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 Legend of O’Donoghue on May Morning

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. The following 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.

lakes of killarney
Upper and Lower Lake, Killarney, 1897 postcard

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.

Illustration is from Hall’s Ireland.

The Maypole Tradition in Ireland

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.’

Raising the May-pole from Chamber’s Book of Days, 1863

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.

Top photograph the Maypole in Holywood, County Down taken by Nev Swift.

The May Bush Tradition in Ireland

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 County Wexford and around the country, 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, and are also often interpreted as to be 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 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 competition in Dublin between rival groups of young people from the north side or the city 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. 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.

Top photograph of participants at the Wexford May Bush Festival, curtesy of Michael Fortune.

Second photograph is of Mairtín Ó Fagáin’s May Bush in2017. A tradition himself and his family on the Westmeath / Meath border have been keeping up for generations.

Whipping the Herring an Easter Saturday Tradition in Dundalk

Henry Morris, Dundalk; ‘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 and occurred on Easter Saturday, Sunday or  Monday depending on the customs of the locality.

Whipping the Herring out of Town, a scene of Cork -Nathaniel Gogan, circa 1800 (Available to view in Crawford Gallery, County Cork

Good Friday – the Black Fast

Good Friday marks the last day of Lent, and traditionally it was the strictest day of abstinence in the Lenten season.  In Ireland Good Friday is traditionally also called the “the Black Fast” and/or “hAoine an Chéasta” (Friday of Torture), 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.

Photograph by J.M. Synge on the Aran Islands circa 1900.

All Fools’ Day & Sending the fool Farther

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….’

Journal  of the Cork Archaeological and Historical Society

Photograph of Ballintemple, Cork, Photographer undiscovered

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

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 Clarke in his autobiography Twice Round the Black Church remembered the adventures he and his sisters had as children visiting some of Dublin’s beautifully decorated churches on the last Thursday of Lent. Clarke recalled that a number of rules were adhered to when paying visits to the seven churches, with churches that were too close to their home on Mountjoy Street disqualified as they considered to be too close to be worth visiting, while a second rule held that the pilgrimage to the churches should be carried out on foot with no trams. From Clarke’s description it seems that the adventures he and his sisters made to religious institutions ordinarily closed to the public, resembled the hustle and bustle of activity that accompanies the recent traditions of opening private houses and institutions, both religious and secular, on Culture Night and during Open House.


An account from the Schools’ Collection of the National Folklore Collection mentions a ghostly apparition that is supposed to appear in an upstairs window of a building known as Iveagh House at 80 Saint Stephen’s Green South in central Dublin, which was previously owned by the Aristocratic Protestant Guinness family but is now the headquarters for the Department of Foreign Affairs. The legend relates how a daughter of Lord Iveagh Guinness was sick one Holy Thursday and sent for a nurse. When the nurse arrived at the Ivy House she brought with her a crucifix as she was a good Catholic and put it before the child.  As Lord Iveagh witnessed this he ‘snatched the crucifix out of her hand and threw it out through the window. Ever since on Every Holy Thursday an immense crucifix appears in the window and crowds flock to see it.’


Clarke, Austin. Twice Round The Black Church: Early Memories of Ireland and England. London, 1962.

Various accounts from the Schools’ Collection available at

Top illustration is of Dublin City is by H.W. Brewer and was published in the Graphic in 1890.