May Day, on May 1st, is celebrated throughout the northern hemisphere as the first day of summer. In Ireland the roots of the festival lie in ancient Celtic rituals held at the turning point between the seasons of Imbolc and Bealtaine.
Here in Corca Dhuibhne May brings a new awareness of the garden. Each day, from first light, the air rings with birdsong. Nesting crows creak past overhead. Bees hum on blossoms and tiny, blood-red fuchsia buds shine against deep green foliage. One year behind the old byre I found flowers on a pear tree which, two years previously, we'd liberated from a supermarket. It had been a sad, dry stick with its roots wrapped in plastic. Now each year , as the sap rises, it promises baked fruit puddings flavoured with ginger and honey.
The word Bealtaine (Pronounced something like 'Bee-owl-tin-neh'), said to come from Bel Tine which means 'Bel Fire', is the Irish language word for the month of May. Bel was one of the names of the Celtic sun god whose power was symbolised by fire. Ritual re-enactments of his marriage to the fertility goddess Danú were believed to promote the sunshine and rainfall required for crops to thrive.
In Ireland, as imagery merged across milennia, the blossom which once symbolised Danú's fertility became a symbol, on May altars, of the Virgin Mary's purity.
The Celts' fertility goddess had three aspects, encompassing potential, fulfilment and death. She was the Maiden, the Mother and the Crone, an image of an optimistic world view which saw ageing as a vital stage in a cycle in which death leads to rebirth as inevitably as winter leads to spring.
In rural Ireland, within living memory, it was a May custom for girls to carry a doll, or bábóg (baw-bogue), decked in lace and flowers from door to door, singing to welcome the summer. It's a ritual as ancient as the worship of Danú, whom the bábóg originally represented. Schoolchildren here in Corca Dhuibhne sing the same song today.