Michael D. Higgins First Leader to Light Uisneach Fire in 1,000 Years

President Michael D. Higgins lights the ceremonial fire at the Hill of Uisneach. Photo courtesy Justin Moffat / uisneach.ie

By Adam Farley, Deputy Editor
June / July 2017

In May, Irish President Michael D. Higgins became the first Irish leader to light the ceremonial fire on the hill of Uisneach in County Westmeath since the last High King (presumed to be Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair) nearly 1,000 years ago.

Higgins follows in the footsteps of previous modern Irish leaders to make the pilgrimage to Uisneach, including Daniel O’Connell, Pádraig Pearse, and President Éamon de Valera, though none participated in the ignition ceremony. The Uisneach fire is a tradition dating back thousands of years to mark Bealtaine, the beginning of the Irish summer, each May. Several thousand people joined President Higgins for the 2017 ceremony.

In ancient Ireland, the hill at Uisneach was the seat of the High King, as well as the spiritual and political center of the island where Ireland’s namesake, the goddess Ériu, is said to be buried and leaders of the four provinces would meet. It was also an important focal point for political rallies during Ireland’s fight for independence. The site, which has been privately owned for nearly 100 years and contains several surviving monuments, forts, cairns, and relics dating back 5,000 years, is currently in contention for UNESCO World Heritage status.

“Having the president visit the hill and light the fire on this important year for Ireland gives me great pride,” David Clarke, said. Clarke and his wife Angela own the farm on which Uisneach sits. “It was a truly historic occasion and one that will go down in the history books. This is all part of our shared mission to help reposition the hill at the center of 21st-century Irish cultural life.”

Higgins’s visit in May also corresponded to the opening of a new visitor’s center on the site, set to become part of Ireland’s Ancient East Heritage Trail. ♦

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