UISNEACH Ancient Ceremonial Site of the Bealtaine Fires. http://www.aliisaacstoryteller.com

I had very few expectations of The Hill of Uisneach (Cnoc Uisneach in Irish) when I went there for the first time, but as with Shee Mor, it turned out to be one of those ancient places of Ireland which just blew me away.

It’s hard to get an exact meaning for the name Uisneach. It derives from the Irish word for water, uisce (pronounced ish-ka) and a god of the Tuatha de Denann named Nechtan. Not a great deal is known about Nechtan; the name is possibly a variant of Nuada Argetlam, or some say another name for the Dagda. The Hill of Uisneach is said to be located near Nechtan’s well, which also happens to be the source of the River Boyne.

The interesting thing about Nechtan’s Well, is that it might also be the same pool where Fintan, the Salmon of Knowledge (more about him later) ate the nuts which fell from the nine enchanted hazel trees into the water, and thus acquired his knowledge. I would so love this to be true!

The Hill of Uisneach stands 183 metres tall, and is located between the villages of Ballymore and Loughanavally in County Westmeath, not far from Mullingar. Twenty counties can be seen from the summit on a clear day. Historically and mythologically, it was regarded as the centre point, or ‘naval’ of Ireland, symbolised by the presence of a great stone called the Ail na Mirean, or Stone of Divisions.

This stone is a limestone boulder standing six metres tall and estimated at weighing thirty tons. It sits on the south west side of the Hill in a circular enclosure. It is said to be situated where the borders of Ireland’s five provinces, Leinster, Munster, Connacht, Ulster and Mide met. Nowadays, there are only four provinces, ancient Mide becoming the Counties Meath and Westmeath. Some say the Otherworld can be accessed from it.

Other monuments consist of the remains of circular enclosures, barrows, cairns, a holy well, and two walkways, or ancient roads, all spread over a two km area, but they are not quite so easy to identify as the Stone of Divisions.

Walking the ancient path to the summit.
Walking the ancient path to the summit.

When you arrive, there is a tall fence barring access, with a small sign giving a phone number to call if you wish to visit the site. On the day we visited, as I dialled the number, the landowner pulled up behind us in a big black Landrover. How did he know we were there? He was a tall fair haired man with twinkling blue eyes that pierced right through us; Conor and I were convinced that he was the Hill’s Sidhe guardian!

Uisneach was considered a site of great significance in antiquity. The sister site to the Hill of Tara, remains of an ancient road have been discovered which actually connect the two locations. Whilst Tara was associated with Kingship rituals, Uisneach is believed to have been a place of Druid worship and ceremony. Evidence of huge fires have been uncovered here, said to have been lit in celebration of the festival of Bealtaine.

In 2009, the spirit of Bealtaine was rekindled in the Festival of the Fires, although no festival has taken place since 2012. The reasons given were agricultural and archaeological. Fair enough, in my opinion; it seemed to me that the occasion had departed somewhat from the original intention as it grew, the celebrants more interested in partying than honouring ancient Gods.

At the summit is Lough Lugh, where Lugh is reputed to have met his death. For the festival, a miniature replica of a crannog was constructed over the lake.
At the summit is Lough Lugh, where Lugh is reputed to have met his death. For the festival, a miniature replica of a crannog was constructed over the lake.

In mythology, Fintan the Ancient White One was said to be the first person to arrive in Ireland after the Great Flood. He survived by transforming into a salmon ( the same Salmon of Knowledge sought by Finegas and subsequently eaten by Fionn mac Cumhall), then into an eagle, then a hawk, before finally resuming his human form. He survived well into Saint Patrick’s time, his long life and accumulated knowledge affording him the respected position as advisor to the peoples of the land. He planted the Branching Ash Tree of Uisneach, also known as the Tree of Enchantment. This tree was sacred to Lugh, and the druids often made their wands from ash, as it was associated with rebirth, divination, protection, wisdom and spiritual knowledge.

King Tuathal Techtmar was supposed to have lived at Uisneach in the C1st AD, as was the Dagda, High King of the Tuatha de Denann before him. Lugh Lamfháda was said to have been drowned in the lake at the summit which is named after him, and buried beneath a cairn beside it.

Ptolemy wrote about the site in AD82, which he identified as Raiba. Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote that the stones of Stonehenge were brought to Britain from Uisneach. Of course, you can’t mention an ancient Irish site without Saint Patrick making an appearance; it is said he Christianised the site by taking Bridget there to receive the veil. The holy well there is named after her.

But Uisneach will always be most famous for its associations with the fires of Bealtaine. Bealtaine (pronounced bel-teen-a) is a quarter day falling on 1st May, which is half way between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. The Celts and the ancient Irish celebrated it as the first day of summer.

