May 29th - Oak-apple Day
( Originally Published 1884 )
Being at a country-town on the 29th of May last, I was very much pleased to see the good old custom of putting up oaken boughs, to commemorate the restoration of monarchy in the last century, so well preserved. Never surely was there a time, when it was more necessary to pay attention to everything of this kind than the present. Who among us, that reflects for a moment on the miseries occasioned in France by the abolition of monarchy, and the despotic reign of anarchy, if I may so express myself, does not feel abundant cause for thankfulness that he lives in a country where the most perfect form of government is established of any in the known world?
But, not to detain Mr. Urban with trite observations on a subject, which to do justice to I feel myself very unequal, let me beg that some of his very respectable correspondents will have the goodness to inform me why the above-mentioned boughs are carefully taken down at twelve o'clock. This may appear a trifling enquiry; but I very much wish to know the reason of it.
While I am soliciting information concerning the above, I will take the opportunity of requesting to know, through the medium of your very useful and entertaining miscellany, Mr. Urban, why the 14th of February is called Valentine's day, and the cause of its being observed in so singular a manner.
An answer to the above enquiries will very much oblige,
Yours, etc., IGNORAMUS.
I herewith send you "an account of the May Game," as performed at Richmond, Yorkshire, on the 29th of May, 1660, by the inhabitants of that borough, whereby they demonstrated their universal joy and satisfaction for the happy return of King Charles II., whom God was pleased to make the instrument of delivering this nation from tyranny, usurpation, and the dismal effects of a civil war : taken from the copy of a letter from one in the country to a friend in London. If you think it will give entertainment to your readers, it is very much at your service.
" 1. They came into the town in a solemn equipage, as follows : " I. Three anticks before them with bagpipes.
" 2. The representative of a Lord, attended with trumpets, four pages, as many footmen, fifty attendants all suited as became persons of this quality.
" 3. The representative of a Sheriff, with forty attendants in their liveries.
" 4. The Bishop of Hereford, with four pages and footmen, his chaplain, and twenty other household officers, besides their attendants.
" 5. Two companies of morrice dancers, who acted their parts to the satisfaction of all spectators.
" 6. Sixty nymphs, with music before them, following Diana ; they were all richly adorned in white and gorgions apparel], with pages and footmen attending them.
" 7. Three companies of footmen with Captain and other Officers in great magnificence.
" 8. Robin Hood in scarlet, with forty bowmen, all clad in Lincoln green. Thus they marched into the town ; now follows their performance in the town.
"They marched decently in good order round the market cross ; and came to the church, where they offered their cordial prayers for our most gracious soveraign, a sermon being preached at that time.
" From thence my lord invited all his attendants to his own house to dinner. The Rev. Bpp. did the same to all his attendants, inviting the minister and other persons to his own house, where they were sumptuously entertained.
" The soldiers marched up to the cross, where they gave many vollies of shot, with push of pike, and other martial feats.
" There was erected a scaffold and bowers, where the morrice dancers and nymphs acted their parts, many thousands of spectators being come out of the country and villages adjacent. Two days were spent in acting Robin Hood, the Sheriff and the Rev. Bpp., who on his own proper charge sent bottles of sack to several officers acting in the play, who performed their parts to the general satisfaction of all spectators, with acclamations of joy for the safe arrival of his sacred Majesty. Something might be expected of the chief magistrates of the town ; they permitted the conduit to run water all the while.
"The preceding rejoicings were performed by the commonalty of this borough. We had also a tryal before the high court of justice this morning, where was present the judge, and plaintiff, defendant, receiver, witnesses, and umpire. After hearing the whole matter in controversies and disputes, the defendant and witnesses terminated the business in a pitched field with such weapons as the place afforded."
Modern antiquaries are disposed to reject, in toto, any proofs adduced of an intercourse subsisting, at a remote period, between the Eastern nations, or their colonies, and the inhabitants of the British Isles (the Isles of Scilly excepted) ; and to treat as fanciful, or accidental, all such analogies of custom, or of language, as are pointed out by Mr. Williams, in your present volume, p. 107. But, while they endeavour to overturn this hypothesis, they should at least offer some other in its room, and account for facts, the existence of which they do not pretend to deny, in some more probable manner.
