In the Old Style calendar this day was celebrated on May 12 and was called Shenn Laa Boaldyn, Old May Day. Boaldyn, known as ‘Bealtaine‘ in Ireland and ‘Bealltainn‘ in Scottish Gaelic, marks the beginning of summer and is one of the four Gaelic seasonal festivals.
“Ta lane doarn dy yoan Mayrt, as lane-ynnyd-crou cabbyl dy ushtey er Laa Boaldyn ny share na lhong-lane dy airh as dy argid.”
“A handful of dust in March and the print of a horse-shoe full of water on May Day is better than a shipful of gold and silver.”
►WALDRON in 1726…
The month of May is every year ushered in with a ceremony, which has something in the design of it pretty enough. In almost all the great parishes they choose from among the daughters of the most wealthy farmers a young maid for the Queen of May. She is dressed in the gayest and best manner they can, and is attended by about twenty others, who are called maids of honour; she has also a young man, who is her captain, and has under his command a great number of inferior officers.
In opposition to her is the Queen of Winter who is a man dressed in women’s clothes, with woollen hoods, fur tippets, and loaded with the warmest and heaviest habits one upon another; in the same manner are those who represent her attendants, dressed; nor is she without a captain and troop for her defence. Both being equipped as proper emblems of the beauty of the spring and the deformity of the winter, they set forth from their respective quarters*; the one preceded by violins and flutes, the other with the rough music of the tongs and cleavers.
Both companies march till they meet on a common, and then their trains engage in a mock-battle. If the Queen of Winter’s forces get the better, so far as to take the Queen of May prisoner, she is ransomed for as much as pays the expenses of the day. After this ceremony, Winter and her company retire and divert themselves in a barn, and the others remain on the green, where, having danced a considerable time, they conclude the evening with a feast, the Queen at one table with her maids, the captain with his troop at another. There are seldom less than fifty or sixty persons at each board.
There is said to be an appropriate song on this occasion, the burden of which is:
“Hug eh my fainey,
He gave my ring,
Summer with us;”
but I have been unable to meet with it (have not heard it).
* They are called Sourey as Geurey, summer and winter.
►RHYS in 1891…
In many lands the beautifying effects of dew gathered on May-morning are known and in the Isle of Man there were additional qualities attributed to it. “Early on May morning one went out to gather dew as a thing of great virtue, as in other countries. One woman who had been out on this errand years ago told me that she had washed her face with the dew in order to secure luck, a good complexion and immunity against witches.”
►MOORE in 1891…
May Day Eve naturally merges into May Day morning and the early morning observances follow on after those already mentioned for the Eve.
The break of this day is also the signal for setting the ling or the gorse on fire, which is done in order to burn out the witches wont to take the form of the hare; and guns, I am told, were freely used to shoot any game met with on that morning. With the proper charge some of the witches were now and then hit and wounded, whereupon they resumed the human form and remained cripples for the rest of their lives. Fire, however, appears to have been the chief agency relied on to clear away the witches and other malignant beings; and I have heard of this use of fire having been carried so far that a practice was sometimes observed as, for example, in Lezayre, of burning gorse, however little, in the hedge of each field on a farm in order to drive away the witches and secure luck.
At an early hour horns were blown to prevent the fairies enticing children away.
►MANX NOTES & QUERIES in 1904…
“And branches of the rowan tree
Were carefully in crosses made,
And placed in holes where none could see,
To keep away each witching jade.”
This text is an extract from a poem by Ned Beg Hum Ruy (Edward Faragher of Cregneash)
►DR CLAGUE in 1911…
Witches were thought to have full power on May Day (Old), and they used to try all the power they knew to do harm to other people. They have been seen standing outside of houses early on May Day morning, and working their arms to draw the good luck from other people.
(This is probably reference to this gathering of dew in an old rhyme about the Phynnodderee. This creature is a kind of Manx brownie though the word is used in the Manx Bible for ‘satyr’. It is said in the rhyme that he went to the meadows “Dy hroggal druight y vadran glass,” – “To lift the dew (in) the grey morning.” It is not said why he did so though but it is more likely he did it for luck than for his complexion!)
A great feast was held in Castletown, and people from every part of the Island used to come in their holiday clothes.
A sham fight was held, a sign of the fight between summer and winter.
The summer company of ladies and gentlemen was led by the prettiest young woman, she was called the Queen of Summer and the winter party of working men and working women were dressed in a queer way, and in any way they liked, for fun and play, and the leader was called the King of Winter. The last man who was King of Winter was Captain Tyldesley of Beemakem.
The winter party was driven by the summer party on the road to Scarlett, and when they reached as far as Scarlett, the fight was over, a sign that the sun had gone down in the west.
Then the company had meat and drink, and after that there was dancing and games of every kind.
They used to get as many fiddlers as they could, and people who were acquainted with each other made themselves into small companies, and enjoyed the company of each other in the best way they could.
►MANNIN Vol i in 1913…
“On the first of May the people would go before sunrise and scutch up the dew surrupshus (surreptitiously) from a neighbour’s field and scatter it over their own for luck.”
This was stealing a neighbour’s luck by appropriating the dew from his fields.
►PATON in 1942…
There is a well which appears to have been especially connected with this day, Çhibbyr Baltane which was venerated for the healing virtues of its waters.
(source: Manx Calendar Customs edited by CI Paton (1942) ; Manx Reminiscences by Dr J Clague (1911) and Manx Notes & Queries edited by Charles Roeder (1904); photograph by Bernadette Weyde)