Saturday 25 March 2017

Ways of watering down May Day mayhem

Given the on-going sorry saga with Irish Water, it looks like May Day remains somewhat double-edged.
Given the on-going sorry saga with Irish Water, it looks like May Day remains somewhat double-edged.

Fiona O'Connell

Hopefully this May Day doesn't have its alternative meaning as a signal of distress when it comes to our well-being and the weather. For as the official start of summer, isn't this supposed to be when the living is easy?

Certainly, the customs associated with Bealtaine appear to brim with benevolence - from May bushes to boughs, bonfires to budding flowers.

One local tradition that I will be keeping an eye out for today is a bush on which hurling balls are hanging. For May Day traditionally marked the start of summer hurling. And on this day in a county heaving with hurlers, women used to gift men with new balls.

Moving swiftly on from double entendres to darker matters - for sinister shenanigans lurk beneath much of the festive folklore. Perhaps I'm especially attuned to it because of the gloriously Gothic novel that I'm currently devouring. The Dolocher by Caroline Barry concerns a mythical half-man, half-pig murderer of that name who had Georgian Dublin in his gruesome grip, long before Jack the Ripper terrorised Victorian London.

Many charming customs were in fact fuelled by a fear of the supernatural. Witches and fairies were believed to be particularly active during this time, as they were at all quarterly changes of the year. So traditions were thought up to protect people and their property from their creepy clutches.

Take those seemingly frivolous flowers. They were placed on doorsteps and windowsills not for decorative purposes, but primarily to shield the house from mystical forces. Farm animals were likewise bedecked with bouquets to protect them from the evil eye.

So it wasn't all buttercups when it came to business, as May Day was especially associated with butter stealing - so much so that holy water would be sprinkled on the cattle and objects connected with dairying.

And talk about shivery milkshakes - because the white stuff was even poured across the threshold of houses to prevent entry by the 'wee folk'. While another macabre May custom saw cattle driven to the nearest ring fort - or fairy fort - where bovine blood was spilt to appease the spirits.

It's hard to know whether to laugh or cry when you discover that water was just as taxing an issue in bygone days. Along with fire, it was generally never asked for or taken from the home on May Eve or May Day, so as to ward off bad luck. Flowers were frequently placed in the local well to protect the water supply. For many folk believed that the stealing or skimming of water from the well - or even dew from the fields - by those with malevolent intentions, could damage productivity in the household or community.

Given the on-going sorry saga with Irish Water, it looks like May Day remains somewhat double-edged.

Sunday Independent

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