Monday, May 7 is a national holiday this year in Ireland. Don’t try to go to the bank. Mail a letter, forget it. Conduct government business, come back tomorrow. Many businesses will be closed, although the pubs will be going strong. Of course, we are in Ireland. But what is special about this day and why is it celebrated?
May Day has observances throughout the world, and in Ireland it is called Lá Bealtaine. Lá Bealtaine is held about halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. Historically, it was widely observed throughout Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. It is one of the four Gaelic seasonal festivals—along with Samhain, Imbolc and Lughnasadh—and is similar to the Welsh Calan Mai.
Lá Bealtaine is mentioned in some of the earliest Irish literature, and it is associated with important events in Irish mythology. It marked the beginning of summer and was when cattle were driven out to the summer pastures. Rituals were performed to protect the cattle, crops and people, and to encourage growth. Special bonfires were kindled, and their flames, smoke and ashes were deemed to have protective powers. The people and their cattle would walk around the bonfire or between two bonfires, and sometimes leap over the flames or embers. All household fires would be doused and then re-lit from the Beltane bonfire. These gatherings would be accompanied by a feast. Doors, windows, byres and the cattle themselves would be decorated with yellow May flowers, perhaps because they evoked fire. In parts of Ireland, people would make a May Bush: a thorn bush decorated with flowers, ribbons and bright shells. Holy wells were also visited, while Lá Bealtaine dew was thought to bring beauty and maintain youthfulness.
Lá Bealtaine celebrations had largely died out by the mid-20th century, although some of its customs continued and in some places it has been revived as a cultural event. The custom seems to have lasted to the present day only in County Limerick (especially in Limerick itself) and in Arklow, County Wicklow. Some cultural groups have sought to revive the custom at the Hill of Uisneach and at the Hill of Tara. The lighting of a community Lá Bealtaine fire from which each hearth fire is then relit is observed today in some parts of the Gaelic diaspora, though in most of these cases it is a cultural revival rather than survival of the ancient tradition. In 1999, the Uisneach Fire Festival was started and is probably the biggest festival celebrating Lá Bealtaine in the country today.
So if you see a plethora of bonfires around Ireland in early May, don’t call the fire department with concern. Just realize that it is associated with Lá Bealtain, a spring time festival of optimism, celebration, joy, music, dancing, feasting, and fun for the whole community.