Monday, May 8, 2017

Rediscovering our magical past at Uisneach

How joyful and deeply symbolic it seemed to see the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, stand with 1,500 people from all over Ireland in a Co Westmeath field on Saturday night.

In one day, we got to see two different Irelands. The one of suspicion, conformity, and fear which was reflected in an allegation of blasphemy which sent shock waves across the world; and the wondrous joy of our ancient customs which came alive on a high plateau.
The Hill of Usineach, as seen from a drone on Saturday night
Photo by Declan Murray, @Skylab

Of course, we weren’t just in any old field. It was here at the Hill of Uisneach, the very heart of Ireland, that our ancestors used to congregate in their thousands every year to celebrate the onset of summer.

Representatives of all the Irish provinces came together at this magical place to light a huge symbolic fire on this plateau 600 feet above sea level where all four provinces, and 20 counties, can be seen on a clear day.

On Saturday, farmers, Druids, Shamen, healers, Christians, non-believers, and the simply curious from all four corners of the land – and some from much further afield – congregated to witness the lighting of the huge fire under a moonlit sky.

As MC Ruairi McKiernan joyfully announced, President Higgins was the first political leader in 1,000 years to light the flame on a sacred hill whose significance had been almost forgotten for generations of Irish people.

After spending two or three hours mingling with the joyous crowd, it felt like a truly emotional reawakening to the joys and wonders of the beautiful culture of our ancestors.

The President’s visit had been scheduled for weeks or even months in advance, but what a significant day, week, and month President Higgins chose to illuminate the sky on the sacred hill.

Earlier the same day, the entire western world was reeling from the news that British comedian Stephen Fry was being investigated by the Gardai for alleged blasphemy.

What had he said to cause so much controversy? On a television show about faith on national broadcaster RTE, he had told host Gay Byrne that he did not respect a God who could cause so much injustice and pain in the world.

“I’d say ‘Bone cancer in children, what’s that about?’,” he said. “How dare you create a world in which there is so much misery that is not our fault. It’s not right. It’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid god who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?”

Hardly earth-shattering stuff, but enough for an anonymous man in Co Clare to report Fry to his local Gardai for blasphemy after watching the TV programme, The Meaning of Life, in February 2015.

On Saturday night, I sat beside a Shaman from Wexford, who regaled me with tales of the wonders of the pre-Christian Irish, and she expressed shock that Ireland had blasphemy laws which date from as recently as 2009.

President Michael D. Higgins lit the flame
on the sacred hill. Photo: Verona McQuaid
What kind of State would consider a criminal investigation and a possible €25,000 fine for a man whose only alleged “crime” was to ask what kind of a god would create a world so full of injustice and pain?

It was hard to believe a British TV star with a love of Ireland, a man who has campaigned in support of our native language, was facing an investigation for criminal blasphemy in 21st century Ireland.

I felt almost embarrassed to be Irish when I was asked about the case by a couple of New Zealanders at the lake near the top of the hill.

In the same week, our TDs (Members of Parliament) voted to retain the daily prayer before Dail sittings by 97 votes to 18. They had rejected a Sinn Fein motion to replace the divisive prayer with 60 seconds of silent reflection.

These same politicians are now wondering whether a United Ireland is on the cards in the uncertain future brought about by the Brexit vote in Britain last year.

The Dail vote and the blasphemy case had forced people to question whether Ireland really was a welcoming place for Muslims, Buddhists, or non-believers in 2017.

So now members of our national parliament can face expulsion for refusing to stand and observe a prayer which ends with the words “Through Christ Our Lord, Amen”.

Hardly a vote which reflects a modern, pluralist, multi-racial state, or an incentive for one million Unionists to join what used to be referred to as a “priest-ridden” state south of the border in the post-Brexit world.

Attending the fire ceremony in the heart of
ancient Ireland. Photo by Verona MQuaid

In the same month, we have seen ownership of the National Maternity Hospital being given over to an order of nuns who have yet to adequately compensate victims of clerical abuse.

And, here in Galway, people are still getting over the shock of last month’s confirmation that 796 “illegitimate” babies may have been buried in unmarked graves.

