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THE HILL OF UISNEACH

The Hill of Uisneach in Co. Westmeath has played a part in just about every significant Irish event, be it political, cultural, religious, mythological and geographical. The centre of Ireland in many ways, the enigmatic hill is one of the most sacred and historic sanctuaries in the world.

 

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Although it stands just 596ft above sea level, the summit of Uisneach commands extensive panoramic views over the central plain, with no less than twenty counties visible on the horizon. In every direction hills and mountains animate a horizon where green melts into blue, hinting at seas and complete encirclement. It is difficult to match in Ireland the range of prospect from the top. It’s also difficult to quantify Uisneach’s remarkable history.

The roots of Uisneach lie beyond recorded history but its surviving monuments and relics range in date from the Neolithic, early Bronze Age to the medieval period, indicating human activity spanning some five millennia.

The burial site of the Earth Goddess Ériu & the Sun God Lugh and as such was regarded as sacred ground. Uisneach was seen as a gate to the mythical fifth province, Mide, which held the four more familiar provinces together. For centuries, the fifth province was accessed at ‘Aill na Mireann’ (the Stone of Divisions) a sacred, fissured and fragmenting limestone boulder on the south west slope of the Hill. A Glacial erratic, this huge six metre, thirty tonne boulder symbolises Ireland united in its divisions. It has also been known as ‘Umbilicus Hiberniae’, ‘Axis Mundi’, and ‘the Naval of Ireland’. Today, it is the most famous of over forty surviving features on Uisneach, although it is more commonly known as the ‘Catstone’, named so because it resembles a cat watching a mouse. It is under the ‘Catstone’ that Ériu is resting.

It was only natural that Uisneach became the seat of the High Kings in later years and ancient texts state it became customary for the claimant to the high throne of Ireland to ‘marry’ Ireland’s founder Ériu at a ceremony on Uisneach. It was said in ancient times that Uisneach divided Ireland into ‘knowledge in the West, battle in the North, prosperity in the East, music in the South and Royalty at the Centre.’ When Tara later became the seat of the High Kings, Uisneach was still the royal centre of Ireland – the meeting point of the ancient provinces where laws were struck and divisions agreed. It was linked to Tara by a ceremonial road, a section of which remains today.

The conjoined ring fort known as The Palace confirms Uisneach’s royal legacy. One of the palaces’ of King Tuathal Techtmar in the First Century AD, as well as the O’Neill and Colman clans in later years, it was revealed to be an opulent palace during archaeological digs in the 1920′s.

Dagda, the good God and leader of the Tuatha De Dannan, also lived here, and one of the most extraordinary finds on Uisneach was the stable of his ‘solar horses’. These stables lie on the north flank of the hill, under a wheel-shaped enclosure which concealed two astonishing souterrains beneath a paved floor-one in the shape of the divine Mare, pursued by a galloping Stallion, their forms similar to the famous White Horse in Berkshire, England.

Noted Irish figures such as the legendary warrior Fionn Mac Cumhaill visited the hill. Indeed a well was named in his honour. Coins (including some from ancient Afghanistan) and other artefacts found near the hill suggest that it was an important place of assembly, something its later fairs and festivals confirmed.

The hilltop lake, Lough Lugh, is said to be the spot where Lugh met his mortal end.The nearby prominent mound “Carn Ludach” is known as the place of his burial. Revered as the Harvest God, he is said to have commenced the harvest celebration Lughnasadh (Lunasa) which was held each August. The names of both London and Lyon have their origins with Lugh. His festival was one of the four most important festivals of ancient Ireland, the others being Bealtaine, Samhain and Imbolc.
It was in the fifth century that Uisneach was visited by St. Patrick, intent on establishing a church on this most sacred of sites. He was opposed in his mission by the O’Neill clan but he did manage to put a curse on the stones of Uisneach. They have not been of any use  heating, washing or building since.Patrick also had a well named in his honour. Christianity made a further important mark on the hill in the 12th Century when it was chosen, in 1111, as the meeting place for an important synod which divided Ireland into the Diocese’s still known today.

In more recent years it became a site of political rallies, with Daniel O’Connell, De Valera and Padraig Pearse addressing the masses from Aill na Mireann. James Joyce was a regular visitor, enthralled by Uisneach’s many stories and links to the modern world. Chiefs from Native American tribes have spoken reverentially of Uisneach.

One of the most enduring legends of Uisneach is that it was the location for the first great fire to be lit in Ireland. To usher in the first dawn of summer in May, the Uisneach hearth burned biggest and brightest  of all; visible to over a quarter of Ireland. Hearths were extinguished in every Irish home and fireplace in the country, in anticipation of a new flame from Uisneach’s Bealtaine fire. It must have been an extraordinary sight, with the country plunged into utter darkness ahead of this sacred festival. Using the flame from Uisneach, fires were then ignited on the other sacred hills of Ireland. When lit they created a unique ‘fire eye’ over the island,ushering in an entire summer of sunshine.

As the centuries progressed, the great fire became the catalyst for the Bealtaine festival, an annual gathering and fair at Uisneach that continued to early modern times. As well as continuing to feature a giant bonfire, goods were exchanged and gifts offered to the Gods. It was often the first chance of the year for neighbours to greet each other after a long and often times bitter winter and great celebrations ensued, not only at Uisneach but throughout the country. Feasting, dancing, music, tournaments and trade were all avidly partaken in as the festival proceeded. It became customary to drive cattle through two fires as a preservative to shield them from diseases and accidents.

World Heritage Ireland
Heritage Ireland

Uisneach, Horses Uisneach, lugh trsi Uisneach, High King Flag Uisneach, Dagda Uisneach, Bugke Fire Uisneach, Catstone