According to legend, beneath the Ail na Mirean lies the Denann Goddess Eriu, after whom the Milesians named Ireland. She was the Mother Goddess of the land; the rocks formed her bones, the earth her flesh, the rivers her veins. At Beltaine in times long gone, the whole of Ireland was plunged into darkness as all fires were extinguished. Then, two huge bonfires were lit on the Hill of Uisneach; these represented Eriu’s eyes, with which she watched over all of Ireland. Between these fires, the people’s wealth in the form of their cattle were driven to be cleansed in the smoke, and to receive her blessing of prosperity and safety. Then they would light their own hearth fires with an ember taken from the bonfire. I’m sure it must have been a very special, deeply moving and memorable experience for all.

On our way down to the Stone of Divisions, which can just be seen between the trees in the centre of the picture. In Irish, the stone is also known as the Ail na Mirean.
On our way down to the Stone of Divisions, which can just be seen between the trees in the centre of the picture. In Irish, the stone is also known as the Ail na Mirean.

 

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41 thoughts on “Uisneach | Ancient Ceremonial Site of the Bealtaine Fires

  1. HI Ali Love this story. I was doing some research on Carbury castle Co Kildare and wikipedia says Nechtan’s well is located north of Carbury hill and is the source of the river boyne

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    1. Hi Jim, nice to meet you, and thanks for the info! Is that the one now called Trinity Well? If it is, I think its fallen into disuse now, which is sad. I will check it out. There are so many conflicting stories about it… just so typical of Irish mythology, I guess! I hope your research was successful!

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      1. Hi Ali, I just came across you blog by chance. Uisneach is one of my favourite places, I always feel especially connected to the land there. I created the large Goddess sculpture up on the Hill and left it purposely ambiguous and somewhat androgynous. I had originally planned to make a representation of Ériu, but as two other artists where already creating sculptures of Ériu I decided to let my piece be left open to interpretation by the viewer. The name Danu came into my head most of the dime during the process of making the sculpture so to me and those that helped create her she is always Danu. Others think of her as Ériu and yet others as Lugh. That is the first time I have heard of anyone saying it could be Boann though!
        There will be a Bealtaine celebration up on the Hill again this year so hopefully you can come along and enjoy the fire and celebrations x

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        1. Hi Patsy how lovely to meet you! I love that sculpture, and in all honesty my first thought was Lugh. I like that you left it open to interpretation… I think all the best art, in whatever form, does that, making it so much more an interactive experience for the viewer, reader, observer. I havent been back to Uisneach since but would really love to. I’ve been feeling a strong pull to go since the New Year. I have mixed feelings about the fire festival. I checked the fb page just a few days ago, there was no mention of a festival this year. I must admit it was lovely going up with my family a few days after and just having the hill totally to ourselves. However, I’m sure the experience of the lighting of the fires is quite exciting and not to be missed! One way or another, I’m sure I’ll be finding my way there fairly soon… Thank you so much for stopping by my blog! Enjoy the festvities!

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  2. It just keeps getting better, great job Ali, thats the first chapter of the encyclipedia done 🙂 The spiritual center of Ireland, I havent been here in years. Fintan, was he not part of the first invasion of Ireland with Cessair?

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    1. He was indeed Ed! He is proving to be a character worthy of more investigation. I knew about the transformations but I had not not associated him with the salmon of knowledge before… can feel another post coming on lol!

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      1. The poor fella, 50 women to look after, all on his own. I reckon a trilogy with movie rights would be more in order. Then there could be spin offs, all told from his observations as he witnessed all the big events in Ireland through the ages.
        Move over J.K. Rowling here comes Ali 🙂

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  3. Love this story, photos remind me a lot on our sceneries here in Bosnia. Also a lot of old legends from ancient times.
    One guy even set a theory about ancient pyramids in Bosnia, much older then those in Egypt 🙂

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    1. Ooooh very interesting! Will you tell us more? I know nothing about Bosnia, I’m sorry to say… but if you have monuments older than the pyramids, there are lots of people who would love to learn about them.

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      1. It’s just a theory. there is a hill 30 kilometers from Sarajevo which really looks like a giant pyramid. There are some strange stone tiles, tunnels under the pyramid and other intersting things.
        Some experts said that this “pyramid” is more then 20k years old.
        Officially, state museum doesn’t suport excavation of the site, because there is a medieval ruin of the bosnian kingdom capital on the top of the hill/pyramid

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    1. Thanks Mishka! Actually, I have been thinking about doing just that lol! The fact you suggested it shows that people might like it. And people do seem to enjoy these posts! Thanks for the feedback!

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      1. I would definitely buy it! You write the posts in a way that is appealing and exciting, not the sometimes dull way some legends and historical facts books are written.

        Hope that made sense, haven’t had my pot of tea yet today 😀

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        1. I know what you mean… I recently clicked on a post about the 5 longest rivers in Ireland. It was a list of 5 headings with a handful of facts about each river. It was so dry and dull! I was incredibly disappointed! Gave me an idea for a new post of my own, though…

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  4. Uisneach is on my top three places to see in Ireland and hopefully my family will still be going this summer. 🙂 Love the post, Ali! My curiosity about how it would feel to be there and whether it’s like the pictures in my head won’t let me be. Of course I’ll have to go check out Nechtan’s Well, too. 🙂 I feel this place will hold many memories that as of now I can’t quite recall.

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