May Eve & the Fairies in Irish Folklore

William Blake – Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing c. 1786

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 in substitution for the flowers and boughs that mark 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 was decorated with May-branches during the festival.

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 the dangers of May Eve she thought she should get home as quicky as possible, but at the very moment that she thought of home 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 reaching 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 of the rare nights 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 on

Warwick Goble, 1862-1943

many aspects of peoples’ lives. The fairies were supposed to abduct mortals, replacing them with changelings that resembled those they had taken but these imposters, it was said, would never thrive. In the early years twentieth century Brigid Hedderman, who was the district nurse of the Aran Islands in County Galway witnessed the following charm used by young mothers, who had just given birth, from being abducted by the fairies; the charm was made by the mother placing a piece of butter ‘with some other substance’ in her mouth in the belief ‘that failure [to do so] renders the woman liable to be kidnapped on the following May morning.’ Belief in the fatal influence of the fairies on May Eve was alluded to by Nurse Hedderman in a second case were a mother whose young child who was suffering from tuberculous refused to allow her young son to receive medical care as ‘the sickness 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.

Kinahan, G. H. Folk-lore Record 4 1881.

Moutray Read DH. ‘Some Characteristics of Irish Folklore.’ Folklore 27, no.3 (1916).

Ó Súilleabháin, Amhlaoibh. The Diary of an Irish Countryman 1827 – 1835. Translated from the Irish by Tomás de Bhaldraithe. Cork/Dublin 1970/1979.

Wilde, William. Irish Popular Superstitions. Dublin 1852, 1972

The May Bush Tradition in Ireland

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Participants of the Wexford May Bush Festival 2018

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 recent years County 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, while many believe that they are 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

May bush
Mairtín Ó Fagáin’s May Bush, 2017. A tradition himself and his family on the Westmeath / Meath border have been keeping up for generations

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 fierce competition in Dublin between rival groups of young people from the north side 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. While, as stated above, May Bushes are generally put up around May Eve in some areas they were traditionally set up a week, or more, earlier: William Wilde noted in his 1852 book Irish Popular Superstitions that in ‘some parts, particularly in Monaghan, the May bush used to be erected several days before the festival, and it was illuminated every night’.

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.’



*A midden was a kind of compost bin placed near the front door of the house where slop, bones and unusable parts of food were discarded from the home.


Crawford, Michael G. Legendary Stories of the Carlingford Lough District. 1913.

Mc Glinchey, Charles. The Last of the Name. Edited by Brian Friel. Belfast, 1986.

Mason, William Shaw. A Statistical Account or Parochial Survey of Ireland. Dublin, London and Edinburg, 1814-19.

Omorethi. ‘Customs Peculiar to Certain Days, Previously Observed in County Kildare.’ Journal of the Co. Kildare Archaeological Society and Surrounding Districts V (1906-1908)

Piers, Sir Henry, A Chorographical Description of the County of West-Meath,  A.D. 1682.

Walsh, John Edward, Sketches of Ireland Sixty Years Ago. Dublin, 1847.

Wilde, William. Irish Popular Superstitions. Dublin 1852.

Holy Thursday – Some Dublin Customs for the Last Thursday in Lent


q42vh4aiv6f01 H.W. Brewer – the Graphic, 1890

As the name suggests Holy Thursday is traditionally a day for devotion and prayer, with attendance at Mass occupying a central position in the day’s proceedings. Chapels, churches and cathedrals across the county are decorated with flowers and candles, a procession of the Sacred Sacrament is still held  in some places just prior to or just after the service, with communion offered in remembrance of the Last Supper which Holy Thursday commemorates. In many areas of Ireland a peculiar silence reigned as the church bells are silenced Holy Thursday only to be heard again on the morning of Easter Sunday in observance and commemoration of the days “while Our Lord was dead.”

The visitation of the seven churches, a Holy Thursday tradition which continues in many cities across the world today, seems to have been popular in Dublin a century ago. The poet Austin…

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