Beltane came and went but no sun rose from the sea. On May 6 the sun broke through but too late and in a piercing winter wind, chasing low flying clouds across the hills. I am still hoping for a clear morning in the next few days, just to see how far the sun has crossed already the mouth of the Foyle towards Inishowen. At the moment it could rise right in the middle, which would be wonderful to see, or closer to either shore than expected.
There was something I read, a refreshing post about Beltane over at vox hiberionacum, which reminded me with the phrase ‘there are the insular traces of a very similar bright, shiny, fiery ‘pagan’ deity/cult/season/metaphor called Lug. But he’s already ‘taken’ for another annual festival’, that something essential may have temporarily slipped my mind, for both festivals, Beltane and Lugnasad, appear to be two different aspects of one and the same. The explanation for such presumption can be found in the solar cycle of the year. The position of each sunrise and set is repeated twice, except for the solstices, when the sun reaches its northern and southern extreme. Imbolg and Samhain, Beltane and Lugnasad plus the two equinoxes are the celebrated opposites, having the same points of sunset and rise in common, separated only by different seasons and therefore, most likely, may have a connection with each other. It is probably more complex than one marks a beginning, the other the end but I suspect strongly an agricultural objective, should such intertwining exist.
Over the long period of the tradition of may fires Beltane was also known by an older name – tein éigin. ( eDIL: éicen – necessity, necessary, compulsion, etc; tene -fire)and neid fire in more recent times, when it is rather curiously described as forced fire for it was ‘produced by friction of wood on iron or wood’. Only the intense spinning of a stick in a hole of a piece of wood is the oldest way of fire making and it has to be concluded that all man made fires are forced and the interpretation of éicen, signifying forced, may be an unfortunate one.
Some aspects of this ancient festival appear to have remained unchanged and required the extinguishing of all old firers in every single household and the lighting of a new, pure fire in a specifically chosen place, often on tops of hills and in some places apparently near ‘old stones‘.
In the 1800’s men, as heads of households presumably, lit the fire ’by friction’ but such sacred act, carrying great responsibility for the coming welfare of an entire community, would have been executed by a person suitable to the weight of this task.
A reminder of this ritual may have survived in the legend surrounding Patrick’s arrival at Tara, when he lit, allegendly and strangely enough, an Easter fire on top of a hill nearby before the druids on a day of assembly in the calendar of an older faith.
Who’s fire was lit first with the torch of the new seems to have reflected the order of rank within society and was carried from house to house until the flame finally reached the last hearth of the lesser cherished. Perhaps a perception prevailed that the strength of the fire reborn will recede with every subsequent rekindling.
According to oral tradition at least one hilltop with ‘old stones’, on which fires were lit, can be found along Lough Swilly called Cnoc na Cashel (Crockacashel, Townland Ballynarry), situated between an appropriate named Ned’s Point and Stragill Beach. Further to the east is another Cashel Hill (Td. Crislaghmore). A rough circular enclosure is located on its summit and according to Mabel Colhoun contains ‘very low remains of a hut site’ (16ft.x12ft.) and would provide a further site for a may fire.
Although being such common occurrence in times past, no hill in Inishowen has been officially attributed for accommodating these fires. If my notions are not too far off than they would have been tribal, territorial; each community, clan, petty kingdom would have had their own spot to carry out purification by fire on these festivals, as well as larger, more important and better remembered sites for overlords and aspiring highkings.
One tale relating to fire lit on a hill in Inishowen has survived and made it in the Three Fragments of Irish Annals in a conversation between Áed Alláin or Uaridnach and St. Mura at Fahan (p.15):
“He was eight years in the sovereignty of Erin, and then his death sickness seized on Aodh Allan and he sent for Mura. Mura came, and the King said to him, ‘O cleric,’ he said, ‘thou hast deceived us, for we have neglected our penance, because we thought, that through thy word it would come to pass that we should be aged in life, and now, methinks, death is near me.’ ‘It is true,’ said the cleric, ‘death is near thee! and thy life has been cut short, and thou hast incurred the anger of the Lord; and tell what thou hast done by which thou hast offended the Lord.’ ‘I will declare,’ replied the King, ‘what I think has offended the Lord: I desired,’ said he, ‘to collect the men of Erin to this mountain to the east; i.e. Carrlaegh*, to raise it, and to erect a very great house upon it; and my wish was, that the fire of that house, every evening, might be seen in Britain and Airiur- Gaeidhel (Argyle); and I know that that was a great pride.’ ‘That was bad,’ replied the cleric, ‘but that is not that what cut short thy life.’
*Carrlaegh – also called in the annals Ard Eolairg
Although this may not necessarily qualify as a story relating to may fires but it is interesting to note that a highking of Ireland, belonging to the Northern O Neills, erected ‘a very great house’ on top of Ard Eolairg, shortly after the defeat of the Cruithne in 561 AD after which Cenél nEógain and Cenél Conaill received the conquered territories of Lee and Ard Eolairg as recompense (Annals of Ulster, AU563.1).
There is one ‘very great house’, on top of a hill, east of Fahan and visible from a considerable distance, which springs to mind.