May Flowers were picked on the evening before May Day and this was often done by children who went garlanding for flowers. These were sometimes assembled together to make posies or crowns. Yellow flowers, such as primroses, buttercups and marigolds were especially popular, possibly as they reflected the sun and summer. Furze and ferns were also put around the outside of the home.
Kiltullagh, Co. Galway
The flowers were placed on the doorsteps of houses and on windowsills. They were believed to offer luck to the house and offer protection from mystical forces - there was a strongly held belief that these were particularly active around the quarterly days.
It was believed that the fairies could not enter the home as they could not pass such sweet smelling flowers.
They were often put on farm animals so as to protect them from being ‘overlooked’ by people with the evil eye, who might through envy, steal the productivity of the animals.
The tradition of spreading flowers at thresholds was most common in the northern half of Ireland, especially south Ulster. Throughout Ireland, there is a strong tradition of formally showing welcome, through the spreading of rushes.
Children often carried baskets of flowers and strew them in front of their neighbours’ homes as a gesture of goodwill and good luck.
Sometimes May flowers were placed in the local well so as protect the water supply and the livelihood of those who used it. The stealing or skimming of water from the well or dew from the fields of a neighbour, by those with evil intentions, was believed to result in a lack of produce achieved by the household or the community. Water or fire was generally never asked for or taken from the home on May Eve or May Day so as to retain the luck of the house.
Mayflower water taken from the well on May Day was said to offer protection and cures. This water and May morning dew was believed to be good for the complexion.
I wash my face in water that has never rained nor run and dry it in a towel that was never wove on spun.
[A face washed in May dew and dried in the open air]
‘Never cast a clout until May is out’ is an expression warning of not shedding too many winter layers until the end of the month of May.
Herbs gathered before sunrise on May Day were believed to have particularly effective curative properties.
The Flowers were also used for crowning the May Queen. The tradition of selecting a Queen of May is found throughout Europe and may have associations with the ancient Roman Goddess, Flora.
Like the May Poles, this tradition was more popular in large towns. It was often accompanied by a procession and sports and festivities. In some parts of Ulster, a King was chosen, along with the Queen. Sometimes, there was a bush carried in the procession, on which there were hurling balls hanging. May Day traditionally marked the start of summer hurling and in Kilkenny, women gifted men with new hurling balls on this day.
Photo: Hair Hurling Ball, Lavally, Co. Sligo. F1975.153
In parts of south Ulster, there was an effigy of a female May Queen carried on a pole in a procession. This was decorated with flowers. There are references to a similar floral decorated May Baby in parts of Monaghan.