ONE of the most significant dates in prehistoric and early historic Ireland was the Festival Of Bealtaine. The first of May is the ancient festival of Bealtaine or Beltane, the cross quarter day marking the midway point between the spring equinox and the summer solstice.
It is exactly six months away from Samhain - the New Year on November 1. Like many ancient festivals the date has an agricultural significance as it marks the end of the unfarmable winter in the Northern hemisphere and symbolised the start of the summer - when the cattle were moved to the high pastureland. The word Bealtaine is still used in the Irish language and translates as the month of May.
Old traditions involved lighting fires at sunset on Oíche Bealtaine or May Eve, April 30, and these traditions still survive in part of the country, particularly in parts of Munster. The name is said to derive from Old Irish, meaning "bright fire" where Bel means light - the Celtic sun and healer god was Belenus.
In ancient times the main Beltane fire was lit at the Hill of Uisneach in County Westmeath - regarded as the centre of the country and traditionally known as the navel of Ireland. Prior to the lighting of the main fire, hearth fires were extinguished and cinders and torches from the main bonfire would pass from townland to townland where each community would light their own bonfires. Passing between two bonfires was seen as a rite of purification and herds of cattle were driven between two fires in many villages. Members of the community would also pass between the fires and it was considered lucky to do this while the more daring would leap the bonfire to ensure their fertility in the coming year.
On the morning of May 1 many people would rise at dawn to collect flowers and boughs from the mountain ash or rowan tree to hang across doorways or on the outside of the windows of their homes. The usual traditions of hospitality and generosity were turned on their heads as anything taken from the home on May Day could be used for malicious spells against the owner and guests were turned away at the door.
Other traditions on Bealtaine include walking the circuit of one's property (beating the bounds), repairing fences and boundary markers as well as feasting, dancing and drinking. According to the ancient Irish Book of Invasions, the first settler of Ireland, Partholan, arrived on May 1, and it was on May 1 that the plague came that destroyed his people. Years later, the mythical group knows as the Milesians, were said to have conquered the Tuatha De Danann on May Day.
Today the traditional bonfires have been revived in many areas as part of local festivals celebrating the start of summer. Unfortunately some of these fires are simply an illegal form of waste disposal. Timber is the only material that should be added to the fires. Any material regarded as a waste cannot be burnt, at any time of the year.
So this year celebrate the festival of Bealtaine, but not by burning your rubbish - that was never part of the tradition.
And, with May in the air, if it is feasting, music and dancing you want - head for Dingle's Féile na Bealtaine which runs this year from May 2 - 6. All details available on www.feilenabealtaine.ie