Summer solstice: An amazing story of how one Irish woman became a druid

This week's summer solstice marks a sacred Celtic tradition. For artist Patsy Preston (50), it is a time of special celebration she will mark at the Hill of Tara

Patsy Preston at the Hill of Uisnech, Westmeath. Picture: Jeff Harvey

Kathy Donaghy

Growing up in Belfast, I sang in a punk band called Toxic Waste. We were taking a stance against the bigotry and the political situation - we were children of the Troubles and within the punk circle it didn't matter what side of the fence you were on.

After my first child Ciara was born in Belfast in 1987, my partner Shane and I decided to leave the North and travel around. We stayed with friends in Wexford who were living in a horse-drawn caravan, and we thought maybe we'd do this too.

Connected to the land: Patsy Preston at the Hill of Uisneach Photo: Jeff Harvey

For eight or nine years we travelled around the country in a horse-drawn wagon. We never again went north of the border - we didn't feel like going back to it.

We had another three children: Cal was born in 1989, Maga in 1990 and Óige in 1993. They were all born in the wagon - that sounds crazy when I look back on it, but it was accepted within the New Age Traveller wagon circle that we were in, and there were people within that group with some midwifery experience who had delivered babies.

We were living close to the earth. Living outside and close to the fire, your intuition becomes heightened.

Sometimes we travelled on our own, sometimes we'd join up with other families to spend the winter with them. We were a curiosity really. A lot of people were very welcoming, but sometimes people felt intimidated. Generally people were quite good.

Having four children in a small space was very challenging at times. I was home educating them for the first few years. As an artist I was always working away on things and Shane worked as a farrier.

Towards the end of the 1990s we stopped travelling and we settled in Sligo, where the kids went to school. We moved to the midlands before Shane died tragically. I have stayed around the midlands ever since and I feel particularly connected to the Hill of Uisneach in Westmeath. I was initiated as a druid in Laois.

As a child I was always drawn to places like stone circles. As part of living in the wagon and walking the roads you get a sense of place and the atmosphere of a place. It's almost like you can cross a line and you feel the energy change. Living so close to the land you become connected to it. Over the years I became aware of celebrating the solstices and the equinoxes. We would come together with friends for the solstices.

In our travels we were forming a kind of druidic brotherhood. A lot of it was healing work and just connecting with the energies of a place. It's a very nurturing thing and you are always working on your own self and self-empowerment.

The thing about sacred sites is that they're places of power - they have their own energies. By trying to connect with that and attune yourself to that you are in many ways trying to work in harmony with the ancient and do what you can to benefit the earth.

People need a spiritual connection whether they realise it or not. We can get caught up in consumerism, but we all have a spiritual side to our nature and we all want to connect to the divine in some way. More and more people feel that organised religion is falling short - it's not giving people what they want and people are searching for something else.

Being a druid is about trying to re-establish the way people would have lived when they were more in harmony with nature. There was a lot of fear about what being a druid was about in the past. That fear was fuelled by the Church and it was so ingrained, but when you look at most Pagan practices they are earth and nature-based. They are kind.

There's no big terrifying, dark, evil practices to be afraid of. Paganism is about togetherness and being a part of it all. Becoming a druid is going on a journey of self-discovery.

You do have to do a certain level of training. Anyone can call themselves a druid; there's nothing to stop them, but nobody is going to take them very seriously either. It's a small country where everyone knows one another.

Depending on what you want to do you can follow a lone druid path, but it is important to be working with others in a circle at times and to be learning from your peers. That recognition comes from within the community. A lot of the work is a journey and connecting yourself with the energies that are there.

At this time of year we would light a fire on the eve of the solstice and keep that fire going throughout the night. This year will be a celebration of the life of a friend, JP Fay, who passed away at the last full moon. We'll do that at Tara and there will be several hundred of us.

Living in the midlands, the Hill of Uisneach is very dear to me. It would have been the site of the high kings before Tara. Uisneach was seen as the sacred centre and there are archaeological remains there. It's tied in with lots of Celtic mythology. Last year at Bealtaine, Michael D Higgins lit the fire on the Hill of Uisneach to mark the start of summer.

There are eight festivals in the Celtic calendar and the solstice is one of them. They're all equal parts of the year and I'm more and more surprised at how quickly they come around again.

They allow you a sense of understanding that everything is connected. No matter how tough things are sometimes, it will turn the way the seasons turn. Even in the darkest of winter, the spring will come. A lot of people are suffering these days, and I honestly think a lot of that is people disconnected from the land. There is such healing in nature.

In conversation with Kathy Donaghy

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