|Crash cuirn from Rowan tied with wool|
The month of May has special significance on the Manx calendar giving the promise of better things to come as we turn expectantly towards the summer months.
According to A. W. Moore in his book ‘Folklore of the Isle of Man’, published in 1891, May Day Eve was an occasion for many superstitious observances. It was a time to ward off evil spirits, steer clear of active witches and the perfect opportunity for celebratory feasts and fair days. Looking after cattle at this time of year was also very important.
Crosses made from twigs of mountain ash (the rowan tree) would be displayed prominently above house doors and cow sheds, and tied to cows’ tails so that nothing evil could harm either the animals or their masters. Known locally as a ‘Crosh Cuirn’ the cross would be bound with sheep’s wool and most importantly be completed without the aid of a knife. The rowan tree has been revered for its magical powers since pre-Christian times, with people walking considerable distances to collect it. Fishermen would also hide the ‘Crosh Cuirn’ in their boats to protect them from bad luck.
Primroses would also be strewn across the threshold of many houses to ward off evil spirits.
On May Day itself a ‘Queen of the May’ was chosen from amongst the daughters of wealthy farmers from the various parishes, and with her extensive entourage met with the ‘Queen of Winter’. The latter was actually a man dressed in women’s clothes and is accompanied by ‘her’ own army who then engage in a mock battle with the ‘Queen of the May’. However, this particular custom was only noted in Waldron’s ‘Description of the Isle of Man’ published in 1726, and is believed to be imported by the Island’s Viking conquerors.
But E. Kermode writing in ‘Celtic Customs’ in 1885 suggests that Manx May Day customs resemble those found in Ireland and Scotland, and do not include maypoles or Morris dancing found in English folk culture.
By the end of the nineteenth century, however, the original May Day on the old calendar (12 May) was seen as a day for letting houses, paying rent, taking grazing cattle and the hiring of farm girls.
Recent research by Cathy Clucas has revealed some interesting variations on the Island, including a tendency of the men folk to make the essential ‘Crosh Cuirn’. Meanwhile the gathering of primroses was a popular pastime in Ballasalla and Castletown, but the gathering of ‘King Cups’ was a job for the women in the west of the Island.
Valerie Caine © April 2010