The Hill of Uisneach (Ish-nock) is one of Ireland's most ancient ceremonial sites, similar in importance to the Hill of Tara, though relatively few Irish people know of it. While it is today just an inconspicuous looking field, Uisneach was long a famous landmark, associated with the ancient May Day festival of Bealtaine (Bahl-tehn-ah), when people throughout Ireland lit bonfires and travelled to this hill.
Located in rural County Westmeath, Uisneach was believed to be the centre of the island of Ireland. If you look at the Google map toward the bottom of this page, you can see this (zoom out). Technically, Uisneach is not exactly the geographical centre, but they didn't have GPS or satellites 2,000 years ago!
The hill is is 182 metres / 597 feet tall. While it is not exactly a mountain, large swathes of the island can be observed from its summit on a clear day, thanks to its central location.
The hill is quite hard to find -- a narrow local road leads to it, and only a brown sign marks it. You have to climb over a fence to access it. For more details, see the section called "Getting There" and the map below.
The area around and on the hill consists of various stone monuments and other earthworks, which are spread out over an area of just over a square mile (2 square kilometres). The interesting features include:
- The remains of ancient circular enclosures
- Stone burial mounds (cairns)
- An ancient well, known as St. Patrick's Well
- The remains of two ancient roads -- one of which is believed to have led to the Hill of Tara
- The cat stone -- the ancient navel of Ireland
- Lough Lúgh -- a hilltop lake
Recent neo-pagan features have been added, including a wooden hut and exquisite log carvings by local artist, Richie Clarke.
One of the enclosures was excavated in the 1920s, and revealed evidence of occupation from the iron age right through to medieval times, when the local O'Neill clan and then the Colmans clan occupied the castle here. In recent years, remote sensing techniques have revealed further discoveries.
The Cat Stone - Ireland's Navel
In pre-Christian times, Ireland was divided into boundaries, which have evolved today into Ireland's modern provinces of Ulster, Munster, Leinster and Connaught. In ancient times, there was a fifth province, called "Mide" -- more on this below.
The bulky, fissured, limestone rock that supposedly looks like a cat (hence its name, I can't see it myself) was once known in Gaelic as Ail na Míreann (Ahl Na Mee-Rahnn), meaning the Stone of the Divisions (of Ireland), or the "navel stone". In other words, it was the bellybutton of Ireland, marking the point at which the country's provinces joined together.
Royal Palace of Tuathal Techtmar
Tuathal Techtmar, whose name means "the legitimate", was the son of a High King of Ireland, Fiacha Finnolach. According to ancient texts, when Tuathal Techtmar was still in his mother's womb, his father was killed and battle and overthrown.
25 years later, Tuathal Techtmar fought to regain the throne -- but he was never free from disputes, and fought over 100 battles. In this fractious environment, he created a new kingdom, called Mide.
He built a fortress on land that had previously been in each of the other provinces, and created a fortress on it. He deliberately chose a sacred site to mark out each of the corners / fortresses for his new province, Mede:
- Uisneach, previously in Connacht, the ancient festival site of Beltaine (May Day)
- Tailtiu, previously in Ulster, the ancient ceremonial site of Lughnasadh, the Fall harvest
- Tlachtga, previously in Munster, where the druids sacrificed on the eve of Samhain (Halloween)
- Tara, previously in Leinster, where Imbolec (the Spring Festival) was celebrated
Archaeological detections, including recent surveys that have used "remote" technology (such as satellite imaging) have shown that the fortress at Uisneach was unusually large compared to other castles/fortresses of this period, indicating its significance.
Evidence shows that the palace site continued to be occupied for over a thousand years. In the middle ages, the local O'Neills and later the O'Colman Clans resided here. Today, the site has been fenced off.
Burial Place of Ériu
According to mythology, the ancient Mother Goddess Ériu (Ay-Rooh) is buried beneath Ail na Mireann. Ériu is closely associated with Ireland. Her name means "fat, fertile"; the ancient Celtic name for Ireland -- Iweriu -- means "fat, fertile land". In Latin, this became Ivernia / Hibernia, and it modern Irish it became Éireann (Ay-Rah).
The burial place is significant; according to legend, at Uisneach Ériu was able to watch over all of the island and her people.
Bealtaine and the Festival of the Fires
The 1920s excavations at Uisneach hill revealed evidence of large fires and charred bones. Uisneach clearly had a ceremonial role, and historians speculate the ancient Celtic druids made offerings to the harvest god Beil during the MayDay feast of Bealtaine.
A medieval text, Dindsenchas, which is a book of Irish poems dating from the 11th century, includes a tale of a hero lighting a holy fire on Uisneach that blazed for seven years.
In his 1634 book The History of Ireland, historian Geoffrey Keating wrote about an assembly at the hill of Uisneach each Beltaine in medieval Ireland, where a sacrifice was made to a god named Bel. Keating wrote that two bonfires would be lit in every district of Ireland, and cattle would be driven between them to protect them from disease.
"This fair, or assembly, was held on the first day of the month of May, and they were wont to exchange or barter their cattle and other property there. They were also accustomed to make offerings to their chief god which they worshipped, named Bel; and it was a custom with them to make two fires in honour of this Bel in every cantred of Ireland, and to drive a couple of every kind of cattle in the cantred between the two fires as a preservative."
Festival of the Fires Revival Attempts
Attempts were made to revive the Festival of the Fires, and successful festivals were held in 2011 and 2012, though not in subsequent years. As yet, the modern Festival of the Fires has not become an official annual event.
Some claim that, due to its location, Uisneach is the place referred to as Reba or Raeba by the Greek astronomer and cartographer Caesar Ptolemy, in his 140AD manuscript Geography. This classic text featured a map of the known world, and a list of sites and co-ordinates from Hibernia (Ireland), as well as other countries known to the Romans.
Others claim, however, that a more likely candidate for Raeba is the ancient royal mound at Rathcrogan, in County Roscommon, where the feast of Samhain (Halloween) was celebrated.
Ptolemy is not likely to have visited Ireland, but would have gained information from texts and in Alexdria, and possibly directly from Greek traders and sea-farers. Reba's existence remains a mystery, along with some of the other cities mentioned by Ptolemy. Some doubt the accuracy of Ptolemy's records -- although some of the places are clearly accurate. The only surviving maps from Ptolemy's Geography are those that were recreated in the middle ages, based on the co-ordinates he provided. These place Reba off the centre.
Finding the Hill of Uisneach can be a bit tricky -- it is not well promoted. You need to find the road R390 -- a small, local road, which runs from Mullingar to Athlone. The hill is on the north side of the R390, just past a very small village at a crossroads, called Loughnavalley. If coming from the other Athlone direction, it is about 5 miles / 8 kilometres east of the village of Ballymore.
If you set out from Mullingar, keep travelling along the R390 until you see a lay-by around 7 miles / 12 km along the route, just after a bend,past the Loughnavalley crossroads. The lay-by has an inconspicuous wooden bench, and a brown tourism sign announcing that this is the Hill of Uisneach. Pull in here.
To access the hill, you have to climb over the metal gate behind the lay-by. The walk up the hill takes about ten or fifteen minutes before you will start to see the ancient path and the ancient stone ruins. There is a triangular stone at the summit, indicating the burial mound.
The Cat Stone on Uisneach Hill. Image by Abi Skipp
Sites on Uisneach. Image: Uisneach.ie
14th Century Rendering of Ptolemy's Map of Ireland. Image: British Museum
Tourism sign for the Hill of Usineach. Image by Abi Skipp.