The scene of Plautus, in the Phoenician language, has been collated with the Hiberno-celtic by Colonel Vallancey, in his Collectanea de Rebus Hibernicis, and found to be so exactly similar, that the difference is greater between the English of Chaucer and of Pope.
It has been alleged, indeed, that the learned colonel gave a twist to the construction, to make them tally more exactly : if so, such a literary imposition deserves to be detected and exposed.
The following are a few facts which I wish to see accounted for, and which every traveller in Ireland cannot avoid observing, they are so universal. On the eve of the 24th of June they light large fires everywhere throughout the island. When these fires are almost burnt out, they not only drive their cattle through them, but jump over them themselves. In Dublin, the only place where they are prohibited, they fix a bush in the middle of the street, and stick it full of lighted candles.
On the 1st of May, all the young men assemble in their several districts, and go in procession, dressed out in ribbons, garlands, etc. The leader bears on a pole a double circle of hoops, in the centre of which hangs a gilt ball. They call at every house where a marriage had taken place since the last May-day. The new-married lady, together with a pecuniary present, presents another ball, which is, like the former, elevated on another pole. This last ceremony is only practised in the South of Ireland.
Many places in Ireland, as names of mountains, rivers, and towns, are called, or begin with, the word Bal. One very remarkable one occurs in Bal-tin-glas, that is, The Place, or Receptacle, of the Fire of the Sun : it is situate, I think, in the county of Wicklow. To all this may be added the numerous and really surprising remains of antiquity, totally unlike any others, that have been, and still continue to be, found in the bogs, etc.
Those who are curious may see an account of some of them, with accurate representations, in Mr. Gough's new edition of Camden. E. W.
The fires on St. John's eve are not peculiar to Ireland ; they are lighted in the South of France also, and seem to be a continuation of the Roman Palilia ; but I never saw the bush with lighted candles in Dublin, though I have resided there some years. Not having been much in the South of Ireland, I have not seen or heard of the May procession which he [E. W.] mentions; but, if these ceremonies have no more connection with Baal than the derivation of Baltinglas, they prove very little of the Phoenician origin of the Irish. For Balla (or, as it is now written, Bally), in composition Bal, begins the name of an infinite number of towns, parishes, and farms in Ireland. Balla signifying an enclosed place, and answering to the Saxon termination ton, still to be found in so many names of, places in this country, Baltinglas is then to be explained, Balla-tigh-glas, the enclosure of the greenhouse, or, putting teagh in the nominative case, the house of the green enclosure. A hundred instances occur of names beginning by Bal-ti, which are known to be of that import only.
Curious and learned reflections, by the late Rev. Donald M'Queen of Kilmuir, in the Isle of Sky, on antient customs preserved in that island; and a curious fact relating to the worship of Baal, in Ireland.
The worship of the Supreme Being is congenial to the mind of man, for there has been no country so barbarous, in the old or new world, where religion, under some form, has not been practised.
A few starving vagrants in either can make no exceptions against the general consent of nations ; and as to these, it may be asked, of the paradoxical travellers, who assert the solecism, whether they continued long enough with these itinerant tribes to be able to make their observations conclusive ; and whether they were sufficiently acquainted with their language and manners to determine the question.
