The Murdering Glen

On the walk

The long valleys that run eastwards from Bantry are filled with antiquities – Discovery Map 85 is dotted with red circles of places we want to tramp around. We have been particularly intrigued by the ‘Murdering Glen’, labelled on the map: can you see it?.

Murdering Glen Map

Today we got a chance for a thorough exploration of the Murdering Glen, on the invitation of our friend Bridget, who lives there and is a keen explorer herself. After a wonderful lunch supplied mainly from her garden we set out up the road towards the Glen, with Bridget assuring us that the place appeared peaceful enough these days and not to worry.

Murdering Glen

The Glen is indeed dramatic, with steep sides and an enormous overhanging rock – just the kind of place for a brigand to lurk. In this case the brigand (and his mother) were locals, by the name of O’Kelly, who would lay in wait for travellers and murder them for their gold, before throwing them into the Butcher’s Pool.

Murder Rock

In  the 1930s schoolchildren in every National School in Ireland were asked to write down the stories they heard at home and these were recorded, in their own writing, by the National Folklore Commission. Here is the outline of the project, as presented on Duchas, the website that now stores that collection:

For the duration of the project, more than 50,000 schoolchildren from 5,000 schools in the 26 counties of the Irish Free State were enlisted to collect folklore in their home districts. This included oral history, topographical information, folktales and legends, riddles and proverbs, games and pastimes, trades and crafts. The children recorded this material from their parents, grandparents, and neighbours. The scheme resulted in the creation of over half a million manuscript pages, generally referred to as ‘Bailiúchán na Scol’ or ‘The Schools’ Collection’.

To my delight, I was able to find the original story in the collection – and here it is, in the handwriting of schoolboy Michael Keohane from Dromore National School. I think you will agree he has done a magnificent job of telling the local legend.


murdering-glen-page-2Before we left the murderous spot Bridget led us up to the mass rock, on a ledge on the side of the valley. It was a block of sparkling quartz, with holes to collect water, into which you can dip your warts in hopes of a cure.

Bridget shows us the mass rock

We  walked then towards the Trawlebane Bridge, where Robert and I had joined the walk two years ago to honour and remember Chief O’Neil. Robert’s post, The Chief, will take you back to that day and show you the spot where, before we started the walk, participants decided to put on an impromptu display of Crossroads Dancing, just as local people would have done on a fine summer evening in the old days.

Trawlebane Crossroads

There was more, much more to see, just in the immediate neighbourhood. We spent time in a Cillín first, in the middle of a field, with a magnificent blackthorn tree to mark the lonely spot where unbaptised children were traditionally buried. Read more about this practice in my post Unknown Souls.


Blackthorn TreeA little five-stone circle was next – a classic of its kind, with four stones set on edge and a recumbent stone marking the axial alignment. (See more examples of them in my post Family-Friendly Archaeology). Besides three sites in nearby Kerry, these small stone circles are only found in Cork. They mirror exactly the larger multiple-stone circles, just with fewer stones – an efficient variation requiring fewer resources to erect but accomplishing the same outcomes.

Five stone circle

Unfortunately, this five-stone circle has been filled with field debris, creating the appearance of a mound

We also passed numerous ringforts and several standing stones. Looming over us as we walked was Dromore hill, on top of which was erected, in the Marian Year of 1954, an enormous cross, now rather improbably lit up at night. The cross is clearly visible from the stone circle and the standing stones, presenting opportunities to ponder on the juxtaposition of what is considered sacred in its own day, and what communities will expend precious resources to erect at different times over millennia.

Cross above circle

CrossOn  our trip to Sligo recently Robert and I were sensitised to the phenomenon of monuments seemingly echoing or imitating the topography behind them – see his post Discovering Carrowmore for more about this. I was struck by one of the standing stones – the top did seem to echo the hill behind it. Coincidence?

Standing Stone shape

October in West Cork can feature some of the best weather and walking conditions of the year. Today did not disappoint, with blue skies and crisp air.


Thank you, Bridget, and our other exploring companions Amanda and Peter, for a marvellous day of Murder, Mythology and Megaliths.

