Ancient gods over Westmeath must have been pleased with Bealtaine celebrations in the mythical centre of Ireland when they held back the rain clouds over thousands of festival goers.
The highlight of Saturday’s Festival of the Fires was the lighting of the symbolic Bealtaine fire at the summit of the Hill of Uisneach, near Mullingar, a signal to people on more than 30 hills across Ireland to light fires and unite in celebrating summer.
It was the first time in 1,400 years that such a band of people gathered at the gateway to the mystical fifth province of Ireland and seat of former high kings to reconnect with an almost forgotten part of Irish culture.
“We’re reclaiming something - the banks might be taking our money, but we’re reclaiming the spirit,” Kíla musician Rossa O’Snodaigh told a cheering, reinvigorated crowd who had come down from the summit moments earlier.
His sentiments were echoed by local man Pat Kincaid, who believes that “the way times are, we’re gone too far advanced. We have to go back in terms of reclaiming our culture.”
He’s been visiting the site since he was a child growing up in nearby Ballymore and described the festival as “brilliant”.
“It’s very ancient to us. People lived here for thousands of years before us and it’s almost a forgotten area. But it’s such a sacred place and it’s wonderful to see all the young people here as well,” he added.
Pat Farrelly from Trim in County Meath, also said the event meant something really important to him.
“It evokes thoughts of what must have happened here many, many thousands of years ago,” he said. “So many people came together then with this feeling of bonding with our traditions and our heritage and our culture.”
David Clarke, who owns the Hill of Uisneach was delighted with the turnout at what he describes as “one of the most important places in the western world.”
He shrugged off criticism levelled at the festival in recent weeks that it is exploiting and possibly damaging to archaeological heritage.
“You’ll always have criticism, but it’s a four hundred acre site,” he said, adding that he was confident any damage could be repaired. “Land lives, it breathes, it will mend, it’s good.”
He described the event as magical. “Everybody has a smile on their face, everyone is happy, everyone loves it here.”
However there was sadness for those who walked the path lined by symbolic angels, one of which had been designed by the late Gerry Ryan.
The concept of the design painted by students of IADT was that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. Festival-goers described the angel as “gorgeous,” and spoke of their devastation at the loss of a friend.