The Bealtaine Fire on the Hill of Uisneach – Royal Site & Sacred Centre of Ireland

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The Bealtaine Fire on the Hill of Uisneach – Royal Site & Sacred Centre of Ireland

One of the most significant dates in the ancient Irish calendar was Bealtaine, the astronomical cross quarter day, marking the midway point between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. This year Bealtaine falls on the 5th of May.

Among the ancient Irish, the year was divided into a light half and a dark half. As the day was seen as beginning at sunset, so the new year was seen as beginning with the arrival of the darkness, at Samhain (Halloween). Bealtaine celebrated the end of the dark half of the year and the coming of the light, again marked by the lighting of great bonfires – Bealtaine literally means ‘bright’ or ‘goodly fire’ in Irish.

There is no other place in Ireland so closely associated with Bealtaine as the Hill of Uisneach in Co. Westmeath. In Irish mythology, Uisneach is seen as both the geographical and sacred centre of Ireland. It is also one of the 6 Royal Sites of ancient Ireland, which have been nominated for UNESCO World Heritage Status.

The site consists of a set of monuments and earthworks spread over two square kilometres. Upon and around the hill are the remains of a Neolithic Passage Tomb, Circular Enclosures, Bronze-Age Barrows & Cairns, Holy Wells & Ancient Roads. However, along with this wealth of archaeological evidence, it is Uisneach’s place in Irish mythology that makes it such a unique and important site.

According to the Lebor Gabála Érenn (The Book of the Takings of Ireland), it is at the summit of the Hill of Uisneach that Ériu, the ancient goddess after whom Ireland is named, gave the land to the Gaelic people. On the southwest side of the Hill, a huge limestone rock known as the ‘Ail na Míreann’ (Stone of the Divisions) is said to be her final resting place. The ‘Ail’ is surrounded by a ring-barrow, a Bronze-Age funerary monument – proof that this strange looking rock, also known as the ‘Umbilicas Hibernia’ (Navel of Ireland), had already been regarded as sacred for Millenia.

As the goddess that personifies Ireland itself, it is said that every High King of Ireland would be symbolically married to Ériu during a ritual known the ‘banais ríghe’ (wedding-feast of kingship), held at Uisneach during Bealtaine. By marrying Ériu (Ireland), the king tied his fortune to that of the land; if there was famine or drought the king could be dethroned or even killed. Despite the High King being the most powerful man in the land, it was Ériu who had the ability to bestow or relinquish that power.

Close to the summit of the hill is a man-made lake or ‘ritual pond’ which was most likely used for the deposition of offerings or even ritual bathing during the ‘banais ríghe’. According to mythology, Lugh, the god-king of the Tuatha dé Danann was drowned in the lake which now bears his name – Lough Lugh (perhaps a cautionary tale for future High Kings, that even a god-king’s power can be taken from him).

Although Uisneach was more of a spiritual centre than political seat, it does have much in common with the other royal sites, including a conjoined ring fort, known as the Palace. This was thought to have been the High King’s residence when he was at Uisneach. As with the other royal sites it is thought that Uisneach was only occupied for a short time each year – most likely during the Bealtaine festivities.

Also known as the ‘Mórdáil Uisneach’ (Great Assembly at Uisneach), we have written accounts of the Bealtaine celebrations at Uisneach from the early Medieval period – although it is thought the assembly pre-dates the written accounts by some considerable time.

According to the Dindshenchas (Lore of Places), the very first Bealtaine fire was lit on the Hill of Uisneach by the druid Míde (the eponym of Meath). The fire burned for seven years and across the land, every chief’s hearth was lit from it. When the other druids objected to Míde keeping the fire ablaze, he summoned them all to Uisneach and cut out their tongues, which he then buried on the Hill.