May Day - Traditional Customs in Ireland

Seasonal transitions

May Day, the first day of the month of May, is one of the quarterly days in the traditional Irish calendar. Each of these quarterly days indicates the start of a new season. Spring is marked by 1 February (St Brigid’s Day), autumn by 1 August (Lúnasa) and winter by 1 November (Samhain). There were also folk customs associated with the eves of these festivals marking the seasonal transition.

As in much of northern Europe, May Day in Ireland, was a celebration and welcome of the summer. Here, it is rooted in the pre-Christian festival of Bealtaine.

Bealtaine embraces the summer, bidding farewell to the dark winter half of the year. Flowers, dancing, and bonfires featured strongly in the festivities. People also sought protection for themselves, their homes and livestock against supernatural forces.

May Day was regarded as the symbolic start of a busy season of farm work. People worked in the fields focusing on the care of animals and their movement to different pastures. There was also an emphasis on fishing for example for salmon.

It was a busy time for markets and marts in order to sell animals and at this time seasonal labourers were hired.

The important job of cutting turf in the bogs also started in earnest around May Day.

Traditionally on the 1 May and the 1 November, tenant farmers paid their half-yearly rents to landlords – these were known as ‘Gale Days’. People also took stock of their food supply that had to sustain them until the crops could be harvested later in the year.


May Bushes, May Flowers, May Boughs, May Poles and May Bonfires are May Day traditions, which are all associated with luck and protection.

May Day in Ireland was a festival to welcome the summer and to protect the family and livelihood of the farm from supernatural forces.
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