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Beltane Bonfires and Nettle Soup
In some areas, especially in the cities, children would carry a May Bush and go about in groups asking for contributions, so they could decorate it. A common chant was: "Long life and a pretty wife and a candle for the May Bush." Most often, though, what they really wanted was a little money, and not a candle! It was a lovely time of year, what with the flowers strewn everywhere, the decorated May bushes, and the children having the nodding assent of parents to accost friends, family and neighbors for whatever could be cajoled out of them!
While the May Bush was common in the country, in many towns, a May Pole was erected by the bonfire. May Poles were prevalent throughout the British Isles and there are written records of May Pole celebrations in Belfast, Carrickfergus and Kilkenny. Generally, the tradition was not known in rural districts and it's most likely that it was introduced into urban areas by English settlers.
In one account, a procession of "May Boys", dressed in white shirts adorned with colorful ribbons tied in knots, led what was known as a garland procession through the neighborhood. At the head of the parade was an elected May King and Queen. At each stop, they would ask for funds to help defray the cost of the May Day party to be held later. Before 1820, there are records of great May Pole celebrations in Dublin. In addition to dancing and drinking, the pole was often greased and a prize offered to anyone who could climb to the top. Other revelries included a wide assortment of sporting events, including foot races, hopping races, sack races, and wrestling. Dance competitions were also held and very often, the coveted prize was a cake.
When I first saw the term "May Ball", I immediately thought, oh, this must be about a special dance. The reality is a lot more interesting! Hurling was, and still is, one of Ireland's most popular sports. In the old days, it was the custom on May Day for a newly-married couple to decorate a hurling ball with silver or gold lace and tassels. The ball was then hung on the community May Bush or given as a gift to an unmarried man. As quaint as that custom was, my research has uncovered a great deal of other equally fascinating material associated with May Day.
Much attention was paid to the health of the family because it was widely believed that any illness or injury on May Eve or May Day was especially dangerous or difficult to cure. On the other hand, this time of year was considered to be best for gathering medicinal herbs.
The first May Day butter, that is, the first butter made from the milk of May Day, was held to be the best of all bases for salves and ointments. And, it was firmly believed that any herb picked at random before sunrise on May Day was a sure cure for warts. Also, if you wanted to keep the rheumatics away for a year, the custom was to eat nettle soup three times during the month, beginning on May 1st.
It was the responsibility of the children to go out and gather young nettles and there are many written accounts of youngsters making a game out of chasing each other with the leaves. The nettles that survived the chase were made into a soup or cooked like spinach. (A delicious recipe follows at the end of this article). Another traditional dish in the old days was stirabout or hasty pudding. Generally, the first of May was the day when farm folk took inventory and it was said to indicate a wife's great care and caution if there was still enough corn or flour to create the pudding.
There are so many superstitions associated with this magical time, and, as I write this, I am keeping an eye on the clock. Until noon today, the power of the fairies will be at its strongest. Not until after sunset this evening and the official end of the festival, will we be truly safe from fairy mischief! So, I will conclude this piece with a brief list of superstitions and possible precautions.
Between sunset on May Eve and the dawn of May Day, one should stay close to home and never sleep outdoors. If you must be out and about, a piece of iron in the pocket might give some protection, as will a spent cinder from the hearth, or a sprig of mountain ash.
So far, we haven't heard any cuckoos and we're wearing our shirts inside out. Fingers are crossed that we - and you - will enjoy a May Day filled with soft sunshine, the fragrance of flowers, and the blessings of family and friends to share in the joys of the coming season.
Irish Nettle Soup
There are hundreds of islands around the Irish coast. Achill is the biggest, the Arans the most romantic; Skellig Michael the most dramatic and Tory the most menacing - at least in legend. The Blaskets offer the most fertile ground for literature and Clare island is the most meticulously studied. But, whichever island you may visit, you can be sure each of them has its own superlative. For example, Little Skellig off St. Finian's Bay in Co. Kerry, is known for its gigantic colony of white seabirds called gannets.
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March 4, 2011
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