This blog often revisits discussions concerning our cottage dwelling ancestors’ dual spiritual tradition: Christian and Celtic / Pagan. The Roman Catholic church tried and failed many times to get the Irish people to fully renounce their Pagan rituals and superstitions. In many instances the church simply combined Christian with Pagan festivals. A major Celtic / Pagan festival, Bealtaine which takes place in May and marks the start of the Celtic summer is the most significant to be combined with Christian traditions.
The meaning of Bealtaine: Just as the Celtic festival of Samhain (Hallowe’en) heralds the start of winter (the turning to the dark) Bealtaine (May) signifies the return of the light. Our farming ancestors relied on significant events of the calendar to give them reassurance; and to remind them when to sow and when to reap. Bealtaine is one of the four major Irish Celtic annual festivals along with Samhain (October), Imbolc (February) and Lughnasadh (August). It was widely observed throughout Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man.
'Altars in the home decorated with flowers replaced the tradition of Pagan offerings to the gods that have been in Irish homes since pre-history.'
To our ancient farming ancestors this festival marked the time on the farming calendar for cattle to be driven out to the summer pastures. Rituals were performed to protect the cattle, crops and people, and to encourage growth. Fire played a special part in these rituals: it has been speculated that the fire in Bealtaine celebrations symbolises the return of the sun after winter. Other theories suggest that fire rituals are based on a type of imitative or sympathetic magic. Certain practices were to ensure a plentiful supply of sun for the growing season. Bonfires were lit and their flames, smoke and ashes were believed to have protective powers. The people and their cattle would walk around the bonfire and in some cases leap over the flames or embers. These fire rituals symbolically burned and cleansed potentially destructive influences, marking a new beginning in the farming year.
Irish cottage customs: By the time our farming ancestors had moved out of their raths, crannogs, timber huts and castles and largely dwelled in the cottages discussed here, worshiping under the Catholic religion in the nineteenth century, many elements of Bealtaine persisted.
The fire symbolism this time surrounded lighting the fire from the hearth which was the central focal point for all activities in the cottage. The fire at all other times of the year was never allowed to go out, but on May Day all household fires were ceremonially quenched and then re-lit with fire from the Beltane bonfire outside. At this time of year fire was not permitted to leave the house as it was considered likely that all luck of the house would also leave with it. Such beliefs dominated other important goods leaving the house, such as butter. Anything that was considered related to the profit of the house was not given away at this time as it was believed to do so was to give away the profit of the year. Out of respect for these beliefs, and to retain the luck of houses, water or fire was never asked for or taken from the home on May Eve or May Day.
The dew that occurred on the morning of May Day was important. Dew collected on that day (in a vessel) was thought to offer a cure for the rest of the year and washing the face with or walking in, the first dew of May day was believed to have curative properties. Water drawn from local holy wells at this time was considered especially potent. Flowers that were left at Holy wells on May Day were also considered to be restorative.
There were curious beliefs around housework in May; it was considered unlucky to dust the house or to whitewash the house. It was believed luckless too, to get married in May (June was preferred month in Ireland for weddings). May Day traditionally marked the start of summer hurling and in some parts of Ireland it was customary for women to present men with new hurling balls at this time. Not hearing the cuckoo in the month of May meant certain death for the non-hearer!
Marian worship and May flowers: From medieval times May became associated with the devotion to the Our Lady, the Blessed Virgin Mary. Many Pagan Celtic traditions were incorporated into Marian veneration, the most notable of which was the collection of flowers. Flowers were used to decorate grottoes, altars and Marian shrines as well as crowning statues of Our Lady in processions.
May altars in the home were also decorated with flowers: these holy places in the home, flanked by holy pictures of saints, Our Lady and the Sacred Heart, replaced the tradition of similar Pagan offerings to the gods that have been in Irish homes since pre-history. Seasonal bluebells, mimicking the blue associated with Our Lady were popular Above all, yellow flowers, such as primroses and gorse were seen as particularly potent against evil spirits and the Good People (faeries) who are renowned for their dislike of the colour. They were believed also to appease nature spirits and Pagan gods throughout Europe.
It was thought that during festivals such as Bealtine the power of those in the Otherworld was particularly potent. May flowers were spread on doorsteps (a common tradition in Ulster) and hung over doors (considered liminal areas) to discourage bad luck from entering the home.
May trees: Decorating a May Bush or May Tree was traditional in many parts of Europe. In Ireland a tree or bush was decorated with ribbons or shells near an individual house. It was usually white thorn, the most potent of faery trees and that which flowers in May, which paradoxically is considered very unlucky if brought indoors. Some believe that customs like these are a remnant of ancient Pagan tree worship.