In ancient Ireland the first day of May held great significance for the Celtic people of the land. The was the day of the great Festival of Fire, or Bealtaine, and marked the beginning of summer on the Celtic calendar.
Today let’s explore all that Bealtaine meant to our ancestors, and find out how this feast still holds significance to this very day.
Table of Contents
- What Is Bealtaine?
- How to Pronounce Bealtaine
- The Irish Word for the Month of May
- Marking the Beginning of Summer
- Cross Quarter Days
- The Origins of the Bealtaine Festival
- What Happened During Bealtaine In Celtic Times?
- Beacons at Bealtiane by Séamus Heaney
- Hawthorn – The Magical Fairy Tree at Bealtaine
- Yellow Flowers at Bealtaine
- Matchmaking at Bealtaine
- Superstitions and Fortunes at Bealtaine
- The Hill of Uisneach and Bealtaine
- Beltany Stone Circle
- Is Bealtaine Celebrated In Modern Ireland?
What Is Bealtaine?
Bealtaine is the first day of May in the Celtic calendar. It celebrates the end of winter and the dark half of the year, and the beginning of summer and the light half of the year.
It was one of the most important festivals on the ancient Celtic calendar.
How to Pronounce Bealtaine
Before we move on, let’s review how to say or pronounce this Irish word.
Here it is in phonetic pronunciation – beh-yowl-thin-eh.
The word Bealtaine is derived from Old Irish and it means “bright fire.” Bel or beal is the word for light. The Celtic sun god, who was associated with healing, was called Belanus.
Other translations link Bealtaine to the term “mouth of fire.” This derives from the Irish and Gaelic word for mouth which is ‘béal’ (pronounced bay-ul), and the word for fire which is ‘tine’ (pronounced tin-eh).
At the beginning of May the sun is at the mouth of the summer, and the sun’s light and heat will continue to rise further and further as the Summer Solstice approaches.
The Irish Word for the Month of May
Bealtaine is a word still used in the Irish language, and in English it is translated to May, as in the month of May.
This ancient Celtic festival still has impact on our spoken language today.
Marking the Beginning of Summer
In Ireland May was considered the first month of summer, and this tradition dates back to Celtic times. Summer begins on May 1st, and ends on July 31st.
In recent times, the Irish meteorological service has started counting summer as the months of June, July and August. This is probably to align better with other northern hemisphere countries.
The ancient Celtic Festival of old on the first of May or Mayday began with the Irish celebration of Bealtaine, to greet the long awaited summer.
This day is celebrated as Mayday in other parts of Europe.
Cross Quarter Days
Bealtaine is also a cross quarter day. These are days that mark the midpoint between a solstice and equinox.
May Day is the halfway point between the spring equinox around March 21st, and the summer solstice around June 21st.
For the ancient Celts, cross quarter days were not the middle of a season. Instead they occurred at the beginning of important seasons. Bealtaine started the light half of the year.
It was a day for dancing, celebrations, songs and fire rituals.
The Origins of the Bealtaine Festival
This festival dates back before Celtic times in Ireland. It is first associated with the magical inhabitants of Ireland, known as the Tuatha Dé Danaan.
This event is referred to in a very early Irish book known as Leabhar Gabhála (pronounced as low-ur gah-wal-ah, with low being said as in the word allow, and meaning The Book of Invasions).
It recounts how the Tuatha Dé Danaan first arrived on the shores of Ireland on the feast of Bealtaine. Other medieval texts tell how after landing on the island these druids drove their flocks out to pasture between two bonfires.
Bealtaine then went on to become one of the most important Celtic festivals of the year. Now, our Celtic forebears loved to celebrate, so there were other important Celtic festivals throughout the year.
Samhain happened six months after Bealtaine and heralded in the dark half of the year.
The Celts divided their years into light and dark halves, and their world and daily lives were organized around this concept.
The position of the sun in the sky was important to the Celtic calendar. Bealtaine and Samhain marked the beginning and the end of the harvesting season.
The other two festivals that divided the Celtic year into quarters are Imbolc, celebrated on February 1st, and Lughnasa, celebrated on August 1st.
The festival of Bealtaine was celebrated throughout the Celtic World including in Scotland where it is called Bealltainn or Boaltinn, and the Isle of Man where it is called Boaldyn.
What Happened During Bealtaine In Celtic Times?
