The month of May was known as Beltaine (bright fire) in Gaelic and the festival on May first was called Lá Bealtaine. In England it became known as Beltane. This was a festival which marked the beginning of the growing season of summer. The Hawthorn tree was coming in to bloom and its blossoms were used to make decor and as crowns for ‘The Queen of The May’ in countries where the May-Pole was a tradition. The garlands were displayed in the home and thought to ward of evil spirits and appease the fairies. These were known as May boughs.
Herds of livestock would be put out to pasture at this time and large fires or ‘Tine’ were lit on hills and mountains, representing light, purification and fertility. Hearth fires were extinguished and people and their cattle would pass between bonfires, as a ritual practice. They would take a flame from the large bonfire and carry it home to re-light their home fire with. This would ring in a new growth season and was thought to bring a bountiful harvest. The most significant of these was at Uisneach (pictured below) in Co. Westmeath, known as ‘the Naval of Ireland’. This was held as one of Ireland’s most sacred sites. The ancient fire festival has seen a resurgence there in recent years.
In Ireland many temporary contracts of marriage took place at Beltaine. Many were betrothed for the period of a year and a day, so as some would be contracts were beginning, others would be coming to an end whilst many would be renewed. Often a ‘Handfasting‘ ritual was used to signify the binding of the couple together. Ribbons, cords or bark strips were used to bind the couples hands together, often leaving them bound for the entire day! When the ribbons were untied this symbolised that only free will kept the union together. This is where we get the expression ‘Tying the Knot’. This is another ritual that is undergoing a massive resurgence today. Here at Marry Me Ireland we are experiencing a huge interest from the Irish Diaspora in all things ancient. Couples often want to combine elements of the folk traditions of the past into their ceremonies, giving a nod to their ancestral past.