‘On May Eve the threshold must be stewn with “May-flowers” (marsh-marigolds). On last May Eve, only a few days ago, I saw our cook coming in with a great bunch of May-flowers, which she told me she intended on strewing on the thresholds of all the entrance doors of the house, as, being May Eve, the fairies would have great power, and the May-flowers are a potent charm to prevent them entering the house. “Besides,” she said, “whoever comes across the threshold, particularly that of the kitchen, must step on the flowers, and bring good luck and plenty of butter into the house.”
One should always try to be the first to draw water at a well or spring on May morning. It brings good luck to the house, and plenty of butter all year.
Although the Maypole was a late addition to Ireland’s May Day celebrations, never gaining the widespread observance of the many older beliefs, customs and festivities associated with Maytime, the Maypole did enjoy local popularity in certain districts between the seventeenth and the nineteenth centuries. Introduced and originally popularised by English and Scottish settlers in the years following the plantations of the sixteenth and seventeenth Centuries, Maypoles could previously be found in prominent positions, particularly in towns and villages that lie near the east coast of Ireland. A couple of centuries ago Dublin could boast of having at least three Maypoles; one was situated in the centre of Harold’s Cross Green, while Dublin’s principle Maypole was planted near the Botanic Gardens on the north side of the city, and a third Maypole could be found in Balbriggan in North County Dublin. Outside of Dublin Maypoles could be found in the towns of Kilkenny, Downpatrick, Mountmellick in County Laois and Maghera in County Derry, as well as in the villages of Kilmore in County Down and at the cross-road Castledermot in County Kildare.
Today the village of Holywood in County Down can lay claim to having the only surviving Maypole in Ireland. On the first Monday in May each year the pole is still decorated with ribbons, a May Queen is crowned and groups of local school girls dance around the Maypole, while large groups of spectators enjoy the festivities. An information notice in the town notes that a Maypole has stood at the cross-roads of Holywood since 1620, a fact that was established on an old map – making the Holywood’ Maypole the first recorded Maypole in Ireland. A local legend explains how the original pole was first installed in the town. The legend maintains that a ships mast, was given as a gift to the people of Holywood as a gesture of gratitude for the hospitality and assistance they provided to a crew of Dutch traders who were shipwrecked off at Belfast Lough near the town. Since the first pole was planted at the cross-roads in Holywood nearly four hundred years ago replacements have been required at various times, in 1943, for example, a storm toppled the Maypole which nearly collided with a passing bus. The current Maypole, in the photograph above, stands at a height of 55 feet without the weather vane atop.
Like the Maypole in Hollywood many of Ireland’s Maypoles were permanent – standing all year round, and used for a wide variety of purposes which included; as an assembly point for the local population, as a flag-pole, to post local news or bills, or as a weather-vane. Additionally Maypoles were often decorated to mark special occasions throughout the year, the pole at Holywood, County Down, for instance, was previously, and possibly still is, adorned with orange and blue flags and streamers on the twelfth of July in celebration of the Battle of the Boyne, while in the early eighteen hundreds the Pole in Glasnevin was painted white with blue and red spiral stripes on Easter Monday each year.
Many traditional amusements and customs were carried out by those who assembled at May Poles on May Day. In Carrickfergus in County Antrim the newly elected May King and Queen took an active part in the amusements by dancing round the pole with their subjects. While at the May Pole near the Botanic Gardens in Dublin the newly elected King and Queen of the May presided over the games with a man dressed in highlander clothing acting as their attendant. Amusements around this Maypole were not limited to dancing, as illustrated by William Wilde’s account of the many boisterous activities which included:
‘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.’
William Wilde also mentioned that in the early decades of the nineteenth century the Maypole ‘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, in succession, the different prizes, consisting generally of a pair of leather breeches, a hat, or an old pinchbeck watch. Whoever climbed the pole and touched the prize, became its possessor.’
A number of accounts from previous centuries seem to indicate that Maypoles were not exclusively positioned in public locations. Domestic Maypoles seem to have been popular in certain rural areas, for example, in 1682 Sir Henry Piers indicated that the people choose between bush and pole according to their local circumstance; ‘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.’ While Mr. and Mrs S. C. Hall mentioned a wedding tradition were a Maypole was planted outside the dwellings of newly married couples; ‘the first May day after the wedding it is customary for the young men and maidens of the Parish to go into the woods and cut down the tallest tree, which they dressed up with ribbons, placing in the centre a large ball decorated with variously coloured paper and gilt.* They then carried this in procession to the bride’s house, setting it up before the door, and commenced a dance about it which lasted all day.’
The decline of Maypole can be traced to a number of acts dating from 1698 prohibiting their erection, but it was in the aftermath of the rebellion of 1798 – at least in folk memory, and presumably to discourage public assemblages, that British authorities went about removing a number of May Poles. The Reverend John Graham of Maghera in County Derry noted that the long standing tradition of planting a May Pole every year at the market place abruptly ended in 1798, and that even when the tradition was revived, some fifteen years later ‘neighbouring magistrates’ came ‘into the town, and cut down the pole.’ While an article from the 1906-08 Journal of the Kildare Historical and Archaeological Society recorded that the permanent May Pole which stood at the crossroads in Castledermot was cut down after 1798, but not before, as local memory recorded a century later, a number of rebels were hung from the pole.
* Many of the features including the decoration of the tree and the connection with weddings will be familiar to those with a knowledge of the May Bush traditions in Ireland.
