This Month in Celtic History
by Stephen Paul DeVillo

May 2001

The Feast of Bealtaine in Celtic History

We’ll depart from our usual format this month to consider the Celtic feast of Bealtaine and its place in Celtic history.

Bealtaine, the 1st of May, was one of the most important of the four quarterly feasts of the ancient Celts, as it marked the start of summer and the beginning of the “light half” of the year when the daylight grows long and all living things flourish.

Bealtaine is thus a time of turnover, of new beginnings. And in Celtic history, and Irish history in particular, Bealtaine has often marked important milestones. It was on the 1st of May in 1169 that the Normans under their warlord Strongbow first landed in Ireland, marking the start of a struggle against foreign occupation that has continued to the present day. It was on the eve of Bealtaine in 1916 that the last Irish units in the ill-fated Easter Rising surrendered to English forces. Fifteen of the Rising’s leaders would be executed over the following twelve days. But what seemed at the time to have been another heroic failure proved instead to mark the first steps that led to the Irish War of Independence. Another milestone in Irish history came on the 5th of May 1981 when Bobby Sands died on hunger strike in an effort to force the English government in the north of Ireland to recognize Irish republican captives as political prisoners. Sands’ death following his election to the London Parliament, and the subsequent deaths of nine of his fellow hunger strikers, reinvigorated the Republican movement in the north of Ireland and was part of the sequence of events that led to today’s “peace process.”

The month of Bealtaine has seen new beginnings and milestones in the histories of all the Celtic nations as well. In Scotland, the 1st of May 1690 saw the decisive victory of William of Orange’s forces over the Jacobite forces backing the deposed King James VII. The battle of the Haughs of Cromdale completely eliminated any Jacobite threat to William in Scotland, and enabled him to concentrate his forces in Ireland for another decisive victory over James at the Battle of the Boyne two months later, with results that have reverberated through Irish history right up to the present day. More than a thousand years before that, 20 May 685 saw the battle of Nechtansmere in which the emerging national identity of Scotland was preserved through the defeat of invading Northumbrian Saxons.

Again in Ireland, the 24th of May 1798 marked the outbreak of the great uprising of 1798 that, although a failure, would define the ideology of the Irish nationalist movement for the next 200 years.

In Wales, the first of the “Rebecca Riots” took place on 13 May 1839, a key event in the preservation of the Welsh national identity. Another riot on 27 May 1887 marked the start of the movement to oust the Church of England from its legal position as the “established church” in Wales, to which all Welsh were obliged to pay “tithes” for its support even though by then only a minority of Welshmen belonged to it. The eventual disestablishment of the Church of England would be part of the dramatic Welsh national revival in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

In Cornwall the Cornish Nationalist Party was founded on 28 May 1975 to advocate an independent Cornwall. On the Isle of Mann, one of the last shreds of its ancient independence was lost on 15 May 1765 the London Parliament’s “Mischief Bill” placed the island’s commerce under the direct control of English customs officers, ostensibly to prevent smuggling. And in Brittany too the month of Bealtaine is important. The 19th of May is the feast day of St. Yves, Brittany’s national saint, and the 23rd of May 1977 saw the first school class of DIWAN, the movement for regular Breton-language education for the nation’s children.

More recently the month of Bealtaine marked a special turning point for two of the Celtic nations. On 7 May 1999 the first elections were held to choose members for the newly re-established Scottish Parliament and for the Welsh National Assembly, an event that may well have put these two nations on the road to full independence.

In future monthly columns we’ll return to these and other historic events of the six Celtic nations of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall, and the Isle of Mann whose dates appear on the Celtic League American Branch’s annual Celtic Calendar, available now.

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