Ireland's very centre

The Hill of Uisneach is located on the road to Ballymore, about nine miles west of Mullingar. Its summit is just over 600 feet above sea level and has a central place, historically, geographically and metaphorically in the annals of Ireland.

On a clear day it is reckoned twenty counties are visible from its summit. One of Daniel O Connell’s monster meetings in support of Catholic Emancipation is reputed to have been held here and some locals claim to have seen the round tower in Glasnevin Cemetery which covers his grave from the hill.

It ranks alongside Tara in terms of importance and had a sacred ash tree associated with the inauguration of the High Kings. It was the home of the Fire Druids and hosted a major celebration of Bealtaine (May Day) in times past.

Traditionally Uisneach was the epicentre of Ireland where the five provinces met. It consists of a complex set of monuments spread over two square kilometres and has received little attention since it was excavated in the 1920s. It includes enclosures and barrows (ancient burial mounds), a megalithic tomb and two ancient roads.

There is evidence of occupation of the site from Neolithic to medieval times. Ail na Mireann, the Stone of Divisions, is regarded as the burial place of the Mother Goddess Eri , who is symbolically enabled to see the whole of her land and people when the Druidic fires are lit at Bealtaine.

Uisneach is the sacred site of the ancient goddess, Eri , from which Ireland gets her name, ire. Regarded as the spiritual and physical centre of Ireland. In ancient times the land was seen as the embodiment of the goddess; the rocks were her bones, the earth her flesh and the rivers her veins.
An annual festival was held in her honour at Bealtaine, a renewal of community. According to tradition all the fires in Ireland were extinguished on that evening and two great bonfires were lit on top of the sacred hill as a beacon, a symbol of Eri’s eyes looking out over the horizons encompassing all that lived on her.

The fires were seen as a centralising spiritual force that ensured the return of summer and the fruitfulness and harmony of the land and people. From the central beacon fires were lit on surrounding peaks visible from Uisneach and in turn fires were lit until the entire country was covered in a web of fires.

Geoffrey Keating, author of the first narrative history of Ireland completed in 1634, wrote of the Fair of Uisneach: 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.

On June 21, 2001 there was a special ceremony at the Hill of Uisneach to celebrate the Sixth Annual World Peace and Prayer Day as well as the Summer Solstice. The attendance included actor John Hurt, singer Liam Maonla and journalist and writer Paolo Truili. Present also were a group of native Americans, led by Chief Avrol Looking Horse, who invited representatives of all faiths throughout the global community to unite and participate in an effort to bring about a positive shift of consciousness by connecting with the earth s sacred sites on the day of the Summer Solstice.

Legend has it that the Firbolg came to Uisneach in Neolithic times and divided Ireland from there. The large stone on the side of the hill is known as The Stone of Divisions, Ail na Mireann. This craggy lump of limestone in also known as the Catstone as it resembles a squatting cat ready to pounce on a mouse. This stone is said to be at the exact centre of Ireland and the boundary lines of the provinces were said to meet here.

The writings of the historian Ptolemy of Alexandria suggest that Uisneach predated Tara as a royal residence. In his notes on Ireland he fixes the position of the capital cities of each of the five Irish kingdoms by giving longitude and latitude figures for each of them. Tara is not included which suggests that it was not the seat of a king in 82AD when Ptolemy compiled his notes on Ireland.

The capital of North Leinster was a place which Ptolemy called Raiba or Riba. The co-ordinates given suggest that Raiba was his name for Uisneach.

In considering why Uisneach was chosen as a royal residence there are a number of factors to be considered. Along with Tara and Tlachtgha it was one of the sacred hills of Leinster and ranked above them because if was regarded as the epicentre of Ireland.

The druid of the sons of Neimheadh, who invaded Ireland in pre-Celtic times are reputed to have lit the first fire in Ireland at Uisneach and in return the sons of Neimheadh bestowed on the druid a tuath of land, which was henceforth called Meath.

The story has little historical credence but seems to have been invented to explain the importance of the site. The name Meath is derived from the Latin word media (middle) emphasises the importance of centrality.

Centrality plays a large part in other cultures. At the time of Julius Caesar the druids of Gaul (modern France) met in the territory of Carnutes, which was regarded as the centre of Gaul.
There is also a political reason behind the choice of Uisneach as a royal residence. Most foreign invaders would enter the country via the rivers of Leinster and work their way up the river valleys. Following this line of argument the last part of the province to be conquered would be the area in the midlands east of the River Shannon.

It is possible the King of Leinster established a garrison at this elevated site and when the province was divided into two kingdoms, Uisneach was a natural choice for a royal residence.
The Division of Leinster upset the balance of power in Ireland. Prior to this there were three great evenly matched powers; Ulster, Connacht and Leinster. The division of the latter left just two and Connacht sought to encircle Ulster and bring about its downfall and clear the way for a Connacht hegemony over the whole of Ireland.

In the reign of Tuathal Teachtmhar in the latter part of the first century AD, Uisneach was annexed by Connacht and was still a possession of the western province at the time of St. Patrick. Rather than provoke the other provinces, Tuathal used an internal rebellion in North Leinster as pretext for occupying Uisneach. Thus he was able to establish a bridgehead east of the Shannon and begin the encirclement of Ulster.

As a result the King of North Leinster was forced to look around for a new residence and choose Tara, the second most sacred hill in north Leinster, which began to assume greater importance when Cormac, great-great-grandson of Tuathal seized it in the latter part of the third century.

The Connacht presence remained at Uisneach for nearly four hundred years until the end of the fifth century. Realising that the garrison there could not cope with the expanding kingdom of Tara it was abandoned by the westerners.

Taken from Maroon & White 2003