Lá Bealtaine is the festival marking the beginning of summer and celebrated along with three other seasons – Imbolc (beginning of spring) and Lughnasadh (beginning of the harvest), and Samhain (beginning of winter).
What is Bealtaine?
Bealtaine is old Irish that translates to bright fire with the anglicised name being Beltane. Many believe it was an ancient pagan festival celebrated by the Celts on May Day. They would perform many rituals, hold feasts, and light fires to celebrate birth and fertility. These celebrations could be true but in Ireland we’ve very little evidence to support this. For the purpose of this article we’ll rely on old texts to see that Bealtaine did exist in some form or another.
Bealtaine (or Belltaine) appears in a 9/10th century Irish glossary apparently written by the King of Munster/Bishop of Cashel, Cormac úa Cuilennáin.
First written in Irish:
Belltaine .i. bil tene .i. tene shoinmech .i. dáthene dognítis
druidhe triathaircedlu (no cotinchetlaib) móraib combertis
nacethrai arthedmannaib cacha bliadna cusnaténdtibsin
[l]eictis nacethra etarru.
Cormac’s glossary was translated in the 19th century by John O’Donovan who wrote:
BELLTAINE ‘May-day’ i.e. bil-tene i.e. lucky fire, i.e. two fires which Druids used to make with great incantations, and they used to bring the cattle [as a safeguard] against the diseases of each year to those fires [in marg.] they used to drive the cattle between them.
Comparing the two we can see the originally text never contained ‘May-Day’ and it was added by O’Donovan as part of the translation. A footnote added by the editor refers to an eleventh century Psalter called the Southampton Psalter, Insular illuminated Psalter from Ireland. Is this where Beltaine as a May Day celebration originates?
In the in the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology Bealtaine is mentioned in the tale Tochmarc Emire (“The Wooing of Emer”) recorded in Lebor na hUidre (the Book of the Dun Cow ), compiled approximately 1050 A.D. Its believed this story may have been first written down by Irish monks in sixth century to preserve national literature but most collections had been destroyed by invading Vikings.
In the Wooing of Emer it states:
Bend Suain, son of Rosc Mele, which she said this is the same thing, viz., that I shall fight without harm to myself from Samuin, i.e., the end of summer. For two divisions were formerly on the year, viz., summer from Beltaine (the first of May), and winter from Samuin to Beltaine.
The bonfires of Bealtaine
Foras Feasa ar Éirinn (The History of Ireland) written by Geoffrey Keating, a 17th-century historian, mentions the Convention of Uisneach held at Bealltaine.
The men of Ireland would hold meetings to exchange goods and valuables but also offer sacrifice to the chief god called Beil. They would light two fires in every district in Ireland in honour of Beil then drive the weaklings of each species of cattle between the fires to shield them from all disease during the year.
Uisneach, or the hill of Uisneach, is in Co. Westmeath. Its an ancient ceremonial site and the symbolic centre of the land in Irish mythology. Today its still regarded as a site with great historical importance.
Beltany Stone Circle
Located beside the town of Raphoe in Co Donegal is Beltany Stone Circle, build in the later Bronze Age period. The Stone Circle has a diameter of 145ft and is made up of 64 large standing stones enclosing a low earth platform. On the north-east side of the circle, one of the stones is decorated with cup-marks that face into the inner circle. This stone, the only decorated stone in the circle, aligns with the sunrise during Bealtaine.
We don’t know the exact purpose of the Beltany Stone circle. A stone head found within the circle was craved between 400BC – 400AD indicating the monument was in use for centuries.
Bealtaine celebrated in Ireland today
Many people today follow Bealtaine celebrations along with old Irish May Day customs we mentioned in our other article. The festival of Bealtaine is making a comeback in Ireland with the Bealtaine Fire at Uisneac being lit each year.
Sanas Chormaic. Cormac’s glossary; Royal Irish Academy Ms 23 P 16 (Leabhar Breac)
The Wooing of Emer by Cú Chulainn, translated by CELT ucc.ie
Foras Feasa ar Éirinn (The History of Ireland), Geoffrey Keating (translated text)
First published on May 1, 2017 and last modified on February 15, 2018.