Among a people, too, in such a situation, their poverty and unsettled life are inadequate to costly sacrifices, and their time must be chiefly spent in search of subsistence in war, or in hunting, adverse to the appearance of religious ceremonies. Offerings, however, of some kind or other, have been made in all ages and countries, to appease offended deity; plants of mystical virtue, fruits, rough barley, before the invention of milns, libations of milk or of honey, were all the marks of gratitude, or means of expiation, or of giving effect to their prayers, that could be expected, in the first needy frugal stages of society, before extensive states were formed. When men were full masters of natural liberty, unrestrained by law or order, every one was king and priest in his own family. The first offerings, we have any account of, are recorded in the Jewish scriptures, when tillage, and the keeping of flocks, became the business of men, and when we find the fruits of the earth, and the firstlings of the flock, offered up to God, by Cain and by Abel ; and these the first fruits were offered during the old Jewish ceconomy, a practice which seems coeval with society, and spread abroad, over the world, with the various emigrant colonies from the original hive. Thus also the aXgoOevea were offered, the best and choicest part of the spoils from the top of the heap before division. You will find, in Callimachus's hymn to Delos, that the inhabitants of every part of the globe, however confined their notions were of geography, sent an offering of the first fruits to Delos, the favourite isle of Apollo and Diana, who were particularly worshiped there. Among the rest, our ancestors, the Hyperboreans, had their sheaf or sheaves of corn conveyed by two maidens in the bloom of youth, who never returned to their own country, but had divine honours paid them by the Deleans; so that afterwards the offering was annually sent from tribe to tribe, until it reached Delos. The procession is thus described by Pausanias : "The Hyperboreans sent the holy offering to the Arvmaspi; they to the Isidoneans, who conveyed it to the Scythians ; then to Sinopè ; until the Athenians at length transported it to Delos. Apollo was a principal object of worship among the Hyperboreans; and as public and popular customs, particularly those of religion, make impressions that will remain after the causes which gave them birth are no more, so you can trace out the old practices and opinions of faith which have been long ago discarded; and, it is by no means improbable, that some remains of this custom may still be found in this Hyperborean country ; where in every district there is still to be met with a rude stone consecrated to Gruagach, or Apollo.
The first who is done with his reaping sends a man or a maiden with a bundle of corn to his next neighbour, who hath not yet reaped down his harvest, who, when he has finished, despatches to his own next neighbour, who is behind in his work, and so on, until the whole corns are cut down.* This sheaf is called the cripple goat, an Gaobbir Bhacagh, and is at present meant as a brag, or affront, to the farmer, for being more remiss or later than others in reaping the harvest, for which reason the bearer of it must make as good a pair of heels, for fear of being ill-used for his indiscretion, as he can. Whether the appellation of cripple goat Islay, have any the least reference to the Apollonian altar of goats' horns, I shall not pretend to determine.
Curious fact relating to the worship of Baal in Ireland.
" The Irish have ever been worshipers of fire, and of Baal, and are so to this day. This is owing to the Roman Catholicks, who have artfully yielded to the superstitions of the natives, in order to gain and keep up an establishment, grafting Christianity upon Pagan rites.
"The chief festival, in honour of the sun and fire, is upon the 21st of June, when the sun arrives at the summer solstice, or rather begins its retrograde motion. I was so fortunate, in the summer of 1782, as to have my curiosity gratified by a sight of this ceremony, to a very great extent of country. At the house where I was entertained, it was told me, that we should see, at midnight, the most singular sight in Ireland, which was the lighting of fires in honour of the sun. Accordingly, exactly at midnight, the fires began to appear ; and taking the advantage of going up to the leads of the house, which had a widely extended view, I saw on a radius of 30 miles, all around, the fires burning on every eminence which the country afforded. I had a farther satisfaction in learning, from undoubted authority, that the people danced round the fires, and at the close went through these fires, and made their sons and daughters, together with their cattle, pass through the fire ; and the whole was conducted with religious solemnity."
This account, Mr. Urban, is exceedingly curious; and though I forbear the mention of names, I can venture to assure you that it is authentic.
Albanicus must have been greatly misinformed about Ireland, or in a very jocular humour, when he wrote his remark on the Irish worshipping fire and Baal. What he calls "a festival in honour of the sun and fire," held to this day on the 23rd of June (not the 21st, as Albanicus has mentioned),is nothing more than a general rejoicing throughout that country on the eve cif St. John, St. John's day being a very great holiday in their estimation. It is truly laugh-able to hear this writer say, that he " was gratified by a sight of this ceremony ;" and then tells you he " only saw the fires from the leads of the house, wherein he was entertained, affording him a view through a great extent of country, not less than thirty miles." We find, there-fore, Albanicus gives this account, not from what he himself saw (although he wishes to be understood that he did see the ceremony), but from what he "learned" from others. So much for his authority.
