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Fire, ferns, and fairies! May Eve festivities around Lisburn

Gorse and ferns - photo

W. A. Green, ‘Gorse and fern “to keep the fairies out”, a May Eve custom’ (© the artist’s estate. Image credit: National Museums NI). It is possible that this was the Bell family of Magheragall, near Lisburn, c. 1914.

May Eve (30 April) used to be a popular festivity in Lisburn and the surrounding rural districts. It was held the day before the Gaelic May Day celebrations on 1 May, known as Beltaine, which marked the peak of spring and the beginning of summer. Each townland had its own customs. These may have included decorating the house with ferns, whins (gorse), or mayflowers to ‘keep the fairies out’, or placing a fork/grape over an air vent in a barn to ‘catch the witches’. Many of these activities were done by children. Most festivities had a bonfire to honour the Celtic god Bel (‘the bright one’), and also to honour the sun so that it would promote the growth of crops.

Recording life in Lisburn in 1835, George Scott of the Ordnance Survey noted:

“On May Eve the children all collect together and amuse themselves with different pastimes. Having been witness of a May Eve in Lisburn, the following is a slight sketch of the children’s amusement. About 400 men and boys collected round the market house at 7 in the evening, when they planted a large decayed tree in the broad part of the street, at the foot of which they made a large bonfire, with fir, turf, sticks etc. They then secured a lighted torch at the top of the tree, which I think was about 30 feet high. This done, a boy got up and remained in the centre of the tree, with a lantern in his hand for 2 hours, bearing the lighted turf etc. thrown at him. The fire could not approach him; he merely did it from bravado. Afterwards they got a Scotch piper in his Highland dress close to the fire, and would not allow him out until he had played a number of tunes. They formed a strong circle round the fire, piper and all. The circle was composed of boys holding one another’s hand, which, when they were extended, reached half a mile. They thus formed in a ring, round and round, bearing sods of turf, lighted and thrown among them, without breaking. They thus continued this amusement until the watchman put a stop to them at 10 o’clock at night, which is the hour he comes to his post.”

In the nearby parish of Lambeg, a slightly different celebration occurred. Thomas Fagan, again of the Ordnance Survey, described in 1837, “It was … a practice on May Eve to have a May bush, which consisted in having a thorn or branch of some other timber decorated with flowers, ribbons and carried about by a large concourse of people who assembled on the occasion, after which procession they enjoyed themselves in dancing, singing and drinking.”

Have you heard any stories about May Eve traditions that used to take place around Lisburn? Contact us.

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