Bealtaine or May Day was one of the major festivals in the ancient Irish calendar and is also the Irish name for the month of May.  It was also known in medieval times as Céad Shamhain or ‘first Samhain’, Samhain being the term used in Irish for the major festival at the end of October, now known as Halloween.  May Day marked the end of the dark half of the year and the start of the bright half.  It is clear from the Irish law tracts of the early medieval period that Beltaine (as it was spelt in Old Irish) was not just a major festival but a time of year that was important in many respects in farming.

The term Beltaine originally meant ‘bright fire’, and May Day celebrations all over Europe going back centuries have been associated with fire.  The Hill of Uisneach in Co.Westmeath has particularly strong associations with Beltaine and excavations there in the early twentieth century revealed huge beds of ash.  The druid Mide is credited with lighting the first fire at Uisneach in prehistoric times. The site, reputed to be the centre of Ireland, was the focus of many legends and the Bealtaine Festival was revived at Uisneach in 2009 .  

In 2017, the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, lit the ceremonial fire at Uisneach.  Although the public festival did not take place in 2020 and 2021  due to the Covid pandemic, it will take place this year, albeit on a somewhat reduced scale.  

It had been a major festival before Covid at which I played with the band Coscán (see )

The Beltany stone circle in Co.Donegal takes its name from Bealtaine.  This is one of the largest stone circles in Ireland and the site also has the remnants of a stone cairn, possibly over 5,000 years old.  The rising sun at Bealtaine is reported to sit on the peak of the only carved stone in the circle and the site has been a focus of pilgrimage by people in north-west Ireland for many years.

All over Ireland many folk customs relating to May Day have been recorded.  These include creating a May bush or a May altar in the home or walking in the May morning dew to keep away sickness.  Grottos, altars, homes and holy wells were often decorated with flowers.  This year, folklorist Michael Fortune announced the revival of a very old custom in Wexford, The May Bush Dance.  This will take place at Ballindagan, near Enniscorthy, on May Eve, April 30th, and will include traditional music, song and dance.  At 6.30 p.m. the May Bush will be decorated and the May Queen will be crowned.  There will be a guest appearance by the Drinagh Mummers.  Although mummers are normally associated with the performance of dramas around Christmas, there are accounts which indicate that mummers have performed in the past around May Day, particularly in Wexford.

A number of songs in the Irish tradition are associated with May Day folk customs, including ‘Thugamar Féin An Samhradh Linn’.  This song mentions ‘Bábóg Na Bealtaine’, which was a straw figure that was part of a fertility cult.  In many places courtship and match-making seem to have formed part of the May Day celebrations.  The song bears witness to this in the broader context of the natural world reawakening as summer comes.  There are many different versions and recordings of this song, but you can view the Co. Louth singer Eithne Ní Uallachán performing a beautiful rendition of it with the band Lá Lugh as ‘Babóg NaBealtaine’ on YouTube 

The Co. Cork singer Iarla Ó Lionáird recorded it as ‘Samhradh, Samhradh’ with the band The Gloaming.

Photo by @decmurr

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