Bealtaine

Date: May 2018
Bealtaine

Beltane was one of four Gaelic seasonal festivals: Samhain (~1 November), Imbolc (~1 February), Beltane (~1 May), and Lughnasadh (~1 August). Beltane marked the beginning of the pastoral summer season, when livestock were driven out to the summer pastures.

Rituals were held at that time to protect them from harm, both natural and supernatural, and this mainly involved the "symbolic use of fire". There were also rituals to protect crops, dairy products and people, and to encourage growth. The sidhe (often referred to as spirits or fairies) were thought to be especially active at Beltane (as at Samhain).

Mayday corresponds with the Irish festival of La Bealtaine, which officially heralded the beginning of the summer. Its name appears to derive from the Old Irish words Bel taine meaning ‘bright fire’ and it was surrounded by a large number of folk beliefs some of which had possible pagan origins. As the name of the festival suggests bonfires played an important part in the activities and were often lit on prominent local landmarks with the Hill of Uisneach in Co. Westmeath being the most famous example.

A particularly common tradition involved driving herds of cows between two bonfires in the belief that this would purify the herd and also bring luck. It was also deemed unlucky to give away salt, fire or water on Mayday as the luck and profits of a farm went with these gifts.

May flowers, such as primrose, gorse or hawthorn blossoms, were gathered before dawn and placed in bundles on door posts to ward off evil.

The May Bush was popular in parts of Ireland until the late 19th century. This was a small tree or branch—typically hawthorn, rowan or sycamore—decorated with bright flowers, ribbons, painted shells, and so forth. There were household May Bushes (which would be placed outside each house) and communal May Bushes (which would be set in a public spot or paraded around the neighbourhood). In Dublin and Belfast, May Bushes were brought into town from the countryside and decorated by the whole neighbourhood. Each neighbourhood vied for the most handsome tree and, sometimes, residents of one would try to steal the May Bush of another. This led to the May Bush being outlawed in Victorian times.

Holy wells were often visited at Beltane, and at the other Gaelic festivals of Imbolc and Lughnasadh. Visitors to holy wells would pray for health while walking sunwise (moving from east to west) around the well.


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