May Day in Ireland is celebrated on the Monday on or nearest to 1 May and is also known as Labour Day. Traditionally in the Celtic religions, May Day is the spring festival and commemorates fertility and the blossoming of flowers and fruit. In the Irish language, this spring festival is known as Lá Bealtaine.
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The lighting of bonfires on the night before May Day is another tradition. The fires have Celtic spiritual significance that invoke a more fertile land and herd for the coming year. It is also considered the day when a man may begin courting a woman. Many towns, especially in Limerick, Wicklow and Clare, turn the lighting of the bonfire into a family event with musicians, food and face-painting going on into the evening.
The second meaning of May Day is its importance to the workers of Ireland and all around the world. In over 80 countries, this day is Labour Day, or International Workers’ Day.
In Ireland on Labour Day, emotions run high at rallies and demonstrations in major centres. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions arranges speakers who will represent workers, women and the low-paid. The Congress strives to speak up for the legal recognition of trade unions in all employments and to negotiate rights for all its members.
Between the passive and traditional celebrations of May Day, and the vocal and energetic celebrations of Labour Day, this public holiday brings families and friends together to pay attention to their own livelihoods and the hope they can work towards for the coming year of sowing, breeding and harvesting in the craft in which they work.