Igniting the spiritual midlands
MAGAN'S WORLD: MANCHÁN MAGAN’stales of a travel addict
ALL HAIL THE Irish midlands – the spiritual and geographical heart of the island. For too long it has been dismissed as a forsaken Siberia of bogland and lakes. We midlanders were the runts in terms of culture, economy and investment: Ireland’s dirty secret, yet, at last, our time has come.
Some of the best remains of pre-Celtic, Bronze Age and medieval Ireland are to be found here. The lakes, rivers and canals provide the last bastion of the mythic, elegiac Ireland in which nature reigns supreme. Pioneering companies such as Nativeguide.ie in Co Offaly and Beyond the Blarney in Co Meath are developing entirely new forms of tourism experience.
Bernie Moran of Nativeguide.ie offers mystery tours through the back boreens of Offaly and Westmeath in her Wrangler jeep. This impassioned devotee of creative history invokes the world around you as it was thousands of years ago. As she talks, the bungalows and silage pits fade away to be replaced by the shallow swampy lakes that may once have covered much of this land.
A day spent driving around Clonmacnoise, Clonard and Durrow irrevocably alters one’s understanding of the midlands. One begins to see the raised ring forts and ruined oratories as tiny islands navigable in little basket boats or along the Esker Riada. It’s the unfettered passion and innate understanding of groups such as Nativeguide.ie that is so precious.
Beyond The Blarney, an experiential-tourism company in Oldcastle, run workshops and immersion sessions based around the enviable tourist sites surrounding them; with rock-art painting classes based upon the pre-Celtic swirls hewn into the Loughcrew cairns, and music and story-telling workshops focusing on the matriarchal culture of Sliabh na Caillí.
A coach tour is simply not enough in the midlands, one must really engage with the place, which is why the likes of Beyond The Blarney are so important; using local guides and quirky tutors you become immersed in Lough Derravaragh, Mullaghmeen Wood, Tullynally Castle and the Seven Wonders of Fore.
Perhaps the greatest example of experiential tourism is the Festival of the Fires on the Hill of Uisneach, which seeks to revive the ancient Beltane festival that has been in terminal decline since the arrival of Christianity 1,500 years ago. The lighting of a bonfire on the Hill of Uisneach and the spreading of that fire to the Hill of Tara and then on to promontories right across the island was the annual catalyst for rebirth upon this island.
It is impossible to underestimate the importance of both it and the Hill of Uisneach to the Irish psyche, and the fact that we feel so disconnected from it now shows how far we’ve drifted from our core. Uisneach was the navel of our world, the centre of our firmament, like Tiantan Temple of Heaven in Beijing. Now, it’s a field of grazing sheep.
Yet on April 30th the place will once again come alive with hundreds of fire performers, mounted warriors and Celtic maidens converging on a cliff-high bonfire surrounded by Burning Man-style art works, all-night heritage talks and displays of Celtic sports and farming rites. There will also be music by The Saw Doctors, Republic of Loose, Kíla, Liam Ó Maonlaí, Mundy and others.
The lighting of the bonfire at Uisneach will trigger fires on more than 100 beacon hills in all 32 counties, just like it used to be. The hope is that with it something may be triggered within ourselves, something ancient, a willingness perhaps to reach back and reconnect with our past, with who we are, our land, language, culture.
Is that too fanciful? Don’t doubt the power of the midlands as a place of transformation – those bogs are more than just preservers of torcs and leather satchels, they are energy banks, time sponges, and what is held within them seeks release.