Looking at the happy crowds in Galway for this year’s Galway Arts Festival, I can appreciate that the sense of joy and surprise is heightened because it is shared on a huge scale. The crowd itself is a key part of the attraction. People lose their inhibitions among the horde.
In the 19th century, and possibly for many centuries before that, Galway people gathered in great numbers on the lawns and surrounding fields at Menlo Castle, on the bank of the river Corrib, for the first three Sundays in May, for the festival known as Maying. Owned by the Blakes since the 16th century, the family generously opened their gates and doors to the people of Galway who arrived in their hundreds by rowing boat or steamer, horse and trap, or on foot to the biggest social event of the year.
The festivities included sports, music, dancing, and storytelling. Food and drink was sold from tents and stalls nearby. Local historian William Henry, in his excellent Menlo - Memories and Folklore* writes that on the occasion ‘the castle always looked first-class, with its splendid and well-trimmed ivy clad walls giving off an air of ancientness. The crowning turrets along with the uniquely carved pillars reminded older generations of days long since gone.’ The doors of the castle were open for people to come inside, the Blake flag flew from the tower. Everyone was welcome.
No one quite knew how the festival became such an important event, but it had to have associations with Lá Bealtaine, the old Celtic time which marked the beginning of summer. Fires were lit, and being a pastoral people dependent on their herds of cattle, cattle were driven between the fires to ward off disease. The ashes from the fires were sprinkled on homes and barns; the hearth-fire was lit from its embers.
May was a colourful, and hopeful, month. Flowers were brought indoors, and decorated windows and bedrooms. Similar festivals were observed throughout Europe. In Ireland there was a particular devotion to the Virgin Mary. Altars were decorated in the kitchens, where families gathered.
It was also a time for flirtation and courtship. On the first of May, young maidens, hoping to secure the man of their dreams, would race out in the early dawn, and, throwing caution to the winds, roll in the morning dew. It was believed that such a daring exercise would increase their sexual attractiveness. A custom, I am told, which is still observed during the Galway Arts Festival.
The free-for-all was not to last. Matters were probably getting a bit out of hand, when the Dublin Daily Express came on a visit in 1884. It withdrew in horror at what it saw. The Express wrote at length condemning the event, stating it was surprised that it was held in the grounds of Sir Thomas Blake, ‘a Protestant’. It was disgusted to see that the tents set up around the grounds were for the sale of drink and for gambling purposes. It was horrified to note that by the end of the daytime, the scene had changed to one of ‘dissipation and blasphemy’. It remarked that ’respectable shopkeepers, accompanied by their wives, and other females, could be seen dancing in a state of intoxication to the sound of a GERMAN band’.
‘Ruffians occupied themselves by fighting, and were urged on by their companions into the most brutal acts of pugilism’. The paper was relieved to report that the police arrived at nightfall and pulled down the tents and dispersed the drunken crowds. However, the day finally concluded ‘in the established Irish fashion’ with a fight. The article ended with these condemning words: ‘To their disgrace, be it stated, that several Protestants were among the revellers.’
The Daily Express had its effect. It was decided to prohibit the sale of alcohol in the grounds of Menlo castle from that year onward.
Writing in the early years of the 20th century, local storyteller, Tomás Laighléis, recalled that the first Sunday of the festivities was the most celebrated day, and ‘was the day for the nobility and the moneyed class’. ‘The second Sunday was for the moderately well off, and the third Sunday was ‘for the poor people’.
Music, food, drink and many kinds of entertainment were the order of the day for the multitudes that would appear, and the river was thronged with pleasure boats and ferries from Woodquay in Galway. The entertainers included Joe Banks, piper to the King’. The only alcohol for sale was cider - at one penny a glass.
‘The young men in their flannel baleens could be observed trying to coax their sweethearts to partake of the treats available, which included lemonade, oranges and even crubeens (cooked pig’s feet )’. What girl of taste could ask for anything better.
However, the days of the Maying would come to a tragic end following the dramatic fire of 1910.
More next week.
NOTES: * Menlo - Memories and Folklore, recently published and written by William Henry on sale 20 euros.