An ancient Gaelic festival, Bealtaine was celebrated in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. For the Celts, Beltane marked the beginning of the pastoral summer season when the herds of livestock were driven out to the summer pastures and mountain grazing lands.
There were similar festivals held at the same time in the other Celtic countries of Wales, Brittany and Cornwall. Bealtaine and Samhain were the leading terminal dates of the civil year in Ireland, though the latter festival was the more important. In Irish mythology, the beginning of the summer season for the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Milesians started at Bealtaine. Great bonfires would mark a time of purification and transition, heralding in the season in the hope of a good harvest later in the year, and were accompanied with ritual acts to protect the people from any harm by Otherworldly spirits, such as the Aos Sí. Like the festival of Samhain, opposite Beltane on October 31, Beltane was also a time when the Otherworld was seen as particularly close at hand.
Early Gaelic sources from around the 10th century state that the druids would create a need-fire on top of a hill on this day, and drive the village’s cattle through the fires to purify them and bring luck (Eadar dà theine Bhealltainn in Scottish Gaelic, ‘Between two fires of Beltane’). This term is also found in Irish and is used as a turn of phrase to describe a situation which is difficult to escape from. In Scotland, boughs of juniper were sometimes thrown on the fires to add an additional element of purification and blessing to the smoke. People would also pass between the two fires to purify themselves. This was echoed throughout history after Christianization, with lay people instead of druid priests creating the need-fire.
In ancient Ireland, the main Bealtaine fire was held on the central hill of Uisneach ‘the navel of Ireland’, one of the ritual centers of the country, which is located in what is now County Westmeath. In Ireland, the lighting of bonfires on Oidhche Bhealtaine seems only to have survived to the present day in County Limerick, especially in Limerick itself, as their yearly bonfire night and in County Wicklow in Arklow, though some cultural groups have expressed an interest in reviving the custom at Uisneach and perhaps at the Hill of Tara. The lighting of a community Bealtaine fire from which individual hearth fires are then relit is also observed in modern times in some parts of the Celtic diaspora and by some Neopagan groups, though in the majority of these cases this practice is a cultural revival rather than an unbroken survival of the ancient tradition.
Place names in Ireland which contain remnants of the word ‘Bealtaine’ include a number of places called ‘Beltany’ – indicating places where Bealtaine festivities were once held. There are two Beltanys in County Donegal: one near Raphoe and the other in the parish of Tulloghobegly. Two others are located in County Tyrone, one near Clogher and the other in the parish of Cappagh. In the parish of Kilmore, County Armagh, there is a place called Tamnaghvelton/Tamhnach Bhealtaine (‘field of the Bealtaine festivities’). Lisbalting/Lios Bealtaine (‘fort or enclosure of Bealtaine’) is located in Kilcash Parish, County Tipperary. Glasheennabaultina (‘the Bealtaine stream’) is the name of a stream joining the River Galey near Athea, County Limerick.
Another common aspect of the festival which survived up until the early 20th century in Ireland was the hanging of May Boughs on the doors and windows of houses and the erection of May Bushes in farmyards, which usually consisted either of a branch of rowan/caorthann (mountain ash) or more commonly whitethorn/sceach geal (hawthorn), which is in bloom at the time and is commonly called the ‘May Bush’ or just ‘May’ in Hiberno-English. Furze/aiteann was also used for the May Boughs, May Bushes and as fuel for the bonfire. The practice of decorating the May Bush or Dos Bhealtaine with flowers, ribbons, garlands and colored egg shells has survived to some extent among the diaspora as well, most notably in Newfoundland, and in some Easter traditions observed on the East Coast of the United States.