At the rabbit ears

Travel by Water 2 – A Tale from Trollope

Drumnsa Bridge

If you travel by water on the Shannon, you can still take your boat up to the bridge at Drumsna, Co Lietrim (above). Just below the bridge is a stone wharf which is the present limit of navigation on that part of the river, a great loop which was bypassed in 1848 by a 2.6km canal. The towns of Drumsna and Jamestown were once thriving river ports but went to sleep once the canal was built. When Tom and Angela Rolt arrived in Drumsna in 1946 the quay there was in ruins, and they had to anchor their boat Le Coq in the shallows and row their small dinghy into the village.

Drumsna (Trollope)


Upper picture – Drumsna in 1946, a photograph taken by Angela Rolt. Lower picture – the same scene in 2016; 70 years have passed but there have been few changes in the fabric of the village

The Rolts were interested in Drumsna because of its associations with Anthony Trollope, who readers will remember for his introduction of post boxes into Ireland. While working as a Post Office Surveyor he was stationed in Drumsna during the 1840s, before the Great Famine, and began his writing career with the novel The Macdermots of Ballycloran (published in 1847). It was not a success but he persevered and became one of the most prolific writers of all time, publishing no less than 47 novels and many more short stories and works of non-fiction during his lifetime. He died in London in 1882, aged 67.

1795 battle Drumsna

Drumsna was historically important as one of the crossing points of the Shannon: it was the site of a ford until the stone bridge was built, probably in the 18th century. This bridge, one of the oldest on the river, once had a blind eye arch where prisoners were jailed and, reportedly, a handball alley on the side where many a  famous championship was held. The plaque on the bridge today (above) remembers an uprising from 1795

Trollope was living in Ireland at the time when the canal system was thriving. He was certainly familiar with travelling by water on the canals, as we can see through this excerpt from his second novel, The Kellys and the O’Kellys (also inspired by his experience of life in Ireland and a success – it was published in 1848 and sold 140 copies). Trollope was 33 when he wrote this book and he must have had direct personal experience of the passenger boat services running out of Dublin on the Grand Canal:


We will now return to Martin Kelly…. Hstarted for home, by the Ballinasloe canal-boat, and reached that famous depot of the fleecy tribe without adventure. I will not attempt to describe the tedium of that horrid voyage, for it has been often described before; and to Martin, who was in no ways fastidious, it was not so unendurable as it must always be to those who have been accustomed to more rapid movement. Nor yet will I attempt to put on record the miserable resources of those, who, doomed to a twenty hours’ sojourn in one of these floating prisons, vainly endeavour to occupy or amuse their minds. But I will advise any who from ill-contrived arrangements, or unforeseen misfortune, may find themselves on board the Ballinasloe canal-boat, to entertain no such vain dream. The ‘vis inertiae’ of patient endurance, is the only weapon of any use in attempting to overcome the lengthened ennui of this most tedious transit. Reading is out of the question. I have tried it myself, and seen others try it, but in vain. The sense of the motion, almost imperceptible, but still perceptible; the noises above you; the smells around you; the diversified crowd, of which you are a part; at one moment the heat this crowd creates; at the next, the draught which a window just opened behind your ears lets in on you; the fumes of punch; the snores of the man under the table; the noisy anger of his neighbour, who reviles the attendant sylph; the would-be witticisms of a third, who makes continual amorous overtures to the same overtasked damsel, notwithstanding the publicity of his situation; the loud complaints of the old lady near the door, who cannot obtain the gratuitous kindness of a glass of water; and the baby-soothing lullabies of the young one, who is suckling her infant under your elbow. These things alike prevent one from reading, sleeping, or thinking. All one can do is to wait till the long night gradually wears itself away, and reflect that, Time and the Hour Run through the Longest Day.

I hardly know why a journey in one of these boats should be much more intolerable than travelling either outside or inside a coach; for, either in or on the coach, one has less room for motion, and less opportunity of employment. I believe the misery of the canal-boat chiefly consists in a pre-conceived and erroneous idea of its capabilities. One prepares oneself for occupation–an attempt is made to achieve actual comfort–and both end in disappointment; the limbs become weary with endeavouring to fix themselves in a position of repose, and the mind is fatigued more by the search after, than the want of, occupation.

Martin, however, made no complaints, and felt no misery. He made great play at the eternal half-boiled leg of mutton, floating in a bloody sea of grease and gravy, which always comes on the table three hours after the departure from Porto Bello. He, and others equally gifted with the ‘dura ilia messorum’, swallowed huge collops of the raw animal, and vast heaps of yellow turnips, till the pity with which a stranger would at first be inclined to contemplate the consumer of such unsavoury food, is transferred to the victim who has to provide the meal at two shillings a head. Neither love nor drink – and Martin had, on the previous day, been much troubled with both – had affected his appetite; and he ate out his money with the true persevering prudence of a Connaught man, who firmly determines not to be done.

