The Celtic Festival of Bealtaine/Beltane which marks the beginning of summer in the ancient Celtic calendar is a Cross Quarter Day, half way between the Spring Equinox and the Summer Solstice. While the Bealtaine Festival is now associated with 1st May, the actual astronomical date is a number of days later. The festival was marked with the lighting of great bonfires that would mark a time of purification and transition, heralding in the season in the hope of a good harvest later in the year, and were accompanied with rituals to protect the people from any harm by otherworldly spirits, as well as, the movement of animals to summer pastures.
The earliest mention of Bealtaine is in Old Irish literature from Gaelic Ireland. According to the early medieval texts Sanas Cormaic and Tochmarc Emire, Bealtaine was held on 1st May and marked the beginning of summer. The texts say that, to protect cattle from disease, the druids would make two fires “with great incantations” and drive the cattle between them.
The name Bealtaine derives from the Irish meaning ‘Bright Fire’. Pre-Celtic and Celtic traditions involve the lighting of fires at Sunset. Tonight the dark half of the year ends and the bright half begin. The biggest Celtic festivals in Ireland fall on Cross Quarter days which mark the astronomical half way point between the equinoxes and the solstices.
At the Beltany Stone Circle, located just south of Raphoe, Co Donegal, the sunrise at Bealtaine is aligned with the only decorated stone in the circle which dates from around 1400-800 BC and comprises 64 stones around a low earth platform, situated at the summit of Tops Hill. According to the National Monument Information plaque at the site there may have been about 80 standing stones originally. The Beltany Stone Circle gets its name from Bealtaine.
The Hill of Uisneach is an ancient ceremonial site in Co Westmeath and in mythology it is the centre of Ireland and is closely associated with the festival of Bealtaine. Ail na Míreann (stone of divisions) stands on the hill and was the very point deemed the mystical navel of Ireland. It also stood as a meeting point of the five original provinces of Leinster, Munster, Connacht, Ulster and Meath. Tradition tells that Bealtaine fires were lit and Druidical ceremonies held on the hill. In the Lebor Gabála Érenn, the Nemedian Druid Mide lit the first Bealtaine fire there. This fire it was said could be seen from the Hill of Tara and when those at Tara saw it, they lit their fire. The medieval Dindsenchas includes a tale of a hero lighting a holy fire on Uisneach that blazed for seven years.
According to a popular passage from the same record, Ériu, a tutelary goddess sometimes seen as the personification of Ireland, meets the invading Milesians at Uisneach where, after some conversation and drama, the Milesian poet Amergin promises to give the country her name.
Ancient cultures such as the Neolithic (Stone Age) people who built Newgrange aligned their monuments to the major solar events, the Winter Solstice, the Spring Equinox, the Summer Solstice and the Autumn Equinox. The solar year was further divided to mark the half way points between the major solar events giving the cross quarter days of Imbolc, Bealtaine, Lughnasadh and Samhain.
Photo: Gathering at Uisneach, Co Westmeath