Labour/May Day in Ireland
In many parts of the world, the first of May may symbolize the onset of spring, or the celebration of organized labourers. So aside from a marking the day with a well-earned public holiday, the run-of-the-mill May Day may even comprise organized street marches or demonstrations by labour unions and workers throughout the world – disgruntled or just to make their presence known. It is the day that unsung heroes get their dues, and this is no different in Ireland, although, as we’ve come to see, the Irish have an innate tendency to do things just a tiny bit differently…
You see, the earliest May Day celebrations emerged from Beltane (or Beltaine), the Gaelic festival which marked the end of the civil year in medieval Ireland. Coincidentally, the month of May in Irish Gaelic is known as Bealtaine. Yes, it all comes a full circle. Beltaine commemorated the marking of the midpoint between the spring equinox and summer solstice. How the medieval Irish used to celebrate it was by way of a ritual, which saw a Beltaine fire lit where present day County Westmeath stands.
To the medieval Irish, bonfires meant purification and transition, a likely match for the transition of seasons. Accompanying them were pagan rituals, through which the people sought protection from spirits as well as good harvests throughout the year. Cattle were either driven through these bonfires, or more humanely, between two of such fires as a purification rite, just as lovers passed through the smoke emitted from these large bonfires together. Called belfires, these bonfires were often fueled by the wood of various types of trees, each with specific, spiritual meanings.
It’s interesting to note that though large-scale bonfires often a legit celebration make, this ritual seems only to have survived in County Limerick today, much to the relief of cattle around Ireland, I’m thinking.
These days, the maypole has become the symbol of the celebration, and also of fertility within the Republic of Ireland. What exactly is a maypole, you ask? Well, they’re (unsurprisingly) poles over three meters in height, dressed up in cheery, colourful ribbons. The Republic of Ireland celebrates May Day with a public holiday, and while larger cities host elaborate Labour Day parades, small towns play host to lively fairs and lavish communal meals, which are often incorporated into the Irish May Day celebrations. Expect to bear witness to little children and youths alike dancing around the maypole, a distinct nod to the nation’s pagan past. Single hopefuls can also be found holding onto the ribbons as they dance around these maypoles, until they eventually become entwined with whomever their heart may desire.
It seems the celebration is all about rebirth, especially with the Irish saying that details how even the plainest Jane will become a beauty if she adheres to the following steps:
1. Rise early on Labour Day.
2. Wash face with morning dew at sunrise.
Easy as pie. It’s believed that doing so would prevent ageing during the coming year. Men, too, can get their fill of May Day dew, for as the Irish believe, dousing your hands in said dew would gain you the indispensible skill of opening knots and locks.
This, however, is not to say that the Irish completely steer clear of the demonstrations that meander through the streets all over the world. On the contrary, in fact, as modern day Ireland often sees rallies organized on the day itself. You know, as they say, variety is the spice of life…