Fires on the Hill of Uisneach

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…

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hill of uisneach, fire festival, beltaine, beltane, ireland, travel, travelogue, ailsa prideaux-mooney

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hill of uisneach, fire festival, beltaine, beltane, ireland, travel, travelogue, ailsa prideaux-mooney

… to yoga, gong mediation, story-telling for the little ones, guided history tours for the grown ups and live demonstrations of age-old crafts.

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A great lineup of live music kept the crowd going…

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hill of uisneach, fire festival, beltaine, beltane, ireland, travel, travelogue, ailsa prideaux-mooney

… 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.

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hill of uisneach, fire festival, beltaine, beltane, ireland, travel, travelogue, ailsa prideaux-mooney

hill of uisneach, fire festival, beltaine, beltane, ireland, travel, travelogue, ailsa prideaux-mooney

hill of uisneach, fire festival, beltaine, beltane, ireland, travel, travelogue, ailsa prideaux-mooney

hill of uisneach, fire festival, beltaine, beltane, ireland, travel, travelogue, ailsa prideaux-mooney

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…

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… and rows of fire were lit…

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… while on a nearby mound horses and their riders gathered before their gallop to the great bonfire.

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The ‘Spirit of Uisneach’ heralded the start of proceedings…

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… calling on the horses to ride the field…

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hill of uisneach, fire festival, beltaine, beltane, ireland, travel, travelogue, ailsa prideaux-mooney

… and then ushering in the parade.

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hill of uisneach, fire festival, beltaine, beltane, ireland, travel, travelogue, ailsa prideaux-mooney

When they reached the summit, the great bonfire was lit and fire dancers started circling around the fire.

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hill of uisneach, fire festival, beltaine, beltane, ireland, travel, travelogue, ailsa prideaux-mooney

hill of uisneach, fire festival, beltaine, beltane, ireland, travel, travelogue, ailsa prideaux-mooney

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).

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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 tours@uisneach.ie

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About ailsapm

Hi there! I’m Ailsa Prideaux-Mooney. I’ve lived in many places, and travelled to many more. I had a lot of fun getting there and being there, wherever there happened to be at the time. I climbed a castle wall in Czesky Krumlov, abseiled down cliffs to go caving in the west of Ireland, slept on the beach in Paros, got chased by a swarm of bees in Vourvourou (ok that wasn’t fun, but it was exciting), learned flower arranging in Tokyo, found myself in the middle of a riot in Seoul, learned to snowboard in Salzburg, got lost in a labyrinth in Budapest and had my ice cream stolen by a gull in Cornwall. And I’m just getting started. If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read so far, I’d love you to follow my travelogue - wheresmybackpack.com - and remember, anyone who tries to tell you it’s a small world hasn’t tried to see it all.
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21 Responses to Fires on the Hill of Uisneach

  1. Beautiful photos and post (half of con jamon is Irish – Wicklow)

  2. 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!

    • ailsapm says:

      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.

    • Regina says:

      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…

  3. Melissa Shaw-Smith says:

    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!

  4. ailsapm says:

    Great minds think alike, Melissa. I love Newgrange, but I’ve never experienced a solstice there, have you?

  5. Lucky you were to attend this spectacular event!

    • ailsapm says:

      It was a wonderful festival, Marilyn, I hope they have many more such events in the future, it was quite magical. xxx

  6. Great photos and a fascinating insight into old myths and legends.

  7. This is wonderful, Ailsa – what an experience! I especially love the little ginger girl with the rosy cheeks!

  8. 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.

    • ailsapm says:

      It was an amazing event to experience, Kat, I hope you get to experience it for yourself sometime in the future! 🙂

  9. wildsherkin says:

    It must have been an amazing experience! Your photos really capture the spirit of it. I just love that wire horse sculpture. Px

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  12. Regina says:

    Great article, grew up in this magical part of Ireland, also spent time in Paros, another magical part of the world…..

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