Beltane 2014

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.

5 thoughts

  1. Stunning pics, mate! And a lovely read.

    Regarding Bealtaine and Lughneasa being related/opposite ends of an agricultural cycle, I would tend to agree. Many later traditions of both seem to have conflated. Also, a linguistically older name for Bealtaine (also in Cormacs Glossary) is ‘cetamain’, made up of ‘Cet/Cead’ (first) and ‘Samhain’. If there was an insular conceptual ‘first of summer’, then presumably it was to differentiate between a second, or end of, summer. A ‘thanksgiving’, or similar seeking of good fortune for the coming winter, very like the former. And very much like how later Lughneasa comes across in traditions.

    Also, just out of personal interest, the whole Patrician Easter Fire motif is generally misunderstood or taken out of context by many scholars and interested parties. Alas, it has more to do with 7thC metaphors involving legal distraint and formal entry onto land, than anything else. In fact, the hill of Slane, so often cited as the depicted location, has no historical basis whatsoever. The actual (hagiographical) location depicted and named in several early sources was somewhere else entirely.

    Really like the blog, by the way. Been meaning to say how much I enjoyed your examination of the holy well and the way you take a long view of grianan in the annual landscape, while using different, critical, disciplinery angles.

    • Many thanks for such a wonderful comment and I would like to return the compliment. It is not only very enjoyable reading your posts, loved the last one!, I also appreciate the going behind the lines of written ‘history’, which, as it turns out, is so often portraying a picture of a past that never was.

      Apparently I have to brush up on my ancient Irish law. I find it very intriguing that the legend of Patrick and the fire is actually a matter of ‘distraint and formal entry onto land’. Perhaps one day, you can illuminate on this.

      Steering against a much cherished perception can be tough at times but it is the most exciting journey, I have undertaken. Next week there will be a talk here in Buncrana by an archaeologist from QUB, Cormac Mc Sparron, who after two excavations at Elagh Castle (Td. Elaghmore and about 4 miles to the NE of Grianán) has come to the conclusion that this is the site of the royal seat of Aileach.
      Meanwhile at Greenan Hill there sits a National monument, having the wrong name and purpose attached to its wall as well as crafted legends with intent.
      Many questions will result from this and perhaps one day some answers.

    • Cheers mate. Very kind. One day, I hope to be in a position to write it up more coherently.

      There’s something strangely attractive and yet sad about the fragility of Irish folk and social memory re: monuments and landscapes. On one hand, it can retain remarkable continuity of custom and cognition, even if slightly garbled…on the other, it can easily get displaced and assigned to other, later, nearby locations because of changing fortunes and climes over succeeding centuries. All it takes is one influential ‘mover’ at a period when local population is in flux/decline and social memory can be altered just like that. Doesn’t necessarily mean its not a valuable witness, though. Sometimes I think, its more important to chart the corruptions, when we can. Its a form of archaeological stratigraphy…but one which is stratified in time, space, linguistics, folk memory, texts, traditions et al. Sometimes, a corruption can be more revealing towards the original.

      I can think of many examples where earlier sites have been ‘transplanted’ to nearby locations, and one in particular, a church site which bore the same name for centuries. One townland alteration in 1700s and it lost its place, so to speak. Almost forgotten now. Except for a childs recordings in the schools folklore collection in the 1930s, which contains a very detailed description of a specific feature. That description is almost identical to the earliest description of the same, written down over 1300 years ago. That’s the power of folklore. She didn’t know the significance of what she was doing, but it makes all the difference, when viewed in its wider context.

      Cheers again.

      • Just as you posted your comment I had been pondering for some days over Douglas Hyde’s preamble to his Le h-ais na Teineadh (, which I came across recently, and couldn’t help thinking that this must be some considerable coincidence.

        Not much seems to have changed since. At least in your example one recollection did survive into our times of it’s rightful location.
        Although being aware that the roughly 180 years reallocation of the palace of Aileach from Castle Elagh to Greenan Hill can cause confusion in conversations and proves the most lamented obstacle in finding the true name and purpose of the monument on the hill, last Thursday’s talk by Cormack Mc Sparron made me realise, in a way it never had before, the profound consequences and impact this action had.
        To my great disappointment I have not found yet any contemporary accounts from locals, who must have been left at least somewhat puzzled on hearing of the publication of the Ordnance Survey in 1837 and the new arrangements made in it, where the hill they knew as Greenan Gormley and the ruin on it as ‘Ould Forth’, suddenly became the palace of AiIeach, which had been for times immemorial at Elaghmore/Castle Elagh, and the ‘Danish/Ould Forth’ was now called the Grianán of Aileach, a name they never heard of.
        Although John O’Donovan made some inquiries at the time, he sadly and only found that ‘all the neighbours have lost their traditions and their old language’, leaving, no doubt unintentionally, any other avenue and sources unexplored.
        All the stories now and the ever so young traditions surrounding the monument, which has an invented placename by Cú Choigcríche Ó Cléirigh and a location chosen by George Petrie, focus around an ‘academic’ invention, never even considering voices on the ground, and erased in such short time any legend and lore, which may have been still alive then.
        Knowledge is faster lost then gained and I truly hope some traces of it are left, waiting to be found eventually.

        I will be looking forward to your one day and more coherently illumination on Patrick, the fire on a hill and the legal involvements in this matter.

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