Irish May Day (Beltane)

Leggi in italiano

May day is called in Ireland the “na Beal tina” or “the day of the fire of Beal” consecrated to Bel or Belenos. On the eve large fires are lit and the cattle are passed between them – as was the ancient custom of the Celts – custom still conserved in the Irish countryside with the belief that this preserves cows from diseases and from Good People (wee folk).

All hearths were extinguished at sunset and rekindled with the embers of the collective bonfire only the next day (and still today in Ballymenone county of Fermanagh).
The cattle were then taken to the summer pastures, where they remained until Samahin, watching by a buachaill.


Fee74aBeltane is a crucial day in the season (Winter ends and Summer begins) and fairie can more easily make contact with the world of humans. The eve is a day in which you have to pay the most attention, because the fairy people (Good People for the Irish) can be very spiteful and even the malefics are more effective. So no Irish woman would ever taking her newborn for a walk outside so as not to risk finding a challenger in return. In particular, youth and beauty can arouse the envy of fairies and therefore even the beautiful girls are indoors.
In general it is popular belief that illnesses or injuries occurring on the May Eve are the most difficult to cure. So it is a good idea to always leave the house with an iron amulet around your neck or in your pocket and leave an offer of food to the fairies!


Mummers were typical beggars during the nineteenth century, masked figures equivalent to the English Morris dance. Thomas Crofton Croker in “The Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland” (published in 1825) reports many Irish traditions of May and describes precisely the May Mummers; in short, Croker tells us that during his trip to the south of Ireland he witnessed the May festival, which is the favorite of the Mummers: a group of girls and boys from the village or neighborhood who march in procession in a row for two, the men are dressed in white with brightly colored jackets or waistcoats and carry colored ribbons on their hats and on their sleeves and even the women are dressed in white or in light colors. A pair of girls carries a holly bush for each, decorated with many colored ribbons with hanging many new hurling balls (a popular sport that begins in May), a May gift for young people in the village. The procession is preceded by musicians, bagpipes or pipes and drums. There is a clown wearing a scary mask and bearing a long pole with scraps of fabric on top (like a broom) that plunges into the water and shakes it around the crowd to keep the little ones entertained.
The masks parade through the villages or go from house to house dancing to receive money and spend the evening with a cheerful and colossal drink.

The Procession of the May Queen Herbert Wilson Foster (1846–1929)


May Pole and the dances around the pole are quite common in Ireland, Holywood town in Northern Ireland is famous for its May tree erected in the middle of a crossroads: according to local tradition it dates back to 1700 (taken from the mast of a ship) and is still a place for dances to the annual May festival.

Holywood Pole

But the most typical custom is to cut a branch of hawthorn (or rowan) and plant it next to the door or put it on outside the door, making a garland with yellow flowers (primroses, marigolds and buttercups) and colored ribbons.
From this tradition was born the May basket crafted by the childrenand and filled with fresh flowers, to be left – secretly – next to the door of the neighbors or beloved one. With this auspicious token, the inhabitants are protected from fairies, because fairies cannot overcome these flowered barriers.


The herbs harvested before sunrise in May Day have better healing properties especially to treat warts. When butter production was a homemade churning process, the first butter produced with milk from May Day was considered the best to prepare ointments.

Another custom of the eve was a good whipping with nettles and the children went around running with a bunch of nettles to hit the comrades or the unfortunate bystanders; their task was to collect the shoots of nettles to bring home to the kitchen pantry. Known as a purifying and detoxifying herb since ancient times, nettle was in fact used in the preparation of soups and the Irish rural tradition recommended eating nettles in May to treat or prevent rheumatism. Even in ancient Rome it was recommended to those who suffered from rheumatism or rheumatoid arthritis to roll in the nettle. see more

Nettles once rivaled linen and hemp as weaving fiber, for sails, clothes and household linen.



Mummers sono uomini (e donne) travestiti e camuffati, che nascondono il volto dietro veli e teli con il buco per gli occhi e la bocca, simili a spettri, e che un tempo, in certi particolari giorni dell’anno, andavano a visitare i loro vicini di casa in casa, cantando e ballando e facendo confusione. (vedi introduzione)


Un’usanza solstiziale che richiama certe tradizioni celtiche di Samain (vedi) è quella dell’house visiting  tipica del Mumming Natalizio diffusa un tempo nelle Isole Britanniche e anche nei paesi con una forte immigrazione irlandese e scozzese.
mummer-songLa tradizione che andava scomparendo a Terranova è stata documentata nientemeno che con una canzone scritta nel 1973 da Bud Davidge del gruppo Simani, dal titoloThe Mummer’s song (illustrata da Ian Wallace ).
Oggi il Mumming Natalizio si è trasformato in una sorta di parata carnevalesca per le strade, mentre un tempo era una house-visiting cioè un giro casa per casa dei mummers che venivano accolti nella stanza più calda (di solito la cucina) e rifocillati con bevande.
Travestiti in modo stravagante ed estemporaneo (con grottesche imbottiture per deformare la corporatura, con gli indumenti che in genere si portano sotto i vestiti portati invece sopra – reggiseni mutandoni del nonno e calzamaglia, con i volti incappucciati o velati o anneriti) “le maschere” portavano lo scompiglio e un po’ di paura, soprattutto perchè era difficile riconoscere in quei travestimenti, il vicino della porta accanto: uno suonava il violino e un altro l’organetto e avrebbero danzato per un po’ con gli abitanti della casa per portare il buonumore.


