My journey with the Irish language

Feile na Bealtaine

Feile na Bealtaine is Irish for ‘The Baltane Festival’, a seasonal Gaelic event that traditionally falls on the first Monday of May but these days falls on the 1st of May. We can trace the name back to the old Irish words Bel Taine meaning ‘bright fire’, however the tradition extends much further back in history than medieval times.

Pre-Christian Celtic culture recognised the two major annual transitions as Oiche Shamhna (Halloween), which is the first day of the Celtic year, and Bealtaine (Beltane), which is the midpoint of the year. Oiche Shamhna signifies the transition into the dark while Bealtaine signifies the transition into the light. This shows us how the Celtic mind worked. Just like a seed everything start in the darkness, germinating and pushing through to the light where life is lived before returning to the earth and the darkness. Likewise, the day begins with twilight, where we go into the dark, and wake half way through to see the day until we return to twilight.

Like Oiche Shamhna, Bealtaine was a time of purification and transition when the aos sí (the Fae) are most active. Lá Bealtaine (Day of Beltane) was the time of year to herd the cows out to pasture for the summer. They were herded through fires after druids chanted incantations on them. Offerings of food and drink and bonfires were common place as it was a time of ritual to bless the growth of crops and cattle, and to protect the people. Milk was poured across the threshold of the house to stop the faeries from entering and cow blood was offered at faerie forts. May blossoms such as primrose and hawthorn petals were placed around doors to ward off evil. And flowers, ribbons and bright shells were used to decorate thorn bushes to make Crann Bealtaine (a Maypole) and the people visited the holly wells.

In ‘Irish Folk Ways’ by E. Estyn Evans in the 1930s, he writes of the Maypole tradition:

‘It is a custom in the Taghmon district to hold celebrations on the first day of May with a May bush. A number of boys go out in the country armed with a saw or hatched. They cut a blackthorn bush or sceach. They then get an old bucket and fill it with clay. They stick the bush down in it and take it to a waste bit of land in the neighbour-hood of the village. Then they start to decorate the bush with coloured papers, candles, painted eggshells and pictures. Then they select a king and queen. The king and queen take it up and march around the streets with it. The people give them pennies. Then in the end they burn the May bush and spend their money. This custom has been carried on in Taghmon as long as the oldest resident can remember

While the Bealtaine fires disappeared around the 1950s, today the celebration is reigniting around Ireland and the world as we reclaim our Gaelic roots and customs. So today, on Lá Bealtaine, bear in mind our Gaelic traditions and use a few phrases ‘as Gaeilge’ (in Irish):

Scéal ó Shamhain go Bealtaine – meaning ‘a long drawn out story’. It is a story from November to May and an Irish winter would feel like a long drawn out time.

Bliain chun na Bealtaine – meaning ‘a year come May’.

Bláth bán na Bealtaine – the hawthorn flowers that come out in May.

Oíche Bhealtaine – May eve

 

Slán go fóill agus tugaigí aire daoibh féin

(Bye for now and take care)

Neasa

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