He was equally diligent at breakfast; and, at last, reached Ballinasloe, at ten o’clock the morning after he had left Dublin, in a flourishing condition. From thence he travelled, by Bianconi’s car, as far as Tuam, and when there he went at once to the hotel, to get a hack car to take him home to Dunmore…

Long distance travel within Ireland by inland waterways was the preferred form of transport in the first half of the 19th century. The alternative was the stage coach: this was no faster than canal travel because of the sometimes tortuous routes which roads took, and the conditions of the roads themselves, particularly in the winter. It must be significant that in the early years of stage coach travel only departure times were advertised: the journey would take as long as conditions permitted. Coaches were notoriously uncomfortable. At least the canal packet boats were relatively smooth and passengers had the opportunity to stretch their legs on deck. Everything changed, of course, with the coming of the railways as the century progressed.

Duchess Countess

The last days of the former express passenger boat Duchess Countess, photographed by Angela Rolt in the late 1940s. The Rolts initiated attempts to have the boat preserved, but these were unsuccessful

Rolt mentions passenger packet boats or ‘fly boats’ in England in his later book which was published in 1950. In The Inland Waterways of England, George Allen and Unwin, he describes:

…the miraculous preservation by sinking of the Bridgewater Canal passage boat Duchess Countess (a name recalling the titles of the Bridgewater family). This old boat was eventually raised and, still in substantially original condition even to her cabinwork, began a new lease of life as a houseboat. She was moved on to the Welsh section of the Shropshire Union Canal near Frankton Junction where she is still occupied at the time of writing although, owing to the deterioration of her hull, she has now been drawn out of the water. The Duchess Countess was the last packet boat in regular service. In the heyday of her career as a packet boat she proudly mounted a great curved knife-blade on her bow. This was of much more than symbolic significance, for it was so contrived that it would sever the towline of any boatman who failed to give way to her… …Very soon the Duchess Countess must inevitably disintegrate, and with her passing the last tangible link with these once extensive but little known canal passenger services will be irretrievably lost…



Upper picture – a rare photograph of the Duchess Countess still in use  on the canals (courtesy British Waterways Archive – date unknown) and , lower picture – a modern line drawing of the boat. Both images show the blade on the prow which could slice through the towlines of any unfortunate boat which did not get out of the way in time!

Angela Rolt photographed the Duchess Countess on the canal bank and, fortunately, an early photograph of the boat in its working days is preserved. This shows the scythe-like blade on the prow and confirms that the express boat service had priority over all other traffic on the canals. I am not aware that any of the Irish passenger boats were so equipped but, using teams of horses which were frequently changed along the route, they were evidently able to keep up a continuous speed of around 10 miles per hour, which was no mean feat at the time.


We will revisit passenger travel on the Irish Canals in a future post continuing this series…

Travel by Water

Ballynacarrigy Bridge

We have been on a voyage of discovery – or, perhaps, rediscovery. You remember that recently I reviewed a book which I received as a school prize in 1963: Green & Silver by L T C Rolt? That was a book about travelling by water through some of the canals and rivers of Ireland. The book was published in 1949 but I found out that the journey was undertaken in 1946 – exactly 70 years ago and, also, the year in which I was born. Tom Rolt was a good travel writer and a good observer, and the book is full of descriptions of the places and people that he and his wife Angela came across: it’s a valuable social document and it is rather significant that three score years and ten have passed since they completed their explorations.

