Mary's Month and the season of Bealtaine

My mother was christened Mary but all her life she was known as May.

In Ireland May is a common diminutive for the name Mary, so there was nothing strange in that. Besides, she was born in May. I can remember picking blossom to celebrate her birthday. Never may blossom which in Wexford, where she grew up, was considered unlucky to have in the house. Sometimes cherry blossom. And often apple blossom, warmed by the sun and powdered with pollen spread by black and golden bees.

In the Christian tradition May is Mary’s month, dedicated to Mary, mother of Jesus. But, as always in Irish Christianity, the calendar feasts that celebrate Mary hold echoes of an older goddess. 

She was the Good Goddess, the bride of the God, and the earth mother of the ancient Celts.

In the pagan Celtic tradition May is the first month of Bealtine, the third season in the Celtic calendar. The Celts believed that as the seasons change the edges of the fabric of time give way, allowing powerful forces to seep through. At those shadowy points between one thing and another ritual was important, as a means of channeling and controlling the energy of the universe.

In Ireland, for thousands of years, Bealtaine’s been celebrated with fire and flowers. And for centuries echoes of those older rituals have continued to reverberate in Christian imagery associated with Mary.

I remember sitting in London  when I was a student, typing out a copy of Gerard Manley Hopkin’s May Magnificat and sending it to my mother in Dublin for her birthday. Hopkins was an English poet who had little time for Irishness or Ireland, though he ended up working and dying there as a Jesuit priest. He was a strange, troubled man with a deep awareness of nature.

This morning I read the May Magnificat again. Now, over thirty years after I typed it out for my own mother’s birthday, I’m astonished by the resonance of its echoes of the earth mother.

 MAY is Mary’s month, and I
 Muse at that and wonder why:          
    Her feasts follow reason,   
    Dated due to season—      

Candlemas, Lady Day;          
But the Lady Month, May,    
    Why fasten that upon her, 
    With a feasting in her honour?       

Is it only its being brighter     
Than the most are must delight her?  
    Is it opportunest     
    And flowers finds soonest?           

Ask of her, the mighty mother:          
Her reply puts this other        
    Question: What is Spring?—         
    Growth in every thing—    

Flesh and fleece, fur and feather,      
Grass and greenworld all together;    
    Star-eyed strawberry-breasted       
    Throstle above her nested          

Cluster of bugle blue eggs thin          
Forms and warms the life within;      
    And bird and blossom swell          
    In sod or sheath or shell.    

All things rising, all things sizing       
Mary sees, sympathising        
    With that world of good,   
    Nature’s motherhood.        

Their magnifying of each its kind      
With delight calls to mind     
    How she did in her stored 
    Magnify the Lord. 

Well but there was more than this:    
Spring’s universal bliss           
    Much, had much to say      
    To offering Mary May.      

When drop-of-blood-and-foam-dapple         
Bloom lights the orchard-apple          
    And thicket and thorp are merry   
    With silver-surfèd cherry   

And azuring-over greybell makes      
Wood banks and brakes wash wet like lakes 
    And magic cuckoocall       
    Caps, clears, and clinches all—      

This ecstasy all through mothering earth       
Tells Mary her mirth till Christ’s birth           
    To remember and exultation          
    In God who was her salvation.

(I wrote this post in 2012 when I was finishing work on my memoir The House on an Irish Hillside )


  1. I would love to get to Ireland for Beltane some year. What a special time.

  2. I'm looking forward to reading your book! Should I order it through amazon in the Uk? Or will the US edition be out at the same time? On Amazon here it just says to sign up for an email when it is available.

  3. Thank you. I'm delighted you're looking forward to it! If you want to pre-order you'll need to use Amazon UK - click on the book image at the top right-hand side of this blog to get through to their page. After publication on June 7th it can be had via Amazon UK, my publisher Hodder & Stoughton's website, or various other UK online outlets. The US edition's still in discussion - I'm hoping all the positive responses I'm getting from my US blog-readers will encourage the discussion process! :)

  4. Thank you for your lovely comment on twitter and for reminding me of Gerald Manley-Hopkins. Blessed Bealtaine, Felicity.


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