Now, Mr. Urban, suppose this writer had been informed, as many Englishmen and strangers in Ireland have been, that some of the Irish have wings, and can fly; would he or any sensible man, give credit to such a story, and even commit it to writing, and endeavour to persuade mankind that it was true ? There are, Sir, in Ireland, a number of humorous people, who are fond of and ever are ready at what is called, " putting tricks upon travellers ;" travellers, who, foolishly believing all they hear, return home, and entertain the world with some very marvellous accounts of what they had seen and learned in the course of their travels.
And I am inclined to believe that these kinds of misrepresentations and folly are not confined to descriptions of any country ; but as Ireland is the only country in which I have travelled out of my own native country England, to that country, and the misrepresentations concerning it, I will confine myself ; and if a residence amongst the Irish during fourteen years, traversing every county in Ireland, some twice, three and four times over, can be thought to afford me an opportunity of forming a judgment about what I am writing, I shall, I trust, be entitled to more credit from your numerous readers than Albanicus.
The Irish have certainly a number of peculiarities attached to their religion, some good, and others detestable; for instance, when a woman has milked her cow, she dips her finger into the milk, with which she crosses the beast, and piously ejaculates a prayer, saying, "Mary and our Lord, preserve thee until I come to thee again l" and again, in going to bed and on blowing or putting out the candle, " May the Lord renew or send us the light of heaven !" A rite, which I call detestable, is that on Candlemas day, when the people assemble at mass, and bring with them such a quantity of candle as they think they shall have occasion for for the year. These candles are blessed by the priests in high mass ; after which they are dispersed, as occasion requires, in the cure of wounds, aches, and diseases, and other purposes equally absurd and superstitious. Hence Albanicus might as well conclude that the Irish people are idolaters, and worship cows and candles, as that because they make a bonfire on a rejoicing night, merely to usher in what they term a great festival, they " worship the fire and Baal." Upon Christmas eve, it has ever been the custom to usher in the birth of our Saviour by the ringing of bells, which all good Christians are delighted to hear, and many will even sit up until midnight on purpose to partake of the general joy : hence will any man say that we worship these instruments of religious joy, the bells ?
As my business in Ireland required my attending all parts of it, I fixed my residence near the centre of the kingdom. Upon the hill of Mullingar (known in the map by the name of Petitswood, being part of the estate belonging to George Rochforte, esq.) I resided several years. On this beautiful eminence, on St. John's eve, fires were always made by the natives (Protestants as well as Roman Catholics), and from this eminence we could see other fires, even to Chloghan hill in the King's county, and also those in the county of Roscommon. But I never saw or heard, nor anyone else, I believe, until Albanicus informed us, that any religious rite was ever performed at these fires; no son, nor daughter, nor cattle were ever forced to pass through the fire with religious solemnity ! Pagan rites are in Ireland totally unknown ; the priests are too watchful over the people's minds and their pence to suffer the Christian scheme to lose any of its weight. Albanicus concludes by saying, " this account is exceedingly curious ;" indeed, it is marvellous, so much so, that I hope it will not long be believed, notwithstanding, he ventures to assure us " it is authentic." Albanicus modestly " forbears to mention names in corroboration of his testimony ;" but this modesty I shall not forbear. I am not afraid to contradict such testimony, and do declare the whole he says concerning the Irish worshipping " Baal and the fire to this day " is as great an imposition on mankind as are the prophecies of the noted Richard Brothers & Co.
Your correspondent Albanicus, after having presented us with a curious fact relating to the worship of Baal in Ireland, observes,
" this account is exceeding curious ; and, though I forbear the mention of names, I can venture to assure you that it is authentic."
The very same fact Mr. Polwhele has noticed, and commented on at large, in his " Historical Views of Devonshire."
"Being at a gentleman's house," says a correspondent of Mr. Polwhele, "about 30 miles West of Dublin, he told us, that on the 21st of June we should see an odd sight at midnight. Accordingly, at that hour, he conducted us out upon the top of his house, where, in a few minutes, to our great astonishment, we saw fires lighted on all the high places round, some nearer and some more distant. We had a pretty extensive view, and, I should suppose, might see about 15 miles each way. There were many heights in this extent ; and on every height was a fire : I counted not less than 40. We amused ourselves with watching them, and with betting which hill would be lighted first. Not long after, on a more attentive view, I discovered shadows of people near the fire, and round it ; and every now and then they quite darkened it. I enquired the reason of this, and what they were about ; and was immediately told, they were not only dancing round but passing through, the fire; for, that it was the custom of the country, on that day, to make their families, their sons, and their daughters, and their cattle, pass through the fire; without which they could expect no success in their dairies, nor in the crops, that year. I bowed, and recognized the god Baal."
