‘The Never-to-be-forgotten First of May’: Celebrating Bealtaine with the Wild Irish Girl

In her novel The Wild Irish Girl: A National Tale (1806), Sydney Owenson (later Lady Morgan) presented one of the earliest fictional depictions of traditional Irish Maytime, or Bealtaine, celebrations. In vivid detail, her narrating hero describes the survival of reputedly ancient customs in a rural community at the end of the eighteenth century. After gathering flowers at dawn, and drinking the dew from their petals, Owenson’s characters observe houses garlanded with foliage, and ‘May-bushes’ (small decorated trees) set up outside the local people’s cabins, and watch a sports tournament and dancing held in the open air.360px-Common_hawthorn_flowers

The Wild Irish Girl was conceived as a vehicle for Owenson’s Irish patriot sentiments in the period following the Act of Union (1800), which absorbed Ireland into the United Kingdom of Great Britain. It concerns the romance between Glorvina, daughter of the last chieftain of an Gaelic (‘wild’ Irish) clan, and Horatio, the dissolute and debt-ridden heir to an English-owned estate in the western Irish province of Connacht.

Guided by the beautiful and vivacious Glorvina – along with her father, the ‘Prince’ of Inismore, and their household priest, Father John – the initially ignorant and condescending Horatio learns to appreciate Irish history, culture, and popular traditions such as the Maytime festivities. The novel’s narrative consists of letters written from Horatio to his father and a friend in England – Owenson’s intention being that Horatio’s increasingly respectful and affectionate attitude toward the native Irish should set a positive example to English and Anglo-Irish politicians and landowners with responsibilities in Ireland.

As many critics have noted, in The Wild Irish Girl and in other novels Owenson adapted the conventions of earlier Irish aisling poetry (a development of older national myths of goddesses such as Macha and Ériu), in which women representing the Irish land confer sovereignty over it upon worthy male suitors. Herself the offspring of an Irish father and an English mother, Owenson presents the idealised, harmonious ‘union’ of Horatio and Glorvina as an allegory for what she hoped relations between Ireland and England might become after legislative power had been transferred back to London from the Irish Parliament in Dublin – which had lasted only eighteen years following its formation in 1782. The more radical Irish patriots, including Owenson, expected the British government to improve conditions for Ireland’s majority Roman Catholic population, then denied the rights to vote or to sit in Parliament.

Horatio has already fallen in love with Glorvina when, on May Eve, she invites him to witness the local revels, remarking:

‘“the first of May is our great national festival; and you who love to trace modern customs to ancient origins, will perhaps feel some curiosity and interest to behold some of the rites of our heathen superstitions still lingering among our present ceremonies”’.

Father John then joins Glorvina in explaining the origins of the Irish Maytime celebration – without using the term Bealtaine, but stating that it derives from an ancient Irish practice of sacrificing to ‘Beal, or the Sun’ on the first day of May. The classically-educated Horatio instantly notices the similarities between the pagan Irish god ‘Beal’ or Bel, and the Greek sun god Apollo (patron of poetry and music). The priest then alludes to an ancient theory that Ireland might have been the location of the mythical Hyperborean Island, where Apollo was reputed to have lived. He also goes on to note the similarities between the floralia, an ancient Roman flower festival of early summer, and the Irish practice of gathering flowers for Maytime garlands.

In these and other instances throughout the novel, Father John represents a then well-known type of Irish nationalist antiquary who endeavoured to prove the descent of the Irish people, and their arts and cultural forms, from the classical Greek civilisation celebrated in Western literature and culture since the Renaissance. Glorvina, too, draws frequent comparisons between various Irish traditions and those of the ancient Greeks; but she also appreciates her Celtic heritage independently both of these associations, and of the folk Catholicism practised by the local Irish. She is the first of several heroines whom Owenson created as updated Irish sovereignty-goddesses, instructing their suitors in the ancient, and more modern, ways of their land. As Owenson’s text and footnotes indicate, Glorvina’s thinking is informed by works such as Geoffrey Keating’s General History of Ireland (1738), Sylvester O’Halloran’s General History of Ireland (1778), and John Toland’s History of the British Druids (1747). All of these authors presented then-influential accounts of ancient Irish fire-festivals drawn from classical authors and some early Irish sources such as the Lebor Gabala, which recorded that two waves of ancient colonising settlers had arrived in Ireland at Bealtaine. Keating in particular locates the original Bealtaine fires at a royal seat in Connacht, the Irish province where Owenson set the Wild Irish Girl – having herself lived for some time in Sligo, one of its counties.

