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
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