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.