Queen of the May

May Eve activity: setting up the May Bush

May Eve activity: setting up the May Bush

I was excited to learn – from one of my favourite and most faithful volumes on folklore: The Year in Ireland by Kevin Danaher (Mercier Press 1972) – that on May Day the Fastnet Rock weighs anchor, casts off her moorings and goes sailing about in Roaringwater Bay! I spent May Eve in a whirl of anticipation – and hot spring sunshine – awaiting the morrow which would present this wonderful spectacle to add to the feast to be seen from our window. The morrow that came, ostensibly the first day of summer, was a disappointment: the wind was in the east – and biting – and the whole bay was encased in damp, grey fog. The perambulations of the rock remained out of sight until nightfall, by which time the sweeping light had smugly returned to its rightful place twelve miles off shore.

Dancing Rock...

Dancing Rock…

My only consolation – again, according to Danaher – is that a cold, wet May morning heralds an excellent summer (and this certainly came about last year). I could write all day about Danaher’s observations on the subject of Mary’s month – in his book 42 pages are devoted to it: the longest section by far, indicating the importance given to this part of the year in the traditional calendar. But I’ll leave that for another time and concentrate on our own activity: putting up our May Bush.

When I lived in the west of England it was a toss-up between going to Minehead or Padstow on May Day – occasionally both. They were contrasting experiences: in Minehead, on the north coast of Somerset, you had to take pot luck – there was no fixed itinerary to the day and you never quite knew what you were going to see, or where or when. What you wanted to see was the Hobby Horse, sometimes known as the Ship-horse, or the Sailor’s Oss. I’ll refer you to another classic book – by chance also dating from 1972: A Year of Festivals – A Guide to British Calendar Customs by Geoffrey Palmer + Noel Lloyd (Frederick Warne):

…The head of the horse (or the mast and sails of the ship) is in the centre; and a long rope tail, once a real cow’s tail, is fastened to the ‘stern’. The man inside the contraption glides and sways through the streets, and sometimes swings his tail around anybody who refuses to contribute to the collecting-box… The ship form of the horse is said to date from 1772 when, on the evening before May Day, a ship sank in a storm off Dunster, three miles from Minehead. The only object to be washed ashore was a dead cow, the tail of which was used to decorate the horse…

Now, the early photograph below is one of my all-time favourites as an illustration of a folk custom: it’s optimistically captioned Hobby-horse Festival, Minehead, Somerset and says to me that such traditions will continue forever because ‘they have to be done’ – even if the rest of the world has lost all interest…

The First of May at Padstow is another matter altogether. It’s a huge gathering: all the roads are closed to traffic and at times it seems impossible that any more people could be fitted in to this modest Cornish fishing community. Here there are two ‘Obby Osses’: the Red Oss, sometimes known as the Original or Old Oss, is stabled in the Golden Lion, while the Blue Oss – or Temperance Oss has its headquarters in the (perhaps more temperance friendly) Public Library. Both horses come out in the morning of May Day, led by a ‘Teaser’ and accompanied by numerous dancers, drums and accordions, perambulate all around the town, and well beyond it, finally meeting in the evening at The Square, in the shadow of an elaborate and colourful May Pole.

Padstow taster… Photos from the 1960s and 2006:

Preparing the Maypole in Bavaria

Preparing the Maypole in Bavaria (Florian Schott, Ellbach)

While I was experiencing my first Padstow May Day in the 1960s, our Cappaghglass neighbour Dietrich was in Bavaria, watching the construction of an enormous Maypole: he also remembers all the children dancing around it holding up May Bushes. For our own May Bush we took our inspiration from Danaher:

…The children set up their May Bush in the same spirit in which we hang out our flags on a national holiday, to celebrate an occasion, but some – at least – of their parents were glad of the feeling of protection against unseen forces which the May Bush gave…