Fergus. ‘May-Poles’, Ulster Journal of Archaeology, 1855.
Mason, William Shaw. A Statistical Account or Parochial Survey of Ireland. Dublin, London and Edinburgh, 1814-19.
Hall, S.C. (Mr & Mrs). Hall’s Ireland, 1842
Omorethi. ‘Customs Peculiar to Certain Days, Previously Observed in County Kildare.’ Journal of the Co. Kildare Archaeological Society and Surrounding Districts V (1906-1908), 439-454.
Piers, Sir Henry, A Chorographical Description of the County of West-Meath, A.D. 1682
Wilde, William. Irish Popular Superstitions. Dublin 1852.
Williams, Fionnuala Carson. ‘Maypoles on the ‘Road to Richhill’ and Beyond’, Folklife, 49:2, p. 125-149.
‘In the immediate vicinity of Leighlin is a remarkable and very picturesque rath, and close to the cathedral is the well of Saint Laserian. This was until a few years ago a famous resort of the peasantry on the saint’s day, the 18th of April. However the patron was very properly prohibited by the parish priest and it is no longer the scene of gambling and intoxication. Two very old ash trees and a whitethorn which formerly overshadowed the well were cut down about 1823 by the late Captain Vigors of Erindale who leased a considerable tract of land here from the see of Leighton. The Whitethorn was formerly hung with all sorts of rags by devotees, pilgrims or visitors to this holy spot.’
‘In the County of Antrim this day is observed by several thousands of the working classes of the town and the vicinity of Belfast resorting to the Cave-hill, about three miles distant, the day is spent dancing, jumping, running, climbing the rugged rocks, and drinking. Here many a rude brawl takes place, many return home with black eyes, and in some cases broken bones. Indeed it is with them the greatest holiday of the year, and to not a few, it furnishes laughable treats to talk about till the return of the following spring.
On this evening a kind of dramatic piece is usually brought forward at the Belfast Theatre, called The Humours of Cave-hill.’
British Popular Customs Past and Present: Illustrating the Social and Domestic Manners of the People.
‘At Easter the more ordinary sort of people meet near the ale-house in the afternoon, or some convenient spot of ground and dance for the cake; here to be sure the piper fails not of diligent attendance; the cake to be danced for is provided at the charge of the ale-wife, and is advanced on a board on the top of a pike about ten foot high; this board is round, and from it riseth a kind of garland, beset and tied round with meadow flowers, if it be early in the summer, if later, the garland has the addition of apples set round on pegs fastened onto it; the whole number of dancers begin all at once in a large ring, a man and a woman, and dance round about the bush, so is this garland called, and the piper, as long as they are able to hold out; they that hold out longest at the exercise, win the cake and apples, and then the ale-wife’s trade goes on.’
A Chorographical Description of the County of West-Meath
‘The people of the town kept the fast of Lent so manfully that no meat was eaten there during Lent. This greatly set back the killers of beef, the butchers, and on each Easter Saturday, when their good season was returning they bought a herring, and hung it upon a straight strong lath nine feet long. Then they got big long rods and walked through the town from Gallows Hill to the Big Bridge, beating the poor herring until hardly a fin was left. On reaching the bridge they hurled the horrid herring into the water with insult, and hung up a quarter of lamb decorated with ribbons and flowers in its place, and went back to the market place, playing tunes and loudly boasting to each other.’
Claidheamh Soluis, 12 April 1902
The tradition of Whipping the Herring was once widespread in the towns of east of Ireland, whilst the chosen date of the festivities varied, in different towns, between Easter Saturday, Sunday or Monday.
Good Friday marks the last day of Lent, and traditionally it was the strictest day of abstinence in the Lentern season. As far back as the early nineteenth century Good Friday was also known as the “the Black Fast” and/or “hAoine an Chéasta” (Friday of Torture, Good Friday), the latter name in reference to the torture Jesus Christ suffered while being crucified.
Despite the bleak names previously attached to Good Friday it was seldom a day of complete fasting. On the Blasket Islands limpets and winkles, and other sea foods were collected from the strand, while in the south-east of Ireland bread or dry potatoes seem to have been the choice of sustenance for the day. In west-midland areas, however, a near total fast was observed on Good Friday, where all members of the family, including infants at the breast, refrained from taking any food from midnight till noon – while adults often continued their fast for the remainder of the day.
As a day of religious observance, work was avoided, and activity around the house was restricted to cleaning. The children and men of the household went barefoot, while women wore their hair loose. Good Friday was also a day for communal devotion. Graveyards were visited, where prayers were offered up for the souls of the dead, while at holy wells rounds were performed on this day in remembrance of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross.
‘It is in April that the cuckoo, corncrake and swallow arrive, and it is the custom when one first hears the cuckoo or corncrake, or sees a swallow, to say “May we all be alive and in God’s grace next year. Amen,” or literally “May we all be alive this time again. Amen.”
If one hears the cuckoo from behind, and in the right ear, and also finds some hairs (at the same time) under his right foot, such a one will be lucky for that year. If the cuckoo is first heard in the left ear it is an unlucky sign. Should the sowing of oats be deferred from any cause until the coming of the cuckoo, such sowing is invariably known as “cuckoo oats,” and is thus designated to mark the lazyness of that particular farmer.’
Journal of the Cork Historical & Archaeological Society, 1896