May Sunday tradition returns to Cork village

A tradition that lived for more than 150 years is to be restored in the East Cork village of Killeagh. Ellie O’Byrne talks to residents about their memories of May Sunday as they prepare to dance in the woods once again.
May Sunday tradition returns to Cork village
Dancing on the bridge at the 1948 May Sunday festival.

PATSY Irwin may be 80 years old, but he still vividly recalls the street performers he used to see as a little boy at Killeagh’s annual May Sunday festival in the 1940s.

He sits in the conservatory of the house he was born in on the outskirts of the village, reminiscing.

“There was a big strong fella with a sheet, which he’d lay on the footpath,” he recalls. “He had glass bottles and he’d break up the bottles with a hammer, take off his shirt and lie on the bottles. Then he’d gSundayet three local men to stand up on his chest. When he got up, he wouldn’t be cut, but he’d have the glass stuck to his back.”

The May Sunday tradition began in the 1830s, when local landowners, the De Capell Brookes, opened up their land, the now publicly-owned Glenbower woods, to villagers to enjoy the scenic beauty spot on the first Sunday of May.

“In the last century, people used to come from Cork in charabancs, horse-drawn vehicles, in their finery, to enjoy the day,” Patsy says.

Killeagh may now seem like a way-side village on the N25, but until the Cork to Youghal train stopped in 1963, it was a popular spot for outings.

May Sunday was widely attended from all over East Cork and beyond; the number of houses in Cork city named Glenbower is testament to the popularity of the woods as a honeymoon destination for couples from the city.

Patsy was born and raised in Killeagh and worked in the sawmill in the village in the 1950s, before its closure. Later he worked as a ship-builder in Cobh.

With his wife Marie, he brought up his family of seven children in Killeagh.

“I can remember my first ever May Sunday, going down with my mother,” He says. “I remember scores of people cycling out the back road from Youghal. Horses and carts, people of all ages all going down to the village.”

A replication of an old festival programme.
A replication of an old festival programme.

He estimates that on a May Sunday in good weather, there would be anything up to a thousand visitors to the village, from all over Cork city and county as well as Dungarvan and west Waterford.

“There was always a hurling challenge match and the winners’ prize would be a suit length of cloth for each of the players: material for them to get suits made up.”

In later years, Patsy, who played saxophone, and fellow musician, Ger Byrne, would be amongst the locals who would play in the woods as part of the celebrations.

Although the festivities changed down through the years, music and dancing on the bridges in Glenbower Woods, fancy dress, and a torchlit procession, which may date back to the ancient festival of Bealtaine, were always a part of the event.

From the 1950s onwards, a local organising committee formalised the entertainments, booked bands and ran annual fundraisers so that May Sunday could be free to all who attended.

Siobhan Foley, who will celebrate her 90th birthday in August, was a member of the committee and has fond memories of May Sunday events.

“People would come in trainloads from the city,” she recalls. “We started to prepare for May Sunday every October: we ran dances, and all the money that was made was kept and when May Sunday came, there was no money involved.

“We usually had three bands playing, on the street and up in the wood, and there was a trailer set up in the village that all the kids would dance on. It was a big day for the kids because they’d get into their summer clothes and sandals.”

Siobhan Foley with the May Queen cup.
Siobhan Foley with the May Queen cup.

Regular events that Siobhan recalls include the torchlit parade, which always drew a crowd, the hurling challenge match, and the May Queen procession, in which a local beauty would be crowned May Queen. Siobhan still has the trophy that was awarded to the May Queen each year.

“It was really great excitement,” she says. “The festival queen and her two ladies in waiting would be put in a pony and trap driven by Mr O’Mahony, who would be all dressed up in his high hat, and he’d parade them through town.”

“My house would be a tip, because everyone used to come in here to get dressed up for the parade,” she says, laughing. “Once, and I don’t remember it, I apparently took down the net curtains to put on someone who didn’t have a costume.”

Siobhan grew up in Ballyhooley and moved to Killeagh in 1952, when she married. She and her husband, who worked for the railway, raised their six children in the village.

“I must say, from the very word go I fitted in here,” she says. “I made friends when I arrived, and I’m still the best of friends with them.”

In an era where TV ownership was still uncommon and entertainments scarce, May Sunday was a source of great excitement for children and adults alike.

“We always had excitement: a man in stilts, a fortune-teller,” Siobhan says. “The young teenagers would believe everything the fortune teller would say! And we’d all be done up in our Sunday best for the May Sunday.

“They’d dance sets on the bridges, and we always held a dance in the hall at night-time and it would be packed.”

Killeagh was then hit by a series of events similar to those felt all over rural Ireland: first the sawmill closed and the millwheel was dismantled for scrap. Then the railway was closed, which not only impoverished transport options for locals, but also made the N25, which runs through the heart of the village, increasingly busy. Now, Killeagh is a village defined to many as a roadside town rather than a destination. May Sunday tailed off, and finally ceased in 2001. Now, a new local arts centre has worked with community groups to bring the tradition back. This year, for the first time in 17 years, the 180-year-old tradition will be restored.

There will be many changes: due to Killeagh’s heavy traffic, most events will now take place in the woods themselves or in Greywood Arts, where owners Jessica Bonenfant Coogan and her husband Hughie Coogan have been instrumental in working with locals on restoring a May Sunday programme.

Jessica feels that moving most of the events into the woods is faithful to the origins of the May Sunday tradition.

But she is keen to stress that, herself a new-comer to the area, it’s been most important to listen to local people’s memories and hopes for the festival.

The festival is part of a larger Creative Killeagh project, which has been in receipt of a Creative Communities grant from Creative Ireland.

Greywoods arts have worked with four artists and local groups including Inch Foroige, Killeagh Inch Community Council, The Glenbower Wood Committee and Killeagh Scouts to restore the festival, which is free and open to all.

“We’re trying to keep all the old elements like the torchlit procession and the dances and the fancy dress,” Jessica says.

“I’m really conscious that I’m not from here, and I don’t have ownership of these traditions at all.

“When you’re inviting people to share and talk themselves, and you value what they’re saying, they’re willing to meet you.”

Jessica also believes that the return of May Sunday heralds a wider revival for the village.

“When I asked the local businesses to take an ad in the programme they almost all said yes immediately,” she says. “There’s definitely an atmosphere of people wanting to see a lively village and there are really good positive changes. Collaborating is the groundwork for the village’s revival.”

Killeagh May Sunday Festival is from May 4-7 and includes May Day craft workshops, Talks & Walks in Glenbower woods, a Torchlight Procession, Fancy Dress Competition, Open Air Dance, Foróige Film Screening, Music in the Pubs and a GAA Family Fun Day. All welcome.

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