May Poles in Dublin



William Wilde, 1850;

‘The two Dublin May poles were erected outside the city. One of them stood in the centre of Harold’s Cross Green, and existed within the memory of some of the present generation. After its decay, an old withered poplar supplied its place for many years; and so recently as the year 1836, the publicans of the village erected a May pole, decorated it, and gave a number of prizes, in order to collect an assemblage of the people, by restoring the ancient festivities.

The chief May pole of Dublin, however, was erected at the pretty suburban village of Finglas, to the north of the city, near the Glasnevin Botanic Gardens, a spot which combines the most delicious sylvan scenery with the charm of the associations connected with the names Swift, Addison, Tickel, Delaney, and in our own day of our distinguished fellow-citizen Doctor Walsh. Here it stood within the last few years; – a very tall, smooth pole, like the mast of a vessel, and upon every Easter Monday it was painted white and encircled with a red and blue spiral stripe like a barber’s pole.

In latter years, at least, it 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 were attached, in succession, the different prizes, consisting generally of a pair of leather breeches, a hat, or an old pinchbeck watch. Whoever clim(b)ed the pole and touched the prize, became it’s possessor. “All Dublin” turned out to Finglas upon May Day to witness the sports and revels of the people, and the streets of the little villages, and the adjoining roads were thronged with carriages, hackney-cars, jingles, and noddies, filed with the better class of citizens.

There was also a gaudily-dressed king and queen of the May, chosen from among the villagers, but they were the least attractive portion of the assembly. The revels consisted of climbing the pole: 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. An adjoining field was selected for the celebration of the majority of these sports.

Stewards were appointed to keep the course, and see fair play, and twenty or thirty pounds’ worth of prizes, consisting of shawls, hats, frieze-coats, hankerchiefs, and women’s gowns and bonnets, were often distributed among the winners. Tents were erected and bands of music paraded through the assembly; and even shows and booths were to be seen scattered throughout the village. In the evening crowds gathered round the May pole, where the boys and girls danced in a ring until a late hour, before the king and queen, who, attended by a man dressed as a Highlander, sat on a raised platform.’

Irish Popular Superstitions

May Eve & May Day Customs from County Meath



A H Singleton, 1904;

‘On May Eve the threshold must be stewn with “May-flowers” (marsh-marigolds). On last May Eve, only a few days ago, I saw our cook coming in with a great bunch of May-flowers, which she told me she intended on strewing on the thresholds of all the entrance doors of the house, as, being May Eve, the fairies would have great power, and the May-flowers are a potent charm to prevent them entering the house. “Besides,” she said, “whoever comes across the threshold, particularly that of the kitchen, must step on the flowers, and bring good luck and plenty of butter into the house.”

One should always try to be the first to draw water at a well or spring on May morning. It brings good luck to the house, and plenty of butter all year.

No one (who keeps cows) likes to be the first in the neighbourhood to light his fire on May morning, as the witches (not the fairies) take the first smoke that appears to work spells where-with to take the butter off the milk for the whole year.

It is very unlucky to take fire out of a house on May morning. If a passer-by wants a light for his pipe, he must not carry away the sod of turf. If he does, he must bring back another to replace it.’

The Folklore Journal.

May Day, Pipes and Football in Kilkenny & Waterford

Kilkenny & Waterford

Unknown Artist

William Wilde;

‘In the counties of Kilkenny and Waterford, it was customary for the neighbours to go from house to house, light their pipes at the mornings fire, smoke a blast, and pass out, extinguishing them as they crossed the threshold.

We learn that, about seventy years ago, it was customary for the people in the same locality to assemble from different baronies and parishes, in order to try their strength and agility by kicking towards their respective houses a sort of monster foot-ball, prepared with thread or wool, and seven feet in circumference. To whichever side it is carried the luck of the other is believed to be transferred.

Irish Popular Superstitions

May Day Preparations


Dublin, 1831

William Wilde, 1850;

‘The preparations for the May Day sports and ceremonial in Dublin, commenced about the middle of April , and even earlier, and a rivalry, which often led to the most fearful riots was incited, particularly between the “Liberty boys” upon the south, and the “Ormond boys” upon the north side of the river: and even among themselves, as to which street or district would exhibit the best dressed and handsomest May Bush, or could boast the largest and highest bonfire.

Upon one of the popular outbreaks resulting in the abduction of a May bush, was written the song, in old Dublin slang, of –

“De nite afore de fust of Magay,”

so spiritily described in that graphic record of the past, “Sketches of Ireland Sixty Years Ago.” For weeks before, a parcel of idle scamps, male and female, devoted themselves to the task of “Collecting for the May:” and parties decorated with ribbons, and carrying green boughs, and sometimes accompanied by itinerant musicians, went from house to house soliciting contributions of ribbons, hankerchiefs and gaudy silk – materials then manufactured, and consequently more common in the Liberty than now- to adorn the May bush. Turf, coals, old bones, particularly slugs and cows’ horns from the tan-yards, and horse’ heads from the knackers, logs of wood, &c., were also collected, to which some of the merchants generally added a few pitch tar-barrels. Money was solicited to “moisten the clay” of the revellers; for, whether from liking, or from fear, or considering it unlucky, few ventured to refuse to contribute “something toste de May bush.”

The ignitable materials were formed in depots, in backyards, and the cellars of old houses, long before the approaching festival; and several sorties were made by opposing factions to gain possession of these hoards, and lives have been lost in the skirmishes which ensued.’

Irish Popular Superstitions