Bealtaine Eve, Oíche Bealtaine, and the supernatural prevails.
On May Day, the start of summer, especially in the moments before dawn, water was understood
to possess magical qualities and in rural Ireland the Good People used this medium to meddle in the affairs of humans.
Folk belief was rich in traditions surrounding wells, rivers and dew at this time.
Tobar Geal, Bright / White Well, Co. Galway.
The first water taken from the well after dawn on May Day, known as Barra-bua an tobair ,
sgaith an tobair, ‘the top of the well’ or ‘the luck of the well’, was collected from the surface using
This water, which brought luck to the household, was used as protection against evil intent and
was saved for healing.
Village well, Co. Offaly.
Where a water source was in a village or shared by neighbours there was rivalry
between households to be the first to skim the well for luck after the sun rose on May Day.
So strong was the belief in Other-worldly forces that precautions were taken to protect the water supply from interference.
Village pumps were also defended, especially at dawn on May morning and some were chained
and locked overnight to prevent their use.
People sat guarding the well, salt or holy water was sprinkled around the site or a slip of mountain ash or piece of iron was placed in the water itself.
Flowers collected on Bealtaine Eve were placed in wells to safeguard water and the health
and livelihood of the community. Later in the day May flower water could be taken from the well
for use as a cure and as a means of protection.
for use as a cure and as a means of protection.
However, it was not only the Good People who were believed to be abroad at this time.
Certain individuals who harboured evil intentions would steal well water or dew from fields to appropriate the fertility, luck and prosperity of their neighbours.
The Hag of the Mill - LINK HERE
Those who worked charms were understood to be older women with supernatural powers, gained from invoking
the devil or associating with the Good People.
They obtained assistance from the Otherworld by crawling naked on May morning under an arch of briar then bathed naked in dew.
Water was understood to hold a subtle connection to people and to animals which could be
utilised by fairy and human alike.
Taking water from three different wells on May morning had the power of stealing the butter yield from the neighbours, whilst water taken from a point where 3 farm boundaries or townlands met, uisce na dtrí teorann, ‘water of three mearings’, was especially potent for use in magical workings and setting charms, so these areas were safeguarded.
Drinking place for cattle on the River Barrow.
Watch was often kept overnight at streams which flowed through farmland as the spots where cattle drank were also vulnerable.
Strangers or Otherworld beings, who could approach in the form of wild creatures, were warned off with a shout or a blast from a shotgun.
To avert malign influence neither milk nor cow dung was permitted to fall into streams lest the water be used magically.
Even after milking, hands to be washed elsewhere to avoid drawing unwanted attention to the contaminated water.
Dew was of great value on the first day of summer.
In some places as much as possible would be gathered before sunrise in order to ensure enough money for the rest of the year.
Washing the face or rolling naked in May dew bestowed beauty as well as giving a resistance
to sunburn, freckles, chapping and wrinkling of the skin in the following year.
Dew was collected before sunrise by shaking long grass or herbs into a dish or by placing a clean cloth on the grass and wringing it out when soaked.
The most powerful dew was understood to collect on green corn or wheat.
Dew on May morning was considered most potent and walking barefoot through grass
ensured healthy feet.
The collected dew was transferred into a clear glass bottle then placed on a window sill to stand in the summer sunshine.
During this time any dirt settled at the bottom then the liquid was decanted.
This process was carried out several times as the action of ‘sunbeams’ on the dew itself was considered purifying and increased its’ potency.
By the end of summer the dew would look ‘whitish’ and could be kept for a year or two as a
medicine to cure headaches, skin ailments and sore eyes.
Dew was at its’ most potent when used before sunrise on May Day especially when it was employed in the working
of malevolent magic.
‘Stealing the butter’, increasing your butter yield at others’ expense, was accomplished by gathering dew from a neighbours’ field where their cows grazed whilst repeating a charm.
“Come butter come!
Come butter come!
Every lump as big as my bum!”
Today many May Day water customs have long been forgotten but the practice of washing the face in May dew continues.
Where did this reverence for dew originate?
The late folklorist Dáithí Ó hÓgáin wrote of a source of wisdom employed by the druid-poets which describes the action of sun on dew resulting in inspiration.
“imbas gréine, … defined in early literature as ‘bubbles which the sun impregnates on herbs,
and whoever consumes them gains poet-craft.
This is a reference to dew.”
Ó hÓgáin goes on to say:
“Elsewhere there are highly significant references to druchtu Déa, (dew of a goddess),
which in early poetic rhetoric was a kenning for the all-important
ith ocus blicht (‘corn and milk’). ”
The land-goddess is fertilised by the sun, her body produces dew and the corn and milk which are essential for the nourishment for the community.
As Ó hÓgáin theorised this may be an early understanding of agriculture and the partaking of dew an element in druidic ritual during summer.
At dawn tomorrow, when you wash your face in the dew, beware,
you may be taking part in a tradition that stretches back further than you imagine.