There are many stories of Beltane. The one told to me last night was that the Hill of Uisneach (“Wish’ neaccccch”) was the center of Ireland, and that the Ail na Míreann, the “stone of the divisions”, was where its four earthly provinces met. It was where Ériu, the spirit of Ireland lived, and it was at this point that – at certain times – one could find a gateway to hers, the fifth province.
The story goes that since time immemorial, the high king of the humans would ride forth from Tara each spring to ceremonially re-wed Ériu and reconsecrate the Irish to her land in a massive bacchanalia of feasting and flame. From that flame, other fires were set on other sacred hills throughout the country.
No, I didn’t just stumble into this year’s Bealtaine by chance. I’m lucky, but (to paraphrase Mal Reynolds), I’m not stupid. I realized that I was going to be in Ireland over Beltane/Bealtane/Bealltainn/Boaltinn/Boaldyn and did my homework to figure out where I wanted to be for it.
These days, Uisneach’s celebration feels somewhat like the organizers of Burning Man decided to have the Ren Faire to end all. But the serious pagan rituals are still honored, and the wise will know to dismiss them at your own peril. Michael Higgins himself, the president of Ireland, has been known to pay homage, assuming the modern day mantle of the old Kings of Tara, coming to light the sacred bonfire and court Ériu.
But there’s blacksmithing and swordfights, plenty of dancing – everything from traditional to reggae and rave. Leaping, bare-chested men painted blue. Travellers – Roma – holding court among themselves along one edge of the fair. Rituals and teachings. Yoga. Yoga? Yeah, roll with it – literally. Enormous organic sculptures rising from the green land. Soft serve ice cream and sausage rolls. Music and drumming erupting unpredictably, everywhere. And, of course, the promise of fire.
Five times, the riders storm the hill, their horses at a dead run. They circle three times, then descend. As darkness falls, they approach on foot. The procession of fire makes its way up the torch-lined corridor, torch-bearers and fire dancers leading the way as the festival’s royalty follows. No Michael Higgins this time, but the ritual king, bearing a crown of antlers, does not look like a man whose authority you would question lightly.
The procession parts and circles, interleaved in opposite directions as song and drumming builds to a crescendo. We all know what’s coming.
This time, for the first time in living memory, the fire will be lit by a woman, representing Ériu herself in the procession. The crowd erupts as the pyre is touched off and quickly grows to an inferno. A wild cyclone of embers swirls frantically and hypnotically into the sky, and those who aren’t drumming or dancing are transfixed. Then flames appear elsewhere – a line of fire horses on the rise below, and a field of dancing flaming points beyond them. Floating pyramids of light appear on the water. Some circle and press in close to the howling bonfire, others are drawn away to these new mysteries.
Below, on what passes for fairgrounds, the closing act has taken the stage, and an Irish rave is in progress. It’s hard not to fret about superspreader events, but at this point, I know that if I’ve not already been exposed, there’s little that would further increase my risk other than a doorknob-licking tour of Grafton Street (I have been antigen testing every three days). I give in and join the fray.
It feels to be hours later when the music dies down and the crowd disperses. Some down the fairy-lit walk to the car park, others to scattered tables and campfires where quieter music still persists. I find myself hauled in to join a lovely woman from Tipperary for midnight tea beneath the hawthorn, and we talk of kids and travel and the progress of camping equipment technology.
I really can’t bear to let the magic end, but I’ve got almost two hours to drive once I leave. We exchange thanks, and a parting glass, then I too follow the fairy-lit walk to return to the mundane world for another year.