Last Saturday night President Michael D Higgins joined several thousand people on the hill of Uisneach in Co Westmeath where he lit the annual Bealtaine fire.
He follows in the footsteps of, among others, Daniel O’Connell, Padraig Pearse and President Eamon De Valera in making an historic visit to the hill.
It is thought he may be the first Irish leader since the last High King (presumed to be Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair) lit the ceremonial fire almost one thousand years ago.
The Uisneach fire is a tradition going back thousands of years and marks Bealtaine, the traditional start of the Irish summer. Each May an enormous fire was lit on the hill in early May and the flame would be used to light satellite fires across the island.
For thousands of years Uisneach, near Mullingar in the centre of the island of Ireland, was the seat of the High King. It was seen as the political and spiritual centre of the country, a place where the four provinces met and where the goddess Ériu, after whom Ireland is named, lies buried underneath.
Standing at almost 600 feet above sea level, the hill has been a meeting place since prehistoric times, a seat of kings and a scared site of worship, ancient and Christian. It has also been a focal point for political rallies during the struggle for Irish independence.
The hill of Uisneach has numerous surviving monuments, forts, cairns and relics dating back as far as five thousand years. It also links to the ancient road to Tara. Uisneach is mentioned in stories and legends surrounding Fionn Mac Cumhaill, St. Patrick, and the mythic figures of Dagda and Lugh.
Uisneach is currently in contention for UNESCO World Heritage status. It is part of a large working farm owned by David and Angela Clarke who are at the forefront of opening it up to the wider community for the first time in hundreds of years. Saturday also marked the official opening of the new Uisneach visitor’s centre which is the base for cultural tours as part of Ireland’s Ancient East heritage trail.
“Having the President visit the hill and light the fire on this important year for Ireland gives me great pride. It was a truly historic occasion and one that will go down in the history books,” said Mr Clarke who was speaking at the event, which included music, drama, history and archaeology talks, poetry and storytelling.
“This is all part of our shared mission to help reposition the hill at the centre of 21st Century Irish cultural life”.
Campaigner and member of the Council of State Ruairí McKiernan introduced the President and spoke of the importance of Uisneach.
“For me the gathering on the hill is a celebration of community, a coming together at a time of so much suffering, isolation, fear and division. The reawakening of Uisneach is about reawakening a deeper consciousness in our country.
"It’s about lighting the fires of the imagination which are so badly needed in our world today," said McKiernan.