My May bush this year, a fallen branch.
Yesterday was Oíche Bealtaine, May Eve, and last night the fairy forts opened and the Good People
travelled across the land.
At Bealtaine and Samhain They are at their most powerful and in the past people would put up a May Bush near the front door to protect their homes from the travelling Daoine Sídhe.
Recent May bushes in the Slieve Bloom mountains.
The bush itself consisted of a green branch of hawthorn or other tree stuck into the ground or tied to a pole and set in front of the homeplace.
As well as providing protection against Otherworldly attention, the bush was also believed to also ensure an abundant milk supply all summer long.
In some rural areas it was placed in the middle of a field and when night fell, set alight,
in other places branches from the bush were thrown amongst the crops to guarantee a good harvest.
Here in Co. Laois slips of whitethorn were blessed with holy water and stuck into the earth in
fields to prevent the Good People from harming the new crops.
The May Bush tradition was particularly strong in Co. Wexford where it was stuck on top of the
dung heap used to fertilise produce.
Hawthorn branch with traditional decorations.
The May Bush was decorated by adults and children with traditional trimmings consisting of ribbons, coloured egg shells, bunches of yellow flowers and strips of coloured paper.
Photo courtesy of Michael Fortune.
The practice of decorating the bush is considered by some to be a survival of an ancient Bealtaine tradition welcoming the summer whilst others believed differently:
Peggy Doyle, Co. Wexford. Taken from James Lawlor, Irish National Folklore Collection.
May bushes were also customary in towns and cities.
In Dublin it was recorded that rival gangs from north and south of the River Liffey would vie
to exhibit “the best dressed and handsomest May bush”.
May Bush, Co. Westmeath 1964, National Folklore Commission.
In town and country alike there was often a community May bush, placed on common land or
at the crossroads and as darkness fell stumps of candles or small rush lights were lit around the May bush as people danced to traditional music.
These bushes were frequently guarded overnight by locals in order to protect them from being stolen by outsiders whom, it was believed, would steal the year’s luck from its rightful owners.
In some areas the bush was left in position until the end of May,
in others until the decorations had crumbled and the bush itself was burned.
The importance of the May bush and its’ accompanying celebrations declined over time, especially in towns when, in the 18th century, authorities enacted a number of British laws forbidding their erection on public roads or near houses.
Those who continued the tradition were heavily fined.
May bushes in the Irish Midlands.
Recent years have seen the May bush return to Irish homes and communities as the tradition
is revived and the start of summer is celebrated once more.
Poster courtesy of Michael Fortune & Aileen Lambert.
Bealtaine ‘May Bush’ Festival at Kinnitty Castle, Co. Offaly, 2014.
Yesterday I put up my own May bush and as the sun set it stood guarding my home.
Later as I slept I’m sure its’ ribbons danced in the darkness as the Fairy Host passed by.
This short film was made by the pupils from St. Ibars NS, Castlebridge, Co. Wexford during
a two-day visit to the school by Heritage Council Expert, Michael Fortune.
You can read about another May Eve tradition ‘Welcoming the Summer with flowers’ here: