The most important–and most dangerous–Easter in centuries took place the first week in May, AD 433. That was the date agreed on by most historians when St Patrick, then Bishop Patrick of Armagh, lit his huge conflagration on the Hill of Sláine. Only moments later, apparently, the fires of Beltane sprang into the night sky to rival Patrick’s, lit by the druids of High King Leary himself on the sacred Hill of Tara 10 miles away.
Why were the fires so important both to the pagans and to Patrick? Why would this particular date from the long ministry of Patrick be remembered 1500 years later?
To begin with, as most people know, the Festival of Beltane was one of the two most important observances in the Celtic year. It signified a time of rebirth, the eternal renewal of life. The other–equal and opposite–was Samhain, six months later, the symbolic end of the year, of the death of what once lived. The birth/death cycle figures as part of probably all religions, no matter where in the world, wherever signs of spring and winter give mankind alternate hope and despair.
Beltane belonged to Bel, the Sun, and figuratively the Sun of God. Patrick knew that well, and he knew all the subtleties of the religion of the pagan Gaels. . . . His own fire would be lit instead to glorify not the Sun of a god, but the Son of God.
Patrick had arrived in Ireland probably the previous year, consecrated Bishop and sent by the Pontiff himself to spread the word of Christ. Patrick apparently wasted no time at all inserting himself in the volatile politics of the day. He had been a slave some twenty years earlier and knew both Gaelic and the druidic rituals. In fact, his master had been a High Druid.
So it is probable that Patrick planned the Easter fires several months in advance of Beltane. The fires themselves were made of huge piles of detritus–chunks of peat, old cow hides and pieces of horn and hooves, human waste–all the stuff that we in this modern world call “garbage.” Anything that would burst into flame was set into huge piles, all over Ireland. There are theories that this ritual burning was a natural way of clearing the country of possible disease.
And so Patrick must have directed the building of a huge fire a mere ten miles away from the sacred hill of High Kings, the very Tara where kings and sons of kings had ruled Ireland for countless centuries. A fire set that close would be seen, and no doubt reviled, by the King who lived so close and who forbade any fire be set at the same time as his own.
Patrick was, in a word, stubborn. He must have known that only a huge conflagration would be seen and become legend in this land of Kings and Druids. And so he planned for months. And before the fires of High King Leary could be lit, Patrick gave the signal to light his own.
And all, er, heck broke loose.
Here is the scene, as captured by Erin O’Quinn in my second novel The Wakening Fire.
Liam turned to me. He leaned across and caught my lips inside his warm mouth, withdrawing with an effort. “Cat, me father will direct the lighting of the fire. Come outside.”
We left the hall hand in hand before the others had completed their dinner and before the king stood, the signal for everyone to leave. “Take you to see the fire of Beltane,” he said. We walked in the approaching twilight around the twin hills of Tara, opposite to where the mead hall stood on a low rise.
“I remember this spot,” I told Liam. “This is where the king pronounced his judgment. Yes, there is the Lia Fáil, the stone of destiny.”
“Tall fire to be lit…there,” said Liam, directing my gaze to the horizon where I knew stood the huge, white, earthenwork structure I had seen last September. Torin had called it Sí an Bhrú, and I knew it was almost as ancient the hills themselves.
“Important,” said Liam. “Older than druids. Me father…stand here, by the stone, the Lia Fáil. His signal starts the fire.”
“Let us be sure to stand close to him, Liam. I know he will be angry. You and Torin must stand ready to respond.”
He put his arm around my shoulder and brought me close against his body. “Not worry, Cat. Torin comes. I see Father, and a crowd. We…almost ready.”
The sun had not yet set, but I saw that we were only minutes away from seeing its shining orb disappear under the far hills. Leary stood with a score of white-robed, bearded priests—his latest collection of druids. Torin and Swallow joined us. “When the druids drop their hands,” Torin said, “Father will take his cue. He in turn will signal, and his order will be carried along the entire distance, passed along to those tending the fire.”
I saw that not only those from the mead hall, but thousands of people had already converged on Tara’s twin hills and spread over the surrounding area. Unusually for such a large crowd, there was absolute silence. It was as though everyone awaited the druids’ signal, and Leary’s royal command.
The druids, dancing around the Lia Fáil, had their hands raised to the setting sun. But before their hands dropped to their sides, a loud shout escaped Leary’s mouth, and I looked where he looked. I saw a blaze not on the site pointed out by Liam, but beyond, on the distant hill of Sláine, ten miles away. It seemed to light the entire sky, and I began to tremble.
Just then, the druids dropped their hands, and Leary shouted again. This time, after the space of a score of heartbeats, another huge blaze tore at the evening sky. This was the king’s fire. It was, in a sense, the rival fire, the adversary of Christ.
Was it bigger, and better, than Patrick’s? Who in the world would know? I knew only that the king was wild with rage. I pulled at Liam’s hand, and we ran to where the king stood with his small army of druids.
I heard a brief exchange among them, and I turned to Torin, who stood at my other side. “Tell me,” I implored him.
Torin’s eyes were clouded. “Father asked who would so dare defy the law. His druids spoke as one. ‘The priest called Patrick. And unless ye stop him now, the fire ye see before ye will never be quenched.’ And then Father called for his immediate arrest. He is to be brought here shortly.”
I bowed my head, and the sobs began deep in my stomach and rose to my throat, stopping my words and my very breath. The last thought I remembered was, “O God, bless Patrick.” And then my world went dark.