May: Mary’s Month or Baal’s?

The launch of Trasna coincides with the feast of Bealtaine, which marks the start of summer in Ireland. Hopefully Trasna will also be the start to something great. Our first piece comes from Sligo author Joe McGowan who explores the pagan and Christian traditions surrounding May 1st.

When we were growing up the nuns taught us that May was Mary’s month. To their smiling approval we made May altars (yes, even the boys). We brought fresh flowers every few days and said fervent prayers to Mary. Somehow we just knew she appreciated it. It felt nice and special and gave us a warm feeling. The nuns beamed beatifically when, in answer to their questions, we vied with each other as to who had the best altar. It all made us feel close to the Blessed Virgin who lived in that mysterious, faraway place: Heaven.

Even the little blue and white plaster statue had a pleasurable look about it and Mary smiled a never ending smile, all through the whole month — which is more than could be said for our parents who scowled and barked orders a lot more than they ever smiled. Do this, go there, feed the calves, put the hens up on the roost, put out the ashes; did ye do yer lessons? The sally rod was always close by so there was no point in putting up a fuss. Children had no rights then and parents thought it, not just their duty, but a virtue to use the ‘shtick’. ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child’ was dogma. The miseries were never-ending, so no wonder then that Mary’s altar was a haven of peace, tranquility and a promise of better things to come.

No one ever told us then that Mayday was the beginning of the old Celtic quarter festival of Bealtaine. Or that May was Baal or Bel’s month and the word Bealtaine derived from ‘Bels fire’, the fire of Belenos, Celtic God of the Sun. Maybe they didn’t know! It might have taken 1,500 years but by the 1900s any taint of paganism that existed when St. Patrick came here was well squeezed out of us.

Or was it?

If it was, then why did my mother and father gather mayflowers (Marsh Marigold) on May eve? And, if they did gather them, why didn’t they put them on Mary’s altar? They didn’t, they threw some up on the roof and more on the threshold. Strange behaviour but it was to bless the house they said, and to bring good luck for the coming year. Practical people then! Better to keep all sides with you. Tenuous it may have been, but the old Gods held their place.

Of course there were the fairies to take into account as well. They were part of the old creed too and particularly busy about their mischief at this time of year. People bought milk from neighbours then. There was always someone with a cow in milk. No point in going to the shop. They didn’t have any. There was no call for it! If a neighbour came in for milk on Mayday things were different to any other day — they’d be very lucky to get any. No offense meant, but one could be giving away their luck by allowing the milk out of the house. If they relented, a pinch of salt was put in the milk to neutralise any harm. No ashes was put out on that day for fear of throwing away the luck.

Neither was the cow byre cleaned out. The list was endless. And of course we still went to Mass on Sunday to cover the other side of things. You couldn’t be too careful.

A load of superstitious nonsense I hear you say? Well, I don’t know, certainly it never did us any harm. And like an old man said one time, ‘People don’t do this sort of thing so much anymore but that doesn’t say they’re any the better for it!’ He has a point, so I think of the old innocent people and the beliefs that sustained them when I, and many others in Co. Sligo, carry on the ancient tradition of welcoming natures rebirth by bedecking the house with Mayflowers and glorious whin on May Eve.  I hope you will next year as well!
Beannachtaí na Bealtaine agaibh go léir.

Joe Mc Gowan is a native of Mullaghmore, Co. Sligo.    His short stories have featured on local and national radio programmes such as RTE1s Sunday Miscellany.  He is author of several books:  In the Shadow of Benbulben; Inishmurray: Island Voices; Constance Markievicz: The People’s Countess; Sligo: Land of Destiny; A Bitter Wind; Echoes of a Savage Land; The Hidden People, and most recently the classic Sligo Folk Tales.



10 Responses to May: Mary’s Month or Baal’s?

  1. Joe Mc Gowan says:

    Best wishes with the new departure. Many people still observe the Bealtaine customs here in Sligo but not so much as formerly. The old religion keeping pace with the new

  2. Jeannie Judge says:

    Memories of May Altars and class competition abound. I enjoyed hearing about the “other customs.” thank you, Joe! Jeannie J

  3. Gail Boenning says:

    What a beautiful piece of writing. I felt I was right there with you. :)

    Do this, go there, feed the calves, put the hens up on the roost, put out the ashes; did ye do yer lessons?

    Thank you!

  4. Lindy Judge says:

    Wonderful to read. Loved thinking about your parents making time for the old ways—the ways that actually keep us closer to the land, the nature and the cycles that give us life. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Áine Greaney says:

    Lovely piece and yes, I remember the May altars of my childhood well. It was a contest to see who could bring the most flowers to keep the teacher happy or at least not miserable. It all had a kind of reverence to it, and you evoke this well. Excited to see this page up here.

  6. Mawie says:

    Ah, May altars were big for us, the tradition came from my father’s Waterford roots and my mother’s Sligo ones. Lovely to see that word ‘Byre’.. Did you have the thing where it was unlucky to cut the Hawthorn blossom in May?