Donal Hickey: Welcome to the blooming beautiful flowers of May

Donal Hickey: Welcome to the blooming beautiful flowers of May

You’re as welcome as the flowers in May is an old Irish greeting. So, in these times, it gives the heart a much–needed lift to see wild flowers blooming so beautifully. during bright, sunny days in this loveliest of months.

Some May traditions are continuing. Long ago, our mothers and teachers had us out picking bluebells, buttercups, daisies and cowslips to decorate homes and classrooms. May altars were also quite common and that’s a custom that has survived in some places, with children out picking bunches of flowers.

The fact that many public green spaces and road margins have not been cut back this year means that wild flowers are allowed grow freely to the benefit of bees and other creatures. With schools closed, children have more time for being out and about with their parents and experiencing the natural world.

Some of the May traditions go back to Celtic and pagan times and the early summer festival of Bealtaine. They are still practised, for instance, at an ancient archaeological site known as The City, in the foothills of the Paps Mountains by the Cork/Kerry border.

Yellow flowers like primroses and buttercups and marigolds were especially popular and they reflected the sun and summer. Furze and ferns were also put around the outside of the home.

According to Clodagh Doyle, of the National Museum’s folklore division, the flowers were placed on doorsteps of houses and on windowsills. 

They were thought to bring luck to the house and protection from supernatural or evil forces.

It was believed that the fairies could not enter the home as they could not pass such sweet smelling flowers. 

Flowers were often placed on farm animals so as to protect them from people with the evil eye who might, through envy, steal the fertility of the animals.

A buttercup.
A buttercup.

Children often carried baskets of flowers and scattered 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 livelihoods of those who used it.

May has a time-honoured association with The City, a stone fort in the shadows of the Paps Mountains. On May Day and throughout the month people still visit this place to pray, do ‘rounds’ and invoke blessings for animals and crops. They also take home water from a holy well there.

Its history has been traced back to days of the druids, thousands of years before Christ. By all accounts, modern-day druids and witches are known to go there in May. 

Visitors to The City, near Rathmore, are fewer this year because of Covid-19 travel restrictions, but local people are going there. As ever.

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