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Bealtaine – Ireland’s Ancient Fire Festival

The first of May has been a traditional festival in many countries for hundreds of years, whether as May Day or the International Workers’ Day. In Irish it is known as Bealtaine, and the festival even lends its name to the whole month: mí na Bealtaine.

But what are the roots of the Irish festival? And which traditions have survived down to modern times?

Quarter days

Bealtaine is, of course, one of the four traditional pre-Christian festivals of Ireland, along with Imbolc (1st February), Lúnasa (1st August) and Samhain (1st November).

Falling about halfway between the spring equinox and midsummer, Bealtaine was considered the beginning of summer, a notion that still persists today in Ireland, unlike many other northern hemisphere countries where June is thought to be the start of summer. An alternative name for Bealtaine was, in fact, céad-shamh, which seems to mean first/start of summer.

Being the start of the summer season then, Bealtaine marked the beginning of agricultural practices associated with that time of year, in particular booleying or buailteachas, when cattle would be driven to summer pastorage, often to the uplands, where the new growth of grass and herbs would feed the animals and the fields closer to home could be turned to other uses.

Click here to find out more about buailteachas.

From dark into night

At a symposium in Limerick in April 2024, Jungian analyst Jim Fitzgerald discussed Celtic consciousness. (Also see our interview on Celtic Myth).

Him spoke about the old view in Ireland that the year didn’t start in light summer, but in the dark.

From that perspective, the year starts in the dark otherworld of Samhain. With the end of winter, we then move into the light, with summer starting with Bealtaine.

So we can see how important it would have been for society to move out of the dark and into the light. This is much like the current day event Darkness Into Light held across Ireland by Pieta.

Between two fires

All the old Gaelic festivals used fire as part of the celebration, but perhaps especially Bealtaine. In fact, one proposed etymology of the word is ‘bright-fire’, based on the word tine.

According to tradition, at Bealtaine cattle would be driven between two bonfires to give them protection before they would be then brought to the booley or buaile for the summer months.

This practice has given us the expression idir dhá thine Bhealtaine, literally ‘between the two fires of Bealtaine’, which means to be caught in a dilemma.

It’s clear that this fire ritual was intended to protect herds from both natural and supernatural dangers, and must have been a very significant event at a time in which the livelihood of the community depended on these farming practices.

Flowers for butter

The other tradition typically associated with Bealtaine is decorating a tree known as the May Bush, or using flowers, especially yellow flowers such as primroses or gorse, to encircle the home. These practices were also deemed to protect from malign influences, such as the fairies, and in many cases milk and butter production were the most valuable things to be protected.

Of course we can read the fears of fairies ‘stealing’ the butter as a pre-scientific way to interpret and deal with more natural biological issues.

We can also feel that these narratives they told would have shaped the year and marked the passing of time much in the same way that very modern aspects of culture.

Take for example the Oscars or whichever sports competitions are popular where you live, play a big part in influencing modern cultural life.

Another indication of the significance of this festival can be seen in this quote from the great folklore collector Seán Ó Súilleabháin:

‘To judge by the hundreds of customs and beliefs which were associated with May Day, it must have been the most important festival in ancient Ireland.’

Early sources

References to bonfires and booleying can be found in relatively recent historical accounts and folklore collections such as Dúchas, but the festival does actually much more ancient origins.

The following verse is found in an Old Irish poem:

Atberim frib líth saine
ada buada belltaine
coirm, mecoin, suabais serig
ocus urgruth do tenid

In Modern Irish this would be:

Deirim libh, líth saine
adha buacha Bhealtaine
coirm, meacain, séire suaiseach
agus úrghruth don tine

And Kuno Meyer’s English translation:

I tell to you, a special festival
the glorious dues of May Day
ale, worts, sweet whey
and fresh curds to the fire

Bealtaine in the modern age

It’s probably fair to say that Easter has nudged Bealtaine out of the way as the pre-eminent spring festival, but in Ireland we do have a public holiday for Bealtaine, as we do for all four ancient festivals.

And like those other festivals, there’s been a growing desire to reconnect with our ancient heritage with new forms of the Bealtaine festival. Uisneach is a prehistoric site near the geographical centre of Ireland, which has long been associated with both the ancient gods Tuatha Dé Danann and the festival of Bealtaine, and every year the Bealtaine Fire Festival is held there.

Artist Billy Mag Fhloinn is an another vibrant example. His Pagan Rave is a modern visceral example of reconnecting with strong ancient energy.

Pagan Rave’s sister project is Aeons, another very modern-yet-ancient take on Bealtaine. This is a song by the electronic duo Aeons featuring the singer Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh:

This post is part of our materials relating to Bealtaine. Take the next step in your Irish learning journey with membership of Bitesize Irish, giving you access to self-study lessons, online community and live sessions.

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7 thoughts on “Bealtaine – Ireland’s Ancient Fire Festival”

  1. It’s interesting to see the parallels between Bealtaine and Easter. The liturgical calendar in Christian traditions starts with a fire which is used to light the new year’s candle. I’ve heard that households in Ireland would extinguish the fire in their homes and reignite them with coals from the Bealtaine fire. I’m not sure if that’s accurate though.
    As an Australian, ANZAC Day is the point at which people in the southern states start turning on their heaters. (That’s a tradition for the hard core people who don’t feel the cool change. Some of us start the fire/heater a bit earlier – thanks climate change). We’re feeling the chill here in Canberra so, it’s nice to reflect on Bealtaine and the start of warmer days in Ireland.
    My Irish heritage is buried in five or more generations on both sides of my family. But, I like reconnecting with my ancestors by learning their language and more about what was important in their culture.

  2. I dangle gorse flowers from an upstairs window to honor the tradition of keeping the fairies happy.