On the Fairy Road

An exploration of historic and modern Fairy beliefs, and more generally Irish-American and Celtic folk beliefs, from both an academic and experiential perspective.

  • Home
    Home This is where you can find all the blog posts throughout the site.
  • Tags
    Tags Displays a list of tags that have been used in the blog.
  • Bloggers
    Bloggers Search for your favorite blogger from this site.
  • Login
    Login Login form


Bealtaine is upon us once again, as the round of the year passes in due course. This is always a popular holiday, as people celebrate the arrival of warmer weather (in areas that see distinct weather shifts anyway) and renewed agricultural activity and activity in the natural world. Holidays at this time of year are celebrated by many different types of witches and pagans and may be called by several different names although my own focus is on Bealtaine, both as it was traditionally celebrated in Ireland as well as specific ways that I have personally adapted practices for myself. 

Bealtaine stood opposite Samhain on the calendar and in many ways represented opposite themes; where Samhain was a time of harvest and of the Dead, Bealtaine was a time of blessing and planting. It was on Bealtaine that the herds were sent out to their summer pastures, and in the old stories it was on this day that many important events occurred such as the Tuatha de Danann first arriving in Ireland. It is said that in ancient Ireland all fires were put out on the eve of Bealtaine and then the Druids would light a sacred fire at Tara which would be passed from hilltop to hilltop and home to home until all the fires were re-lit. (Wilde, 1991). Bealtaine is the beginning of summer and was the time that contracts were renewed, herds moved, and crops planted.

For modern pagans, especially those following an Irish spiritual path, a great deal of depth can be added to the celebration of this holiday by understanding the folk traditions surrounding it. I'm going to quickly discuss several here.

The fairies were thought to be especially active and powerful on Bealtaine, and in some sources for the first three days of May. It was said in Ireland that it was on Bealtaine eve that the faeries moved from one hill to another and were most likely to steal children or cause mischief (Danaher, 1972) . Caution was needed to guard against faeries stealing the household’s luck, dairy products, or herbs, and the best protection against this was strewing primroses across the threshold (Wilde, 1991) . This belief also meant that strangers were looked on with great suspicion, lest they actually be fairies in disguise, and there were strong prohibitions against giving away or lending milk or fire on Bealtaine. Offerings of food might be made to appease the faeries, or else a bit of iron or Rowan would be carried as protection. (Danaher, 1972)

In Ireland up to fairly recent times, bonfires were a large public affair that occurred on the night of Bealtaine. These fires were traditionally true bonfires, or “bone-fires”, made with a mix of wood and the bones of cows and horses as well as the horns of cows (Evans, 1957) . The fires would be built in open public spaces and the people would gather, whether or not they had celebrated earlier, and drink and sing around the fire (Danaher, 1972) . It seems that originally the bonfire traditions were common in every town and village but over time slowly died out in many areas. According to the oldest stories and myths during the pagan period all the home fires would be put out and relit from a great central fire kindled by the Druids on Bealtaine morning. In modern practice the bonfires would be jumped over to increase a person’s fertility and show their bravery (Evans, 1957) . In earlier times the fire would have been built in two halves and the livestock driven through, as well as the ash from the fire used to bless the fields. (Danaher, 1972)

Both fire and water were used for blessing and as the bonfires were created to bless the herds and people, so too was water collected for blessing. Holy wells might be visited, with due ceremony, and the person might wash in the well or take a small amount of water home with them. In Ireland, the first water drawn from a well, called “the top of the well” or “the luck of the well’, was believed to be especially powerful for either good or bad intent (Danaher, 1972) . Another practice in both Ireland and Scotland was the collection of the dew on Bealtaine morning, as it was believed that this water had special healing and blessing properties.

Another Irish custom was the preparation of a female effigy, called the “May Baby” that was bedecked with flowers and paraded around the town or village; some theorize that this is an older pagan element related to honoring a goddess (Danaher, 1972) . As the May Baby is carried around music is played and a married couple, chosen beforehand, dances in a comically sexual manner around the effigy to entertain it; this procession is believed to grant fertility to the land and the people who observe it and belief in it efficacy was so strong that married women without children were known to travel great distances to receive this blessing (Danaher, 1972) . A related practice was the May Boys, a troupe of boys or young men that traveled around singing songs like:

Summer! Summer! The milk of the heifers,
And ourselves brought the summer with us,
The yellow summer, the white daisy,
And ourselves brought the summer with us!

A widespread Irish custom was the placement of a “May bush”, a branch or bough of a tree (sometimes a Hawthorn or Holly) that was placed by the front door for luck and decorated with yellow flowers, brightly colored ribbons, and egg shells (Danaher, 1972) . On the night of May Day candles might be lit on or around the bush and people would gather and dance around it; in Ireland in previous centuries large parties were held which included feasting and music (Danaher, 1972) . The bush itself might be left standing all month, or until the decorations began falling apart, or in some areas was burned in the nighttime bonfire. (Danaher, 1972)

In Ireland divination on Bealtaine focused largely on the weather for the coming growing season. The direction that the wind was blowing on Bealtaine day would indicate whether the summer would be a good one or a bad one, and in some areas snow still visible on Bealtaine was seen as a very bad omen (Danaher, 1972) . Another Irish practice was to sweep the threshold clean and then lightly scatter ashes over it; in the morning a footprint coming into the home meant a marriage, while one leaving meant a death in the family in the coming year. (Wilde, 1991)

There is little historical evidence of any specific deity associated with Bealtaine. It is a holiday with strong themes of blessing and fertility, so a modern practitioner could choose to honor any deity or deities that made sense with that energy. This will likely come down to personal preference and probably vary widely by group or person.

For modern practitioners all of this provides a wealth of possible practices to incorporate. Offerings can be made to the fairies to avoid their mischief and encourage friendly relations with the Good Neighbors; this could be done on Bealtaine eve or Bealtaine itself. If you choose not to make offerings then perhaps carrying a bit of iron or Rowan would be wise to keep the fairies from stealing your luck. In the morning dew could be gathered as well as any useful herbs that can be found.

A May Bush could be set up and decorated, or a live tree or bush could be planted and decorated for the same purpose. The decorations themselves could be the traditional flowers, colorful ribbons, and eggshells, or could be anything else the person imagines that fit the general theme of the holiday. If possible on Bealtaine night a bonfire is made and danced around or jumped; if it’s possible to make two bonfires, they could be passed between for blessing.

Danaher (1972) . The Year in Ireland. Mercier Press

Evans, E., (1957) . Irish Folk Ways. Routledge and Kegan Paul

Wilde, (1991) . Irish Cures, Mystic Charms and Superstitions

Last modified on
Morgan has been a practicing witch since the early 90's with a focus on the Fairy Faith and fairylore. She has written over two dozen non-fiction and fiction books on topics related to Irish mythology, witchcraft, fairy folklore, and related subjects. Morgan has also taught workshops on these same topics across the United States and internationally. In her spare time she likes to study the Irish language in both its modern and historic forms.
Author's recent posts


Additional information