in the ground near is called “St Ita’s Bed,” where if childbearing women roll themselves they will not suffer the pains of childbirth. Needless to add, no decent woman would do this in public, but I am told several come here privately on bye-days for that purpose, or take home a handful of the earth from the “Bed,” for the purpose of rubbing it around their bodies in the name of the Holy Trinity.
Near “St Ita’s Well” is a stone, which is said to bear the impress of the hoof of St Ita’s favourite ass. This beast was used for the purpose of bringing new milk to her convent here, from a farm she had four miles farther west, whither the donkey repaired every day, and without a guide. Someone who was acting as caretaker for the saint there milked the cows, when the milk was then placed in the two empty pails, which hung like panniers, one on each side of the faithful beast. On one occasion some robbers, who made a raid on this dairy farm, found the donkey with the two pails full of milk, and just ready to start on its return journey. Enraged at not finding any treasure as they expected, they overturned two milk-pails, allowing the contents to flow down the hill side. But the anger of God was immediately evidenced at that act, for that milk, which was intended for the support of St Ita and her household (nuns), as also to be distributed among the needy and poor, was now turned into blood, and that place was called (Irish Name), ie., “Plenty (or abundance) of blood”, and which event gives the name Turnafulla to the townland and parish of that name to-day.
Or another occasion this donkey stood on a strong thorn, which then entered the sole of its hoof, laming it very much. St Ita pulled out the thorn, which she then thrust into the ground, at the same time “commanding” it not to lame her donkey evermore. This grew into a large tree, and a peculiarity of that whitethorn was that all it thorns were pointed downwards. The tree, I was assured, was flourishing until, in recent times, someone with the idea of effecting improvements dug the surface around it, when “St Ita’s thorn” withered and died off, and is no longer an object of veneration there.
St Ita is the special patroness of pregnant women (why? There is no tradition) and it is principally such who visit and pay “rounds” at her holy well. Besides Killeedy (“Ita’s Church,”) we have also Moveedy “My Mide, or Ita.”’
Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society.
‘It is said that on this one day of the year the souls of the dead are allowed to re-visit their native districts; and if only the human eye had the power to see them, they would be observed about one on every side “as plenty as thranteens in an uncut meadow.”
At night time it is customary in every house to light a candle in memory of each member of a family who has died. They are placed in an unused room and allowed to burn till midnight, when, after praying for the souls of the dead, they are extinguished, as by that time the souls themselves have returned to rest.
At the last thing at night the hearth is swept clean, and on it are placed three cups of spring water.’
* That the souls of the dead can visit the living is often said of Hallowe’en, and sometimes extends for a two day period from Hallowe’en to All Souls’ Day.
Journal of the Kildare Historical and Archaeological Society, 1906-8.
As the first day of the week Mondays were traditionally believed to hold an ominous influence over the days that followed, with the old phrase ‘good Monday, good week, and bad Monday, bad week’ being universally popular throughout Ireland a century ago. In consequence of this belief it was deemed to be unlucky to perform particular tasks or activities on that day, for example, people objected to going into new situations or allowing anything to be borrowed on a Monday, from fear that in doing so they’d be giving away the week’s luck. The opening of graves on a Monday was avoided, whenever possible, as attending to a burial on a Monday was believed to encourage death during the remainder of the week. In County Leitrim, at least, it was considered unlucky to mention the Fairies on Mondays, if someone did mistakenly make reference to…
The boundaries between the Otherworld and our own are said to be slighter on May Eve, and it is then that protection against the fairies is believed to be more crucial than at any other time of the year. May Eve is a great night for the fairies, who are believed to shift location, and hold meetings on hilltops that would continue from dusk till dawn. As with their celebrations at Hallowe’en and during the Full Moon the activities of the fairies on May Eve encouraged many to remain indoors after dusk, but other precautions needed to be taken to protect the household from the fairies.
May-flowers, often marigolds or primroses, are strewn across the window-ledges and the threshold of the dwelling, while branches of rowan or willow are placed above the doors of the home, as well as in the byre and around the boundaries of the land to protect the cattle, who are thought to be particularly vulnerable to evil influences during May-time. In some households Holy water is used substituted for the flowers and boughs at the boundaries of peoples’ homes. William Wilde tells us that in the earlier half of the nineteenth century súgans (straw ropes) were sometimes placed around the necks of cattle to protect them against ill luck and the fairies, while for the same purpose hair on the heads of each of the cattle was singed. In other cases, a sod of coal was passed around the animal to defend it from mischief. While milk was, in some instances, poured on the threshold of the household as an offering to the fairies, although, as with fire, it should be noted that milk should never be given away at May-time, as to do so was believed to be forfeiting the household’s luck for the coming year. In some cases protection was extended beyond domestic areas, D.H. Moutray Read noted a century ago that in the South of Ireland May boughs were ‘placed not only on houses and sheds, but on the railway engines,’ while in late 1820s Amhlaoimh Ó Súilleabháin, from Callan in County Kilkenny, noted the mail-coach were decorated with May-branches.
