The first signs of summer
Enjoy a whole host of stories, lore and music celebrating the cross-quarter festival that is Bealtaine. Recorded on the 1st May 2021 on Facebook Live as part of our www.ramblinghouse.ie storytelling project, it is also available on Spotify as a playlist with additional May Day-inspired tunes on it bringing it to well over three hours.
For 2022, we are adding in several more takes on the summer season that followed from hiring fairs to booleying as well as the feast days of Whit Sunday and Midsummer’s Eve. We are also fortunate to have back the Wexford legend, Gretta Browne, to give us her take on Bealtaine traditions. Our video features the great Seoirse Ó Dochartaigh talking to us about the song ‘Samhradh Samhradh’ complete with a montage of soothing summer scenes.
Saluting the Celtic calendar
Bealtaine is the Irish May Day festival. It is usually held on the 1st May, or about halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice – for our recording in 2021, the correct astronomical date was the 5th of May. Historically, it was widely observed throughout Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. In Irish it is Bealtaine ([ˈbʲal̪ˠt̪ˠənʲə]), in Scottish Gaelic Bealltainn ([ˈpjaul̪ˠt̪ˠɪɲ]) and in Manx Gaelic Boaltinn or Boaldyn. It is one of the four cross-quarter days of the Celtic calendar—along with Imbolc on the 1st February, Lughnasa on the 1st August and Samhain on the 1st of November. It should be noted that in ancient pagan Ireland, a new day was regarded as starting once the sun set. This is why what we now know as Halloween is celebrated on the eve of the 1st of November for this was when the ancient festival of Samhain began and why the customs of Bealtaine also commenced on the evening before.
We have also expanded the Bealtaine project to cover the folklore of these other cross-quarter days which can be found on our dedicated The Seasons in Ireland page. This comes complete with additional Spotify playlists with music evoking the respective seasons and in total has dozens of hours of material.
How to play the audio
Scroll down through our Bealtaine Audioboom playlist below to find over twenty audio stories and simply press the Play button for each piece you wish to hear. Alternatively, go direct to our Audioboom Archive page and be able to play the material on your preferred podcast platform. As mentioned, the best option is our Spotify playlist complete with Bealtaine-themed music. This information is provided for free – all we ask is that if you enjoy it, that you share it on social media with friends and family or let us know of what else you would like to hear on it in future.
The festival Bealtaine is referenced in the earliest Irish literature and it is associated with important events in Irish mythology. It marked the beginning of summer and was when cattle were driven out to the summer pastures. Rituals were performed to protect the cattle, crops and people, and to encourage growth. Special bonfires were kindled on May Eve, and their flames, smoke and ashes were deemed to have protective powers. The people and their cattle would walk around the bonfire, or between two bonfires, and sometimes leap over flames or embers. All household fires would be doused and then re-lit from the Bealtaine bonfire.
Doors, windows, byres and the cattle themselves would be decorated with yellow May flowers, perhaps because they evoked fire. In parts of Ireland, people would make a May Bush being a thorn bush decorated with flowers, ribbons and bright shells, a custom is still flourishing in County Wexford.
A pan-European festival
Holy wells were also visited, while Bealtaine dew was thought to bring beauty and maintain youthfulness – it should be noted that this was dew that dew on the land as the sun rose on the 1st. Many of these customs were part of May Day or Midsummer festivals in other parts of Great Britain and Europe – we were lucky enough to have musicians from Italy tell us about their customs at this time!
Although Bealtaine celebrations had largely died-out by the mid-20th century, some of its customs continued and in some places it has been revived as a cultural event. As we’ll hear from our plethora of audio pieces, we are far from having to regard Bealtaine customs and superstitions as being extinct.
When old meets new
The video on the left is from Kerry in 1977 and makes for curious viewing as we see the 1st of May effectively combining the two creeds. In a way, the Irish had the ‘best of both worlds’ in that they were by and large signed up to the teachings of the Catholic church, but they still adhered to the ways of their ancestors long before the ‘new kids’ ever came to town in the fifth century!
We highly recommend CR Vaults as a great resource for seeing a slice of Ireland that has long since gone. Our sister site, Rambling House references the best Irish archives available, as well as including CR Vaults vintage videos on its Links page for the best YouTube pages to find quality Irish material.