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May - the month of mirth and merriment!
by Bridget Haggerty

When I was a little girl, we collected flowers on the day before May 1st and made little posies for the neighbors. While my mother usually didn't allow us to pick her flowers, for this special occasion, she'd allow us to augment our collection of wild blossoms with a few from her garden. So, joining the buttercups, daisies, ground violets, dandelions and sprigs of pussy-willow, would be a few precious pansies, primroses or other spring blooms.

We carefully divided our collection into several small bunches and tied each one with a ribbon. Then, very early on May Day, we made our deliveries. The idea was to make it a surprise. So, we knocked on the door, left the flowers on the doorstep and hid. I can still see the looks of delight, especially on the faces of our elderly Irish neighbors. With this one small gesture, it was likely they would have been reminded of May mornings in Ireland, long ago.

In ancient times, the two greatest festivals of the Celtic year were Samhain and Beltane. Samhain was the beginning of winter; it began on October 31st and ended exactly six months later on May 1st - Beltane. The name is thought to be derived from two possible sources - the Celtic pastoral God, Belenos, or the old Celtic words for "bright fire." In Ireland, as in many parts of the British Isles, bonfires were lit around Beltane- sometimes on the night before, and sometimes on the evening of the day itself. One has to always keep in mind that a Celtic feast day or festival always begins at sundown on the eve, and ends at sundown on the day.

Eventually, Beltane became more strongly associated with Belenos, who is the god of light, healing and a special protector of cattle. One custom that survived for hundreds of years was driving the cows between two bonfires and carefully singeing their hair with burning material. The fields would also be treated to a singeing from the sacred bonfire, as a means of purification.

Remember the old childhood rhyme, "Here we go gathering nuts in May?" Well, there are no nuts involved at all. The word was originally knots, and referred to knots or bunches of flowers. So, while May 1st was an important day in the Irish farming calendar, it was also a time to celebrate the end of winter with the gathering of flowers, dancing around bonfires or May poles, and one very special activity usually performed by Irish children - the making of a May bush. It was once thought that on Beltane, the fairies would get up to more mischief than usual. So, parents were just as eager to help their children in the creation of this important May Day symbol, because it was said to protect the family, ward off evil spirits and ensure a plentiful harvest in the coming months. In more recent times, as the influence of the Roman Catholic Church became stronger and more widespread throughout Ireland, the erecting of the May Bush was done to honor the Virgin Mary.

To this day, the month of May is still thought of by Catholics as Mary's month. I can remember as a girl, my mother telling me how, when she was little, they always brought flowers to school to decorate the special May Altar to Our Lady. That wasn't required of us, but I do recall May Day assemblies, when all the girls in my school gathered to sing appropriate hymns. Does anyone else recall Cows in Australia Laytisia? (Causa Nostra Laetitia) How we used to take wicked delight in mispronouncing the compulsory Latin!

Except for giving posies to our neighbors and singing hymns to the Blessed Mother in school, about the only other May Day activities I remember as a child were my mother making sure all of our bedding, especially blankets, were washed by May Eve and that she herself went out into her garden and cut boughs from a bush that bloomed with yellow flowers in spring; it was very similar to forsythia. This was placed over the doorway into the house; she also cut several long leaves from her Iris patch which she called flaggers and to these she added a collection of mostly yellow blooms. These, she placed in a clear vase on the sideboard and it was a lovely sign that summer was definitely on its way.

To these few customs from my youth, I can now add a good many more. Research has revealed a slew of old May Day traditions and superstitions that used to be very common in Ireland — fascinating bits of folklore that we'll cover in the next few days. Armed with this information, you'll be fully ready to greet "The May". You'll know, for example, why you should wash your face in the May Day morning dew, and also why it's a good idea to have a bowl of Nettle Soup for your supper.

In the meantime, think on this well-known Irish riddle;if you think you know the answer, send us an email. No prizes for being correct - but, we will publish your name if you come up with the answer - and, if you'd like us to.

I washed my face in water
that had neither rained nor run,
And I dried it on a towel,
that was never woven or spun.

Note: We receive many nice comments on our articles - we treasure all of them, especially ones like this:
"I too remember our May Day celebrations ~ the crowning of the statue of the Blessed Virgin. We all brought flowers to school and hoped ours would be used in her crown. Those that were not were in large vases in front and around her. In a wee village not to far from where I live all of the street corners are decorated on May Day with white baskets of daisys and training ribbons. I must remember to put one on my lamp post. Thank you for another lovely visit with you." Judith Flynn.


Wed, Jan 3, 2018

Ilnacullen, Co. Cork - an Island Garden

Located in the sheltered harbour of Glengarriff in Bantry Bay. Ilnacullin, which means island of holly, is a small island known to horticulturists and lovers of trees and shrubs all around the world as an island garden of rare beauty.
The vivid colours of Rhododendrons and Azaleas reach their peak during May and June, whilst the hundreds of cultivars of climbing plants, herbaceous perennials and choice shrubs dominate the midsummer period from June to August.
Because of its sheltered situation and the warming oceanic influence of the Gulf Stream, the climate is favourable to the growth of ornamental plants from many parts of the world.
Even for those who aren’t particularly interested in gardens, there are many other scenic views, especially in the surrounding waters where seals frequent the rocks on the southern shore.
The cover photo on Bridget's book The Traditional Irish Wedding shows a wrought iron garden gate on Ilnaculen. I took that photo. To see it, go to the home page. It's part of the opening paragraph Failte.
Resource: Copy and Image - Cork Guide

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March 4, 2011
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