Bealtaine is a significant community festival in Ireland, marking the beginning of summer and the changing of the year. In this article you will discover some of the traditions of this ancient celebration, specifically from the folklore of County Waterford where the Irish Pagan School is based.
The dates on which we generally mark Bealtaine in Ireland are May Eve (30th April) and May Day (1st May). This is one of the Pagan holidays based on the Fire Festivals of Ireland – Imbolg, Bealtaine, Lúnasa, and Samhain. Learn more about Pagan Festivals here.
The Origins of Bealtaine
Bealtaine has its origins in the ancient shift from one half of the year – Winter (Gam) to the Summer (Sam) – marking the end of the winter months with the movement of people and animals. It was a time of great change and celebration, with bonfires, feasting, and rituals to honor the Gods and Goddesses of Ireland.
You’ll read a lot about how Bealtaine was associated with the ancient Celtic god Bel, who was believed to have power over the sun and the crops. The name of this festival is said to mean ‘Bel’s Fire’, but this – along with the very existence of a Sun God named Bel – is being questioned in modern academic circles.
The Online Etymology Dictionary states:
The rubbish about Baal, Bel, Belus imported into the word from the Old Testament and classical antiquity, is outside the scope of scientific etymology.https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=beltane
The name of this festival in Old and Middle Irish is Beltaine or Belltaine, and will occasionally appear recorded as Bealtaine. This is translated as ‘the time of the beginning of summer’, May, the first of May, or May Day.
This probably came from the PIE root *bhel– meaning ‘to shine, flash, burn’, and the Old Irish ten meaning ‘fire’. So, a possible interpretation could be ‘blazing fire’, though in philological circles this is still hotly contested.*
In later language it came to mean ‘the month of the beacon-fire’, and in Modern Irish we still use the name Bealtaine for the entire month of May. The term Beltane does not appear in Old Irish. It may have been a spelling used in Scotland, although this itself was originally Bealltainn, so Beltane wasn’t original there either.
In Neo Paganism the spelling Beltane is being used as an ‘easier’ Anglicised version of Bealtaine. This is wrong, and problematic, on oh so many levels.
If you want to walk an Irish Pagan path, don’t do that.
Bealtaine Folklore in County Waterford
The following is sourced from entries in the National Folklore Archive from Ballyristeen, which is a townland between Kill and Bunmahon in County Waterford. However, these traditions (and many others) were or still are common throughout the island.
May Eve, and the week/s running up to it, were seen as a time to prepare for – and protect against – the potential to be supernaturally robbed or cursed. And if you were, it would last for the whole year. You also had the chance to turn your own luck or bounty for the better.
A week before May Eve people used to put a pot of water out and late on May Eve they would take it in and it would keep away colds for the year.
On May Eve people sprinkle Easter Water on the crops and around the house so as everything would be alright for the year.
As to who was likely to go against you, it could be your own neighbours, or a local witch, Cailleach or hag, who’d be able to take your luck or perform a charm unless you were taking care of your own business:
It wasn’t just people you’d to watch out for though. The ‘Good Neighbours’, the Other Crowd, the Sidhe, or the Fairies – all terms for the same folk – were also a very real danger at this time.
It was said they would be on the move at Bealtaine, and absolutely out for mischief. Counter measures had to be employed, with fire, iron, or red thread and rowan charms, being the most common in use.
The fairies used steal butter on the farmers on May Eve. The farmers put cinders under the churns to frighten the fairies away. If they stole it on the 1st of May they would steal it for the year.
You could turn things for the better for yourself through, if you were an early riser. “On May morning it is said people used to get up early before Sunrise and wash their faces in the dew. This is supposed to give them a good complexion for the year.”
Early bird antics weren’t just for the facially challenged however, because… “the farmers used get up early and go to a well in their farm for a bucket of water to sprinkle on their crops.” Passing the blessed water round their own fields and food to bring themselves good luck and abundance.
To create a potent charm, again with sacred or blessed Bealtaine waters, people would put a crock or jug full of water out on on the window ledge on May morning. Then, “in the middle of the night they would get up and drink three cups of it.”
Source: The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0650, Pages 21/22 (Image and data © National Folklore Collection, UCD).
- Online Class – Seasons and Sacred Cycles: Learn about the mythology, folk traditions and magic around the turning of the year and Pagan Festivals in Ireland.
- Book – The Fairy Faith in Ireland: History, Tradition, and Modern Pagan Practice, by Lora O’Brien.
- Online Course – Bealtaine in Ireland: Learn how we celebrate the Bealtaine Fire Festival in Irish Paganism, with a native Irish Draoí (Druid Priest).
- Bealtaine Ritual and Practice: part of an Online Class Series providing practical rituals for all seasons, as we work through the Fire Festivals Cycle in the Irish Tradition.
*I’m not even sorry for that pun.