May Day Celebratory Traditions In Ireland

Kelly Walsh - 14 Apr 2022

May Day is celebrated annually in Ireland, although it doesn’t always fall on the same day. It falls on the first Monday of May, meaning that it could be anywhere around the first week of the month. May Day 2022 will thus be celebrated on May the 2nd.

As far as the cultural significance is concerned, the occasion holds dual meanings. May Day is seen as an important event in Celtic tradition, but the same day is also recognised as Labour Day.

In Celtic Tradition the start of May is the spring festival, otherwise known as Lá Bealtaine or Beltane. The tradition of welcoming in summer has long been held in Irish culture, with roots stretching back far into the country’s history. Beltane is a celebration that honours nature, prays for a good crop and fertile herd, and in general acknowledges the importance of cultivation. The season is also seen as the time that a man may begin his courting of a woman.

The Celtic significance is less widely acknowledged in current day Ireland, but some regions still hold the values in high regard. In County Clare, Wicklow and Limerick bonfires are still lit, and families still gather to enjoy a feast.

Labour Day Alternative

The first Monday in May is also recognised as Labour Day. Though, this tradition isn’t specific to Ireland, with 80 countries around the world acknowledging the same sentiment. Labour Day pays tribute to manual labourers and others involved in physically demanding jobs.

Locally it is expected that the Irish Congress of Trade Unions will hold a rally, with speakers addressing crowds of labourers. Emotions generally run high at these demonstrations, especially during times of economic hardship. May Day 2022 is expected to have a rally of this sort.

As far as May Day and Labour Day origins are concerned, the story is surprisingly complicated.

Understanding May Day Origins

The old traditions of bonfires and feasts stretches far back into Irish history, with no clear origin. Labour Day has a clearer history, with the first celebration occurring on the first Sunday in May, 1890. The Dublin council of trade unions took to the streets in Dublin, gathering unhappy labourers that felt overworked and underpaid. The angry workers demanded that laws change to restrict work day to no more than 8 hours.

The demands were not met, and the annual gathering faded faded. But, it was revived in 1908. From 1918 to 1921 the demonstrations were particularly robust, ultimately achieving the long sought after 8 hour day. From around 1925 the annual event began to be overshadowed by Connolly day, falling on May 12th. It wasn’t until 1994 that Irish Labour Day was declared a public holiday. May Day 2022, of course, will also be a holiday.

The first Monday in May is a socially significant and political gathering. It’s also a great reason for friends and family to come together and enjoy a feast!

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