The ancient Irish had a keen interest in the movements of the sun. They built incredible passage tombs structured to allow the sun to enter only at the equinoxes. Newgrange with its famous triple spiral, now seen on many Irish gifts, is the most famous of these. A lesser-known ancient circle of standing stones in County Donegal was designed so that on Bealtaine the rising sun shines directly on one particular stone; it is the only carved stone in the circle.
Ireland’s northern latitude means the amount of daylight changes dramatically through the year. The hours of light stretch significantly in the spring. Early May has about four more hours of daylight than early March. That’s always been something to celebrate.
Bealtaine is the ancient May festival of fire. It occurs exactly halfway through the Celtic year, which begins on November 1st. Farming resumed on Bealtaine after the long winter, and it was a hopeful time of year. Fire is a central part of the festival, and people used to drive their cattle between two fires or walk them around a fire. They believed this would protect the animals from harm, and after this, they would to their summer pastures. Farmers also walked the boundaries of grazing land to check the fences and make any needed repairs.
The Bealtaine Fire
Every year on the last night of April a fire was lit in the center of Ireland, the Hill of Uisneach in County Westmeath. (The land’s current owners have revived this tradition in recent years and host a spectacular event.) All across Ireland, people put out the fires in their hearts before the Bealtaine fire was lit at Uisneach. Then they waited. Torches were lit from the fire at Uisneach and carried to the nearest villages where they lit the hearth fires and more torches, which were then carried onward to other villages.
The next morning, people would rise to gather flowers and branches. These were put above the house’s door and on windowsills to protect the family. On this day, no one had guests because they believed that anything taken from the house on Bealtaine could be used to curse the household.
How Bealtaine Evolved
When St. Patrick converted Ireland to Christianity, some pre-Christian traditions were converted along with the people. May became a month devoted to Mary. The tradition of gathering flowers and branches evolved to cutting branches and decorating them. People began to select a May King and May Queen. This might have been a replacement for earlier fertility rituals.
While the pandemic has prevented gatherings, in recent years the Bealtaine fire has been lit at the Hill of Uisneach. The land is privately owned, and the owners have opened it for guided tours and special events – including Bealtaine. It’s also become an organized celebration of older people’s creativity. Since 1995, this festival has been organized to promote engagement with all of the arts among older people with exhibits, performances and workshops.