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How to prevent Mayhem...
by Bridget Haggerty

In old Ireland, it was believed that the 'good people' moved their place of residence between sundown on May Eve and dawn the next day. With supposed legions of spirit folk on the move, it was also thought that magic, both for good and evil, was at its most effective at this time of year - some even venturing to say it was even stronger than at Halloween.

Which is why there are countless superstitions and customs associated with Beltane, the second of the four major festivals in the Celtic calendar. By the way - you will never see this writer refer to the inhabitants of Ireland's spirit world as 'the little people.' The proper name is 'good people'. According to all of the old stories, they loathe the term that is so often used to describe them - and it's with a little fear and trepidation I even write it here. For, while they wish to be known as 'good people', it's a well-known fact that they love to play tricks — and this time of year is one of their favorite occasions for mischief-making. So, how to prevent mayhem wrought by the fairy folk?

It was believed that yellow primroses should be sprinkled outside the doorway to protect the home. According to the old ways, no fairy would or could cross a path of primroses. Children also gathered other flowers which they made into bouquets and placed on windowsills, hung over the door, on the roof, in and around the wells, on paths leading up to the house, and on the outbuildings as well. Some tied flowers to horses bridles, cows horns or tails, churn dashes, and milk pail handles - all in order to protect everything they held dear.

On Cape Clear, they put the leaves of the Iris not yet in bloom in the boats for good luck, and, in many places, they brought in May boughs. In Co. Cork, it was sycamore, which was called the summer tree. Depending on where you lived, some branches were lucky - or not. These varied greatly - whitethorn, blackthorn, elder, broom, woodbine, or alder. I well remember an old superstition of my mother's - "cast not a clout till May is out." This meant that we weren't supposed to shed our winter clothes until the end of the month. Research has revealed that May is also another word for hawthorn, so some historians think that the old proverb means not to discard the winter woolies until the hawthorn comes into bloom. While that may have been around the early part of the month, when I was growing up, we could have had a heat wave and it would have made no difference to my mother - or our wardrobe! She also had a compulsion about blankets; she made sure all of them were freshly washed and back on the beds by May Eve. According to her, "wash a blanket in May, wash a dear one away."

For the most part, ancient Ireland was a rural society. So, most of the old customs and superstitions centered around farm life. All of the spring work - the tilling of the soil to produce crops - should have been finished by May Day. This was also the time when turf cutting began and when turbary - the right to cut peat or turf on another's person's land - was rented. And, according to custom, on May Eve, every family put up a May Bush.

In many places, the May Bush was brought home and set up before the house and decorated with flowers, ribbons, paper streamers and sometimes, garlands of the colored Easter egg shells the children had saved just for this occasion. Sometimes candles or rush lights were attached to the bush and lit at dusk. In the few big cities that existed, Dublin for example, there were often many attempts to steal a community May Bush that had been created by a rival faction; in so doing, you'd be stealing the year's luck from the rightful owners. So, they would be fiercely protected until the evening of May Day, when the bush would be consigned to the dying Beltane Bonfire which had been lit the night before.

Another custom that was scrupulously observed on May Eve was to protect the farm. After sunset, farmers walked the boundaries of their property accompanied by their hired hands; they formed a procession and each person carried a farming implement and symbols of agriculture - seeds of corn, for example. The procession stopped at several key locations facing the four cardinal points and always beginning with the east. At each point they went through a string of ceremonies, including digging a clod of earth breaking it fine, and then sowing the seed. If they were lucky enough to have any, they would then sprinkle the earth with the sacred herb, vervain. Next was to drive all of the cows into one place and examine their tails to make sure an evil-intentioned person hadn't hidden a sprig of the rowan tree or other bewitched token. The cows were then sprinkled with more of the vervain, preserved since the previous May Day.

A much simpler tradition was observed in many households throughout Ireland. The father would light a candle and then sprinkle the threshold, the hearth and the four corners of the house with holy water blessed on Easter Sunday. He then sprinkled the water on his wife and their children - in the order of their age. Next, he visited the outbuildings and blessed the animals; he then blessed one of his fields to represent all of his holdings.

Still other customs had to be observed: any borrowed item was returned; there was no spending or lending; no fire or ashes could be carried out of the house, and no food was given to any beggars who came to the door. How could one be sure they weren't an evil witch or a mischievous fairy in disguise? Not until noon of May Day, could a family finally breathe a sigh of relief that they had come through the witching hours of Beltane without a curse on the cow, an evil charm on the churn, or any wickedness wished on the well. Now, they could fully enjoy the merriment of the first summer day - even if it also meant Nettle Soup for supper! My friend Audrey was hoping I'd made a typo and I meant Nestle's. Sad to say, no. But, delighted to say there are many good dessert recipes at The Irish Kitchen.

"A wet May and a dry June make the farmer whistle a tune."


 

Tue, Feb 21, 2017

The Irishman who designed
the Oscar satuette

Ireland’s first and most lasting contribution to the Academy Awards is at the ceremony’s very heart: the Oscar statuette was designed by Dublin- born Cedric Gibbons, an art director with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, who also became Ireland’s first winner. Although his first Oscar (for art direction on The Bridge of San Luis Rey) was the only award he received individually, Gibbons was nominated for 38 Academy Awards and received 11 Oscars. By most yardsticks, this record makes Gibbons the most successful Irish Oscar winner in history.
Source: The Irish Times
Photo Credit: Hollywood Confidential


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