How The Celts Celebrated The Start Of Summer

The month of May, or as we call it in Irish "Bealtaine" (pronounced "ba-yowl tanna") heralds the start of our Irish Summer.

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How The Celts Celebrated The Start Of Summer

This is Carina here with today’s letter from Ireland. The sun is finally beginning to peep out and our famous green grass has started to sprout. We are now moving into a new season. The month of May, or as we call it in Irish “Bealtaine” (pronounced “ba-yowl tanna”) heralds the start of our Irish Summer.

This past spring has been tough on the farms of Ireland. Our cold winter was followed by an even wetter spring. This has left our land sodden, animals have been confined to the barns and animal food has been in short supply.

However, just this week I think we all feel a change in the season. “Bealtaine” has finally arrived. Time to celebrate but have you ever wondered how our ancestors celebrated the start of summer and the month of Bealtaine/May?


What did the Celts get up to I wonder? Long ago in Ireland, the Celts celebrated each season with a big festival. They celebrated the true coming of the light of summer with a Festival of Fire.

Ireland has been a pastoral land for thousands of years and Bealtaine was historically the time of the year when the cattle were driven out to summer pastures.

With this great movement of people’s livelihood came a whole set of rituals to safeguard the cattle, crops and people. There was a tradition of lighting two bonfires and then driving the cattle between those two fires to signify a ritual of cleansing. In the meantime, all the house fires across the land were put out and then re-lit from these local bonfires.

As you might expect these rituals were accompanied by much feasting and celebrating. It seems that we’ve always loved the optimism of early summer.

I grew up about eight miles west of Cork City surrounded by peaceful countryside. One of my first memories was being on a homemade swing attached to a giant horse chestnut tree in our garden.

The horse chestnut bloomed in May – magnificent with it’s candle-like blooms – and the sight of it lingers in my memory to this day. Another memory that comes back to me is the sweet smell from the white blossoms of the hawthorn tree. As children we were told many stories about the hawthorn tree that lent it a mystical air.

You see, a single hawthorn tree is regarded as a fairy tree and we were warned not to damage it as that would risk the wrath of the fairies. During Bealtaine, we knew that the fairies were especially active. Even today in some parts of the country you’ll come across these hawthorn trees decorated with bright ribbons, shells and flowers. These offerings were in honour of the fairy tree and to invoke the blessings of fertility for land, livestock, and human folk.

A final memory of mine is setting up an altar in our home with jars of bluebells to honour the Virgin Mary. My Auntie Ann always had a May altar and so I continued this tradition in our own home.

As a little girl growing up in County Cork, these were my impressions of Bealtaine. Little did I realise that the time honoured rituals that I was following were a mixture of both my Celtic and Christian past. Do you have any memories like these yourself?

I wish you a very happy “Bealtaine” and may the light of hope and optimism come into the life of you and all of your family.
Until next week,
Slán, Carina.

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