The Hill of Uisneach and the Festival of the Fires
“Over 2000 years ago a band of Egyptians were sailing up the River Shannon to attend the great Festival of the Fires which was held each year at the month of May at the Hill of Uisneach. Caesar acknowledged Uisneach and its great festival when he spoke of assemblies and trading at ‘the consecrated place considered to be centre of all Gaul…”
The Hill of Uisneach in Co. Westmeath has played a part in just about every significant Irish event ï¿½ be it political, cultural, religious, mythological and geographical. The centre of Ireland in many ways, the enigmatic hill is one of the most sacred and historic sites in the world.
Although it stands just 180m above sea level, the summit of Uisneach commands extensive panoramic views over the central plain, with no less than twenty counties visible on the horizon. In every direction hills and mountains animate a horizon where green melts into blue, hinting at seas and complete encirclement. It is difficult to match in Ireland the range of prospect from the top. It’s also difficult to quantify Uisneach’s remarkable history.
The roots of Uisneach lie beyond recorded history but its surviving monuments and relics range in date from the Neolithic, early Bronze Age to the medieval period, indicating human activity spanning some five millennia.
The home of the Goddess Ériu and, as such, sacred ground, Uisneach was seen as a gate to the mystical fifth province, Mide, which held the four more familiar provinces together. For centuries, the fifth province was accessed at ‘Aill na Mireann’ (the Stone of Divisions) a sacred, fissured and fragmenting limestone boulder on the south west slope of the Hill. A Glacial erratic, this huge six metre, thirty tonne boulder symbolises Ireland ï¿½ united in its divisions. It has also been known as ‘Umbilicus Hiberniae’, ‘Axis Mundi’, and ‘the Naval of Ireland’. Today, it is the most famous of over forty surviving features on Uisneach, although it is more commonly known as the ‘Catstone’, named so because it resembles a cat watching a mouse. It is under the ‘Catstone’ that Ériu is buried.
It was only natural that Uisneach became the seat of the High Kings in later years and ancient texts state it became customary for the claimant to the high throne of Ireland to ‘marry’ Ireland’s founder Ériu at a ceremony on Uisneach. Brian Boru was one such King. It was said in ancient times that Uisneach divided Ireland into ‘knowledge in the West, battle in the North, prosperity in the East, music in the South and Royalty at the Centre.’ When Tara later became the seat of the High Kings, Uisneach was still the royal centre of Ireland – the meeting point of the ancient provinces where laws were struck and divisions agreed. It was linked to Tara by a ceremonial road, a section of which remains today.
Uisneach’s role as a meeting place dates to pre-history, and many believe it is Uisneach that Caesar referred to as the ‘consecrated place… considered to be the centre of all Gaul.’ Uisneach played a key astronomical role in this period, its sunrise and sunset alignments to other sacred sites too accurate to be coincidental.
Though hidden today, the site of the Ancient Palace confirms Uisneach’s royal legacy. The home of King Tuathal Techtmar in the First Century AD, as well as the O’Neill and Colman clans in later years, it was revealed to be an opulent palace during archaeological digs in the 1920′s.
Dagda, High King and chief of the Dannans, also lived here, and one of the most extraordinary finds on Uisneach was the stable of his ‘solar horses’. These stables lay on the north flank of the hill, under a wheel-shaped enclosure which concealed two astonishing souterrains beneath a paved floor ï¿½ one in the shape of the divine Mare, pursued by a galloping Stallion, their forms similar to the famous White Horse in Berkshire, England.
Many believe that the stones which make up the famous circle at Stonehenge came from Uisneach. Geoffrey of Mommouth’s ‘History of the Kings of Britain’ says Pendragon and 15,000 men were sent to Ireland to defeat the King, Gillomanius, and bring the stones from its most sacred site Mount Killarus (Uisneach is situated in the townland of Killare) to Britain. With the assistance of Merlin they allegedly did just that.
Noted Irish figures such as the legendary warrior Fionn Mac Cumhaill visited the hill. Indeed a well was named in his honour. Coins (including some from ancient Afghanistan) and other artefacts found on the hill suggest that it was an important trading post, something its later fairs and festivals confirmed.
The hilltop lake, Lough Lugh, is said to contain many ancient offerings to the Harvest God Lugh, who is said to have commenced the harvest celebration Lughnasadh (Lï¿½nasa) from Uisneach. The names of both London and Lyon have their origins with Lugh. His festival was one of the four most important festivals of ancient Ireland, the others being Bealtaine, Samhain and Imbolc.
It was in the fifth century that Uisneach was visited by St. Patrick, intent on establishing a church on this most sacred of sites. He was opposed in his mission by the O’Neill clan but he did manage to put a curse on the stones of Uisneach. They have not been of any use ï¿½ heating, washing or building – since. He established a permanent presence here with ‘St. Patrick’s Bed’, his place of worship and resting place constructed over ancient cairns. It is said that St. Brigid received the veil from St. Patrick on the hill, and Patrick also had a well named in his honour. Christianity made a further important mark on the hill in the 12th Century when it was chosen, in 1111, as the meeting place for an important synod which divided Ireland into the Diocese’s still known today.
In more recent years it became a site of political rallies, with Daniel O’Connell, De Valera and Padraig Pearse addressing the masses from Aill na Mireann. James Joyce was a regular visitor, enthralled by Uisneach’s many stories and links to the modern world. Chiefs from Native American tribes have spoken reverentially of Uisneach.
One of the most enduring legends of Uisneach is it was the location for the first fire to be lit in Ireland, lit by one of Ériu’s many sons. To usher in the first dawn of summer in May, the Uisneach hearth burned brightest and biggest of all; visible to over a quarter of Ireland. Hearts were extinguished in every Irish home and fireplace in the country, in anticipation of a new flame from Uisneach’s Bealtaine fire. It must have been an extraordinary sight, with the country plunged into utter darkness ahead of this festival of fire.
Using the flame from Uisneach, fires were then ignited on the other sacred hills of Ireland and on low ground. When lit they created a unique ‘fire eye’ over the island, with Ériu seen to be ‘at home’ and, it was hoped, returning with an entire summer of sunshine.
The Uisneach fire was set in two distinct rings, with a centre fire said to be the ‘pupil’ of this great fire eye. In 1927, an excavation on the hill revealed substantial beds of ash under the prehistoric rings. At 55 metres in diameter the centre was certainly the relic of ‘Ireland’s Eye’.
As the centuries progressed, the great fire became the catalyst for the Bealtaine festival, an annual gathering and fair at Uisneach that continued to early modern times. As well as continuing to feature a giant bonfire, goods were exchanged and sacrifices offered to Gods. It was often the first chance of the year for neighbours to greet each other after a long and often times bitter winter and great celebrations ensued, not only at Uisneach but throughout the country. Feasting, dancing, music, tournaments and lovemaking were all avidly partaken as the festival proceeded.
It became customary to drive cattle through two fires as a preservative to shield them from diseases and accidents. People also walked through the fires, hopeful of a fertility blessing.
Although it faded out, Bealtaine never really died on Uisneach, and for many years a small but devoted following still celebrated it. And now, finally, the rhythms of love and light will once again see Bealtaine celebrated on Uisneach. Reborn and renamed the Festival of the Fires, this unique and magical event took place in May 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 with events getting the festival season, and indeed the Irish summer, off to a spectacular start.
It is taking 2013 off, and it is hoped Festival of the Fires will return in the future.