The Scotch Beltein, celebrated May I, old style, is a rural sacrifice, when the 'herdsmen partake of a dish of caudle, and throw over their heads a piece of cake to each, being the supposed preserver, or to some animal, the real destroyer of their flocks and herds. Pennant's Tour in Scotland, 1769. The herds of several farmers gather wood, put fire to it, and dance three times southways round the pile.
Mr. Vallancey, collating the Japanese with the Irish language, (Collect. Hib. x. 168) says, the day of summer solstice, when the sun was at the head or beginning of the circle, they celebrated with fires in honour of Baal or Panga Sank, that is, the globular fire, which fires are still made all over Ireland, in honour of St;. John, whose festival falls on that day.
The custom of setting fire to the furze-covers on the eve of Mid-summer day is common in the North of England. Before the Revolution, bonfires were lighted in every part of France on the 23rd of June, and called le feu de la St. Jean. But neither in England nor France did I ever see parents drive their children through the fire. Boys were apt enough to jump over from bravado and sport.
Some years ago enquiries were made in your Miscellany respecting the custom of lighting fires on Midsummer Eve, stated to be prevalent in the West of England. It seems to be pretty well established, that it is a relique of Pagan worship. Gebelin in his " Allegories Orientales, Hist. d'Hercule," observes that at the moment of summer solstice the antients were accustomed to light fires in honour of the New Year, which they held to have originally commenced in fire. Nor is there, he asserts, any computation of time more antiently received than that which fixes the beginning of the year in June. These fires, he proceeds, were accompanied with vows and sacrifices for plenty and prosperity, with dances and leaping over the flames, and each person on his departure took a firebrand of greater or less magnitude, while the rest was scattered to the wind in order that it might disperse every evil as it dispersed the ashes.
The vigil of St. John the Baptist falling on this day, the Mid-summer Eve rites seem to have been carefully practised and handed down by our more immediate ancestors ; for Stowe and his contemporaries particularly describe its observance. Bourne mentions it in 1725, and Borlase about thirty years later. As to the universality of this custom throughout the nations of Celtic origin, we know that in the North of England, in Ireland, and in Scotland, it is still retained. And may perhaps argue from its name Belteine Bel's, Beal's, or the Sun's fire that it is coeval with the Aboriginals of our Island, who, as well as almost every other nation of Idolaters, paid homage to that glorious luminary. Traces of it appear in Sweden, where the houses are ornamented with boughs. Stowe says they ought to be greene birch, long fennel, St. John's wort, aspin, white lillies, and such like, and the young people dance around a poll till morning, and even among the Vehosti, a Tartar tribe, subject to Russia, who assemble, as we are told, under a tree at night, and remain till morning on the festival of St. John, shrieking and singing and dancing round a great fire.
The best account of the attendant ceremonies is given by Googe in 1570, in a translation which he dedicated to Queen Elizabeth.
" Then doth the joyfull feast of John the Baptist take his turne, When bonfires great, with lofty flame, in every towne doe burne, And young men round about with maydes doe daunce in every street With garlands wrought of motherwort, or else 0f vervaine sweet, And many other flowers faire, with violets in their hands ; Where as they all doe fondly thinke that whosoever stands, and thorow the flowers beholds the flame, his eyes shall feel no paine, When thus 'till night they daunced have, they through the fire amain With striving minds doe run, and all their herbs they cast therein; And then with words devout, and prayers, they solemnly begin, Desiring God that all their illes may there confounded be ; Whereby they thinke through all that yeare from augues to be free."
