The month of May is named for and dedicated to Mary, the Blessed Virgin. Many people like to honour the Virgin during that month by putting up a May altar in their house, usually on a small table or sideboard covered with a white cloth. In the place of honour is a Marian picture or statue and it is decorated with May flowers. In some parishes they have a ceremony where they crown an image of Mary with paste jewels, and in others, they hold a May procession in which those taking part walk bareheaded (weather permitting ), in decent costume and with reverent mien. Clergy and laity, men and women, are separated. The cross is usually carried at the head, and sometimes banners embroidered with sacred pictures. These often represent sodalities but should never be of military or triangular in shape.
If the Host is carried, it is always covered by a canopy and accompanied by lights. All parishioners are encouraged to participate, to decorate their house with flags and bunting and their windows with May flowers. Children were encouraged to wear their First Communion clothes. Most young girls wore white dresses with veils to match. Those who processed sang hymns like ‘The Bells of the Angelus’, ‘Hail Queen of Heaven’, or ‘The Queen of the May’.
These processions were very popular up until about 1960, but the tradition seems to have almost disappeared. It survived for a long time in the Claddagh, it would leave the church and take various routes through the village before returning to the church. Our photograph was taken c1935 from the high wall which surrounded the town dump in the area known as ‘The Swamp’ up until the early 1950s, at which time the area was converted into a municipal park largely devoted to sporting activities, and the wall was lowered to its present height. The development was supported by the Carnegie Trust.
In 1951 a proposal was put to a Galway Harbour Commissioners meeting, that they recommend to the corporation that they withdraw ‘the deal made with the GAA authorities in the purchase of South Park’ and that they hand it over to another source for the erection of factories. This drew a response from JJ Nestor, a former chairman of the County Board, who said: “I would respectfully suggest that there is ample room for such industries at the rear of Rockbarton, Salthill, and elsewhere on the outskirts of the city besides spoiling the seashore approach from the city to Salthill with ugly smoking chimney stacks. A well laid out park containing a GAA stadium at South Park would be a more desirable asset to Galway city and county than an ugly factory.” It is ironic how things developed in the swamp and Rockbarton afterwards.
In our photograph we see the procession passing the ex-servicemen’s houses in Frenchville. These houses were built in 1924 by the Irish Sailors and Soldiers Trust for people who had served in the war. Attached to each house was a large garden to encourage the residents to grow their own vegetables. Frenchville was named after Lord French who was a commander in World War I.
Another Galway May tradition involved people in horse drawn coaches, nobody could travel under the Spanish Arch in such a vehicle on May Day unless they had been born in Galway. Those who were not had to get out of the coach and walk making a silent wish as they passed under the arch. The coachman had to dismount and lead the horse.
A recently published book on the Claddagh entitled The Claddagh, Stories from the Water’s Edge is eminently readable and profusely illustrated and includes a photograph like this one. It is an ideal follow-up to Peadar O’Dowd’s book Down by the Claddagh, and brings the village into the 21st century. Interviews with some older residents allow the reader to experience what it was like to grow up there, what kind of games they played, the clothes they wore, the piseóga they believed in. It confirms that the special community spirit and sense of local pride are still very much alive in the Claddagh. Highly recommended and available in good bookshops.9