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May Day Customs and Traditions

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Now that Easter is over and most (if not all!) of the Easter eggs have been eaten I thought I would take another look at our collections and archives and explore some of the customs and traditions that prevailed 100 years or so ago around May Day.

Hiring fair, Antrim, May 1924 (HOYFM.WAG.2124).

Beginning of summer

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Cows and the milk they produced were fiercely guarded on May Day (HOYFM.WAG.1952).

Fairies and witches

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A group of girls dressed for May Day celebrations, Lissoy (BELUM.Y10189).

May flowers

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Maypole, Holywood, c.1916 (HOYFM.WAG.3368).

Maypoles

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Celebrating the Queen of May, Belfast (BELUM.Y14406).

May Queen

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A bride on her wedding day (HOYFM.DUNDEE.143a).

Looking to the future

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Morning dew on grass

May dew

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Jean Bell’s well, Bellaghy (HOYFM.WAG.1845).

First water

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Beginning of summer

Image: Hiring fair, Antrim, May 1924 (HOYFM.WAG.2124).
Hiring fair, Antrim, May 1924 (HOYFM.WAG.2124).

May Day, the first day of May, was a time of celebration, particularly in the countryside. Also known as Beltane, it marked the beginning of summer. In anticipation of this day, bonfires were lit the evening before on May Eve which people danced around.

With crop planting out of the way, the start of May gave many people a welcome break, and the opportunity to work for someone new if they so wished, at the biannual hiring fair which took place on or around the 12th May. After this date haymaking and turf cutting could get underway.

Those who had managed their food supplies well over winter made a dish called stirabout (flour and milk boiled thick) with their leftovers. Dishes capable of purifying the blood such as nettle champ and nettle broth were also popular during the month of May.

Fairies and witches

Image: Cows and the milk they produced were fiercely guarded on May Day (HOYFM.WAG.1952).
Cows and the milk they produced were fiercely guarded on May Day (HOYFM.WAG.1952).

On May Eve it was believed that the boundary between the natural and supernatural worlds was open and that people were at risk of untoward influences, in particular fairies and witches.

“May Eve was regarded a special night with the little folk [fairies] and anyone out late on this night was in danger of encountering them.” – Questionnaire of Mr. Traynor, Ederney, Co. Fermanagh.

Stories abounded of babies, children and adults (particularly unmarried young women) being abducted by fairies, sometimes with changelings being substituted in their place.

“There was a girl who lived at Slaughtmanus. One night she went out to the byre and while she was milking the cows a number of fairies gathered around her and carried her away. Her parents searched the countryside and could not find her...They had given up all hope of finding her when one night exactly a year later she came in home from the byre at the usual time with a pail of milk in her hand unaware and unwilling to believe that she had ever been away from home.” – Notebook of Mr. Hunter, Myroe, Co. Londonderry.

People also feared the ‘fairy stroke’ – being touched by a passing band of fairies and suddenly falling ill or sustaining an injury.

Witches were considered a particular threat on May Day. It was believed that they were capable of turning themselves into hares so that they could steal milk from the cows and charm away the year’s supply of butter. Many people kept the byre doors locked and did not let the cows out to pasture on this day. The cows themselves were sometimes sprinkled with holy water, and bits of rowan were tied to their tails and horns in order to protect them.

So as not to attract the attention of witches and fairies, people avoided lighting their fires too early on May morning. Nothing was thrown or given away – food scraps and floor sweepings were burned, dirty water was kept inside. People were highly suspicious of strangers and were reluctant to open their doors to them.

May flowers

Image: A group of girls dressed for May Day celebrations, Lissoy (BELUM.Y10189).
A group of girls dressed for May Day celebrations, Lissoy (BELUM.Y10189).

Marsh marigolds, cowslips, buttercups, primroses and whins were largely gathered by children on May Eve and before dawn on May Day. The flowers were scattered on windowsills, at doorways and on roofs, creating a colourful (largely yellow!) barrier against any form of evil set upon entering the house or byre. For some there was a religious element to gathering May flowers which were picked in honour of Our Lady.

