The Hill of Uisneach or Cnoc Uisnigh, is a low-lying sloping hill found just outside Mullingar in County Westmeath. Standing at just 596ft above sea level, its historical, archaeological, political, cultural, religious, mythological and geographical significance to Ireland is huge.

It has long been regarded as the centre of Ireland with a large limestone boulder known as ‘Aill na Mireann’ (the Stone of Divisions) on the southwest slope of the Hill, marking the exact centre point. This huge, six-metre tall, thirty-tonne boulder, has also been known as ‘Umbilicus Hiberniae’, ‘Axis Mundi’, and ‘the Naval of Ireland’. Today, it is the most famous surviving feature on Uisneach. It is more commonly known as the ‘Catstone’, so named as its shape is thought to resemble a cat about to pounce. The Catstone is said to be placed exactly at the centre of Ireland, and the division and boundary lines of the four provinces are said to meet here at the stone.

The site consists of numerous monuments and earthworks spread over two square kilometres. These include burial monuments, enclosures, standing stones, ringforts, holy wells and an embanked roadway. The earliest monument is thought to be a Neolithic passage tomb called ‘St Patrick’s Bed’. The number and variety of monuments at Uisneach demonstrate its importance as a place of burial, ritual and ceremony over several millennia. Archaeological excavations at Uisneach in the 1920s revealed evidence of high‐status occupation, thought to be associated with assemblies and kingship ceremonies during the early medieval period. They date from the Neolithic to the early Middle Ages, showing that the site has been the focus of human activity for about 5,000 years. 

The largest monument at Uisneach is the remains of a figure-of-eight shaped earthwork which is said to be the remains of an ancient palace. It sits at the top of the ‘Ancient Roadway’ which connects Uisneach to  Tara in the east. It is suggested that the ancient palace was a place of royal and ceremonial gatherings and may have served as the royal residence of Kings during these gatherings. 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.  A section of the ancient ceremonial road that linked Uisneach to Tara is still visible.

One King said to have his residence here is ‘The Dagda’, the Celtic god of An Tuatha dé Danann, known as ‘The Good God’. He was one of the High Kings and the stables for his solar horses are reputed to be found on the north side of the hill.

Lugh, another High King of the Tuatha dé Danann, is thought to have resided at Uisneach. He was reportedly drowned in a lake on the hill, which has been named ‘Lough Lugh’. He is thought to be interred in a burial mound on a rise east of the hill in a cairn known as ‘Carn Lughdach’.

Eriu, the Celtic goddess of sovereignty, is said to be buried beneath the Catstone.  She was also one of the Tuatha dé Danann and is described as an earth goddess from whom Ireland, ‘Eire’ in Irish, got its name. It was tradition for a new King to perform an inauguration ceremony to connect to Eriu at the Catstone, tying his fortunes to the land.

The first Bealtaine fires in Ireland were lit on the Hill of Uisneach and this tradition has been rekindled recently with the ‘Uisneach Fire Festival’ held here each May. This tradition has been studied and written about extensively by Michael Dames in his book ‘Mythical Ireland’. According to Dames, when the Bealtaine fire was lit on the top of the Hill of Uisneach, it would have been visible from a ring of outer hills and only then would the people on these hills light their fires. Subsequently, these fires would be visible from another outer ring and the people on these hills would light their fires. It was said that the whole country was in darkness on May eve until the fire of Uisneach was lit and when all the hilltop fires were alight, it created a fire eye effect that must have been a spectacular sight.

In ancient times, Ireland used to be divided into five provinces – Connaught, Ulster, Leinster, Munster and the fifth one being ‘Midhe’, which encompassed much of the central plain of Ireland.  Uisneach was its capital. Today Midhe is considered a mythical place where the Sidhe reside and the entrance to the magical fifth province is accessed at the Catstone.

The sacred Ash tree, Bile Uisigh, grew on the Hill of Uisneach.  It was one of the five sacred trees or guardians of the provinces. The others include Eo Mugna, a sacred Oak, located at Ballaghmoon, Co Kildare. The next was Bile Tortan, another Ash tree, at Ard Breccan, near Navan, Co Meath. Craeb Daithi, also an Ash tree, grew at Farbill, Co Westmeath and Finally, Eo Ruis – the Yew of Rossa was said to have stood at Old Leighlin, Co Carlow.

These five trees were planted by Fintan the Ancient from seeds he was given by an otherworldly stranger. They were said to provide protection, wisdom and spiritual knowledge for each province. The sacred Ash tree of Uisneach was said to be sacred to the god Lugh. Druid’s wands were often made from it and it was associated with the prosperity of the province.   

Uisneach is a truly magical place. Tours are offered for people to explore one of the most enchanting sites of ancient Ireland. Apart from the interesting historical, archaeological and mythological information on the tour, it’s a leisurely climb to the summit where panoramic views of Ireland and the hills in at least twenty counties can be seen.

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