May Poles in Dublin



William Wilde, 1850;

‘The two Dublin May poles were erected outside the city. One of them stood in the centre of Harold’s Cross Green, and existed within the memory of some of the present generation. After its decay, an old withered poplar supplied its place for many years; and so recently as the year 1836, the publicans of the village erected a May pole, decorated it, and gave a number of prizes, in order to collect an assemblage of the people, by restoring the ancient festivities.

The chief May pole of Dublin, however, was erected at the pretty suburban village of Finglas, to the north of the city, near the Glasnevin Botanic Gardens, a spot which combines the most delicious sylvan scenery with the charm of the associations connected with the names Swift, Addison, Tickel, Delaney, and in our own day of our distinguished fellow-citizen Doctor Walsh. Here it stood within the last few years; – a very tall, smooth pole, like the mast of a vessel, and upon every Easter Monday it was painted white and encircled with a red and blue spiral stripe like a barber’s pole.

In latter years, at least, it was not decorated with floral hoops or garlands like the usual English May pole, but was well soaped from top to bottom in order to render it more difficult to climb; and to its top were attached were attached, in succession, the different prizes, consisting generally of a pair of leather breeches, a hat, or an old pinchbeck watch. Whoever clim(b)ed the pole and touched the prize, became it’s possessor. “All Dublin” turned out to Finglas upon May Day to witness the sports and revels of the people, and the streets of the little villages, and the adjoining roads were thronged with carriages, hackney-cars, jingles, and noddies, filed with the better class of citizens.

There was also a gaudily-dressed king and queen of the May, chosen from among the villagers, but they were the least attractive portion of the assembly. The revels consisted of climbing the pole: running after a pig with a shaved and well-soaped tail, which was let loose in the middle of the throng; grinning through horse-collars for tobacco; leaping and running in sacks; foot races for men and women; dancing reels, jigs and hornpipes; ass races, in which each person rode or drove his neighbour’s beast, the last being declared the winner; blindfolded men trying to catch the bell-ringer; and also wrestling, hopping, and leaping. An adjoining field was selected for the celebration of the majority of these sports.

Stewards were appointed to keep the course, and see fair play, and twenty or thirty pounds’ worth of prizes, consisting of shawls, hats, frieze-coats, hankerchiefs, and women’s gowns and bonnets, were often distributed among the winners. Tents were erected and bands of music paraded through the assembly; and even shows and booths were to be seen scattered throughout the village. In the evening crowds gathered round the May pole, where the boys and girls danced in a ring until a late hour, before the king and queen, who, attended by a man dressed as a Highlander, sat on a raised platform.’

Irish Popular Superstitions