Festival of fire reignites pagan passions

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It’s been more than 1,500 years since fires were lit on hilltops to welcome the summer. MICHAEL HARDINGclimbed Uisneach in Westmeath to witness the tradition return

ON THE WAY up the hill there was a young man ahead of me, wearing sandals and a cloak. He had a fake hatchet and sword strapped to his back. His companion looked like an apache squaw in a blanket. Three boys from Ratharney drank from cans of Druids’ cider, and a helicopter circled the hill.

Four horses passed us, their riders cloaked in maroon blankets, their faces painted black. At the top of the hill of Uisneach in County Westmeath there is a vast saucer-shaped meadow, of more than 40 acres, which was dotted with wicker huts, wigwams, and sculptures of horses and other creatures, made from willow rods. There were stalls selling cider, and roasted pig, potato cakes and rashers. There was a vegetarian soup, a bouncy castle, and hundreds of people eating sausages, and listening to Sharon Shannon.

A motorized glider with blue wings crossed the sky. There was a tent for tattoos and a crannóg on stilts in a pond, and children were running everywhere.

Everyone was unwinding. Phoning each other. Eating bacon. Looking for music sessions. There were ribbons on a hawthorn bush in the middle of a clump of stones.

At 9.30pm the crowd gathered on the highest point of the hill, around a pile of wood that reached 30 feet into the sky and the main act of the drama began.

The red sun was just setting, as a procession of fire dancers with flaming torches, lanterns and masks, came up the slope; fire- throwers and drummers leading the way.

This was nothing like the street parades at arts festivals, where children dress as exotic fish, or dragons from China. This was indigenous, and pagan.

The darkness deepened. The fire dancers approached the top of the hill.

In Greek terms, a conflict between darkness and light was being played out before our eyes.

An invisible antagonist haunted the sky, with the threat of rain, and then enveloped the Earth in darkness. The protagonist was the flame; a source of hope.

And the ordinary folk on the hill were a witnessing chorus. It was as if everyone wanted to remember something other than the dull orthodoxy of Christian history. As if they were reaching back, beyond Corpus Christi days, or Lady days, patterns or pilgrimages, or Bilberry Sundays, to recover a more ancient memory from the collective unconscious; some wild night 1,500 years ago when fires were lit on Uisneach to herald in the summer season, and to invoke good fortune, good crops and a good harvest.

When the stack of wood ignited, the crowd cheered, and the young people found places to sit down; enchanted, in love, or just dazed by the magic of the leaping flames.

Summer had been inaugurated. People sat around the fire as if some fragment of eternity had broken through the night, for everyone.

Teenagers wrapped in blankets, gazed at each other, full of desire, as if they had stepped, not just into summer, but through a portal to some magical “now”, where they were about to enjoy the time of their lives.

Being old, I left them there and walked back down the path, where sculpted angels stood in line with outstretched wings. I passed a boy and girl hugging each other at an upturned barrel of flames, their faces lit like something from Carravaggio’s dreams.

Even as I got into the jeep at the foot of the hill I could hear the screech of the uileann pipes above, tearing the darkness asunder, and far above me, a paper lantern holding a tiny flickering flame, floated in the night sky.

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