This appeared in the North Clare Local in June. We have many lovely summer traditions in Ireland.
It’s hard to believe when we’re gazing out at yet another rainy day but this is technically summer in Ireland. The summer season was a very important one in the lives of our ancestors; it was the time when crops ripened. If the summer was bad, it could spell a disastrously lean winter.
Understandably, a set of rituals grew up around summer in this less scientific age. It was vital to get summer off to a good start. The Irish summer starts on May 1- May Day, which was also the time of the ancient Celtic feast of Bealtaine.
Bealtaine was one of the biggest feasts of the Celtic year, with widespread feasting, bonfires, and wild merriment. In an effort to Christianise the feast, which had counterparts across Europe, the church designated May the month of the Virgin Mary, and many lovely traditions have arisen from this association.
An interesting Co Clare May tradition took place along the banks of Lough Fergus. Stones along its bank represent a ‘chair’ and it was once believed that sitting in this chair could cure lumbago and other complaints. Cattle would also be driven through the lake if they were sick; if they turned right they would be cured but if they turned left they were doomed. Due to drainage works the level of the lake has fallen but a tradition continues of bottling water from the lake on May Day, with the belief that this water has curative powers.
Bealtaine, like its winter counterpart Samhain, was considered the time that the veil between worlds was considered especially thin. Most superstitions concerned May Eve and May morning- crucial times in the year. Hares spotted in May Day were considered to be witches in disguise. It was considered especially unlucky to sleep outdoors on May Eve; fairies were especially active and could spirit the sleeper away. Lady Jane Wilde, Oscar’s mother, collected several stories of young beautiful people being kidnapped by fairies on May Eve.
To let a May fire blow out was considered very unlucky, and the only cure was a lighted sod from a priests house to spark up the fire again. Probably the most widespread May custom was the concept of ‘stealing’ or ‘charming’ away good milk or butter. Dairy farmers especially, relying so wholly on their animals, had a fear of certain people in the neighbourhood using supernatural means to steal their good fortune.
To counteract this, it was forbidden to lend anyone outside the household any item, no matter how small, on May Day, in case ‘the luck went with them’. Salt was an especially unlucky item to loan, as it was a protection against magic. No-one from outside the household should draw water from a well on May Day, as malicious individuals could take the water and resources of the house for themselves.
June is the time of the summer solstice, which takes place on June 21. Although this wasn’t as celebrated as the winter solstice, which is a sign of brighter days to come, midsummer was important in the ancient calendar.
The church incorporated many solstice celebrations into St John’s Eve, which takes place on June 23. Bonfires were lit, and people leapt through the fire as a form of purification. Young couples often jumped together, and it was said that it could be predicted whether the couple would marry depending on which way the flames flickered.
July’s most notable connection with folklore is the legend of English saint St Swithin. It’s said that if it rains on his feast day, July 15, it will rain for forty days and nights. Scientists have since definitively disproven the saint’s curse, not that it ever seems to make much difference in ever damp Ireland.
July and August were considered to be the ‘dog days’ in the ancient Roman calendar. These sultry days were considered unbearable, and the name came from the belief that the sun was ruled by the ‘dog star’ Sirius during this time. It was believed to be a time of evil and madness.
August was the time of the Ould Lammas Fair in Ireland, which survives in Ballycastle, Co Antrim. This fair is over 300 years old. Another old August fair is the Puck Fair in Killorglin, Co Kerry. This fair reportedly goes back to the time of Cromwell, but the goat itself is widely known as a pagan symbol of fertility, suggesting that the origins of the fair are even older.
Summer is a truly special time whether you are a folklore enthusiast or not. The symbolism of this beautiful time of year is explained wonderfully in the Greek myth of Persephone; summer as a beautiful goddess who is imprisoned in the underworld during the winter months. Let’s hope we get some much needed sunshine.