A fire burning in Ireland’s heart

This weekend’s festival at the Hill of Uisneach will celebrate the site’s ancient past, writes Caomhán Keane

MANY’S the person who’s made the pilgrimage to the Hill of Uisneach in Co Westmeath, the geographical and sacred centre of Ireland and final resting place of the god who bequeath us our name. Brian Boru staked his claim to the midlands there in the year 999 while in 1111 the bishops carved up all the diocese of Ireland at that very spot. Saints Patrick and Bridget have been; Padraig Pearse and O’Connell too. Recently unearthed evidence even suggests ancient Egyptians and Lebanese traders sailed up the Shannon to do business there.

This weekend it’s Bressie’s turn when he plays his biggest solo gig to date at the fourth Festival of Fires. Revived in 2009, it’s part music festival, part historical celebration, based on the ancient Celtic festival Bealtaine, where “Burning Man meets Braveheart”. Arts, culture, history and heritage mingle at this druidic spot, culminating in the burning of a massive bonfire.

“It was a celebration of life and land and the union of mankind with mother earth,” says Brigid Geoghegan, one of the historians who will help inform punters of the area’s significance. When winter was over, the livestock were driven between the fires to herald a season of hope — for fertile animals and a good harvest. That act will be recreated at this year’s event when 100 bulls will be walked between the fires. They’ll be joined by 100 men and women in warrior garb on horseback, as folk from all spiritual walks of life — witches, wizards, Christians, Buddhists — gather to celebrate the start of summer.

“It appeals to a wide range of spiritualities,” says Ruth Illingworth, historian and& local county councilor. “It’s a significant sacred site, where the royal assembly met in ancient Ireland, where kings were inaugurated and all the divisions came together to settle disputes.”

There are over 40 monuments on the hill — including sacrificial sites and barrows. An ancient road to Tara was unearthed in the 1930s, while right up on the summit of the hill is St Patrick’s Bed with its specacular views of the surrounding area.

The most significant place on the hill is what is known as the Catstone, where meetings were reputedly held to resolve the problems of the kingdoms of Ireland. “The rock itself is left over from the last Ice Age and, underneath it, the goddess of Ireland who gave her name to this country, Ériu, is said to have been buried,” says Illingworth.

Not that the festival is just for the erudite. There’s food, drink and music with performances ranging from the traditional (Kila, Donal Lunny) to the modern (Royseven, Jape) with the Kilfenora Céilí Band also on the bill. There are children’s areas, craft and food fairs and displays of ancient hunting and sporting practices.

The highlight of the festival is, of course, the ceremonial lighting of the fires. “At about 9.15, the fires will be lit after a huge procession from the site of the old palace,” says Illingworth. This blaze will be the cue for the fires to be lit on neighbouring hills, as was done in ancient times.

“The first fire was always lit at Uisneach. And then there were fires on every sacred or royal site around the country.” Last year a fire was lit in all 32 counties and by emigrant Irish as far away as the USA and Jordan. “It was incredible to see fires springing up all over the place. I counted at least 10 in the first 15 minutes after the Uisneach fires were lit.

The lighting of these great fires died out with the birth of Christianity, which absorbed many of the pagan festivals (as seen by the proximity of Easter to Bealtaine and Christmas to the winter solstice) but Uisneach remained an important site to what Geoghegan calls a “raggle-taggle group” of people who travelled there throughout the year.

“They mightn’t have done the very obvious stuff, like lighting the fires, but it would have been something personal to them.”

In 1919, Sinn Féin held a huge rally at the spot, attaching the tricolour to the Catstone, while three years later the same stone was desecrated by Catholics who felt this pagan place held too much power over Irish people.

After plans by a local businessman to turn the area into a themed park in the 1970s failed, it wasn’t until this century, when the land passed to David and Angela Clark, that any moves were made to celebrate the area in a more regular fashion. “The hill was their private land and they came to me and said they wanted to do a festival,” says Paddy Dunning, owner of a local recording studio. “We unearthed information about Bealtaine and we decided to take that as our template.”

Proudly independent, sponsor-free and non-commercial, it started as an invite-only event, with performances from local musicians before growing to the 5,000 capacity it holds today.

The event uses as little electricity and plastics as possible and puts plenty of sand down so the fire doesn’t scorch the earth. “Every one clears their site after and walks away with rubbish,” says Dunning, before reflecting on the event’s importance. “The Native Americans referred to the hill as being the capital of the Western World. We are just trying to keep all this tradition alive. ”

The Festival of the Fires takes place on the Hill of Uisneach in Co Westmeath on Bealtaine, Saturday May 5.

See www.festivalofthefires.com


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