The history and traditions of May Day in Ireland

Falling on the first Monday in May, May Day has a rich history that has weaved its way through Irish culture for generations.

Falling on the first Monday in May, many people across Ireland today know May Day as a bank holiday they get off work and school. However, you may not be aware of the history and traditions of May Day in Ireland.

Marking the beginning of summer, May Day has been considered an important date in the Irish calendar from as far back as pagan times, so it is no surprise that there are many traditions associated with this day.

A pre-Christian festival – Bealtaine

May Day in Ireland came from Bealtaine.

One of the quarterly days in the traditional Irish calendar to mark the change of the seasons, the May Day we know today is rooted in the pre-Christian festival of Bealtaine, which was celebrated on 1 May to mark the beginning of summer.

Other important dates included St Brigid’s Day on 1 February to celebrate the start of spring, Lúnasa on 1 August to mark the beginning of Autumn, and Samhain on 1 November to mark the start of winter.

Bealtaine festivities featured an abundance of flowers, dancing, and bonfires to celebrate the end of winter and the coming of summer. At this time, many people also sought protection for themselves, their property, and their families against supernatural forces.

May traditions – Maybushes and Maypoles

Maybushes and Maypoles.

Across the Emerald Isle, there were plenty of popular customs connected to the history and traditions of May Day in Ireland.

One of the most well-known superstitions is the Maybush, a decorated bush left in communal areas in town centres or the gardens of rural homes.

A hawthorn bush was often used, and it was decorated with ribbons, cloth, tinsel, and sometimes even candles. The Maybush was associated with the luck of the house or community.

Another popular tradition was the Maypole, which was popular in many large towns across Ireland. Originally, Maypoles were made from tall trees but were later replaced by formal poles erected in town centres.

Poles were then decorated with flowers and ribbons, and dancing and sport often took place and were centred around the pole.

Superstitions – bringing luck

Yellow flowers were traditional on May Day in Ireland.

The Irish are a superstitious bunch, so it is no surprise that there are various superstitions wrapped up in the history and traditions of May Day in Ireland.

On the eve of May Day, yellow flowers would be picked and spread around the outside of the home to bring good luck and keep Cailleachs – or hags – and fairies from entering the home.

Children would often make posies and crowns from the yellow flowers to represent the sun and spread them on neighbours doorsteps as a sign of goodwill.

Another of the popular superstitions connected with May Day in Ireland surrounded the local wells.

Sometimes flowers were placed in wells to protect the water supply and the health of those who used it. Other times, people would visit holy wells as part of the Bealtaine festival, where they would leave personal possessions and pray for good health while walking clockwise around the well.

It was believed that the first water drawn from the well on May Day was considered to have much greater power than at any other time of the year, and it was believed that this water would offer protection and cures and be good for the complexion.

The May Queen – the star of the show

The May Queen was the star of the show.
Credit: Flickr / Steenbergs

It was also a popular custom in history and traditions of May Day in Ireland to crown a May Queen with the flowers picked on the eve of Bealtaine.

The crowning of the May Queen was often accompanied by a number of festivities, including a procession during which the Maybush was carried.

The personification of the May Day holiday, the May Queen was the girl who lead the parade wearing a white gown to symbolise her purity before making a speech before the festival dancing begins.

Dancing was an important part of May Day in Ireland.
Credit: Flickr / Steenbergs

One of the main customs associated with May Day in Ireland was dancing. People would dance around the Maypole or bonfire to celebrate the continuity of the community.

Men and women would join hands to form a circle and weave in and out under each others’ arms, gathering other dancers who would then follow after them. This dance was said to represent the movements of the sun and create a symbol of the coming of summer.

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