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….’
Whipping the Herring out of Town, a scene of Cork -Natanial Gogan, circa 1800 (Available to view in Crawford Gallery, County Cork
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…
Good Friday marks the last day of Lent, and traditionally it was strictest day of abstinence in the Lentern season. As far back as the early nineteenth century Good Friday was also known as the “the Black Fast” and/or “hAoine an Chéasta” (Friday of Torture, Good Friday), 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…
The feast of the Annunciation, 25 March, also known in many areas as “Lady Day in March”, is one of the three “Lady Days” which are widely celebrated across Ireland, the other two being Candlemas which falls on 2 February and Harvest Lady Day which falls on 15 August. The date is observed in memory of the visit to the Virgin Mary by the Archangel Gabriel at which she discovered she would be the mother of the son of God, Jesus Christ.
If the Feast of the Annunciation fell in Lent the obligations of the Lentern season were relaxed. The day was a social occasion with many attending patrons and fairs, which were often the sites of boisterous behaviour. In 1816 the Reverend James Neligan who was Rector and Victor in the Parish of Kilmactigue in County Sligo complained that while all types of work were avoided on the three…
‘Observed as a holy-day. A sprig of shamrock (or “shamroge” as the peasants call it) is worn in the hats of men. Opinions differ greatly as what is the genuine shamrock; the trefoils which are generally sold in Dublin for some days before the anniversary of the saint’s death are two one rooted varieties: one having a small pink clover blossom, and the other (I think) a yellow flower; both of which are easily gathered. According to the old people, “the rale of errib” is that which sends out branches from the main root, and which themselves takes root at the nodes (i.e. the starting point of the leaves) as they creep along the ground, therefore forming more branches. The flower resembles a small white clover blossom; this trefoil is probably not found on sale in Dublin, owing to the trouble in grubbing it up. The best…