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…
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…
One of Ireland’s most enduring legends tells of how O’Donoghue, who was once Lord of the Lakes of Killarney, Ross Castle, and the surrounding lands, can be seen each May-morning upon a white horse gliding over the three lakes, accompanied by unearthly music, and attended by an army of otherworldly beings who stew May flowers in their wake. An account of the origins of O’Donoghue’s May-morning visitations on the Lakes of Killarney was provided by the folklorist and antiquarian, Thomas Crofton Croker in his Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland, 1825-1828:
‘In an age so distant that the precise period is unknown, a chieftain named O’Donoghue ruled over the country which surrounds the lovely Lough Lean, now called the Lake of Killarney. Wisdom, beneficence, and justice distinguished his reign, and the prosperity and happiness of his subjects were their natural results. He was said to have been renowned for his warlike exploits as for his pacific virtues; and as a proof that his domestic administration was not the less rigorous because it was mild, a rocky island is pointed out to strangers, called “O’Donoghue’s Prison,” in which the prince once confined his own son for some act of disorder or disobedience.
His end – for it cannot correctly be called his death – was singular and mysterious. At one of those splendid feasts for which his court was celebrated, surrounded by the most distinguished of his subjects, he was engaged in a prophetic relation of the events which were to happen in ages yet to come. His auditors listened, now wrapped in wonder, now fired with indignation, burning with shame, or melted into sorrow, as he faithfully detailed the heroism, the injuries, the crimes, and the miseries of their descendants. In the midst of his predictions he rose slowly from his seat, advanced with a solemn, measured, and majestic stride to the shore of the lake, and walked forward composedly upon its unyielding surface. When he had nearly reached the centre, he paused for a moment, then turning slowly round, looked towards his friends, and waving his arms to them with the cheerful air of one taking a short farewell, disappeared from their view.
The memory of the good O’Donoghue has been cherished by successive generations with affectionate reverence: and it is believed at sunrise, on every May-day morning, the anniversary of his departure, he revisits his old domains: a favoured few only are in general permitted to see him, and this distinction is always an omen of good fortune to the beholders; when it is granted to many, it is a sure token of an abundant harvest, – a blessing, the want of which during this prince’s reign was never felt by his people.’
Croker, Thomas Crofton. Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland. London 1825-1828.
Croker, Thomas Crofton. Researches in the South of Ireland. London, 1824.
Hall, S.C. (Mr Samuel Carter Hall & Mrs Anna Maria Hall). Hall’s Ireland. London 1840-1850.
‘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
‘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.
Manannán Mac Lir, 1896; ‘The first of this month is universally known as “All Fools Day,” but why the name or whence the custom of “fooling” people originated I have not been able to ascertain.
Up till recent times the custom prevailed of “raising a laugh” at some simple-minded person’s expense by giving him a letter, which he was told was of an urgent nature, addressed to some personal friend of the sender’s. When delivered, the enclosed note merely bore the legend, “send the fool farther,” which advice was religiously adhered to, for the address merely put missive into another envelope and having addressed it to another friend some few miles further on and having told the guileless messenger that it was a most important matter which was confided to his care, set him again on his fool’s errand….’