Beltane Bonfires and Nettle Soup
by Bridget Haggerty
to have been in Ireland a few hundred years ago at this time. The most
dramatic part of the Beltane celebration was the community bonfire.
People would gather around it, often bringing chairs or stools in order
to "sit out the wake of winter." The best singers and musicians in the
crowd would perform and there was always joyous dancing, often until
the wee hours.
The fire was usually lit on May Eve - fed by
whatever a village could spare - and was kept going until sunset on May
1st. In general, most people extinguished all fires in their homes on
May eve. And, it was considered incredibly unlucky to even light a
cigarette or candle and take it beyond the front door. In keeping with
the old ways, "new fire" had to be brought back to the house from the
As the Beltane fires burned brightly across the
land, other important events were taking place. May 1st was when many
hiring fairs were held; people looking for work came carrying symbols
of their skill - a spade, a hay fork, a reaping hook, or a spancel,
which said the bearer was an expert milker.
Today was also known
as 'gale day' - when a tenancy began or ended and on which a
half-year's rent must be paid. Signs of the weather, the appearance of
the sky and of the May moon, the strength and direction of the wind,
the amount of rain, were all carefully noted, as indications of the
coming summer weather. Rain was expected and welcomed : "A wet and
windy May fills the barns with corn and hay." A cold, east wind was a
bad sign, while frost meant hard times to come. And, God forbid, there
should still be snow on Slieve Snaght in north Wexford; this was so
evil an omen that the farmers expected the landlord to forego the rent
for the coming half year.
In different parts of the country, the
custom was that one should not dig, whitewash, bathe or sail on May
Day. As with many countries in western Europe, Ireland paid close heed
to avoiding anything where there might be magic afoot. The fairies were
on the move and the unexpected was always a distinct possibility.
some areas, especially in the cities, children would carry a May Bush
and go about in groups asking for contributions, so they could decorate
it. A common chant was: "Long life and a pretty wife and a candle for
the May Bush " Most often, though, what they really wanted was a little
money, and not a candle! It was a lovely time of year, what with the
flowers strewn everywhere, the decorated May bushes, and the children
having the nodding assent of parents to accost friends, family and
neighbors for whatever could be cajoled out of them!
May Bush was common in the country, in many towns, a May Pole was
erected by the bonfire. May Poles were prevalent throughout the British
Isles and there are written records of May Pole celebrations in
Belfast, Carrickfergus and Kilkenny. Generally, the tradition was not
known in rural districts and it's most likely that it was introduced
into urban areas by English settlers.
In one account, a
procession of "May Boys", dressed in white shirts adorned with colorful
ribbons tied in knots, led what was known as a garland procession
through the neighborhood. At the head of the parade was an elected May
King and Queen. At each stop, they would ask for funds to help defray
the cost of the May Day party to be held later. Before 1820, there are
records of great May Pole celebrations in Dublin. In addition to
dancing and drinking, the pole was often greased and a prize offered to
anyone who could climb to the top. Other revelries included a wide
assortment of sporting events, including foot races, hopping races,
sack races, and wrestling. Dance competitions were also held and very
often, the coveted prize was a cake.
When I first saw the term
"May Ball", I immediately thought, oh, this must be about a special
dance. The reality is a lot more interesting! Hurling was and still is,
one of Ireland's most popular sports. In the old days, it was the
custom on May Day for a newly-married couple to decorate a hurling ball
with silver or gold lace and tassels. The ball was then hung on the
community May Bush or given as a gift to an unmarried man. As quaint as
that custom was, my research has uncovered a great deal of other
equally fascinating material associated with May Day.
attention was paid to the health of the family because it was widely
believed that any illness or injury on May Eve or May Day was
especially dangerous or difficult to cure. On the other hand, this time
of year was considered to be best for gathering medicinal herbs.
first May Day butter, that is, the first butter made from the milk of
May Day, was held to be the best of all bases for salves and ointments.
And, it was firmly believed that any herb picked at random before
sunrise on May Day was a sure cure for warts. Also, if you wanted to
keep the rheumatics away for a year, the custom was to eat nettle soup
three times during the month, beginning on May 1st.
It was the
responsibility of the children to go out and gather young nettles and
there are many written accounts of youngsters making a game out of
chasing each other with the leaves. The nettles that survived the chase
were made into a soup or cooked like spinach. (A delicious recipe
follows at the end of this article). Another traditional dish in the
old days was stirabout or hasty pudding. Generally, the first of May
was the day when farm folk took inventory and it was said to indicate a
wife's great care and caution if there was still enough corn or flour
to create the pudding.
There are so many superstitions
associated with this magical time, and, as I write this, I am keeping
an eye on the clock. Until noon today, the power of the fairies will be
at its strongest. Not until after sunset this evening and the official
end of the festival, will we be truly safe from fairy mischief! So, I
will conclude this piece with a brief list of superstitions and
.Between sunset on May Eve and the dawn of
May Day, one should stay close to home and never sleep outdoors. If you
must be out and about, a piece of iron in the pocket might give some
protection, as will a spent cinder from the hearth, or a sprig of
.Many people leave the fairies an offering of food
and drink either on their doorstep, or at a fort, lone bush or other
.A favorite prank of the good folk is to cause
people to lose their way by bringing down a mist. One way to protect
against this is to wear your coat inside out. This disguise will
confuse them and might allow you to escape.
.Care should be
taken not to keep anything you find of value on the roadway or
anywhere. Best of all, don't pick it up. But, if you wish to be
neighborly, you should place the article on a fence, gate or bush so
that the rightful owner can find it again.
.The first water
taken from the well on May Day was variously known as 'the top of the
well' or 'the luck of the well'. In evil hands this water could do
great harm; but in the hands of the rightful owner, it brought luck,
protection and healing.
.A child born on May Day has the gift of
being able to see the fairies - but it was believed the child would not
live a long life. Animals born on this day were also sure to be
.If a girl went out into the garden before sunrise on
May 1st, she could find out the name of her future spouse by taking up
the first snail or slug she finds. This is put on a plate sprinkled
with flour. A cabbage leaf is placed on top and left until after
sunrise. Then, according to the superstition, she will find the
initials of her lover traced in the flour.
.The call of the
cuckoo is ominous - to hear it on your right brings luck; on the left,
ill fortune; from a church yard meant a death in the family, and before
breakfast, a hungry year.
So far, we haven't heard any cuckoos
and we're wearing our shirts inside out Fingers are crossed that we -
and you - will enjoy a May Day filled with soft sunshine, the fragrance
of flowers, and the blessings of family and friends to share in the
joys of the coming season.
Irish Nettle Soup
Adapted from Darina Allen's book, The Festive Food of Ireland.
Ingredients for 6 servings:
1 1/2 oz butter
1 1/2 lbs potatoes
4 oz onions
3 1/2 oz leeks
4 1/2 cups chicken stock
5 oz young nettles, washed and chopped
3/4 cup whole milk or cream salt and pepper to taste.
Melt the butter in a heavy saucepan; when it foams, add the potatoes,
onions and leeks. Toss them in the butter until they are well coated.
2. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, cover. Steam on gentle heat for about 10 minutes.
3. Add the chicken stock and simmer until the vegetables are just cooked.
Add the nettle leaves and cook until soft.
4. Whisk in the cream; taste and correct seasoning. Serve hot.
Research has uncovered a variety of spellings for the festival of
Belenos. While written most often as Beltane, it is also recorded as
Bealtaine, Bealltainn (Scots-Gaelic), and Beltaine (Old Irish).