Bealtaine Fires

Uisneach sculpture taken by Máire De Bhál

Uisneach is in Co. Westmeath, it rises to about 600 feet above sea level, and is considered the centre or naval of Ireland. It is primarily a place of assembly associated with the druids and the festival of Bealtaine. Thought to be the burial site of both the Earth Goddess Ériu and the Sun God Lugh and as such is regarded as sacred ground. Its name can be translated as “place of the hearth” or “place of cinders”.  In Irish mythology, Uisneach is the site of a sacred tree (the Bile Uisnig), and a place of assembly (the mórdáil Uisnig) associated with the druids, which, was held during the festival of Bealtaine. I will not have the honour of being there in 2020 and seeing her skirts spread across the body of Ireland, nor be part of lighting her sacred fires, but, I will keep her fire lit.

No less than twenty counties have a line of sight to this ancient place. Furthermore it is the meeting place of five provinces, Ulster, Munster, Leinster, Connaught and Míde, the fifth province being the entrance to the otherworld which can only be accessed at the “cat stone” at Uisneach. This stone known officially as “Aill na Mireann” (the Stone of Divisions) is a sacred, fissured and fragmenting limestone boulder on the south west slope of the Hill. It stands at about 20 feet high and weighs in excess of 30 tonnes. It stands as a symbol of Ireland being united in its divisions, which indeed it is. The divisions were first made by an ancient race known as the Fir Bolg. 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.”

The history and herstory of Uisneach fascinates me. Some texts claim that “Aill na Mireann” was ringed by a stone circle, and some claim that these stones were transported by the Druids to Wiltshire in the UK and make up the circle at Stonehenge. A lot of the myth and legend surrounding Uisneach has bourne true in archaeological evidence, so maybe there is some truth in that claim, who knows? “There are more things in heaven and on earth…”

Cat stone at Uisneach

The royal sites of Ireland served as the seats for the Gaelic kings of Ireland. It is said that each site had a route way from it directly to Uisneach. These sites are; Caisel, Emain Macha, Dun Ailinne, Cruiachain, and Teamhair. Many royal sites served as ceremonial locations for inauguration ceremonies. Prospective monarchs benefited from associating themselves with these places. Uisneach became the seat of the High Kings and it became customary for the claimant to the high throne of Ireland to “marry” Ireland’s founder Ériu at a ceremony on Uisneach. Coupling with the Goddess was what gave them sovereignty. Irish Kings were not ‘crowned.’

The Dagda was Ireland’s Sun God of the Tuath Dé Danann. His primary residence was at Newgrange, but he is also said to have lived at Uisneach. Bealtaine is one of the great sun festivals of Ireland, the others being Imbolg, Lughnasa and Samhain. These are liminal times when the veils between this world and the other world are lifted. The Dagda is said to have stabled his solar horses at Uisneach. The triple war goddesses associated with sovereignty and kingship (Ériu, Banba and Fódla) were closely associated with horses (as well as ravens), and the divinatory king-making ritual of the Druids involved a prophetic sleep sewn inside the skin of a sacrificial mare.

It is the Dagda who secures the services of the goddess of sovereignty. It is the Dagda who sleeps with Morrigan, thus securing the victory of the Tuatha Dé, and it is the Dagda who fathers figures like Brigit and Aine, who act as goddesses of sovereignty. His name “Eochaid” is also indicative of a sovereignty connection, as it is the Horse Goddess who often confers sovereignty to the king; many kings in Irish legend also have the name Eochaid. The Dagda is also known as Eochu Ollathair “Horse Great-Father” generally taken as his “true” name and not a nickname. Archaeologists have discovered these stables on the north flank of the hill, under a wheel-shaped enclosure concealing two souterrains beneath a paved floor in the shape of the divine Mare, pursued by a galloping Stallion. After the Tuatha De Dannan were defeated in battle by the Milesians, they left to go elsewhere while some chose to stay in Ireland. Those that stayed agreed that they must live beneath the earth, and they were led by a great King in the west, Finnbhear son of Dagda, who it was said reared him from a horse.

The roots of Uisneach lie lost in the mists of time but, surviving monuments and relics range in date from the Neolithic, early Bronze Age to the medieval period so it has been a significant site for some five millennia. At this site there is a lake Lough Lugh, where it is said the great harvest God Lugh of Lughnasadh met his fate at the hands of Mac Cuill, Mac Cécht and Mac Gréine, the Sons of Sons of Tuireann. There is a cairn known as “Carn Ludach”  closeby where Lugh is buried. As a warrior of the Tuatha de Dannan, he came to Uisneach to rescue his mother from the tyranny of the evil Formorians. After defeating them and killing their leader, Balor of the Evil Eye, Lugh became king. Lugh was an important a god to the ancient Euro-Celts, he was  the great Sun God of the Irish, patron of Arts and Crafts, leader of the Tuatha de Dannan. Many European cities were named for Lugh such as London, Lïsbon, Loudan, Lyons and others.

Often celebrated as a sovereign goddess, Ériu represents Ireland in the form of a woman. Eriu was one of three sisters, however, neither Banba nor Fódhla are as well known or respected as Ériu. Identified as children of Adam, the sisters are according to the Lebor Gabála “older than Noe… on a peak of a mountain was [Banba] in the Flood.” The only two other people which are said to be this old and to have survived the flood are Tuan mac Carill and Fintan mac Bóchra. Ériu is the woman who gives Conn the cup of sovereignty in “Baile in Scáil.” In the Lebor Gabála Érenn (“Book of the Taking of Ireland”), the Milesians meet the goddess Ériu at Uisneach. Ériu was said to have been the wife of Mac Gréine, a grandson of Dagda. Amergin, King of the Milesians, fought with Queen Ériu. When the Queen was mortally wounded, she asked Amergin to grant her a dying wish; to bury her under Ail na Mireann and name the island after her. Thus Ériu became a Celtic Goddess who gave Ireland its name. The Gaelic name Ériu was later changed by the Vikings into “Ériu’s Land”, or Ireland.

The Hill of Uisneach was connected directly to the Hill of Tara, by the Slighe Assail, one of the five roads that meet at Tara, the modern day R392 mostly follows the course of this ancient highway. The Dindsenchas (“lore of places”) says that Uisneach is where the druid Míde lit a sacred fire that blazed for seven years. The tale Tucait Baile Mongáin (“Mongan’s Frenzy”) describes how a great hailstorm during an assembly on the hill created the twelve chief rivers of Ireland.

The lighting of the Uisneach fire is a ritual practice of rebirth, it signals the igniting fires on many hills across the whole island creating a unique, fire eye, with the Uisneach fire being the pupil. We must all honour this sacred practice.

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