On the Hill of Uisneach, in a portion of land taken from the province of Connaught, a fortress was erected by High King Tuathal Teachthmar. Uisneach, believed to be the geographical center of Ireland, was, until the reign of Tuathal, the place where all kings were crowned, and the ceremonial site of the celebrations of Beltaine (May Day). Beltaine marked the beginning of summer, the time when the animals 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, and their flames, smoke and ashes were deemed to have protective powers.
It is believed that the Nemedian Druid, named Midhe, lit the first fire there. Countrywide, all household fires would be doused and then relit from the Beltaine bonfire. These gatherings would be accompanied by a feast, and some of the food and drink would be offered to the aos sí (fairies) to ensure a year of good luck and prosperity. In the province of Ulster, Beltaine was known as Lammas, and a fair has been held in Ballycastle, County Antrim, uninterrupted for more than 300 years.
Today, Uisneach consists of a set of monuments and earthworks spread over 2 square kilometers. Around and upon the hill there are the remains of circular enclosures, barrows, cairns, a holy well and two ancient roads. On the southwest side of the hill is a large, oddly shaped limestone rock inside a circular enclosure. It is almost 20 feet tall and thought to weigh over 30 tons. In Gaelic it is called the Ail na Míreann (stone of the divisions,) and it is said to have been the place where the borders of all the provinces met.
Beltane is the Gaelic May Day festival. Most commonly it is held on 1 May, or about halfway between the spring equinox and summer solstice. Historically, it was widely observed throughout Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man. It is one of the four Gaelic seasonal festivals along with Samhain, Imbolc and Lughnasadh. The earliest mention of Beltane is in Old Irish literature from Gaelic Ireland. According to the early medieval texts Sanas Cormaic (written by Cormac mac Cuilennáin) and Tochmarc Emire, Beltane was held on 1 May and marked the beginning of summer. The texts say that, to protect cattle from disease, the druids would make two fires "with great incantations" and drive the cattle between them.
Beltane is mentioned in some of the earliest Irish literature and is associated with important events in Irish mythology. Also known as ‘Cétshamhain’ meaning the ‘first of summer’ when cattle and sheep were driven out to the summer pastures. Rituals were performed to protect the animals, crops and people, and to encourage growth. Special bonfires were kindled, and their flames, smoke and ashes were deemed to have protective powers. The people and their cattle would walk around or between bonfires, and sometimes leap over the flames or embers. All household fires would be doused and then re-lit from the Beltane bonfire. These gatherings would be accompanied by a feast, and some of the food and drink would be offered to the ‘aos sí’ (fairies.) Doors, windows, byres and livestock would be decorated with white or yellow May flowers, perhaps because they evoked fire. In parts of Ireland, people would make a May Bush which was usually a thorn bush or branch decorated with flowers, ribbons, bright shells and rushlights. Holy wells were also visited, while Beltane dew was thought to bring beauty and maintain youthfulness. Many of these customs were part of May Day or Midsummer festivals in other parts of Great Britain and Europe.
According to 17th-century historian Geoffrey Keating, there was a great gathering at the hill of Uisneach each Beltane in medieval Ireland, where a sacrifice was made to a god named Beil. Keating wrote that two bonfires would be lit in every district of Ireland, and cattle would be driven between them to protect them from disease. There is no reference to such a gathering in the annals, but the medieval Dindsenchas includes a tale of a hero lighting a holy fire on Uisneach that blazed for seven years. Ronald Hutton writes that this may "preserve a tradition of Beltane ceremonies there” but adds "Keating or his source may simply have conflated this legend with the information in Sanas Chormaic to produce a piece of pseudo-history." Nevertheless, excavations at Uisneach in the 20th century found evidence of large fires and charred bones, showing it to have been ritually significant
Bonfires continued to be a key part of the festival in the modern era. All hearth fires and candles would be doused before the bonfire was lit, generally on a mountain or hill. Ronald Hutton writes that "to increase the potency of the holy flames, in Britain at least they were often kindled by the most primitive of all means, of friction between wood." In the 19th century, for example, John Ramsay described Scottish Highlanders kindling a need-fire or force-fire at Beltane. Such a fire was deemed sacred. In the 19th century, the ritual of driving cattle between two fires as described in Sanas Cormaic almost 1000 years before was still practised across most of Ireland and in parts of Scotland. Sometimes the cattle would be driven "around" a bonfire or be made to leap over flames or embers. The people themselves would do likewise.
