Fires glowed on more than a dozen hilltops across the Midlands as Westmeath launched its newest festival on the legendary Hill of Uisneach to celebrate May 1 Bealtaine.
It was a sight to behold as the night sky was lit up in the way our ancestors thousands of years ago would have celebrated at the very heart of Ireland.
The first fire of Bealtaine was traditionally lit on the hill between Mullingar and Athlone and taking their lead from those on one of the most historically important sites in the country, families on neighbouring hills would have lit their own, with a ring of fire rippling across the land.
Last weekend fires were seen in nine counties of the 20 visible from the hill on a clear day.
The launch, which was attended by hundreds of locals and specially invited guests sees the beginning of The Festival of the Fires, an eco-friendly arts, music, and culture festival which will take place in the area on the May Bank Holiday weekend in 2010.
And with guests like John Reynolds of Electric Picnic fame, Kila, and Liam O'Maonlaí attending the launch, the festival looks set to take its unique place on the calendar.
Organiser Paddy Dunning, of Grouse Lodge Recording Studio paid tribute to Angela and David Clarke, owners of the hill who are supporting and encouraging the festival. He described how events will happen in harmony with the hill and its environment.
“This will be a national arts festival, and we intend to light fires on all 32 of the country’s highest peaks as part of it. We want to spark the Irish imagination with a gathering, and a festival unlike any other,” he said.
A thousand lanterns lit the routes to various important sites and, unusually for a historical tour of any kind, the crowds hanging on the words of historian Ruth Illingworth grew bigger as she led a trail across the hill, telling magical tales of St Brigid and Patrick and the lives of the ancient Irish for whom Uisneach was at least as important as Tara.
She also highlighted the role of the various gods worshipped by the ancient Irish and pointed out Loch Lúgh, named for the god of light and the harvest whose legacy has survived in place-names like London.
One of the hill’s most famous landmarks is the Catstone or Aill na Mireann which is shaped like a cat pouncing on its prey and is the legendary site of the burial of the goddess Eriu.
Capturing the mood of ancient celebrations, mellow guests drank hot, spiced apple juice and ate pork roast on a spit, while horsemen in ancient costumes roamed the hillside and musicians played traditional music.