Butter stealing

May Day was especially associated with butter stealing: the stealing of the butter profit of the home. The cows were safe-guarded through attaching flowers around their heads and sometimes red ribbons or bits of rowan were tied to their tails. This was believed to offer them protection from the malign glance of those with the evil eye.

The churn was especially vulnerable at this time so often similar items or iron objects were placed underneath it.

All those who visited the house at this time were encouraged to take a dash of the churn. They usually accompanied this with a prayer such as ‘God Bless the Work’. Holy water was often sprinkled on the animals, the churn and all objects associated with dairying. Some of the early butter-prints in the National Museum’s Collection reflect this belief and are shaped like an eye. May butter was often kept and used in small quantities to add to the churn and dairy items for good luck and protection.

butter print

Image: Butterprint, Newtownards, Co. Down

“People used make the ‘May Eve Churn’ and the butter of that churn was salted and put away for the coming year. Each night and morning before the milk is put in the pans, the woman got a small piece of butter of the ‘May Eve Churn’ and put it in the pan and then put in new milk. The ‘power’ of this butter prevents the milk and cream from being taken by ‘pishoges’ or any other supernatural power.” Ms. Hannah Daly (22), Annascaul, Co. Kerry, 1941.

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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