In the Isle of Man, people ensured that the smoke blew over them and their cattle. When the bonfire had died down, people would daub themselves with its ashes and sprinkle it over their crops and livestock. Burning torches from the bonfire would be taken home, where they would be carried around the house or boundary of the farmstead and would be used to re-light the hearth. From these rituals, it is clear that the fire was seen as having protective powers. Similar rituals were part of May Day, Midsummer or Easter customs in other parts of the British Isles and mainland Europe. According to Frazer, the fire rituals are a kind of imitative or sympathetic magic. According to one theory, they were meant to mimic the Sun and to "ensure a needful supply of sunshine for men, animals, and plants". According to another, they were meant to symbolically "burn up and destroy all harmful influences."
Food was also cooked at the bonfire and there were rituals involving it. Alexander Carmichael wrote that there was a feast featuring lamb, and that formerly this lamb was sacrificed. In 1769, Thomas Pennant wrote that, in Perthshire, a caudle made from eggs, butter, oatmeal and milk was cooked on the bonfire. Some of the mixture was poured on the ground as a libation. Everyone present would then take an oatmeal cake, called the bannoch Bealltainn or "Beltane bannock". A bit of it was offered to the spirits to protect their livestock (one bit to protect the horses, one bit to protect the sheep, and so forth) and a bit was offered to each of the animals that might harm their livestock (one to the fox, one to the eagle, and so forth). Afterwards, they would drink the caudle.
White and yellow flowers such as primrose, rowan, hawthorn, gorse, hazel, and marsh marigold are traditionally placed at doorways and windows; this is documented in 19th century Ireland, Scotland and Mann. Sometimes loose flowers were strewn at the doors and windows and sometimes they were made into bouquets, garlands or crosses and fastened to them. They would also be fastened to cows and equipment for milking and butter making. It is likely that such flowers were used because they evoked fire. Similar May Day customs are found across Europe. The May Bush or May Bough was popular in parts of Ireland until the late 19th century. This was a small tree or branch, typically hawthorn, rowan, holly or sycamore, decorated with bright flowers, ribbons, painted shells, eggshells from Easter Sunday and so forth. The tree would either be decorated where it stood, or branches would be decorated and placed inside or outside the house (particularly above windows and doors, on the roof, and on barns).
It was generally the responsibility of the oldest person of the house to decorate the May Bush, and the tree would remain up until May 31st. The tree may also be decorated with candles or rushlights. Sometimes a May Bush would be paraded through the town. In parts of southern Ireland, gold and silver hurling balls known as May Balls would be hung on these May Bushes and handed out to children or given to the winners of a hurling match. In Dublin and Belfast, May Bushes were brought into town from the countryside and decorated by the whole neighbourhood. Each neighbourhood vied for the most handsome tree and, sometimes, residents of one would try to steal the May Bush of another. This led to the May Bush being outlawed in Victorian times. In some places, it was customary to sing and dance around the May Bush, and at the end of the festivities it may be burnt in the bonfire. In some areas the May Bush or Bough has also been called the "May Pole", but it is the bush or tree described above, and not the more commonly-known European maypole.
Thorn trees are traditionally seen as special trees, associated with the aos sí. Frazer believes the customs of decorating trees or poles in the springtime are a relic of tree worship and writes: "The intention of these customs is to bring home to the village, and to each house, the blessings which the tree-spirit has in its power to bestow." Emyr Estyn Evans suggests that the May Bush custom may have come to Ireland from England, because it seemed to be found in areas with strong English influence and because the Irish saw it as unlucky to damage certain thorn trees. However, "lucky" and "unlucky" trees varied by region, and it has been suggested that Beltane was the only time when cutting thorn trees was allowed. The practice of bedecking a May Bush with flowers, ribbons, garlands and bright shells is found among the Gaelic diaspora, most notably in Newfoundland, and in some Easter traditions on the East Coast of the United States.
