It was raining gently when I woke up this morning and looked out the window. The light was a watery grey, the clouds hugging the ground, what the Irish call a ‘soft morning’.
“What are you looking at?” Conor asked sleepily.
“First day of summer,” I replied. “It’s Bealtaine today.” Just like at Imbolc, the Irish seasons were not living up to expectations.
Bealtaine (pronounced bal-chinn-eh) is one of four Irish/Celtic festivals which mark the year, Imbolc (1st Feb), Lughnasadh (!st Aug) and Samhain (1st Nov).
Here’s the science part; the Celtic calender is divided by the summer and winter equinoxes, and also by the summer and winter solstices. An equinox is generally accepted to mean when day-time and night-time are of approximate equal length. This year, 2014, they fall on March 20th and September 23rd. A solstice marks the days when the sun is at its highest/lowest in the sky, in other words, the longest/shortest days. They fall on 21st June, and 21st December. These four events are known as Quarter Days. The four festival days fall halfway between each equinox and solstice, and are known as Cross Quarter Days. The ancients must have had pretty impressive calenders and untold knowledge to be able to work all this complicated stuff out without computers!
Bealtaine has come to be associated with May 1st, and marks the beginning of summer, when the cattle were driven out to summer pastures. The origins of the word are not certain, although taine is the Old Irish form of tine (pronounced chinn-eh), meaning ‘fire’; Beal could be a reference to Bel, Celtic sun-god, although some say it means ‘shining one’, or ‘brilliant/bright’. In Ireland, May day itself is called Lá Bealtaine, and the month of May is known as Mí na Bealtaine.
So, what did the ancient Irish actually do at Bealtaine? I know you are thinking of bonfires and wild rituals of sex. Well, the festival was certainly connected with fertility of the land, the crops, and the people, but the rituals were more about protection and purification, than wild orgies. Huge bonfires were constructed from wood held sacred, such as rowan, apple, dogwood, juniper, pine, holly and oak, and kindled by Druids with great ceremony. The cattle were then driven between the fires and through the smoke, thus cleansing, blessing and protecting them. People would also pass between the fires, some even leaping the flames. All household fires would have been extinguished, and embers from the Bealtaine fire carefully carried home to relight the hearth, and heart of the house, thus bringing the blessing and protection over all who lived there.
Geoffrey Keating described these rituals taking place at Uisneach in the 17th century, so one can surmise that these heathen practices were still going on even then. Although the Annals, Ireland’s ancient monastic records, fail to confirm it, evidence of large fires have been revealed by recent archaeological excavations at Uisneach.
At Bettany Stone Circle in Co. Donegal, Bealtaine sunrise aligns perfectly with the tip of the only carved and decorated stone of the circle, indicating that the celebration of the festival may have stretched back into Neolithic times.
According to Irish mythology, Bealtaine has great significance in terms of associated events. For example, it is interesting to note that when the Tuatha de Denann invaded Ireland, they began their battle for dominance against the Fir Bolg on May 1st. Was this deliberate? Did they believe that this auspicious date would bring them good fortune and victory?
In the Cath Maige Tuiread, the story of the Battle of Moytura, Bres (who is half Fomori, half Denann) becomes High King when Nuada loses his arm in the battle. Bres is a bit of a tyrannical King, favouring his Fomori heritage, and demands unacceptably high levels of tribute from the Denann. In order to avoid paying him their finest white cattle, as he commands, they trick him by driving their herds between the Bealtaine fires, thus rendering the animals’ hides brown with the smoke.
Perhaps the most famous Bealtaine story is that of St Patrick and the paschal fire he lit, either at Slane or Newgrange. Tradition dictated that the High King be the first to light the Bealtaine fire at Tara, and from this, embers would be carried far and wide to light all the other Bealtaine fires across Ireland. That Patrick chose to disregard this was quite inflammatory (pardon the pun!) behaviour. When Patrick refused to put out his fire, the Druids were sent in, returning to High King Laogaire and claiming that the his fire could not be extinguished. In the end, Laogaire accepted that Patrick’s powers far exceeded his own, and permitted Patrick to continue to convert the Irish to Christianity, although he himself did not convert.
In time, as Christianity took hold, and pagan practices adapted to fit, or maligned and forgotten, new customs were adopted. It became common, for example, to decorate one’s home with yellow spring flowers in vague remembrance of earlier fire traditions. Dancing round a maypole represented parading between or around the fires. Milk would be spilled across entrances to prevent the Sidhe from entering the home and causing havoc, or blood taken from cattle and spilled at the nearest fairy fort in an effort to appease them. Even the cattle would be decorated with flowers, so that their milk wouldn’t be stolen or spoiled!
In recent years, the Festival of the Fires was reintroduced at Uisneach, which proved very successful. However, it has since been discontinued for reasons which are uncertain. I visited Uisneach in May 2011, just after the Festival had taken place. It is an amazing place, well worth a visit. You can read about it, and see some pictures I took here.
All that remains for me to say, is ‘May the Blessings of Bealtaine be upon you’! Wishing you a bright and beautiful Bealtaine, Ali.