Being a Celtic festival there were rituals galore associated with this time for heralding in the light season of the year. Fire was a central theme in most of these rituals. As a result Bealtaine is often called the Celtic Fire Festival.
Bonfires dominated this festival. Fire ceremonies involved leading cattle out to pasture through two bonfires. This may not have just been a symbolic gesture, but may have served to delouse those Celtic cows.
Everything about a Bealtaine fire was considered sacred. Before lighting the festival fire, all household fires were quenched. They were only reignited using the central flame of the Bealtaine fire.
The flames of the bonfire were celebrated as people walked around the bonfire. Some jumped over the flames to gain protection and to seek health and wealth for the coming year.
Even the smoke and the ashes of the Bealtaine fire were considered sacred. The smoke helped to delouse the cattle. The ashes from the Bealtaine fires were sprinkled on cattle, over crops and around homes, to ensure good luck for the coming year.
The Bealtaine bonfire represents the blessings of Bel, the Celtic sun god, and the return to a season of strength by the sun.
Bealtaine also involved feasting, but at this time of year food was not as plentiful as at Samhain, when the harvest had been gathered. This feast involved using up the remainder of food stored for winter.
The feasting and fire lighting began on the eve of May Day, as the sun set in the west.
Beacons at Bealtiane by Séamus Heaney
On May 1st, 2004 the Irish Poet Laureate, Séamus Heaney delivered an address to a European Union Enlargement Ceremony at the Phoenix Park in Dublin. He wrote a beautiful poem for the occasion called Beacons at Bealtaine
His words celebrate this ancient custom of setting bonfires and the idea of clear water or uisce fionn (pronounced ish-ka f-yun).
Here are two of my favorite verses from this lovely poem..
The May Day hills were burning, far and near,
When our land’s first footers beached boats in the creek
In uisce, fionn, strange words that soon grew clear;
Move lips, move minds and make new meanings flare
Like ancient beacons signalling, peak to peak,
From middle sea to north sea, shining clear
As phoenix flame upon fionn uisce here.
Hawthorn – The Magical Fairy Tree at Bealtaine
The Hawthorn tree is also known as Whitethorn or the May tree.
In the west of Ireland the Atlantic winds cause these trees to bend and grow in the direction of the prevailing winds.
A single hawthorn tree growing in a field or hedgerow is regarded as a Fairy or Faery Tree in Ireland.
Nobody, with any knowledge of the faeries, would cause any harm to a Faery or hawthorne tree. Risking the wrath of the Faeries is only for the foolhardy among us.
During Bealtaine the Faeries were thought to be especially active. Hawthorn trees were decorated with bright ribbons, red cloths, garlands, knick knacks, bric-à-brac, and dangling shells in coastal counties.
In Celtic times this was a ritual to appease the Faeries and to seek blessings of fertility for the land, livestock and the people who worked the land.
At Bealtaine the risk of annoying the faeries was not as great as at Samhain, when it was believed that spiritual forces could freely pass between the mortal and supernatural worlds.
Yellow Flowers at Bealtaine
The Celts believed the color yellow was disliked by the faeries or the Sídhe (pronounced shee). They used yellow flowers to keep the faeries at bay.
Luckily for those in need of a good dose of faery repellent, there’s an abundance of yellow flowers blooming all over Ireland in late April and May.
Furze is that yellow flower that blooms on prickly bushes lighting up the Irish countryside and it’s in full bloom by May. Primroses, cowslips, and marigolds add to the yellow hues and tones of the hedgerows.
On the eve of Bealtaine a bouquet of yellow flowers would be tied above the doorways and entrances to homes, animal barns, and byres.
Small posies of yellow flowers were often tied to the tails of cows and horses, to keep them extra safe from the wicked ways of the faeries.
Flower petals or blossoms would be strewn on windowsills and thresholds. In Christian Ireland these were said to create a lovely yellow flower bed for Our Lady to tread on as she passed by on May Eve.
Any home decorated with flowers sought blessings from Holy Mary, as they slept through the first night of May. Irish people celebrate May as the Month of Mary.
It was also thought these yellow flowers would deter any evil spirits from entering a home.
Matchmaking at Bealtaine
May Day or Bealtaine was a time for matchmaking and finding love. The match would be made in May, with six weeks of courting before marriage on the summer solstice or Midsummer Day, around June 21st.