Many Beltane practices were designed to ward off or appease the fairies and prevent them from stealing dairy products. For example, three black coals were placed under a butter churn to ensure the fairies did not steal the butter, and may poles were tied to milk pails, the tails of cattle or hung in the barns to ensure the cattle's milk was not stolen. Flowers were also used to decorate the horns of cattle, which was believed to bring good fortune. Food was left or milk poured at the doorstep or places associated with the aos sí, such as 'fairy trees', as an offering. However, milk was never given to a neighbor on May Day because it was feared that the milk would be transferred to the neighbor's cow. In Ireland, cattle would be brought to 'fairy forts', where a small amount of their blood would be collected. The owners would then pour it into the earth with prayers for the herd's safety. Sometimes the blood would be left to dry and then be burnt.
It was thought that dairy products were especially at risk from harmful spirits. To protect farm produce and encourage fertility, farmers would lead a procession around the boundaries of their farm. They would "carry with them seeds of grain, implements of husbandry, the first well water, and the herb vervain (or rowan as a substitute). The procession generally stopped at the four cardinal points of the compass, beginning in the east, and rituals were performed in each of the four directions." People made the sign of the cross with milk for good luck on Beltane, and the sign of the cross was also made on the back sides of cattle.
Holy wells were often visited at Beltane, and at the other Gaelic festivals of Imbolc and Lughnasadh. Visitors to holy wells would pray for health while walking sunwise (moving from east to west) around the well. They would then leave offerings; typically coins or clooties (see clootie well). The first water drawn from a well on Beltane was seen as being especially potent, and would bring good luck to person who drew it. Beltane morning dew was also a source of good luck and health. At dawn or before sunrise on Beltane, maidens would roll in the dew or wash their faces with it. The dew was collected in a jar, left in the sunlight, and then filtered. The dew was thought to increase sexual attractiveness, maintain youthfulness, protect from sun damage (particularly freckles and sunburn) and help with skin ailments for the ensuing year. Additionally, a man who washes his face with soap and water on Beltane will grow a long whisker on his face.
It was widely believed that no one should light a fire on May Day morning until she saw smoke rising from a neighbor's house. It was also believed to be bad luck to put out ashes or clothes on May Day, and to give away a coal or ashes would cause the giver difficulty in lighting a fire for the next year. Also, if the family owned a white horse, it should remain in the barn all day, and if any other horse was owned, a red rag should be tied to its tail. Additionally, any foal born on May Day was fated to kill a man, and any cow that calved on May Day would die. Any birth or marriage on May Day was generally believed to be ill-fated. On May Night a cake and a jug were left on the table, because it was believed that the Irish who had died abroad would return on May Day to their ancestral homes, and it was also a general belief that the dead returned on May Day to visit their friends. A robin that flew into the house on Beltane was believed to portend the death of a household member.
As a festival, Beltane had largely died out by the mid-20th century, although some of its customs continued and in some places it has been revived as a cultural event. In Ireland, Beltane fires were common until the mid-20th century, but the custom seems to have lasted to the present day only in County Limerick (especially in Limerick itself) and in Arklow, County Wicklow. However, the custom has been revived in some parts of the country. Some cultural groups have sought to revive the custom at Uisneach and perhaps at the Hill of Tara. The lighting of a community Beltane fire from which each hearth fire is then relit is observed today in some parts of the Gaelic diaspora, though in most of these cases it is a cultural revival rather than an unbroken survival of the ancient tradition. In some areas of Newfoundland, the custom of decorating the May Bush is also still extant.
There are a number of place names in Ireland containing the word Bealtaine, indicating places where Bealtaine festivities were once held. It is often anglicised as Beltany. There are three Beltanys in County Donegal, including the Beltany stone circle, and two in County Tyrone. In County Armagh there is a place called Tamnaghvelton/Tamhnach Bhealtaine ('the Beltane field'). Lisbalting/Lios Bealtaine ('the Beltane ringfort') is in County Tipperary, while Glasheennabaultina/Glaisín na Bealtaine ('the Beltane stream') is the name of a stream joining the River Galey in County Limerick.
Keating’s History of Ireland
Emyr Estyn Evans
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