Taking up the conversation from Father John, Glorvina expands its focus on May Day to other fire festivals of the traditional Irish year, such as Midsummer’s Night (20 June), when ‘unconscious perpetuators of the heathen ceremony dance round the fire in circles’. She then describes her own favourite of the seasonal celebrations, ‘Samhuin’ (31 October; now usually spelt ‘Samhain’), which by O’Halloran’s account was dedicated to a moon-god of the same name. As Glorvina admits, ‘“though I adore our inspiring Beal with all my soul, I worship our popular deity Samhuin with all my heart – he is the god of the heart’s close-knitting socialities, for the domesticating month of November is sacred to him”’. The priest further explains how ‘ “on the eve of the first of November we make our offerings round the domestic altar (the fireside), of such fruits as the lingering seasons afford […] performing many superstitious ceremonies, in which our young folk find great pleasure, and put great faith’”. Glorvina agrees with him as to the pleasures of seasonal festivities such as Beltaine and Samhain, exclaiming, ‘ “I love all those old ceremonies which force us to be periodically happy”’.

On ‘the never-to-be-forgotten first of May’ itself, Horatio and Glorvina meet at dawn by ‘a little hawthorn hedge richly embossed with the first-born blossoms of May’, where they drink to each other in dew from the petals of wild roses. Later in the day they attend the local festivities, where they are hailed as guests of honour by local characters, including an ‘old bard’ (a seanchaí, or storyteller). As Owenson states in a footnote, Horatio’s account of fiddle and pipe music, community dancing, and a wrestling-match the victor in which is crowned ‘King of the May’ is based on a similar ‘rural festival’ which she witnessed during 1802 in Tipperary, where she had been employed as a governess.

When Glorvina joins in dancing a jig at the May festival, her ‘grace and elegance’ are displayed to full effect to the admiring Horatio. The Bealtaine episode of the novel thus completes its narrative purpose of further advancing both Horatio’s enthusiasm for Ireland and the Irish people, and his desire for a more personal involvement with both, through union with Glorvina. In the case of the real-life Union of England and Ireland, however, no such happy ‘marriage’ resulted. Owenson, like other Irish Patriots, lost patience with the British government’s slow progress in effecting either Catholic emancipation (not achieved until 1829), or the relief of poverty in Ireland.

In her subsequent ‘national tales’, written under her married name of Lady Morgan, Sydney Owenson continued to rework the aisling tradition and sovereignty myths, but in manners that demonstrate her rejection of the English-Irish compromise presented in The Wild Irish Girl (though she had herself married an Englishman, the physician Sir Charles Morgan, in 1812). In O’Donnel (1814), Florence Macarthy (1818), and The O’Briens and the O’Flaherties (1826) the heroes who court the Irish goddess-figures are not English, but are Irishmen from old, dispossessed noble families, who have become alienated from their heritage, and thus also neglectful of their duties to land and nation. Unlike the semi-reclusive Glorvina, Owenson’s later Irish heroines are engaged in working for independent livings (the heroine of Florence Macarthy is a professional author who divides her time between writing, working on her land, and aiding the local poor).

Sydney Owenson was a lifelong religious sceptic – so her interest in ancient Irish goddess-figures is not to be compared with modern-day ‘goddess spirituality’, or with Celtic-inspired forms of neo-pagan belief. Her use of mythic allusions and imagery in her fictions arises largely from her engagement with a liberal, largely secularist, European intellectual culture which had become increasingly interested in the study of global mythologies and comparative religion, partly as a consequence of British and French imperial expansion.

While intended to convey her specific political concerns, however, Owenson’s imaginative uses and reuses of Irish legend, and her allusions to popular customs, in themselves afford intriguing glimpses into the development of ‘traditional’ Irish folklore as this now tends to be recognised. She was evidently a significant, if now neglected, contributor to the ‘canon’ of Irish folklore constructed throughout the nineteenth century by better-remembered figures such as Thomas Crofton Croker and Jane, Lady Wilde.

Owenson’s reference to the folkloric figure of the leprechaun (which she spells ‘leprighaun’) in O’Donnel (1814) is still the first modern-period usage cited in the Oxford English Dictionary (the three earlier instances are from the early seventeenth century); while in Florence Macarthy (1818) she retold stories of early Irish saints such as Brigid and Gobnait. In The Wild Irish Girl, as in these later works, with her observations on Irish lore and customs Owenson assisted both to preserve and to popularise narratives and practices that had previously been confined largely to antiquarian studies or oral tradition.

Quotations in this post are taken from Kathryn Kirkpatrick’s edition of The Wild Irish Girl for the Oxford University Press ‘World’s Classics’ series (1999).

For an excellent discussion of Owenson’s engagements with myths of Irish sovereignty-goddesses within the context of her Enlightenment sensibilities (with specific reference to the heroine of her novel The O’Briens and the O’Flaherties), see Mary Helen Thuente, ‘Lady Morgan’s Beavoin O’Flaherty: Ancient Irish Goddess and Enlightenment Cosmopolitan’, New Hibernia Review 16:2 (Summer 2012), 33-53.

My 2012 edition of Sydney Owenson’s Florence Macarthy: An Irish Tale  for the Chawton House Library Women’s Novels series is available from Routledge.