The ancient tradition of Bealtaine is still celebrated

THE OLD pagan festival of Bealtaine, marking the coming of summer and the season of fertility, is still celebrated at an ancient stone fort at the foot of the Paps mountains, writes Donal Hickey

The ancient tradition of Bealtaine is still celebrated

As they’ve done for millennia, people gathered on May Day at the fort, believed to be up to 6,000 years old, on the Kerry side of Paps, near Rathmore. Known locally and internationally as ‘The City’, the site breathes antiquity and has a mystical aura dating to the time of the druids.

However, it has long since been Christianised. Ghosts of druids may still haunt ‘The City’, but a statue of a blue-mantled virgin and child stands there now.

Mass is celebrated there each year on the Sunday closest to May 1 and, this year, the chief celebrant was Bishop Ray Browne, of Kerry, who recalled how at least 200 generations of people had come there. During May, it’s a place of pilgrimage, with people coming to pray, doing rounds of the fort and using stones to deepen the grooves of crosses imprinted on rocks over the years.

A well just outside the walls is dedicated to Crov Dearg, one of three sister saints once revered in the area. A member of the trio was St Gobnait who is associated with Baile Mhuirne, on the Cork side of the Paps. Sure enough, and again in keeping with time- honoured customs, people crossed the hills from Baile Mhuirne, Cill na Mairtre and other parts of Co Cork to join their Kerry neighbours.

May Day at ‘The City’ was overcast and the invisible Paps were hidden behind a curtain of low-hanging clouds. Due to the cold weather of April, the colours of summer had not yet adorned the rugged landscape. The people prayed for kinder elements and also took home with them water from the well, which is said to bring blessings and disease protection to cattle and other farm animals.

The well is reputed to be holy and we saw several people drinking from it. In an age when water is widely polluted, we asked one flat-capped man if the water was safe to consume. “We’d be dead long ago if it wasn’t”, he replied in a shot, continuing to sup from the spring.

About 150 people were there, some bent over with the weight of years but still faithfully observing tradition. There were also many children and pupils from Shrone national school, just about a kilometre from the site, who did readings extolling the beauty of god’s creation. How lucky they are to live and learn in such an exquisite setting.

The need to protect the environment was stressed by Fr Pat O’Donnell, and the hope is that future generations will guard ‘The City’ and remain loyal to its traditions. The occasion was brought to a close with a spirited rendering of a local song by Paudie McAuliffe.

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