Our ancestors had many stories warning of the dangers of going near fairy forts or even venturing outside the confines of the home on May Eve. Thomas Crofton Croker in his 1826 collection Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland, provides an account from Peggy Barrett of Ballyhooly, County Cork, who found herself to be daydreaming in her own garden on May Eve she had foolishly stayed out after dark. Realising her mistake she thought she should be home, but at that moment she spotted a strange looking black goat, which she described as having ‘long wide horns turned out instead of being bent backwards, standing upon its hind legs upon the top of the wall, and looking down at me.’ She continues ‘My breath was stopped, and I couldn’t move for near a minute. I couldn’t help, somehow, keeping my eyes fixed on it; and it never stirred, but kept looking in the same fixed way down on me.’ Peggy then goes on to tell how the creature continued to pursue her and eventually jumped on her back, and although she eventually escaped from the strange creature, by blessing herself three times, and finally reaches the safety of her own home, from that day until her death she would remain a hunchback. Interactions between mortals and the fairies on May Eve could be positive as well as negative. May Eve is one night when the music of the fairies is said to be audible to mortal ears, and there are many stories of mortals learning beautiful music from the fairies; William Wilde noted that in the middle of the nineteenth century a popular method of complementing a musician was to remark ‘you listened to the piper on May Eve.’
The ominous association between the fairies and May Eve can have a great influence
many aspects of peoples’ lives. The fairies were supposed to abduct mortals, replacing them with changelings that resembled those they had taken but would never thrive. In the early years twentieth century Brigid Hedderman, who was the district nurse of the Aran Islands in County Galway, witnessed a charm used by young mothers who had just given birth, to protect themselves from fairy abduction, the charm was made by placing a piece of butter ‘with some other substance’ in their mouth in the belief ‘that failure [to do so] renders the woman liable to be kidnapped on the following May morning.’ In a separate instance Nurse Hedderman found that a mother had no faith that her young son could be cured and refused to allow her son to receive medical care as ‘the sickness [tuberculous] had presented itself on May Eve, and she believed the fairies had ‘taken her boy, and substituted this other, and how could she think of getting back her own? She did not protect him sufficiently, and must accept the inevitable.’ While illnesses that presented themselves on May Eve were often thought to be fatal, May Eve was also thought to be an effective time to cure illnesses. William Wilde provided us with quite an unusual method for curing a person who has been unwell; ‘If a person has been unwell, particularly of any chronic disease, for any length of time, “the man of the house,” upon May Eve, breaks a spindle of a wooden wheel over the head of the invalid, and death or recovery is confidently anticipated therefrom within three days.’
Croker, Thomas Crofton Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland. London 1825-1828.
Dyer, T. H. Thiselton, British Popular Customs Past and Present: Illustrating the Social and Domestic Manners of the People. London 1900.
Hedderman, B. N. Glimpses of my life in Aran. London, 1917.
The tradition of setting up and decorating a May Bush on, or on the eve of, the first of May appears to have prevailed throughout most parts of Ireland up until the early decades of the twentieth century, and while the tradition declined steadily throughout the twentieth century the May Bush can still be seen adorning the front of many homes where this practice has been passed down from one generation to the next. In County Wexford and around the country, through the great work of Michael Fortune and Aileen Lambert of the Wexford May Bush Festival^ a revival of May Bush traditions can be seen in many parts of the country.
Beliefs associated with the May Bush, like many other Irish traditions, are influenced by both Christian and pagan traditions. As one of the four quarter days the setting up of a May Bush for May Day is often interpreted as marking and celebrating the beginning of summer. But May Bushes, especially those set up on May Eve, are often interpreted as sacred objects of protection against the fairies who are thought to be particularly active on May Eve, and are also often interpreted as to be set up in honour of the Virgin Mary whose month is thought to be May in the Irish Catholic Tradition.
The May Bush is not actually typically a bush at all, but is generally fashioned from a
flowering branch of a hawthorn (whitethorn) tree, which is planted in front of a house or tied to the front fence of a dwelling. Generally, as local traditions determine, on either the last day of April or the first day of May. May Bushes are decorated in much the same manner today as they were by our long-dead ancestors; wild flowers, ribbons, sea shells and coloured eggs shells (sometimes saved from Easter) continue to be as popular as ever, and while candles and rush-lights have given way to sparkling sweet-wrappers – the tradition of using anything at hand or deemed to be suitable for embellishing the May Bush continues to this day.
There is a perception that May Bushes were only used domestically, while Maypoles were solely put up in public areas. While May Bushes are primarily a domestic feature in Ireland’s May Day rituals today, they appear to have had more of a communal purpose in the towns and villages with isolated full-grown hawthorn trees in prominent areas including greens, market-places, and hills serving as meeting places as a part of May Day festivities as recently as half a century ago. Michael G. Crawford noted in his 1913 book Legendary Stories of the Carlingford Lough District that on ‘May-Eve it was formerly the custom of the young people of the locality to dance the Rincashee (Fairy Dance) around the gentle, thorn, and sing the “Song of May” (“We brought the summer with us”).’ While John Edward Walsh noted that over a century earlier that there was competition in Dublin between rival groups of young people from the north side or the city and the south side of the city, known respectively as the Ormond Boys and the Liberty Boys, over which group could create the most impressive May Bush. For the domestic use of Maypoles we have an account dating from 1682 by Sir Henry Piers who hinted that the choice between adorning the front of the house with a pole or a bush could be influenced by the surrounding resources; ‘in counties where timber is plentiful, they erect tall slender trees, which stand high, and they continue almost the whole year, so a stranger would go nigh to imagine that they were all signs of ale-houses, and that all houses were ale-houses.’ Charles McGlinchey who grew up in Donegal recalled the continuance of the tradition of setting up domestic Maypoles into the latter half of the nineteenth century, noting that ‘the old women used to put up a maypole the evening before. They gathered a bunch of posies in the woods or about ditches and tied it onto a long rod and stuck this up in the midden.* They always made sure to have a piece of a whin bush [gorse] along with the flowers. The maypole would be left up for a day or two.’