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.
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.
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.