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May Day traditions from the archives

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My name is Claire Brown and I work for National Museums NI as a first-person interpreter at the Ulster Folk Museum in Cultra. Having recently embarked on a Masters degree within the Irish Studies Institute at Queen’s University, I am currently undertaking a student placement in the Folk Museum’s archives.

The archives contain a collection of handwritten notebooks which were compiled by individuals and organisations in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The purpose of them was to record, by county and locality, all manner of things including domestic life, schooling, local characters, customs, folklore, trade and agricultural practices.

As part of my placement, I have been transcribing points of interest in the notebooks. The following extracts relate to May Day, and come from notebooks V-19-1/2/3/4/5 & V-17-3.

May Day is one of four quarter days in the year, also known as solar festivals, which occur between solstices and equinoxes. The original name of May Day was La Bealtaine. Ultimately, these quarter days marked changes in the seasons and their origins lay in ancient Pagan traditions until Christianity was brought to the island of Ireland. The festivals were then allocated saints, in a way to bridge the gap between Paganism and Christianity. This helped to retain the ancient pagan customs but making these festivals much more acceptable to a newer, wider religious audience.

May Day is associated with spring, flowers, dancing and not forgetting the bonfires which were lit all over the land on May Eve as symbols of rebirth and rejuvenation. Household fires were often put out and relit using embers from the bonfires, as a way of gaining protection, health and wealth for the coming year.

How many of the following May Day traditions do you remember?

Good luck

‘Horseshoes and red flannel were and still are associated with good luck.’

Image: Selling Donegal homespun in the flannel market, Ardara, HOYFM.WAG.1933
Selling Donegal homespun in the flannel market, Ardara, HOYFM.WAG.1933

May Eve and May flowers

‘Every May Eve we would go the bogs to gather the May flowers. These were then placed on a windowsill and on the roof of the house.’

‘May flowers are gathered on the eve of May Day and usually placed at the entrance to each house on the farmyard, and also the dwelling house. Sometimes a bowl of May flowers will be placed on the kitchen table before the evening meal.’

‘On May Eve, May flowers (March marigolds) are strewn around the house, and the door of the byre and about the spring well to appease the good people.’

Image: Marsh marigolds, HOYFM.WAG.3641
Marsh marigolds, HOYFM.WAG.3641

Yarrow under the pillow

‘If you put 12 stalks of yarrow under your pillow on May Eve night you will dream of your future husband.’

‘On May Day Eve they gathered yarrow in the fields and slept on it all night, ten stalks were gathered the tenth being thrown away and the remaining nine put under the pillow after repeating the following rhyme “Yarrow, fair yarrow, thrice good morrows to thee. I hope before this time tomorrow my true love ill see. Note the colour of his hair and the clothes that he’ll wear. And hear the words that he’ll say when he comes to court me.”

‘My mother was supposed to dream of father on yarrow long before she met him, and easily recognised him as the man in her dream when she eventually met him.’

Image: Gorse and fern to keep the fairies out, a May Eve custom, HOYFM.WAG.1964
Gorse and fern to keep the fairies out, a May Eve custom, HOYFM.WAG.1964

May Day

‘On May morning someone belonging to the house used to go for a can of spring water. One used to try and get before the other. There was one neighbour man the name of John Brock, he deceived all the neighbours, he sat up all night and went for water about 1 o’clock in the morning and everyone used to wonder when he used to go as they never could see him. No person ever kindled a fire or put out ashes or swept the floor on May morning.’

‘Where several people used the same spring well, each one always tried to be first to go there for water on May Day as this was supposed to be lucky.’

‘Young women got up early on May Day morning to bathe in the morning dew which was supposed to enhance their rose leaf complexions.’

Image: A group of children beside a well, HOYFM.WAG.1845
A group of children beside a well, HOYFM.WAG.1845

May Queen

‘She told us thrilling stories of the times they used to have on May Day. How they crowned a May Queen in the village school and then marched singing May Day songs and carrying flowers to a field where they played games all evening and had tea with currant bread and large arrowroot biscuits.’

Image: "Queen of the May", girls in a circle in a road, BELUM.Y14406
"Queen of the May", girls in a circle in a road, BELUM.Y14406

‘The crowning of the Queen of May was an important event in the children’s lives at Drumclamph. This did not always take place on May Day because the weather sometimes was most unsuitable for an outdoor entertainment and so it was postponed till later in the year when the weather was favourable. But the Queen was normally chosen at the end of April. The boys and girls all gathered together in the girl’s schoolroom and everyone was provided with a piece of paper and a pencil. They then wrote on the piece of paper the name of the girl they wished to choose at Queen. These papers were then collected in a hat by one of the senior pupils and scrutinised by the teachers who afterwards announced the name of the newly elected Queen. Much cheering and clapping followed much to her embarrassment.’

‘On the morning of the entertainment the children would arrive carrying flowers, some of those who possessed gardens bringing beautiful blooms and those less fortunate, wildflowers gathered form fields and hedgerows. A crown was made for the Queen of some of the choicest which were sewn on brown paper and when it was fitted and ready it was placed on her head by the rector’s wife. The children, led by the crowned Queen and her attendant, and followed by past pupils all carrying their flowers and singing May Day and marching songs marched to a field about a quarter of a mile from the school. Leaving down their flower’s games were played until teatime when they marched back to the schoolroom where they were served with tea and currant bread and very large biscuits. After singing grace all marched back again to the field and continued playing games till late in the afternoon. Blind man’s buff, jig in the ring and French jig were played and there was tug of war between the boys and girls and sweets and pennies were scrabbled for.’

Image: A group of children dressed for May Day celebrations, BELUM.Y10189
A group of children dressed for May Day celebrations, BELUM.Y10189

‘Later in the evening the parents of the children joined and a platform was erected in the corner of the field on which was placed the piano from the schoolroom and a concert followed. Poems being brought for the parents, the children just sitting around on the grass. Choruses, solos, duets, recitations, pianoforte solos and sometimes a dialogue were the items on the programme and the singing of the national anthem ended a perfect day.’

‘At one of these May Day entertainments, a senior girl, in opening a large bottle of sweets to scramble, cut her arm very badly and no one seemed to know what to do. Evidently there were no first aid classes in those days. A murmur went round that one of the guests had brought a young surgeon who was on his holidays with her, so a quick search was made through the field for him and he immediately knew what to do and in a short time had the arm bound up. This young surgeon afterwards became ‘one’, if not ‘the’ outstanding surgeons in Ireland. Residing in Dublin, the name ‘Mr John Taylor’ was well known professionally, his home being Castlefin, Co. Donegal. [I] was crowned Queen almost seventy years ago, yet the memory of it remains with me as though it were but yesterday and I can still smell the perfume of the dahlias and other flowers in my crown. I was again standing on the platform in the corner of the field and I was singing: -

“You must wake and call me early, call me early, mother dear. Tomorrow will be the happiest time of all the glad new year, of all the glad new year, mother, the maddest, merriest day, for I am to be Queen of the May, mother, I am to be Queen of the May. I’ll sleep so sound all night mother that I shall need awoke, if you do not call me loud, when the day begins to break, for I must gather knots and flowers and buds and garlands gay. For I’m to be Queen of the May, mother, I’m to be Queen of the May. All the valley, mother, shall be fresh and green and still, and the cowslip and the crow’s foot shall be over all the hill. There’ll not be a drop of rain, mother, the whole of the live long day, for I’m to be the Queen of the May, mother, I’m to be Queen of the May.”