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.
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—along with Imbolc in February, Lughnasa in August and Samhain at the end of October.
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 thirteen audio pieces, we are far from having to regard Bealtaine customs and superstitions as being extinct.
Primary source: Wikipedia under ‘Beltane’ with an update from the author.