Oh yes! We have to be aware that…

…So powerful were the preternatural forces abroad in the night between sunset on May Eve and sunrise on May Day that almost anything might be expected to happen… (Danaher) while …The powers of evil, always on the alert to entangle and destroy souls, being most dangerous and powerful on May-Eve, on that day the maids were apt to be uneasy and rather sullen, watching us suspiciously lest we might, through our unbelief, frustrate their precautions against danger. They strewed primroses on the threshold of the front and back doors – no fairy can get over this defence – and in the cow-byres they hung branches of rowan while the head dairy-woman sprinkled holy water in mangers and stalls. The milkmaids, at the end of the evening milking, stood to make the sign of the cross with froth from the pails, signing themselves and making a cross in the air towards the cows… from The Farm by Lough Gur by Mary Carbery (Longmans, 1937).

Burning the land

Burning the land

We have had a long, dry spell and there have been a number of gorse fires recently in our neighbourhood: this one occurred on May Eve – traditionally a time in Ireland when bonfires were lit – although the gorse fires have nothing to do with that tradition. Here are the observations of William Wilde (father of Oscar) in Irish Popular Superstitions, Dublin, 1853

…Turf, coals, old bones, particularly slugs of cows’ horns from the tan-yards, and horses’ heads from the knackers, logs of wood etc were also collected, to which some of the merchants generally added a few pitch and tar-barrels. The ignitable materials were formed in depots, in back-yards, and cellars of old houses, long before the approaching festival; and several sorties were made by opposing factions to gain possession of these hoards, and lives have been lost in the skirmishes which ensued… With the exception of one ancient rite, that of throwing into it the May bush, there were but few Pagan ceremonies observed at the metropolitan fires. A vast crowd collected, whiskey was distributed galore… The entire population collected round the bush and the fire; the elder portion, men and women, bringing with them chairs or stools, to sit out the wake of the winter and spring, according to the olden usage… Fiddlers and pipers plied their fingers and elbows; and dancing, shouting, revelry and debauchery of every description succeeded, till, at an advanced hour of the night, the scene partook more of the nature of the ancient Saturnalia, than anything we can presently liken it to…

mass sign

By contrast, our own rural activities were much more calm and constrained. I couldn’t miss out on an outdoor Mass celebrated at one of Lough Hyne’s Holy Wells – the Skour Well. On a beautiful evening – attractive to the midges – it felt the most natural thing in the world to be at a site which has been considered sacred for hundreds, if not for thousands of years, and to take part in a ceremony which is also ancient. I counted over eighty people, including a gentleman of 97, at this event – presided over by two priests and centred on a portable altar with cloth and candles, the revered well being the backdrop. Prayers were said and hymns were sung in English, Irish and Latin.

There’s a continuity here which defies any twenty first century rationale. I was very conscious that this was the way that faith was practiced in Ireland in the penal times (requiring that a watchful eye be kept out for the Redcoats) – but also it was an honouring of nature and a respect for the elements: earth, water, sun and rain – old ways carrying on regardless of new technologies.

A May garland – Hatherleigh, Devon:

Finola’s memory of May Day in her schooldays was of all the girls wearing veils and processing down to the grotto saying the Rosary; and, every day throughout Mary’s month, singing the refrain that was sung at the close of the Mass at Skour Well:

O Mary! we crown thee with blossoms today,
Queen of the Angels, Queen of the May.

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7 thoughts

  1. For a moment I thought that your May bush was for inside and that you’d bring hawthorn into your house….a complete no-no when I was young, it brought bad luck according to my mother. You familiar with this Finola??

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    • That’s right Karen: both Finola and I remember the dire warnings about bringing it into the house! It’s all to do with the Other Crowd who are very much in evidence throughout the whole of May – keep a good look-out for them…

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  2. And a Merry May to you Robert. Judging by the weather it’s going to be a sweltering summer! I love the May garland, and hope you washed your face in the dew on May morning – I did!

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    • And a merry month to you, too, Amanda. I have to confess that I wasn’t up in time to sample the May morning dew – It had turned to rain when I looked out!

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