The customs on this eve and on May-Day were, until quite recently, commonly observed on the Old Style dates of May 11 and May 12.
►TRAIN in 1845…
“Many of them (people) remained on the hills till sunrise, endeavouring to pry into futurity by observing particular omens. If a bright light were observed to issue, seemingly from any house in the surrounding valleys, it was considered a certain indication that some member of that family would soon be married; but if a dim light were seen moving slowly in the direction of the parish church, it was then deemed equally certain that a funeral would soon pass that way to the churchyard.”
►KELLY in 1885
“On May-eve the inhabitants dress their houses with flowers and before every door a considerable space is strewed with primroses; and crosses are made of mountain ash/rowan (Manx ‘keirn’) which are fastened to their cattle and worn by themselves as preservatives against witchcraft.
On this day the inhabitants kindle fires on the summits of the highest hills in continuation of the practice of the Druids…but the modern practice is for each balla or town to kindle a fire so that the wind may drive the smoke over their cornfields, cattle and habitations. It is also the usage to put out the culinary fires on this eve and to rekindle them with some of the sacred fire.
The damsel places a snail between two pewter dishes and expects to find next morning the name of her future husband in visible characters on the dish; but the success of this depends on her watching until midnight and having first purified her hands and face by washing them in the dew of wheat.”
►MOORE in 1891…
On this evening the Fairies were supposed to be peculiarly active. To propitiate them and to ward off the influence of evil spirits and witches who were and also active at this time, green leaves or boughs and sumark flowers (primrose flowers) were strewn on the threshold and branches of cuirn (keirn/mountain ash) were made into small crosses without the aid of a knife, which was on no account to be used, and stuck over the doors of the dwelling houses and cow houses.
Cows were further protected from the same influences by having the ‘bollan-feaill-Eoin’ (John’s-feast-wort) placed in their houses. This was also one of the occasions on which no-one would give fire and on which fires were and are lit on the hills. Since time immemorial people have burned all the whin (gorse) bushes in the Island, conceiving that they hereby burned all the witches and fairies which they believe take refuge there after sunset.
Even at the present time a tramman (elder) tree may be observed growing by almost every old cottage in the Island. Its leaves, like those of the cuirn were picked on May-eve and affixed to doors and windows to protect the house from witchcraft.
►DR CLAGUE in 1911…
On the eve of May Day the young boys would have a cross of mountain ash (keirn) in their caps and a cross would be tied on the tail of cattle or any other animal that would be in the house. The right way to make a keirn cross is to split one stick and put the other stick through it and thus bind them together.
May-flowers (king-cups), rushes and flags were placed before the doors of the houses and cow-kept to keep them from harm and bad spirits.
Flowers and plants were placed on the door side and window seats in the houses to keep fairies away.
Water was always kept in the crock (large water dish) at night for the fairies.
Mugwort was worn in the coat and sometimes in the caps on the eve of May Day and on the eve of St John’s Day. Fires were lighted and fire in the hedges and gorse was burnt to frighten away the bad spirits. They made the hedges look like walls of fire. That is the meaning (root) of the word, “Boal Teine” Wall of Fire. Young boys jumped through the fire and the cattle were sometimes driven through the fire to keep them from harm for the whole year.
Slide-carts of mugwort would be drawn from place to place to drive the bad spirits away.
Mugwort was thought to keep off every kind of disease put (caused) by bad spirits for they were very fearful of it. The right way to keep the herb was to pull it up by the roots on the eve of St John’s Day in the middle of the night. If it was pulled up in that way, it would keep its use right for the whole year.
Some people called it the White Herb owing to the white colour under the leaves.
Horns were blown through the night and dollans (hoops with sheepskin stretched on them) were struck.
People have forgotten that bells were used at first to frighten away bad spirits from the church.
After the horns were blown, the bells rung, the skin drums played, the May-flowers, rushes, flags and primroses placed before the doors and the keirn crosses in the caps of the boys and on the tails of the cattle, and the sliding carts of St. John’s Wort drawn from place to place, the bad spirits driven away and people and cattle had walked through the fire, then the fields were ready to put the cattle on the grass.
(source: Manx Calendar Customs by CI Paton (1942) and Manx Reminiscences by Dr J Clague (1911); photograph is of a Crosh Cuirn by Bernadette Weyde)