President Michael D. Higgins led the Bealtaine celebrations on the Hill of Uisneach, Co. Westmeath, in May 2017. Although other leaders like Daniel O’Connell and Eamon de Valera visited the site, it is thought the president was the first leader to light the ceremonial fire since the last high king of Ireland (presumed to be Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair) almost 1,000 years ago. ANTHONY KANE/ROLLING NEWS.IE
By Maura Mulligan
Bealtaine marks the beginning of summer in Ireland. Traditionally, a fire was lit on the hill of Uisneach in Westmeath to welcome the bright season. The custom was revived some years ago and since then has drawn large crowds. This year, it was reported that the tradition continued but with only the hill keeper’s family in attendance. The Clark family hoped the fire would signify the bringing of light into darkness.
“Hope” was the theme for our Nollaig Na mBan NY virtual celebration of Bealtaine 2020. Preparations this year excluded renting a space to hold the event and assigning members of the team to bring refreshments for the welcome table. With a focus on poetry and dance, planning did involve the usual bringing together of generous artists willing to donate their talents to an audience with an awareness of people who need a roof over their heads – our charity - The Dwelling Place of NY – a transitional shelter for homeless women in Manhattan: https://thedwellingplaceofny.org
Singer/songwriter, John Munnelly’s “Candle in the Dark” was the perfect start to our virtual celebration. John didn’t have a pandemic in mind when he wrote the song, but hearing the chorus “everything is gonna be alright” must have sent a glimmer of hope to listeners: https://youtu.be/O5aurjnGFwg. John followed with a passionate performance of “Angels’ Tears” and continued with “Oisean” which tells the tale of a return from Tír Na nÓG – the land of youth. The song fit the occasion because like Oisean, nothing will be the same for us when we attempt to return to the world as we knew it.
When my cousin Judy joined us from her home in Galway, she shared “Isle of Hope, Isle of Dreams,” a song that tells the story of the first person to enter America through Ellis Island (a young Irish girl), and talks about starting over in a new place. Judy captured our admiration as she sang to us across the miles. It was another reminder that like Annie Moore in the song, we’ll all need to start over in a new way.
We remembered the late poet Eavan Boland who broke the mold of Irish poetry by making women’s experiences central to her poems. In a tribute to her, Deputy Consul General Eimear Friel read “The Black Laced Fan My Mother Gave Me.” Eimear remarked that in the poet’s eulogy, her daughter Eavan Casey said, “She was a trailblazer and she changed the landscape of Irish literature.”
Mingling poetry with dance, we were fortunate that Sean Nós dance teacher, Edwina Guckian created a video called Le Chéile Ina Chéile (together while apart). This was her means of connecting her many young students all over Ireland during this time of separation. The must-see video includes Matilda and Felix who moved to New York. We noticed them dancing on a rock in Central Park as they watched with us on screen: https://www.facebook.com/CreativeIrl/videos/271289600699296/
Virtual Bealtaine on Zoom.
Poet Margaret McCarthy told our virtual gathering: “This unbidden, unprecedented pause is giving the Earth a chance to catch her breath; and is giving us a chance to better preserve the gifts we’ve been given. Our souls seem to long for a way back to balance with it.” From her book “Notebooks From Mystery School,” she read “The Selfishness of the Trees.” Here, the poet experiences an epiphany and reunion with nature and the natural world. In her “Advice from the Lion at Noon,” she tells us: … “resilience and stamina can be found at our center, in our own Lion’s heart.”
These feelings resonated with Maureen Callahan, president of the Philadelphia Mayo Society who joined our gathering. “I’m at the point in my life where the most important thing to me is time – time to enjoy my life and be quiet and still,” she said.
We saw this appreciation of nature and time again when team member Mary McIntyre read the poem, “A Rainbow of Hope” by Raymond A. Foss. Mary chose the poem because “in these days of social distancing, nature brings us hope” she said.
Team member Dee Nolan eloquently recited “Ode” by Arthur O’Shaughnessy. “This poem, she reminded us, “is one of the most uplifting and hopeful poems about art that has ever been written and is often quoted in other works.” Here are the familiar words from O'Shaughnessy's "Ode” set to music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9WeN-M6p33Y&frags=wn
Veteran performer, well-known music teacher and champion step dancer Bernadette Fee joined us. Active in the Irish traditional music circles, she is generous with her talents. At our Samhain fundraiser, the versatile artist danced and played the fiddle while reciting Yeats,’ “The Fiddler of Dooney.” For our virtual Bealtaine, she sent this inspiring video: https://youtu.be/CrQ3sNWnNIs
When Nancy Oda shared a poem called “Pandemic” by the Unitarian Minister Lynn Unger, her expressive reading reminded us once again that the purpose of our Bealtaine celebration was not only to reach for HOPE but also to help those less fortunate than ourselves. Following is an excerpt from the poem:
“And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.”
“The women are grateful for your support,” said Director of the Dwelling Place, Sister Joann Sambs. She added that in order to observe social distancing, the shelter had to find other housing for some of their residents. Now, instead of their usual Wednesday sit-down dinners, those who remain at the Dwelling Place help to prepare take-out dinners for homeless who come to the door.
As we wound down our virtual celebration of Bealtaine this immigrant performed a few steps of a dance I dubbed “The Shelter In Place Reel.” Dance, I find is an uplifting exercise during this time of isolation.
We ended with the extraordinary “Dance of Hope.” The video speaks for itself: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z4RoVVp8JJw
On behalf of Nollaig Na mBan NY, I wish to express gratitude to all who performed at and attended our virtual celebration. I thank Corina Galvin for her engineering skills. Without her, this virtual Bealtaine fire would have been difficult to light.
The Dwelling Place of New York continues to welcome donations: https://thedwellingplaceofny.org.