Samhain was a time for foretelling romance and matchmaking potential, but Bealtaine was the time to make those fortunes become a reality.
In modern times, June is one of the most popular months for weddings and this tradition started with matchmaking at Bealtaine.
Superstitions and Fortunes at Bealtaine
Another superstition or fortune telling practice at Bealtaine was a game played by girls. They would hold a yellow flower under their chin, and the first man they dreamed of, would be the man they married.
Some people didn’t sweep the floor on May Day. They believed that by doing so, they might sweep their good luck out the door.
The first dew fall of May was believed to have youth restoring or age defying benefits. Just before the sun rose on the 1st of May, Irish women would rise early and wash their faces with the dew on the grass, in the belief that this May Day clear water would help retain a youthful complexion for the coming year.
The first water taken from a spring or a well on May Day morning was thought to be very potent with sacred healing powers. Drinking clear water first thing in the morning bestowed protection for the coming year.
Lighting the first fire of May in a village was thought to bring bad luck. People would rise late on May Day and look for smoke from another person’s house before they would set a fire in their own hearth. Let’s hope it was a warm day in any village full of stubborn Irish folks.
Another unusual custom was to avoid strangers on the first day of May. The Celts were normally a very generous people, but on May Day they kept their money to themselves.
Requests for loans or a share of anyone’s wealth were refused on this day of the year. It was thought to be of extreme importance to guard one’s personal fortune on this day, because sharing it could put your personal prosperity for the coming year in grave danger.
The Hill of Uisneach and Bealtaine
The Hill of Uisneach in County Westmeath was the site of a huge Bealtaine fire on May Day eve.
The Tuath Dé Danann arrived in Ireland in May, as did the followers of Míde, after whom the County of Meath is named. They were known as the Nemedians.
Upon setting foot on Irish shores on Bealtaine, Míde headed staight to the center of Ireland to the Hill of Uisneach, which is often called the navel of Ireland.
There he immediately built a huge fire on the hill. He claimed the surrounding land as his, and kept his Bealtaine fire ablaze for seven years.
This tradition of lighting a fire on the Hill of Uisneach was kept alive for centuries and other bonfires would then be lit on the surrounding hilltops.
Archaeological evidence of huge bonfires and animal bones have been found at the Hill of Uisneach. This may be a sign of great feasting on the hill or perhaps the cattle bones hold some ritual significance.
The Hill of Uisneach and the surrounding area has numerous cairns and monuments dating back five thousand years. It also lies along the ancient road to Tara.
Legend has it that the Bealtaine fire on Tara was only lit after seeing the flames of the fire of Uisneach glowing in the distance.
Uisneach is also mentioned in the myths and legends of Ireland especially those featuring Fionn Mac Cumhaill (Finn MacCool), St. Patrick, and the mythic figures of Dagda and Lugh.
Beltany Stone Circle
The name Beltany, by which this stone circle is known, is derived from the word Bealtaine. It is believed that this site was associated with this Celtic Festival. The only decorated stone in the circle is aligned with the May Day sun as it rises over the hill of Tullyrap.
Is Bealtaine Celebrated In Modern Ireland?
In the 20th century the traditions associated with Bealtaine began to fade away in Ireland. However, in recent years people have taken an interest in reviving these ancient traditions.
In 2017, on the eve of May Day, President Michael D. Higgins of Ireland lit a Bealtaine fire on the Hill of Uisneach. He may be the first Irish leader since the last High King of Ireland, Rory O’Connor, to light this ceremonial fire, after a gap of nearly one thousand years.
In Dingle in County Kerry a storytelling and music festival is held called Féile na Bealtaine. Unfortunately, this festival needed to be canceled this year, 2020.
In Scotland the city of Edinburgh has revived the celebration of Beltane by lighting a fire on Calton Hill which overlooks the city.
The first weekend in May is also a long weekend or bank holiday weekend in Ireland, which is a modern day acknowledgement of the importance of Bealtaine in our Celtic history.
May our fortunes take a turn for the better, as we enter the Celtic season of light and good luck.
Happy Bealtaine to all.
Slán agus beannacht,
(Goodbye and blessings)
Mairéad –Irish American Mom
Pronunciation – slawn ah-gus ban-ock-th
Mairéad – rhymes with parade
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