Editorial: May brings the promise of better times ahead, so let’s make the most of it
“Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May/ And summer’s lease hath all too short a stay”. Those epic words of William Shakespeare, from Sonnet 18, are part of the endless lore surrounding the year’s fifth month, May, which happily comes to us today.
This is many people’s favourite time of year, bringing promise and hope, via a confirmation that the seasons have turned and those longer summer days have finally landed, enthusiastically cheered by the birds’ dawn chorus.
May is replete with tradition, and in old Gaelic lore its start was marked by the pre-Christian festival of Bealtaine, which is still the Irish word for this month. Traditionally, it has been a time of opening up on the land as important seasonal farm work gained pace, and it was also a time to protect homes and farms from evil curses and sorcery, which might divert the productivity of the soil and animals to those of evil intent.
It was a time when people engaged in fishing stepped up their efforts, while those working the fields were busy completing sowing of crops, and also focusing on the care of animals. Moving cattle to different pastures – either on the heights, or into what were winter wetlands – was also a priority.
May began a busy time for markets and marts with animals bought and sold, and Travellers beginning their seasonal circuits of movement. It was the time when agricultural labourers, often seeking to enhance their incomes from small holdings, were hired.
The tradition of lighting bonfires on May Eve persists in many parts of the country and these were used to purify cattle against future disease and pests. A common practice was to drive the cattle between two such fires, hoping heat and smoke would purify them.
The practice gives us the old aphorism of a person being left “idir dhá thine Bhealtaine” – or between two May bonfires. It is the rough equivalent of being between “a rock and a hard place,” in a difficult situation with few options.
These essentially pagan customs were, to some degree, overtaken by Christian religious practices and not least the Marian devotions promoted by Rome for over a thousand years.
May has long been synonymous with devotion to the Blessed Virgin, and many radio programmes begin this month by playing a rendition of Queen of the May, more usually via a recording by the late Scottish tenor and priest, Canon Sydney MacEwan.
On the sporting fields, May has often been a pivotal month with the end of the rugby season and the ramping up of Gaelic games championships. These and myriad other pursuits get people moving and preparing for travel and holidays.
Above all, the essence of May is the hope it brings and the promise of better times for those who may have struggled with physical and/or mental difficulties through a long winter.
Many of us know how fleeting the summer weeks can be and how we must profit from the outdoors. From today, the glories of May beckon to us. Let us avail of them.