Ibar Quirke examines traditions associated with the Merry Month of May
The custom of decorating a hawthorn bush to celebrate the arrival of summer has its origins in Celtic reverence for and worship of nature. May Bushes were commonly decorated with ribbons, cloth streamers and tinsel – although more adventurous people included the painted eggshells of Easter, as well as candles!
These wishing trees were left outside houses or in communal areas, around which people tied rags, or clotties, symbolising their hopes and prayers. Stealing from a wishing tree was a taboo borne out of the fear of na Sídhe, malevolent fairy spirits said to be active during this time of year.
Despite being most prevalent in the counties of Leinster, May Bushes could be found in Galway, south Ulster and Donegal.
To this day, people preserve this ancient custom by visiting the wishing trees at the Hill of Tara and St Bridgid’s Well, Kildare.
The tradition of dancing around decorated poles placed in town centres or village greens has its origins in Germanic celebrations which heralded the arrival of spring.
Introduced to the British Isles by Germanic tribes, maypoles developed in their modern form during the Middle Ages as single poles began to be used instead of whole trees.
Oliver Cromwell banned the tradition of maypole-dancing during the Protectorate, as he considered its origins sinful. This tradition fell into obscurity until John Ruskin revived it during the late Victorian Era. On May Day, people don Medieval garb and dance to the sounds of fiddle and concertina. Ireland’s only maypole can be found in Holywood, Co Down, a gift given to the townspeople by a crew of Dutch traders in gratitude for the hospitality and assistance they received when their ship ran aground offshore by Belfast Lough in 1620.
The maypole stands at a height of 16.74 metres.