The Sacred Flame of Bealtaine and Uisneach
When the sun begins to rise on this morning a flame will be lit signaling the beginning of Summer and blessing the fertility of the upcoming harvestide……
The Bealtaine Festival was often the first chance for neighbouring tuatha to greet each other after the long winter months and great celebrations ensued. Goods were exchanged and gifts offered to the various Gods and Goddesses.
Feasting, dancing, music, tournaments and trade were all avidly partaken in as the festival proceeded. It was also customary to drive cattle around the fire with the belief that the smoke from the sacred fire would protect them from harm.
The Bealtaine Festival was revived on the Hill of Uisneach in 2009 and todays’ festival remains much as it was in ancient times, a chance to meet old friends and make new ones. A family-friendly event that welcomes all the different tuatha to celebrate the beginning of summer at the sacred centre of Ireland. In 2017, the ceremonial fire was lit by the Uachtarán (President) of Ireland, Michael D Higgins; making him the first Irish Head of State to do so since the last Ard Rí or High King, nearly a thousand years ago. Introduction to President Michael D Higgins on Hill of Uisneach – by Ruairí McKiernan – YouTube .
The origins of Uisneach lie far beyond recorded history with surviving monuments and relics dating from the Neolithic (3700-2500 BC) and Bronze Ages (2500-500 BC) which confirm its ceremonial status in pre-historic times. There is no definitive translation of the word Uisneach as it likely predates the Irish Gaelic language. It is translated as “place of the hearth” or “angular place”, indicating a ceremonial sanctuary.
In early written sources, the area in which Uisneach is located, is recorded as ‘Mide’, meaning ‘middle’. Originally a name for the hill itself (i.e. Uisneach Midi, the ‘hearth’ at the centre), over time the territory expanded to become the medieval Kingdom of Mide which gives its name to the modern counties of Meath & Westmeath.
The first known map of Ireland, created by the Greek cartographer Claudius Ptolemy in 140 A.D. is thought to have shown Uisneach (which Ptolemy called ‘Reba’) at its centre. It is just above Annica in small writing in the picture below.
Since pre-Christian times the hill has been regarded as the ceremonial & sacred centre of Ireland; the meeting point of the ancient provinces, where laws were struck and divisions agreed. In later years, when Tara became the political seat of the Ard Rí of Ireland, Uisneach retained its position as the country’s spiritual centre.
It was customary for the Ard Rí to ritually ‘marry’ the sovereignty Goddess (representing the land) at an inauguration ceremony known as the ‘Banais Righe’ (wedding feast of kingship). This ceremony may have been part of the ‘Ard Fhéis Uisneach’, a great assembly and fair held at the beginning of Bealtaine when the great fire was lit on the hill to mark the onset of summer.
In the first millennium AD, Uisneach became the chief residence and assembly site of the Clann Cholmain kings, who ruled over the Kingdom of Mide with some even becoming Ard Rí of Ireland. The last of these was Máel Sechnaill Mór, who became Ard Rí in 980. His reign lasted until 999, when Brian Boru came to Uisneach to claim sovereignty over Mide and ultimately the Ard Rí of Ireland. However, after Brian’s death at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014, Máel Sechnaill was re-instated as Ard Rí and reigned until his own death in 1022.
As well as royalty, Uisneach was the residence of important families of poets. Taigh Mór O Coffey, described as being ‘Chief Poet of Ireland and Scotland’ was born at Uisneach in the mid-sixteenth century. In the 19th and early 20th Centuries, Uisneach was the site of great political rallies, with Daniel O’Connell, Padraig Pearse and Eamonn De Valera addressing huge crowds from atop the Ail na Mireann (the famous landmark stone). The famous Irish writer James Joyce was a regular visitor, enthralled by Uisneach’s many stories. He later mentioned the hill in his novel ‘Finnegans Wake’, referring to Ail na Mireann as ‘the mearing stone’.
I won’t be able to attend the festival in Uisneach myself this coming weekend as I have family commitments but will be travelling to ‘Na Séisear’ at Beenalaght in North County Cork (you may have seen the video) and will be conducting a personal decompression at the oncoming sunrise. Hopefully, the weather will be better than it was at Castlenalacht last Winter Solstice. Andrew (Filtiarn) and I have discussed the unnecessary need to build our own fire pits for ritual purposes. It would be poor judgement with the current climate. I will be on private land and I don’t think the farmer would welcome the idea of me burning a piece of his property. Filtiarn will be conducting a group ceremonial decompression at Brockholes Stone Circle in England which is a Nature reserve, and I don’t think fires are welcome there either. I will be symbolically lighting a candle just before the sunrise.
Bíodh spraoi agaibh ar an lá naofa seo agus beannachtaí Bealtaine oraibh féin agus ar do chlainne.
Seán Ó Tuama.