ASCOLTA Great Big Sea inizia direttamente con le strofe

Don’t seem like Christmas if the Mummers are not here,
Granny would say as she’d knit in her chair;
Things have gone modern and I s’pose that’s the cause,
Christmas is not like it was.
(Knock, knock, knock, knock)
Please open the door. We have…
Hark, what’s the noise out by the porch door?
(dear) Granny, ‘tis Mummers, there’s twenty or more.
Her old weathered face brightens up with a grin,
“Any Mummers, nice Mummers ‘lowed in?”
Come in, lovely Mummers, don’t bother the snow,
We can wipe up the water sure after you go;
Sit if you can or on some Mummer’s knee,
Let’s see if we know who ya be.
Ah, there’s big ones and small ones, and tall ones and thin,
(There’s) boys dressed as women and girls dressed as men,
(With) humps on their backs and mitts on their feet,
My blessed, we’ll die with the heat.
(Well), there’s only one there that I think that I know,
That tall fellow standing alongside the stove;
He’s shaking his fist for to make me not tell,
Must be Willy from out on the hill.
Oh, but that one’s a stranger, if ever was one,
With his underwear stuffed and his trapdoor undone (1);
Is he wearing his mother’s big forty-two bra?
I knows, but I’m not going to say.
I s’pose you fine mummers would turn down a drop
Of home brew or alky, whatever you got?
Not the one with his rubber boots on the wrong feet,
He’s enough for to do him a week.(2)
Well I ‘spose you can dance? Yeah, they all nod their heads,
They’ve been tapping their feet ever since they came in;
And now that the drinks have been all passed around,
the mummers are plankin’ her down (3).
Ah, be careful the lamp! Now hold on to the stove,
Don’t you swing Granny hard, ‘cause you know that she’s old;
No need for to care how you buckles the floor (4),
‘Cause the mummers have danced here before.
Oh, my God, how hot is it? We better go,(5)
I allow that we’ll all get the devil’s own cold;
Good night and good Christmas, mummers me dear,
Please God, we will see you next year.
Traduzione italiano di Cattia Salto

“Non sembra Natale se non arrivano le Maschere- direbbe la Nonnina mentre sferruzza sulla sua sedia – i tempi sono diventati moderni e credo che sia questo il motivo,
per cui il Natale non è com’era”
Toc, Toc, Toc, Toc, 
“Aprite la porta per favore abbiamo…”
Ascolta, che rumore viene dalla porta del portico?
“Cara Nonnina, ecco le Maschere, sono una ventina o più.”
La sua faccia segnata dalle rughe si illumina con un sorriso
“Dei Mummers, bei Mummers possiamo entrare?”
“Ah venite cari mummers, non badate alla neve, asciugheremo l’acqua dopo che ve ne sarete andati;
sedetevi dove potete oppure sulle ginocchia di qualche altra Maschera.
Cercheremo di indovinare chi siete.”
Ah ce ne sono di grandi e di piccoli
di alti e di magri,
ci sono uomini vestiti da donna e ragazze vestite da uomini,
con gobbe sulla schiena e muffole ai piedi
“Benedetto me, scoppieremo dal caldo!!”.
“Beh ce n’è soltanto uno che credo di conoscere,
quel tipo alto che sta accanto alla stufa;
sta agitando il pugno per non farmelo dire,
potrebbe essere Willy che viene dalla collina.”
“Oh ma quell’altro è uno straniero, se mai ce ne fosse uno, con la biancheria imbottita e la patta sul didietro aperta(1), indossa il grosso reggiseno taglia 42 della madre!
Lo conosco, ma non dirò chi è”
“Immagino che voi bei mummers gradiate un goccetto
di birra fatta in casa o del distillato, ne volete?”
“Non quello con gli stivali di gomma nel piede sbagliato, ha fatto il pieno per tutta la settimana”(2)
“Immagino che voi sappiate danzare?” Si – tutti annuiscono
hanno battuto il tempo con il piede sin da quando sono arrivati,
e ora che è stato fatto girare il bere,
di certo i mummers ci daranno dentro (3).
Attenti alla lampada! Adesso tenetevi alla stufa!
Non fate girare la nonnina in fretta, perché sapete che è anziana;
e non badate se rigate il pavimento (4)
perché i mummers hanno danzato qui da prima.
“Oh mio Dio ma quanto caldo fa? E’ meglio se andiamo (5)”
“Suppongo che abbiamo tutti il sangue freddo come il diavolo”
“Buona Notte e Buon Natale,
miei cari mummers
a Dio piacendo, vi vedremo il prossimo anno”

1) letteralmente botola si riferisce ad uno sbrago nei pantaloni sul didietro
2) i Great Big Sea dicono invece
Sure, the one with his rubber boots on the wrong feet
Ate enough for to do him all week.
3) letteralmente “la spalmeranno a terra” nel senso che la danza diventerà sempre più frenetica
4) i Great Big Sea dicono: And never you mind how you buckle the floor
5) i Great Big Sea dicono: We’ll never know

FIGGY DUFF with no Figgy Pudding

“Tarry Trousers” l’esibizione-concerto dei Figgy Duff per natale con musica e mummers

il concerto completo qui