Tom Rolt (left) and Angela and Tom Rolt (right) aboard Le Coq, the boat with which they set sail from Athlone to circumnavigate the inland waterways of Ireland between June and September 1946. The photos are taken on the Grand Canal

Back in my more youthful days I also travelled by water, but around the English canal system, a journey of nearly 2,000 miles, taking several months. I also wrote a book after the journey: Canals and their Architecture. Tom Rolt was to have written the introduction to that book but he was unable to, because of illness. As a tribute to him, and to mark his journey through Ireland, Finola and I have been retracing his steps. We should have travelled by water, too, but that would have impinged overmuch on our busy lives here in West Cork. Instead, we covered in a couple of weeks by car what Tom and Angela had taken three months to achieve. Their’s were difficult times, too, immediately after The Emergency when fuel was virtually unobtainable.

navigable waterways

Map of the journey taken from Green & Silver. We have marked on it the sites which we wanted to visit, either because Angela had photographed them or because there was a ‘story’ about the place in the book

Angela Rolt recorded the journey in her own way – through the lens of her camera. Her wonderfully evocative monochrome photographs illustrate Green and Silver, and provided a goal for each leg of our own travels. Armed with the book and digital scans of all her pictures we set out to retrace the watery steps of Le Coq – the little boat which the Rolts borrowed – and take a new photograph at every place they visited. The aim was to set up each photograph of 2016 to exactly match those of 1946 and, through the lens, to record the differences that have taken place in Ireland during all those years. Of course, there is much more to this exercise than the photos: Rolt’s book contains many stories, of people and places not necessarily illustrated but well described, so we also looked out for those: would anyone today have any memories of the people talked about in the book? And would the descriptions of the places that the waterways served in those days ring true in the present?

harbour town

Tullamore 2016

Just one example of our efforts to retrace the steps of the Rolts and record a changing Ireland. Upper photograph – taken by Angela Rolt in 1946 at Tullamore Harbour, Grand Canal. Lower photograph – taken by Robert at the same site. Although the canal harbour itself is intact today – it is an administrative centre for Waterways Ireland – there have been some significant changes. The fine three storeyed warehouses which faced on to the canal 70 years ago have gone, demolished in the 1960s. The Church of the Assumption beyond the harbour was destroyed by fire in 1983 and has since been rebuilt to a modern design except for the tower, which survived the fire

This project will take a little time to fully document. It might occupy a few blog posts! This one is by way of introduction. One thing that struck me most forcefully is the change which the waterways of Ireland have undergone in seventy years. Now all the navigable waterways of Ireland are administered by a single cross-border authority – Uiscebhealaí Éireann (Waterways Ireland); some of the canals which were derelict or near-derelict in 1946 have been fully restored, and many are equipped with modern electric lock gear – something which the Rolts could never have envisaged in their time. However, the volatile economic situations which Ireland has been subjected to in the late twentieth century, and into the twenty-first, have also had their effects, and we found this reflected in some of the stories which we followed during our travels.

Shannon Erne Waterway

The restored Shannon-Erne navigation links waterways between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The 63km canal was constructed originally in the mid nineteenth century but became moribund by 1865. The navigation was reopened in 1994. All sixteen new modern locks are operated electronically by hydraulics: boaters are issued with a key which activates the control panels (above)

Another surprise for me was the quality of the engineering and the scale of the undertakings which Ireland displays on its system of navigations. These were massive construction projects in their day, but they nonetheless manage still to convey a sense of respect for their settings, an appropriateness of all materials used, and a constant appreciation of human scale. The architecture of Ireland’s canals is truly vernacular, something I hope to demonstrate during these explorations.

Mullawornia Lock

Mullawornia Lock, Lock 40, Royal Canal, County Longford. The lock-keeper’s house is an unspoilt example of a vernacular architecture which can be seen across Ireland’s canals

To be continued…

Into the Heartland

Elphin Windmill

Because we live on it, sometimes we get carried away by the notion that The Wild Atlantic Way represents the best that Ireland has to offer. A recent trip to the midlands – the Heartland of Ireland – convinced us (if we needed it) that there is no part of Ireland that isn’t beautiful and full of fascinating things to do and see. (Like the Elphin Windmill, Co Roscommon, above.)

Parked at Coolnahay

We spent a lot of time along rivers and canals! 

Robert explains the background and purpose of our trip in his post, Travel by Water. I knew very little about canals before I met Robert and it’s been eye-opening to learn about the history and the sheer extent of Ireland’s inland waterways. We spent a lot of time exploring the canals – walking and driving – and enjoyed it all tremendously.

Boa Island figures

Boa Island on Lough Erne, Co Fermanagh, is home to these mysterious carved figures. Lower left: heads on a medieval church in Kilmallock, Co Limerick. Lower right: a contemporary sculpture celebrates the mythical Finn McCool, in Keshcarrigan, Co Leitrim

But wherever we went there were always other places luring me away – tower houses and fortified houses, churches and graveyards, friendly villages and colourful houses, stained glass windows and prehistoric sites. We drove along roads where we counted ring forts in every field. We explored ancient graveyards and we found a Holy Tree. We visited two sites we posted about last week, the Corlea Iron Age Trackway, and the Hill of Uisneach.

