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Happy Bealtaine! Summer is here?

The weather might not agree yet*, but Lá Bealtaine is the beginning of summer in Ireland’s ancient Celtic calendar.

It’s also the beginning of the countdown to launching a new horror story, Blood Point. Sign up to my newsletter for exclusive previews.

Sandwiched between the spring equinox and summer solstice, Bealtaine, or “bright fire”, is one of the four fire festivals. Lughnasadh celebrates the harvest, Samhain the arrival of winter and Imbolc the start of spring.

Feasting begins on May 1st but it can last all through the month, which shares its name with the festival.

(* I’ve just put on an extra layer but it was shorts and sunglasses yesterday. The joys of Irish weather.)

Bealtaine rituals

Householders doused their fires at dawn and relit them from the Bealtaine bonfire at night. People performed rituals to protect cattle, crops and families from those mischievous sprites, the Aos Sí. As with all of the fire festivals, it’s a night when the sí are free to venture above the Earth.

These included running and driving cattle between two fires or torches, tying yellow ribbons to cow’s tails and milk pails, and decorating houses with yellow May flowers. These include primrose, rowan, hawthorn, gorse, hazel, and marsh marigold. Lone rowan and hawthorns are often found in fairy forts and this is one of the few times when it’s acceptable to cut them.

Cattle might be taken to a fairy fort, a small amount of their blood collected and poured an offering. Farmers would lead a procession around the boundaries of their farm to protect their produce and encourage fertility. Three black coals placed under a butter churn will ward off the sí from stealing the butter.

Above all, you don’t give milk, butter or other produce on Bealtaine and the other fire festivals. It might enable your neighbour to steal them for the rest of the year!

hawthorn blossoms in spring
Hawthorns are often associated with Ireland’s fairies, the Sí.

Good looks and great whiskers

The water and dew of Bealtaine were thought to be filled with good luck. People vied to collect the first water from the well and collect dew from the grass and flowers.

Maidens would roll in the dew at sunrise and wash their faces in Bealtaine dew to protect their skin. A man who washed in the Bealtaine water would grow long whiskers!

But it was not a day for births — people and livestock — or marriages, all of which were thought to be ill-fated.

The hill of Uisneach in County Westmeath was a site of fire festival celebrations in pagan Ireland. It’s also said to be the place where the Tuatha Dé Danann entered the underworld. There they became the Aos Sí after they lost Ireland to the invading Celts.

Today, it’s the site of Ireland’s largest Bealtaine celebrations.

Kinnitty Pyramid, a black stone mausoleum in rural Ireland

Encounter the Sí in Blood Point

Blood Point is my new horror story, inspired by Irish folklore and a peculiar landmark in County Offaly: the Kinnitty Pyramid.

I will be publishing extracts from Blood Point in my newsletter over the summer months, beginning in May. To ensure they land in your inbox, subscribe using the form below.

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