More May Day traditions...

From May bushes to May poles

By Mike Rendell

Ireland had many other May Day traditions besides collecting the morning dew, including cutting down a thorn-bush and putting it up outside your house and decorating it with ribbons. Another custom was to keep the brightly coloured egg-shells left over from Easter, and then string them together as a loop to hang around the May tree. But tree-rustling, and rivalry between different gangs of trade apprentices, was such a problem that a law was passed in the reign of George III (1775) stating that “every person who shall put up any Maybush opposite or near to his or her house or suffer any Maybush to be so put up or to remain for the space of three hours opposite or near to his or her own house…not being a person lawfully possessed of trees or woods or not having lawfully obtained the same … shall forfeit and pay such sum not exceeding forty shillings.” (Two pounds – the equivalent today of perhaps 200 euros).

Photo:Bits of coloured egg shell decorated the May Bush

Bits of coloured egg shell decorated the May Bush

Another  tradition was putting up a Maypole at a crossroads. This tradition spread from England where the tallest pole was reputedly at the Strand in London, near the present St Mary-le-Strand Church. It was erected shortly after the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 (all such practices having been banned under Cromwell’s Protectorate) and was over 130 feet tall. It stood there until a storm blew it down twelve years later. But even this tradition caused our legislators to impose controls (presumably because of the risk of serious injury to road users from collapsing poles): an Act of Parliament dated 1792  was passed to ‘Improve and keep in repair the Post roads of the Kingdom’. Amongst other things it stated that “If any person… shall erect any sign-post or maypole or maybush on any part of the said roads…every person so offending shall forfeit the sum of twenty shillings”

The Irish had a similar tradition of putting up maypoles at cross-roads, but whereas the English seemed content to tie ribbons round the poles and dance around them, the Irish came up with some splendid alternatives. There were two famous crosses in Dublin at Harolds Cross and Finglas, and they would be smothered in soap until slippery.

Photo: Illustrative image for the 'More May Day traditions...' page
A succession of prizes having first been tied to the pole, the young men would then be challenged to climb the slippery pole and claim the prize – a hat, a pair of breeches or an old watch. It was also often an occasion for dancing and carousing, as well as traditional activities such as sack races, gurning (making contorted facial expressions through horse collars), wrestling, chase-the-pig and so on. In Tralee in 1785 an eccentric landowner called Miss Cameron introduced the custom of men racing each other with sacks of coal or flour draped around their necks – a spectacle giving rise to much rejoicing and revelry. Some of the traditions date from the fact that May Day in Ireland was the traditional day for hiring agricultural labourers. It was also the day when rent was due. In some places such as Limerick it was customary for the farm workers to parade through the main streets of the town, complete with  ploughs, scythes and other agricultural implements.

In England many of the celebrations are limited to a specific town or village. Padstow in Cornwall has its hobby horse (or rather, ‘obby-oss’), while many places reckon that May Day is the start of the Morris Dancing season (cue much waving of hankies and banging together of stout poles). Across the country there may be people rushing into the North Sea, or attending festivals, or jumping off bridges! And that is quite apart from those who regard the day as International Workers Day …

Photo: Illustrative image for the 'More May Day traditions...' page
PS If this post feels as if it has an eighteenth century time-warp  to it, it’s because I wrote a book called the Journal of a Georgian Gentleman, based on family diaries, and I now blog almost entirely on aspects of life in the Georgian era. It seems to me that two centuries ago there  were many more traditions which were shared between England and Ireland, even though many have since died out.

If you're already a registered user of this site, please login using the form on the left-hand side of this page.