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The Festival of Bealtaine: Traditional Piseogs and practices for May Day

Today, Friday the first of May, the world will celebrate May Day and here in Ireland we will (at a safe social distance) celebrate the age-old festival of Bealtaine! The first of May has been a particularly important time here since the pagan era as it represents the beginning of Summer and one of the busiest seasons in farming throughout the countryside. Due to its historic and social importance, a deep folklore tradition has sprung up around May Day, with most practices dating back to the nineteenth century though some could be centuries old. Bealtaine was a time of celebration for many though it also represented fear for farmers, whose very existence depended on their work through the summer and the resulting Autumn harvest - as such, there are a number of interesting piseogs that are still observed in some areas today, so let’s learn about a few and their origins.

So first things first: what is a piseog? Piseogs are old traditions rooted in superstition that have been observed throughout Ireland for generations. Many are connected to fairies, others have uncertain origins, and while Ireland is no longer a rural and superstitious society, some of these piseogs are so deeply ingrained in the national identity that we follow them without even realising we still do so. Perhaps the best known piseog today involves waving at solitary magpies to stave off bad luck and goes hand in hand with the rhyme - One for sorrow, two for joy, Three for a wedding, four to die. Others involve keeping new shoes off the table and avoiding a dropped comb in the great outdoors like your life depends on it (because if it belongs to a banshee it just might).

May Day involved a number of important practices related to farming as it was believed to be a time when crops and livestock could be easily lost, or when bad luck could be inflicted by ill-wishing neighbours. The beginning of May represented not just the start of summer, but also the beginning of the busiest time in the life of a farm - and with this busy season came an increased chance of failure. In the nineteenth century, before modern inventions and safeguards, one bad harvest could irreparably destroy your finances and livelihood, so quite a lot depended on the summer season.

Bonfires were utilised for the cleansing nature of fire. Much like we saw with the unfortunate fate of Bridget Cleary a few weeks ago, fire was often cited in rural Ireland as a way to drive out fairies and other troublemakers, the very word ‘Bealtaine’ comes from the Irish words Bel taine - which mean brightfire. For May Day, sometimes two bonfires were lit with herds of cows driven between them in a ritual of uncertain origin. It was believed that doing so would protect the cows, cure them of any ailments and most importantly: bring luck for the year ahead. Bonfires probably date back to the original pagan festival of Bealtaine and their symbolic power carried through Christian Ireland. Bonfires were lit at the top of locally important hilltops such as Westmeath’s Hill of Uisneach.

A large part of May Day in the nineteenth century involved appeasing the fairies to bring good luck for the season ahead. Many households traditionally left out milk and other offerings for the fairies throughout the year to ensure their good will, but for more fearful families, on May Day fresh milk would be poured across the doorway to bar access to the fairy folk and the more superstitious would bring cows to the local fairy fort and spill their blood as an offering.

The blossoming of life that came with Summer also made an appearance in many of the practices, with May flowers left on doorsteps in order to ward off evil, and May bushes erected in the front gardens of many houses. Children would be sent to collect flowers in baskets and wreaths and these would be used to decorate the front of houses or given to neighbours and friends as a way of spreading good luck.

The Maybush was a decorated bush erected in the gardens of rural houses and the centre of many towns. Bushes were decorated to welcome the summer with ribbons, tinsel, leftover painted Easter eggs and sometimes even candles! Carrying on the tradition of the use of fire, sometimes the bushes were burnt (or possible accidentally set alight by those ill-advised candles) on the evening of May Day, becoming a small ritual fire.

The May bush was used most often in Leinster but here in Munster we had the May Bough - much the same but a little bigger. This involved decorating a large bough of a tree in gardens or communal areas, and thankfully did not involve fire. Far less common (though it is the image modern people would be most familiar with) was the may pole. The may pole was used in large towns like Longford, Kildare and Kilkenny, but was generally the result of a more English influence and so was not used in rural communities.

One of the more prevalent fears in the countryside during this time was the fear of ‘milk thieves’. Curses (as much as blessings) have traditionally been taken very seriously in rural Ireland, particularly agricultural communities and it was believed that with the use of a specific curse and ill-intent, the milk of the summer could be stolen from your cows and taken for someone else’s. On the first day of May sprigs of rowan and hawthorn (known for protective properties) would be hung above the barn door to prevent this from happening.

Piseogs are an important part of our history though some of them have been lost to us forever. Many of you reading will probably known a few from your school days or remember learning about them from your grandparents but one of the best online repositories of old Irish superstitions is held in the Dúchas online Schools Collection which you can check out here. Let’s have a look at some of the entries for Waterford:

On May day boys and girls go out very early bare footed and bathe their faces with the dew of the grasses.” Jack Feeney, Ballyduff Co. Waterford.

It was the custom with some people in my district when making a churn to stick some pieces of butter to the dairy wall. These pieces of butter were for the fairies. Some people would not give anything to a stranger on May Day for fear they might give away. On May Day all the housekeepers used to arise at sunrise to take the first pail of water from the well so that anybody would not take their butter that year.Margaret Kiely, Stradbally, Co. Waterford.

May Day is a very unlucky day for doing anything. Some people do not handle the fire. Pishogues are made that day. On the same day the old women go gathering herbs.” Various Pupils, Ballyeafy Girls School, Co Waterford.

Lumps of butter made in a large bottle on May Eve were used as a cure for certain ailments in animals. All fires were put out at six o’clock on May Eve, and were not lighted until six o’clock May Day.Nora Scanlan, Tallow, Co Waterford.

So, do you know of any others, let us know by logging onto the blog version of this post; https://waterfordtreasures.wixsite.com/wattreasuresblog/post/the-festival-of-bealtaine-traditional-piseogs-and-practices-for-may-day-1?fbclid=IwAR0j5V29Kn-yD4GcCYvmZPCxSQfxKO3h5nqVBBO4jIb_3hO3LYNuQnWr_DM