On May Day, or more particularly, May morning, witches are traditionally believed to be able to steal their neighbour’s milk or butter, so that no amount of churning will create butter. These witches, or hags as they were often known, were usually widowed women, frequently they were poor, and invariably they were known in their community as odd. Anyone visiting a household between sunset on May Eve and sunset on May Day would be treated with great suspicion. People were particular in not giving anything away, especially fire, milk, salt and water as to do so was considered to be risking the household’s luck and milk-profit for the coming year. Tradesmen who worked about the house would have to smoke by the hearth, and extinguish their pipes before they left the dwelling, while beggars who regularly received hospitality at other times of the year would know to avoid calling at Maytime.
To protect the household from harm on May Eve May-flowers, often marigolds or primroses, are strewn across the window-ledges and the threshold of the dwelling, while branches of rowan or mountain ash are placed above the byre and around the boundaries of the land to protect the cattle, who are thought to be particularly vulnerable to evil influence during Maytime. Holy water was sometimes used along with, or as an alternative to, May-flowers or boughs, while milk was in some instances poured on the threshold of the household as an offering to the fairies. Farmers went to special lengths to protect their cattle on May morning. R. Clarke in an 1882 article titled ‘Folklore Collected in County Wexford’ mentioned that on May morning cows are struck with a quicker-berry switch, which prevents any person putting any evil on them or taking their profit or butter.’ While William Wilde tells us that before the famine súgans (straw ropes) were sometimes placed around the necks of cattle on May Eve to protect them against ill luck and the fairies, while another method to protect the cattle against the powers of witchcraft was to singe the hair on the heads of each of the cattle, or in other cases a sod of coal was passed around the animal.
Farmers would often watch the well though the night on May Eve to ensure that no one tampered with it, as there was great importance attached to being the first on May morning to draw water from the well, this first water was often referred to as the ‘flower of the well’, and was fed to the cattle in the belief that the milk-profit was protected from the power of witchcraft for the season. Conversely, if a witch managed to get to the well first on May morning, having retrieved a cinder from a fire on May Eve, it was believed that by dropping the cinder down the well, in an action known as “burn the well”, she could gain the milk profit of the well’s users for the year to come.
Witches were thought to have many methods for stealing a person’s milk profit on May Day. If a person was seen dragging a straw rope, a spancel, or other object connected with cattle across the dew of a neighbouring farm on May morning they would be presumed to be attempting to steal their neighbour’s milk and butter. On May Day witches were also believed to be able to transform themselves into hares and, in this form, steal the milk-profit from a neighbouring farmer by suckling on the udders of his cows. The ability of ‘old hags’ to transform themselves into hares is noted by Giraldus Cambernsis in his twelfth century text the History and Topography of Ireland, and is the subject of a local legend, still well known in many parts of Ireland that tells of how a farmer upon discovering a hare suckling one of his cow’s udders on May morning chases the hare with his dogs, one of which manages to bite the hare as it passes through a small gap in the wall of a house belonging to a local elderly woman. Upon entering the house the hare is nowhere to be seen, however a wound is discovered on the woman in the same position as the spot where the hare was bitten.
Previously there was great reluctance to be the first household to light a fire on May morning as witches were believed to be able to steal the luck and the milk-profit from the first household that did so, with this in mind people would be waiting for their neighbours’ fires to be lit, watching their chimneys, before they lit their own. In some areas the people waited until the priest’s fire was going, believing that the priest’s close relations with God would act as protection against any threat of witchcraft. An inventive method to protect a household’s milk profit on May morning, noted in the 1890s in County Leitrim, was to ‘get a bunch of rowan leaves, and tie it up the chimney to dry, then on May morn, light this, and let that be the first smoke to go out of the chimney; for witches can do nothing with it.’
If a witch managed to steal your milk-profit there were a number of methods to regain what was lost. The woman of the house, in this situation, is often advised by an outsider to the community on how this can be achieved. In one such instance, an old woman from Mallow related to the American folklorist Jeremiah Curtin that a firebrand was stolen from her house on May morning, the woman went on to explain that a ‘man was sitting there that knew what that meant. He took a piece of peat and threw it into the butter furkin. If he hadn’t done that, we would have been a whole year without butter.’ The Journal of the Kildare Historical and Archaeology Society provides a detailed account of how to retrieve the lost butter along with the consequences the perpetrator would face; ‘If on the May Day’s churning it is discovered that the butter has been already robbed by a witch-woman, a plough-chain should be looped round the churn, which should be placed on three stones, and the colter of the plough should be heated and placed under the churn; it will then be found, on commencing to churn again, that the butter will come; but during the operation no one on any pretex should be allowed into the house. During the heating of the colter the witch-woman will suffer torture; and it is she who will come and endeavour to gain admittance in to the house when the churning is again in full swing, if anyone thoughtlessly let her in, the butter would again disappear to the witch-woman’s house.’
Curtin, Jeremiah. Memoirs of Jeremiah Curtin. Edited by Joseph Schafer. Wisconsin, 1941.
Donaldson, John. A Historical and Statistical Account of the Barony of Upper Fews in the County of Armagh. Dundalk, 1923.
Dorian, Hugh. The Outer Edge of Ulster: A Memoir of Social Life in Nineteenth-Century Donegal. Edited by Breandán Mac Suibhne & David Dickson. Dublin, 2000.
Duncan, Leland L; Whelan Barney; Whelan, Anne; Lynch, Michael; McVittie, Edward; and Drumkeeran. ‘Fairy Beliefs and other Folklore notes from County Leitrim.’ Folklore 7, no. 2 (June 1896), pp. 161-183.
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.
Seymour, St. John D. Irish Witchcraft & Demonology. Dublin, 1913 / New York 1992.
Wilde, William. Irish Popular Superstitions. Dublin 1852, 1972.