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Beltane Bonfires and Nettle Soup
by Bridget Haggerty
Oh, to have been in Ireland a few hundred years ago at this time. The most dramatic part of the Beltane celebration was the community bonfire. People would gather around it, often bringing chairs or stools in order to "sit out the wake of winter." The best singers and musicians in the crowd would perform and there was always joyous dancing, often until the wee hours.
The fire was usually lit on May Eve - fed by whatever a village could spare - and was kept going until sunset on May 1st. In general, most people extinguished all fires in their homes on May eve. And, it was considered incredibly unlucky to even light a cigarette or candle and take it beyond the front door. In keeping with the old ways, "new fire" had to be brought back to the house from the Beltane flames.
As the Beltane fires burned brightly across the land, other important events were taking place. May 1st was when many hiring fairs were held; people looking for work came carrying symbols of their skill - a spade, a hay fork, a reaping hook, or a spancel, which said the bearer was an expert milker.
Today was also known as 'gale day' - when a tenancy began or ended and on which a half-year's rent must be paid. Signs of the weather, the appearance of the sky and of the May moon, the strength and direction of the wind, the amount of rain, were all carefully noted, as indications of the coming summer weather. Rain was expected and welcomed : "A wet and windy May fills the barns with corn and hay." A cold, east wind was a bad sign, while frost meant hard times to come. And, God forbid, there should still be snow on Slieve Snaght; this was so evil an omen that the farmers expected the landlord to forego the rent for the coming half year.
In different parts of the country, the custom was that one should not dig, whitewash, bathe or sail on May Day. As with many countries in western Europe, Ireland paid close heed to avoiding anything where there might be magic afoot. The fairies were on the move and the unexpected was always a distinct possibility.
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.
Many people leave the fairies an offering of food and drink either on their doorstep, or at a fort, lone bush or other fairy dwelling.
A favorite prank of the good folk is to cause people to lose their way by bringing down a mist. One way to protect against this is to wear your coat inside out. This disguise will confuse them and might allow you to escape.
Care should be taken not to keep anything you find of value on the roadway or anywhere. Best of all, don't pick it up. But, if you wish to be neighborly, you should place the article on a fence, gate or bush so that the rightful owner can find it again.
The first water taken from the well on May Day was variously known as 'the top of the well' or 'the luck of the well'. In evil hands this water could do great harm; but in the hands of the rightful owner, it brought luck, protection and healing.
A child born on May Day has the gift of being able to see the fairies - but it was believed the child would not live a long life. Animals born on this day were also sure to be weaklings.
If a girl went out into the garden before sunrise on May 1st, she could find out the name of her future spouse by taking up the first snail or slug she finds. This is put on on a plate sprinkled with flour. A cabbage leaf is placed on top and left until after sunrise. Then, according to the superstition, she will find the initials of her lover traced in the flour.
The call of the cuckoo is ominous - to hear it on your right brings luck; on the left, ill fortune; from a church yard meant a death in the family, and before breakfast, a hungry year.
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
Adapted from Darina Allen's book, The Festive Food of Ireland.
Ingredients for 6 servings:
1 1/2 oz butter
1 1/2 lbs potatoes
4 oz onions
3 1/2 oz leeks
4 1/2 cups chicken stock
5 oz young nettles, washed and chopped
3/4 cup whole milk or cream
salt and pepper to taste.
1. Melt the butter in a heavy saucepan; when it foams, add the potatoes, onions and leeks. Toss them in the butter until they are well coated.
2. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, cover. Steam on gentle heat for about 10 minutes.
3. Add the chicken stock and simmer until the vegetables are just cooked. Add the nettle leaves and cook until soft.
4. Whisk in the cream; taste and correct seasoning. Serve hot.
Note: For another Nettle Soup recipe please click The Irish Kitchen - Nettle Soup.
NOTE: Research has uncovered a variety of spellings for the festival of Belenos. While written most often as Beltane, it is also recorded as Bealtaine, Bealltainn (Scots-Gaelic), and Beltaine (Old Irish).
We love hearing from you - especially when we receive comments like the following from AG in California:
"I was zipping along enjoying every word,thinking how much you had to know just to be Irish. I then came to the part where you told about a birth on May 1st. My Mother's oldest sister May was born on May first. She died when she was 49. I just turned my house coat inside out. I have just become a believer. Great article...AS ALWAYS."
Sun, Apr 12, 2015
Called whin in the north and gorse in the east, furze was once a symbol of wealth and fertility of land as is emphasized by the saying: "gold under furze, silver under rushes and famine under heather."
As indigenous to the early summer landscape as rhododendrons, it is despised by farmers because of its invasive properties; but in the past, it had many good uses.
It ignites quickly, so it was used for starting the fire: it was also used for cleaning the chimney, tilling the soil, dyeing wool and fabric, and as a flavouring for whiskey (which may have improved its rating with the farmers!). It had medicinal powers and its magical powers were undisputed in preventing the good people from stealing the butter on May day. And, at mid-summer, blazing branches were carried round the herd to bring good health to the cows for the coming year.
Resources: Doon Mayo
and Farmers Journal
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