May Day is the first day of May and has been celebrated all over Ireland since pagan times as the Celtic Feast of Bealtaine, the start of a new season: the summer. It was marked by a variety of customs the most associated with warding off bad luck, hopes for a bountiful summer and protecting family, home and livestock.
The most popular custom was the picking and leaving fresh flowers on doorsteps on the morning of May Day and this beautiful Irish tradition is still alive and well in Co Mayo and in the West of Ireland.
Usually children have/had the task of gathering the flowers before dusk on May Eve. Yellow flowers, reflecting the sun and summer, are favourite such as primroses, buttercups, marigolds and gorse. In Central Mayo and Castlebar’s area Marsh Marigold is the most common flower used, while Primrose is very common in North Mayo. Children make posies of the flowers and hang them over the door or lay them on the doorsteps and window-sills.
May is also the month associated with the Blessed Virgin Mary and people deck grottoes, shrines and church altars with fresh flowers. In most houses it is very common to have a home altar which is decorated with flowers throughout the month.
In the past May flowers were believed to offer luck and protection to the house from mystical forces; fairies couldn’t enter the home because the sweet smell of such flowers pushed them away. They were also put on farm animals to protect them from people with the evil eye, who might steal the productivity of the animals. Sometimes on May Day people used to deck wells with flowers to protect the water supply and the livelihood of those who used them.
There were also other old customs not involving flowers.
Among the farmers May Day was held to be the beginning of the new farm season. People started to work in the fields and to put cows out to pastures.
Also the cutting of turf in the bog started around May Day.
On Achill Island and all Mayo as well, young girls and women enjoyed getting up at dawn, going out into the fields and washing their faces in the morning dew on May Day. This was to ensure to get no wrinkles and to freshen skin. People believed the first butter made from the milk of May Day was the best butter ever and used it as base for salves and ointments. They also believed the herbs gathered before dawn had special power and could treat warts. May Day was also a day for dairy charms. Women got up at dawn on that day and took milk from the cows of their neighbours; it was said this increased the milk of their own cows and lower the milk yield of the neighbours’ herd for the next year.
On May Day people never worked with soil or lit the fire. On that day the first house to send out smoke through the chimney would bring bad luck to the family.