Country Matters: May milking in flowery meadows
After the welcome waft of summer balm, can one expect what HE Bates described as "the risen cream of all the milkiness of Maytime"?
Hedgerows have begun, on the path, to being weighted with snow flowers, and the quick-thorn plantings of old field boundaries are set to become ribbons of landscape purity. The hawthorn, or May bush, marks the cusp between spring and summer.
The original May Day is to fall next week, on Friday, as it was in the old calendar before the adoption of the Gregorian one in 1752, losing 11 days. But this white thorn is erratic in its flowering, influenced by late winter and spring temperatures; in some years blossom can stretch from the last quarter of April.
The May bush is the flower of the Festival of Bealtaine, from the Celtic past, a time of spring fertility rites and possible sacrificial rituals, with red anthers (stamens) to suggest blood. May Day was once an important landmark in the countryside year, a 'gale day' to mark a farm tenancy on which a half-year's rent must be paid. Grazing and meadows were let and workers gathered at fairs with tools of their trade - a spancel for a milker, spade, fork, reaping hook, flail, etc for other candidates.
For the farmer came the relief of stock being let out to fresh grazing and the prospect of cows being milked in the fields. By times the milkers sang at their work; this pleased the cows! I remember tagging along with a husband and wife who milked into buckets, moving their sitting stools, then lifting to fill the tall can on a platform to be taken back to their dairy by donkey and cart from those flowery meadows in Meath long ago. Evenings, it seemed, were full of glorious sunshine and linnets' wings.
A half-century earlier, the poet and agricultural worker Francis Ledwidge had remembered a boy helper with cows in those fields, "barefooted in the shining grass" who one day became suddenly, and permanently, absent. But still the poet paused and waited for A Little Boy in the Morning who now "whistles at another gate, where angels listen".
The main customs of May-time were those that welcomed summer. Children were usually the first to indicate change by picking flowers to place on 'May altars' in honour of Our Lady, in their homes, those yellow blooms in the posies of primroses, cowslips, buttercups, marigolds, furze of honey tones (now more often called gorse, a name from England; Ulster folk still call the bushes 'whins').
Sometimes flowers were placed on window sills, over doorways or tied to the harnesses of horses. The diarist Amhlaoibh O Suilleabhain noted in Callan, Co Kilkenny, in 1829: "Blossom on the mail-coach horses, at half past six, coming from Dublin", and then, at Fair Day In Mullinahone: "The mail-coach bedecked with a May bush; the horses adorned with beautiful little flowers, a glad sight." He added the real news: "A moderate price for cattle."
Posies were tied to cows' horns and tails, to the handles of milk cans and dash-churns. Children, in small but significant acts of kindness, brought flowers and 'May boughs' to the elderly and those who lived alone. Perhaps, in some places, they still do. It would be nice to think so.