Last night was the celebration of the ancient fire festival of Bealtaine. The setting was fittingly the Hill of Uisneach, at the very centre point of Ireland. According to legend this majestic place is the gateway to the mythical fifth province of Ireland called Mide. It was also once the seat of the high kings of Ireland. On Uisneach the great fire of Bealtaine was lit every year at this time. Folklore has it that all the fires in the land were quenched in anticipation of this big event. Even the fire on the Hill of Tara would not be lit until the flames from Uisneach roared out into the night skies. Bealtaine marked, among many things, the coming of the summer, the warming of the land so as to have good growth and prosperity.
The festival in Uisneach in Co Westmeath did not disappoint. We arrived to a fête-like atmosphere on a glorious summery Friday evening. Such a welcoming , friendly atmosphere reflecting the spirit of the event. From the school kids doing Celtic tribal face painting, the ladies handing out wish cards to attach to one of the fairy trees to the friendly men helping us park our cars in a field, we were ready for the sun to set and set the fires alight. And boy the sun didn’t disappoint. A crimson sky was painted as she neared the horizon, a blazing orange ball descending in all her glory.
You could sense the energy building after the sunset. The crowds started to ascend the hill, some baring fire torches as the pots lining the pathway to the bonfire were lit up. Earlier in the evening we watched as men carefully constructed the bonfire with wood on the bottom and a cone like structure made from woven rushes on the top, decorated with seasonal yellow furze bushes. A new moon symbol and that of a horse were set on fire and placed either side of the path with the crowds passing through, mimicking how in ancient times farmers drove their cattle through 2 fires to bring them good fortune.Then the bounding of horse hooves and the sound of their powerful breath rang out as 4 of these beautiful creatures and their Celtic dressed riders galloped alongside us. Further back a sun wheel was set alight and rolled along over an adjoining hill. The scene was well and truly set. The ceremonial drums rang out and hoisted up into the air were green, blue and white lanterns along with a fledgling new moon in pink. Men and women dressed in ceremonial robes, bearing flags and some of the women’s heads adorned in flower garlands led the procession to the summit. First to be lit were the many Celtic triskeles on the hill. Each time a cheer went out from the crowd. Then finally the pinnacle of the night, the lighting of the Bealtaine bonfire. The crowds were sent back behind a blue rope as she roared into the night sky. The noise of the burning timber , the heat and the smoke, reflecting the powerful symbolism of the event. I thought of how impressive this scene would have been down through time as Ireland in darkness awaited the fires of Uisneach to make herself known to them all.
This beautiful moment in times past was also when people started to emerge from winter and meet up with people in their communities. So much evidence of this last night as locals from the Midlands and outsiders like myself came together. The importance of family alive and well too where I saw a lady in a wheelchair who used to push her daughter up the hill in her pram to see the bonfire when she was small. Now things have come full circle with her daughter taking care of her, the 2 of them huddled up together taking in the atmosphere.
As for my own Bealtaine fire, I feel greatly inspired by our ancestors and their huge connection to nature and the elements. Coming through a dark period in my own life I feel invigorated by the Bealtaine fire. It reinforces the cyclical nature of life. That after the coldness and severity of winter , summer comes. It always does and always has done. Recently I’ve started getting into the outdoors again. I have plans to learn how to progress my SUP skills and to lean how to do SUP yoga this summer. These are small steps but I’ve heard it said that going through loss gives you a second chance at life, a chance to live the life that you want to live. So here we go, I feel I have that fire in my belly.
Finally I have huge admiration for the people at Uisneach who put on the festival last night and who are keeping the tradition of the fire festival alive. It was lovely to see the young children there with their families and it is them who will hopefully keep the Bealtaine fire burning in the years to come.