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In the Irish calendar, Bealtaine (believed to be derived from the Irish words for ‘bright fire’) marks the beginning of summer and the reawakening of the earth. It is a time we feel the drive to be out moving under the sun, to move with passion and feeling within our bodies as we see and feel the summer birth and flourish all around us. It is a time we can truly (and finally!) say goodbye to the winter.
I think it is always helpful to look at the cycles our ancestors honoured and why they did so and take the elements that resonate into our own practices, relevant for our own individual journeys and modern life.
In Celtic Ireland, Bealtaine was a time that our ancestors celebrated and worshipped the life-giving qualities of the sun. It was a time that the sense of teeming life we can feel around us in nature- which feels truly electric here in Wicklow today- was honoured, and that wild feeling of finally attaining freedom from the long winter is honoured.
As at Samhain, which is opposite to Bealtaine in the calendar, it was a time for fire ceremony. Bonfires were lit to honour the sun and the life the sun supports, and this practice still continues today- the Hill of Uisneach being the most famous of them.
It was also a time that many fertility rituals were performed and the wildness of sensuality, touch, dance and inner fire were embraced and explored at the bonfires and in wooded areas by wild women and couples alike.
There are folk tales that young women collected the morning dew and washed their faces with it on the morning of May 1st as a way to stay fair. I was taught to connect to all the elements at the fire ceremony and give gratitude for their life-giving qualities, a practice I still continue on this day in my own sacred way.
Honouring the essence of all or parts of this beautiful moment in our annual cycle can be truly nourishing and joyful. On May Day in 2004 one of Ireland’s most notable poets, Seamus Heaney, honoured the day with the following poem*:
Beacons at Bealtaine
Phoenix Park, May Day, 2004
Uisce: water. And fionn: the water’s clear.
But dip and find this Gaelic water Greek:
A phoenix flames upon fionn uisce here.
Strangers were barbaroi to the Greek ear.
Now let the heirs of all who could not speak
The language, whose ba-babbling was unclear,
Come with their gift of tongues past each frontier
And find the answering voices that they seek
As fionn and uisce answer phoenix here.
The May Day hills were burning, far and near,
When our land’s first footers beached boats in the creek
In uisce, fionn, strange words that soon grew clear;
So on a day when newcomers appear
Let it be a homecoming and let us speak
The unstrange word, as it behoves us here,
Move lips, move minds and make new meanings flare
Like ancient beacons signalling, peak to peak,
From middle sea to north sea, shining clear
As phoenix flame upon fionn uisce here.
I think as society as a whole moves further from true community and being in touch with Mother Nature, more individuals seem to be sparking awake to her power and the importance of the ancestral traditions and rituals to support our journey here on Earth. And my hope is those sparks I see igniting around me gather to a ‘bright fire’, as it seems to me to honour our true nature that is OF nature is the only way forward for humanity.
I hope you find something fulfilling and nourishing in the action of tuning in to the summer buzz around you and allow your body to move in nature as you wish!
*The words for ‘clear water’ in the Irish language (Gaeilge) are ‘fionn uisce’ which sounds a little like ‘phoenix’ in English. Some say the Phoenix Park which is a giant park in Dublin was actually called ‘Fionn Uisce’ and as our place names got anglicised, it was named Phoenix Park. Seamus Heaney plays with this throughout the poem.