Nobody knows how many are buried there, or how many may have been shipped off to the US for adoption, because the Bon Secours nuns did not see fit to dignify their burial grounds with their names or some small gesture to remember their short lives.

If Ireland needs to embrace all tribes and people are to live together in harmony in an uncertain post-Brexit 21st century, we could start by learning from our past.

On Saturday, I found myself going back in time by about 2,500 or 3,000 years and, along with hundreds of others, awakening to the joys and wonders of our own indigenous culture.

And wondering why the teachers hardly ever talked about the Hill of Uisneach, and its hugely important place in the Irish psyche, during my days in a Catholic school in the 1980s.
There was a magical atmosphere at the Bealtaine celebrations
which date back thousands of years. Photo by Verona McQuaid

Irish myths and legends almost died with our native language and it’s to the huge credit of local guides like Marty Mulligan and Justin Moffatt that we are beginning to rediscover the wonders of our past.

Justin and Marty run regular tours of the hill throughout the year and organised a spectacular Bealtaine Festival on Saturday night. It seemed only fitting that the President of Ireland was in attendance to be reminded of our island’s spiritual past.

Our ancestors lit huge fires on this particular hill for centuries and it sent a shiver down many a spine to see President Higgins march up the torch-lit hill before illuminating the huge bonfire which had been assembled for days beforehand.

A huge, joyous roar erupted from the crowd, accompanied by hypnotic Shamanic drumming which gave us a real taste of what the atmosphere must have been like up on the hill hundreds or even thousands of years ago.

According to the Book of Invasions, the first Bealtaine fire was kindled by a Druid called Mide, at Uisneach, the navel or centre point of Ireland.

As the fire blazed, four of us sneaked off in the moonlight to the Cat Stone, a 20 foot tall limestone boulder which is said to be the burial place of the Danann Goddess, Eriu, who gave her name to Ireland.

Touching the stone, it felt really emotional to connect with the ancestors at the place where representatives of Ireland’s five provinces (Leinster, Munster, Connacht, Ulster, and Mide) used to meet up to settle their disputes and pass new laws.

The Cat Stone was known as the access point or entrance to Mide, Ireland’s ancient and almost-forgotten fifth province. Mide is now part of Leinster, incorporating counties Meath and Westmeath.

There’s a ringfort, walkways, and an ancient road towards the Hill of Tara spread around the scenic grounds and it was truly magical to stand there in wonder and mingle with friendly people from all over Ireland and beyond on Saturday night.

Visitors to Uisneach are captivated by the hill's connection
to Ireland's pre-Christian past.

In the semi-darkness, a few hundred feet from the huge bonfire, we walked through the field where the wonderful game of hurling was invented. 

It was here the men of the ancient provinces learned to settle their differences with sticks and a ball in perhaps the fastest game in the world.

The Bealtaine festival doesn’t feature any big bands, mad drinking sessions, corporate sponsors, or litter louts, but its mixture of frantic drummers, beautiful singers, and whirling dancers in majestic costumes, really seemed to connect us in an emotional way with our mystical past.

And it seemed really appropriate that our President, himself a poet and a lover of our ancient games, was there to light the fire in this year of all years.

By reconnecting with our magical and mystical ancestors, perhaps we can also discover a future Ireland we can all be proud of, where all sorts of people mix together in joy and harmony in celebration of the wonders of our land.

Uisneach is a place of wonder and joy. So many people commented to me about the magical energy around the site on Saturday night.

It felt as though we were rediscovering a lost past, in a land in which people came together to celebrate their love of stories and song, and somehow, together, all 1,500 of us were coming home.

The Cat Stone: said to be the burial ground of the goddess, Eiru,
who gave her name to what is now called Ireland.

Guided tours of the Hill of Uisneach take place every Wednesday to Sunday. Tours commence from the public car park at 1pm. To book a tour in advance, please check out the website Please note that the sacred site is not open to the public at other times, as it is a private working farm. The guides, Justin Moffatt and Marty Mulligan, are out of this world!

Ciaran Tierney is a journalist, blogger, and digital storyteller, based in Galway, Ireland. To hire a content writer or a social media expert, contact Ciaran via his Facebook page

Here's a feature on Uisneach I wrote for in March:

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