The vestiges of these rites are not quite obliterated in South Wales, and may perhaps be instanced as one amongst many proofs of resemblance between Welsh and Scottish customs. At Port-Einon, a small village in that insulated part of Glamorganshire, called Gower, culm is collected and hid against a fire on the 23d of June, as I had an opportunity of being witness to last year : on enquiry I found that the custom had been observed time immemorial. At Llangeneth, a neighbouring village, the festival of the Patron-saint or Mabsant, i.e., holy man, falling on the 24th, the garlands and the poll, as well as the dances and bonfire, are still retained. This ceremonial is not wholly unknown in Pembrokeshire. It does not appear that it was necessary to light the fire invariably in the same spot, although a conspicuous situation was generally chosen. The foundations of a small enclosure once used for this purpose may still be traced in the turf about a furlong from the noted well at the secluded village of Newton in Glamorganshire. A few of the old people still remember convening there, and throwing a small cheese across through the flame on Mid-summer's Eve. They report that the enclosure was afterwards used as a pound, though it seems too small for that purpose, and that the stones have been taken to mend the road that leads to the little harbour below.
I have only to add that the lines above cited contain so satisfactory a description of this curious rite, that should it fall into total disuse, I can still heartily congratulate Morganery and her neighbours on being free from the evils which it was erst intended to deprecate.
June 24.-Fire Kindling.
It is a research no less interesting than amusing, to trace back several customs and expressions now used to their Druidical or Saxon original. I am informed by a friend, that an immemorial and peculiar custom prevails on the sea-coast of the Western extremity of Cornwall, of kindling large bonfires on the evening of June 24 ; and on the next day, the country people, assembling in great crowds, amuse themselves with excursions on the water. For the origin of this, no satisfactory reason can be given ; therefore, conjecture is allowable, where certainty cannot be attained. I cannot help thinking it the remains of an ancient Druidical festival, celebrated on Midsummer-day, to implore the friendly influence of Heaven on their fields, compounded with that of the first of May, when the Druids kindled large fires on all their sacred places, and on the tops of all their cairns, in honour of Bel, or Belinus, the name by which they distinguished the sun, whose revolving course had again clothed the earth with beauty, and diffused joy and gladness through the creation. Their water-parties on the 24th prove, that they consider the summer season as now so fully established, that they are not afraid to commit themselves to the mercy of the waves. If we reflect on the rooted animosity which subsisted between the Romans and Druids, and that the latter, on being expelled from their former residences, found, together with the miserable remnants of the Britons, an asylum in the naturally fortified parts of the island, we shall not be surprised at their customs having been faintly handed down through such a long succession of ages. That Cornwall was one of their retreats is sufficiently proved by the numerous remains of their circular temples, cromlechs, cairns, etc.,though of the sacred groves in which they were embosomed no vestiges now remain. We all know the avidity with which mankind adhere to, and with what reluctance they lay aside, usages delivered down to them by their ancestors, and familiar to themselves. And, when we farther consider the inveterate hatred with which the Romans endeavoured to extirpate the Druidical customs, it is not wonderful that this very circumstance should have been the means of fixing them more deeply in those places where they were preserved ; as persecution has in all cases a natural tendency to strengthen what it is its wish to eradicate. Nay, even in the eleventh century, when Christianity was become the national religion, the people were so attached to their ancient superstitions, that we find a law of Canute the Great strictly prohibiting all his subjects from paying adoration to the sun, moon, sacred groves and woods, hallowed hills and fountains. If, then, this propensity to idolatry could not be rooted out of those parts of the kingdom exposed to the continual influx of foreigners, and the horrors of frequent war, how much more must it have flourished in Cornwall, and those parts, where the Druids long preserved their authority and influence ! It may then be fairly inferred, that, from their remote situation, and comparative insignificancy with the rest of England, they preserved those religious solemnities unmolested; and, corrupted as they must naturally be by long usage and tradition, yet are handed down to us this day with evident marks of a Druidical origin.
Our holy festival of Christmas retains in some parts of this island, particularly in Lincolnshire, the Saxon appellation of Yule, which was a peculiar solemnity, celebrated about the winter solstice, in honour of Thor, the son of Odin, and frequently conducted, according to the genius of our Saxon ancestors, with the utmost excess of feasting, drinking, etc.