A couple of weeks ago I ventured right into the heartland of Ireland. In the county of Westmeath, between the villages of Loughnavally and Ballymore, lies a hill which has been a significant place of meeting and ritual since pre-historic times. The Hill of Uisneach, in its day, rivalled the more well-known Hill of Tara in importance. It served as the seat of kings for a time, with inauguration ceremonies being held on its slopes. When the seat of kings was moved to Tara, Uisneach retained its political significance as the place where laws were struck. In mythology, it was the burial site of the Earth goddess Ériu & the Sun God Lugh and erstwhile home to Dagda, leader of the legendary Tuatha De Dannan. St. Patrick wanted to build a church here in the 5th century, but when he was turned away by the O’Neil clan, he is said to have placed a curse on the stones here.
One of the most compelling reasons to visit is that the ancient festival of Beltaine is believed to have originated here. To herald the coming of summer, a giant bonfire was constructed atop the hill. All across Ireland, people extinguished the fires in their own hearths. When the Uisneach fires were blazing, torches would be taken from that fire and used to ignite other sacred fires on the crest of other hills, spreading across the countryside in great fiery waves until the fire that began at Uisneach in the centre of the country radiated out to reach even the darkest recesses. As the years passed, the Beltane celebrations grew to include music, dance, feasting, tournaments and trade and it is a flavour of these celebrations that the modern day stewards of the hill sought to recreate when they held their Fire Festival in early May.
There was something for everyone, from face painting and faeries…
… to yoga, gong mediation, story-telling for the little ones, guided history tours for the grown ups and live demonstrations of age-old crafts.
A great lineup of live music kept the crowd going…
… and a wonderful array of food carts kept hunger at bay. Dotted around the site, spectacular works of art added to the drama of the celebrations.
As the light grew dim, preparations began for the highlight of the festival; the great bonfire. Off to one side in an ancient ring fort. parade members readied themselves in their costumes…
… and rows of fire were lit…
… while on a nearby mound horses and their riders gathered before their gallop to the great bonfire.
The ‘Spirit of Uisneach’ heralded the start of proceedings…
… calling on the horses to ride the field…
… and then ushering in the parade.
When they reached the summit, the great bonfire was lit and fire dancers started circling around the fire.
As the flames died down, festival goers drifted back towards the food carts for sustenance and another band broke into song under the great marquee, but there was still one more fiery sight in store, for on the way back to the car park, a great tiki torch bid everyone Slán (farewell).
The festival does not take place every year – the current stewards of the land are mindful of the wear and tear on the site – but if you are lucky enough to be in the area when they are holding their next festival, do not miss it. If you are nearby at any other time, you can arrange to take a tour of this fascinating site by calling or emailing ahead of time. Phone +353 (0) 87 718 9550 Email firstname.lastname@example.org
Beautiful photos and post (half of con jamon is Irish – Wicklow)
Thanks you guys! Yes, I remember one half of you is from Wicklow, you mentioned it when I wrote about the Wicklow beach where St. Patrick first landed (and got a rather stony welcome!) 🙂
This was so interesting!! Do you have any idea how often the festival takes place? You said not every year – but is there a regular rhythm to it (like, every other year or something)? I’d love to see this in person!
As I understand it, Maggie, they have changed the format of the festival. In previous years the festival was multi-day and people would camp out there, unfortunately causing damage to the ancient site. So they took a couple of years off to let the site recover, and just started the festival up again this year. This time, it was a one day only festival with strictly no camping on site, so hopefully that will allow for them to hold the festival annually without causing damage to the site itself.
The festival date this year had to be changed by one week as weather was so bad, so dates can be unpredictable like the weather! as the landowners have great respect for the land and it was a more pleasant experience for festival goers…
Ailsa, sounds like a lot of fun. Thanks for the report and interesting historical facts. I knew of the May bonfires, but not their origin. By coincidence, today I posted a piece about the winter solstice at Newgrange. http://melissashawsmith.com/2015/06/05/palace-of-the-boyne-bru-na-boinne/ Cheers!
Great minds think alike, Melissa. I love Newgrange, but I’ve never experienced a solstice there, have you?
Lucky you were to attend this spectacular event!
It was a wonderful festival, Marilyn, I hope they have many more such events in the future, it was quite magical. xxx
Great photos and a fascinating insight into old myths and legends.
So glad you enjoyed it, Raewyn. xxx Ailsa
This is wonderful, Ailsa – what an experience! I especially love the little ginger girl with the rosy cheeks!
She was such a cutie, TRS 🙂
Wow, I almost got goosebumps just reading about it — what a feast for the senses! You did a wonderful job of helping us experience it through your post’s words and images.
It was an amazing event to experience, Kat, I hope you get to experience it for yourself sometime in the future! 🙂
It must have been an amazing experience! Your photos really capture the spirit of it. I just love that wire horse sculpture. Px
It was stunning to see in person, Patsy, majestic. 🙂
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Great article, grew up in this magical part of Ireland, also spent time in Paros, another magical part of the world…..