Essays and Such

Irish Cultural Society

of San Antonio Texas


Promoting Awareness of Irish Culture

by C. Austin
May Day inaugurates Celtic Summer

May Day heralds the inauguration of the Celtic summer and the 
great festival of Beltaine, a celebration of fire, fertility 
and the sacred communication between mortal and divine. 

The dire tides of Samhain have passed and the world is awash 
in the ecstasy of nature. The stirrings of life heard at 
Imbolg have matured into the vibrant song of summer inviting 
all to revel in the sensuous delights of love and procreative 
mystery as well as pay homage to the proto-Celtic god Belenus. 

As with all Celtic festivals, Beltaine stands as a turning 
point. The wheeling of time is held fast within the feast name. 
"Belt" refers to white, or the white lunar eye and "Aine" names 
the primary Celtic solar deity, thus the turning of dark to 
light, season to season, and with it, the inevitable decline of
summer into fall. 

A good-natured festival, Beltaine is a season of the open air, 
love and not necessarily conjugal ties. It is not the unmarried 
who are pitied, but the unloving. Young and old gather flowers, 
weave garlands of hawthorn, marigold and rowan and steal into 
the night on May Eve to engage in lusty "greenwood" marriages. 

Unlike the chaotic eeriness of Samhain when divination could 
spell doom, Beltaine was a time of bettering your luck, of 
skimming wells and gathering May dew for health. The fairy 
folk, equally anxious to see the end of winter, travelled 
unhindered twixt the sidhe mounds and the villages, eager for 
a bit of mischief and frivolity. 

Fairs to fete Beltaine were the first chance of the year for 
neighbors to greet each other after a long and oftentimes 
bitter winter.  The principal gathering was held at the Hill 
of Uisneach in County Westmeath. 

Uisneach is the area of the "territorially elusive" fifth 
province of Mide, the mythological Centre or "divine island" 
of Ireland.  Whereas the Hill of Tara was the political centre 
of the High Kings of Ireland, Uisneach is the royal centre, 
the home of the goddess Erui and the sacred ground on which 
humans may engage their gods in the Otherworld. 

It is this fifth province which sustains the tension to unite 
the other four provinces of Ireland, eternally orchestrating 
the divine cycle of events. Mide literally means "neck" and 
it is in this place that body is joined with soul, humanity 
with cosmos. 

At twilight on May Eve, stumbling in the half-light, villagers 
made their way to the summit of Uisneach where two enormous
bonfires filled the sky. On neighboring hills and out onto the 
coasts, ring after ring of double bonfires burned, creating 
an undulating web of "fire eyes" through which Erui could 
again see her land and her people. 

Upon reaching the summit, wind whipping sparks and smoke 
heavenward, the visitor would be stunned by the enormity of 
the bonfire and the lights calling back from the bonfires lit 
out into the horizon. The elemental fire light together with 
unbridled energy of the participants created a transcendent 
space in which communication could pass unimpeded between 
human and goddess - an exchange of gifts between worlds. 

Today a valley road winds by the Hill of Uisneach from 
Mullingar to Athlone. Unlike most sites of significance in 
Ireland, there is actually a road sign marking the spot next 
to a small parking area. The Hill itself is like many in the 
area, peopled only by sheep and holsteins. 

Passing through a stile and walking the path up the side of 
the hill the visitor can be deceived (especially at twilight) 
by several false summits which lead from the path. Approaching 
the actual summit, the wind picks up and although clouds of 
night are gathering, the view is as panoramic as it was 
centuries ago. 

The remains of an earthen embankment, now the home of gorse 
and bushes, circle the area of the summit. The bank and ditch 
are thought of neolithic construction and enclose the bonfire 
sanctuary of a prehistoric goddess religion. Excavations of 
the summit area have revealed an enormous layer of ash from 
the annual bonfire rituals. 

On the way to the summit I wondered if Erui had left her home, 
if the Old Ways were gone. There were no crowds gathered here
- at the very centre of the pagan Celtic world, only a few 
people here and there moving around the darkened hill. 

Reaching the sanctuary with my companion, candle in hand, I 
stood to face the view which in past years would have seen 
great bonfire web. With no bonfires to greet us, the horizon 
was darkening fast. The wind swirled to embrace us and the 
atmosphere became thick with the collective memories of all 
those who must once have set foot on this summit at this sacred
moment of Beltaine. In an instant an ineffable rapture came 
upon me, an overwhelming sense of welcome and primal unity with
this goddess Erui. 

The Old Ways are not gone, they are vibrant and patiently await 
our summons in the heart-fires of this season. Welcome Beltaine,
welcome Erui.