Irish Language Blog

Mayday! May Day! Bealtaine! Posted by on May 1, 2011 in Irish Language

(le Róislín)

Bhuel, not exactly!  “Mayday” as an emergency call comes from the French “(Venez) m’aider” (Come help me!)* and the Irish for “mayday” as an SOS remains “mayday,” so we have “córas mayday” (a mayday system) for sailing, etc.  In fact, “SOS” also remains exactly the same in Irish, as an internationally understood abbreviation.  All the more important when one realizes that there is a regular Irish vocabulary word, not really related to “save our ship” at all, but coincidently akin, at least for anyone with say, andúil i gcaiféin or the daytime version of “siondróm cosa míshuaimhneacha,” aggravated by sitting in uncomfortable classroom chairs.  That’s the word “sos,” whose meanings include “pause,” “break,” or “recess.”  So if the opportunity a bheith ag síneadh do chos or a bheith ag ól caife during a mid-class break enables you to make it through a two- or three-hour class, the “sos ranga” (class break) is a kind of SOS.  Bhuel, my students, anyway, seem to get a “cic” out of the coincidence!

Back to “Bealtaine” itself, or May Day, and that’s “May Day” mar dhá fhocal agus na túslitreacha i gceannlitreacha.  I point that out since society in general is paying less and less attention to ceannlitriú, roinnt na bhfocal, poncaíocht, and all those other style-sheet goodies as we spend more and more time ag téacsáil.  Ní hionann “mayday” agus “May Day!”

Previous blogs sa tsraith seo have dealt with the word “Bealtaine” in general (2010: “May Day, Mayflies, Mayweed,” and 2009: “Bealtaine, Beltain, Beltene, or Beltane for May 1st? YES!  Ba’al-tine — NOT!”

Key points are:

Bealtaine is a feminine noun, 4th-declension if you’re interested,

Mí na Bealtaine is the month of May

Notice that feminine singular definite article in the middle of that phrase?  In other words, that the word “an” (the) has changed to “na” (of the).  Another example with “na” is

Féile na Bealtaine, which, in theory, could refer to any May Festival, but which seems to be trending online toward an arts festival held on the Dingle peninsula in County Kerry, now in its 17th year.  At any rate, it has its own website, (natch!)

Other May Day terms don’t require the definite article:

Lá Bealtaine, May Day (itself)

Oíche Bhealtaine, eve of May Day

crann Bealtaine, Maypole, lit. “tree of May”

and a classic Irish idiom, now mostly used in the abstract but formerly connected to an actual cow-driving practice:

a bheith idir dhá thine Bhealtaine, to be between two May Day fires, which is basically the same as being between a “cloch” and an “áit chrua,” between “an diabhal” and “an fharraige dhomhain ghorm,” between “Sciolla” and “Cairíbdis,” or whatever other pair of unappealing choices you can name.

And the connection to cattle-driving?  The lighting of bonfires was an important part of every quarter day in the Celtic calendar, as alluded to in Dancing at Lughnasa.  For May Day, the custom was to make two fires, with a narrow path in between, through which the cattle were driven.  Exactly why, hard to say, but presumably if your cows could make it through this narrow and dangerous path, you could also withstand whatever other harshness the future would present.

Sin é don bhlag seo.  Maybe with this heads-up, you might want to check out Féile na Bealtaine in Kerry next year.  It’s held “go luath i mí na Bealtaine” (early in May).  SGF ó Róislín

* Deir cuid daoine “m’aidez” – an bunrud céanna, pé scéal é.

Gluais: andúil i(n), addiction to; ceannlitriú, capitalization (not to confused with caipitliú, capitalization in the financial sense), ionann, same; míshuaimhneach, restless; na bhfocal [nuh WOK-ul], of the words; poncaíocht, punctuation; roinnt, division; síneadh, stretching

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