“May Eve was the time that the older generation put May flowers on the lintels of the pig houses and byres, that was to keep out all the witches and fairies from coming in to take away the luck.” – Notebook of Mr. McMillen, Crossgar, Co. Down.

Certain trees and plants were also considered effective.

“Two old people still stick branches of rowan tree in the fields of oats and potatoes! They think this brings them good luck with their crops.” – Notebook of Mr. Laverty, Cookstown, Co. Tyrone.

Image: Children hanging gorse and fern to keep the fairies out (HOYFM.WAG.1964).
Children hanging gorse and fern to keep the fairies out (HOYFM.WAG.1964).

In some areas May flowers were strewn on May bushes. Other forms of decoration put on these bushes included ribbons, coloured paper and the decorated shells of eggs which had been left over from Easter. Like May flowers, May bushes were believed to offer protection against evil, though some were erected for religious reasons.

“May bush set up – flowers and egg shells tied on to (May) hawthorn branch in honour of Our Lady.” – Questionnaire of Ms. McDevitt, Sperrin Mountains, Co. Tyrone.

Maypoles

Image: Maypole, Holywood, c.1916 (HOYFM.WAG.3368).
Maypole, Holywood, c.1916 (HOYFM.WAG.3368).

Some towns and villages such as Kilmore in Co. Down and Carrickfergus in Co. Antrim celebrated May Day by dancing around a maypole. Often elaborately decorated, they provided a central point for festivities. One of the best known maypoles was (and still is) in Holywood, Co. Down.

May Queen

Image: Celebrating the Queen of May, Belfast (BELUM.Y14406).
Celebrating the Queen of May, Belfast (BELUM.Y14406).

The crowning of a May Queen was another custom adopted in certain places. Usually accompanied by singing and dancing (and sometimes begging) it provided children with an opportunity to dress in their finest clothes. In some parts of Ulster a May King was also chosen.

“[My grandmother] told us thrilling stories of the times they used to have on May Day [in Drumclamph, Co. Tyrone]; 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.” – Notebook of Mrs. Stevenson, Portrush, Co. Antrim.

Looking to the future

Image: A bride on her wedding day (HOYFM.DUNDEE.143a).
A bride on her wedding day (HOYFM.DUNDEE.143a).

Divination, in particular marriage divination, was a popular custom on May Eve. Snails, mirrors and ashes were all used to decipher a girl’s fate.

“If a girl wanted to find her future husband’s name, she collected snails, put them in a griddle, put a basin over them, to keep them from crawling away. The slimy trails were examined next morning and the girl would try to trace the letters from them i.e. the letters spelling a man’s name.” – Notebook of Miss Donnan, Kilkeel, Co. Down.

The weather was also carefully noted in May as it provided an indication of the course of the rest of the year. Rain was particularly welcomed, as per the saying, ‘A wet and windy May fills the barns with corn and hay’.

May dew

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The May dew was believed to have restorative properties, and those who washed their face in it on May morning were said to gain great beauty.

“To wash face in dew gave a lovely complexion for the year. To walk barefoot through grass with dew on it meant that person would not suffer from sore feet for a year.” – Questionnaire of Ms. Tipping, Newtownstewart, Co. Tyrone.

First water

Image: Jean Bell’s well, Bellaghy (HOYFM.WAG.1845).
Jean Bell’s well, Bellaghy (HOYFM.WAG.1845).

The first water taken from a well on May morning was said to bring luck, protection and healing and was therefore highly prized.

“The first to the spring well on a May morning had all the luck of the townland for the coming year. I knew of two sensible men who wrestled and eventually fought at the well in order to get the first dip.” – Questionnaire of Mr. Murray, Tydavnet, Co. Monaghan.

Hiring fairs, fairies, witches, flowers, queens, snails – clearly it was a very busy time of year! I hope you have enjoyed reading about some of the customs and traditions associated with May Day.