Holy Chestnut

The Holy Tree. A local man we met called it a ‘holy show’ and it certainly had some very questionable items mixed in with the statues and offerings

It’s autumn now, and, while we do experience a change of colour here in West Cork, it’s really in the midlands that the colours of the deciduous trees can overwhelm the senses. They were just starting to turn. I’m strongly tempted to head back in another couple of weeks for the full experience.

Birr Castle Gardens 2

These photographs were all taken at Birr Castle Gardens. Birr Castle (Co Offaly) was one of the most interesting and beautiful places we visited, home of the famous telescope and beautifully maintained

We visited thirteen of Ireland’s 32 counties on this trip – and never came close to the sea or the Wild Atlantic Way. Instead, everywhere we went we saw notices for the latest iteration of the Tourist Board’s marketing scheme. This one is called Ireland’s Ancient East, and appears to take in every county that isn’t on the Atlantic seaboard. A good resource, if you’re considering a trip like this, is Neil Jackman’s guidebook, Ireland’s Ancient East – we kept it by us and found it invaluable.

Grange Stone Circle, Lough Gur

Grange Stone Circle, the largest in Ireland, is one of a complex of monuments at Lough Gur, Co Limerick

Our headquarters for the biggest chunk of our time away was the incomparable Mearescourt House near Mullingar, Co Westmeath. George and his team made us welcome and comfortable, there were glorious grounds to wander around and animals to meet, and delicious breakfasts that left us feeling full for the rest of the day.

Mearescourt House

Mearescourt House – highly recommended!

When tourists are interviewed about their holidays in Ireland they praise the scenery, the food, the music – but most of all, they say, it’s the people who make it so enjoyable. We agree! Everywhere we went we ended up in conversation, as you do here, with local people delighted to help out with information, share old stories, invite us to the sessions, tell us where to go for a nice dinner, or point out places off the beaten track (and then rescue us later when we got lost).

Claire and Paddy Crinnegan, Coolnahay

Paddy and Claire Crinnegan maintain the canal lock at Coolnahay on the Royal Canal. in Co Westmeath They made us tea, fed us Claire’s delicious currenty bread, told us about the trad concert that evening, loaned us a book, and related stories of growing up at the lock, where Claire’s father was the lock keeper.

Future posts will go into more depth on some of what we saw and experienced on this trip. This one is just an introduction, to share some of our impressions and drop some hints about what might be upcoming.

Clonfert Doorway

Clonfert Cathedrall (Co Galway) has the most beautiful Romanesque doorway I have ever seen
Along the canals and rivers, flora and fauna
Top left: in case you might get too happy with yourself; top right: the imposing gates to Portumna Castle, Co Galway, a 17th century house now owned and managed by the Office of Public Works; Bottom left: I peeped inside the priest’s section of a confession box and observed how he maintains an efficient count of time spent on each confession; bottom right; we disturb the rooks at Ballycowan Castle, Co Offaly

HC Studio, Athlone

Athlone Cathedral (Co Westmeath) has a gorgeous set of enormous windows from the Harry Clarke Studios – this is a detail from just one of them.

Can you detect a future post or two?

Tracking the Past

Guiding the oxen

Bogs are mysterious and dangerous places now, and they were even more so for our ancestors. The raised bogs of the midlands were laid down after the ice age and covered vast areas of land, creating difficulties and opportunities for prehistoric peoples.


The top photo and this one are of the imaginatively assembled diorama showing how the trackway was built

Turf cutters find things in bogs all the time – last year we wrote about the extensive field systems under the blanket bogs of the Ceide Fields of Mayo. Bog bodies are the most fascinating finds no doubt, but all kinds of organic materials can be preserved in the acidic and anaerobic environment of the bog.

Section and Pegs 2

A long section of trackway has been conserved and is on view in a climate-controlled room

In  Corlea, County Longford, what was found turned out to be the longest and largest Iron Age trackway ever discovered. It was excavated by Dr Barry Raftery in the late 80s/early 90s and a whole section of it is conserved and on display in an attractive visitor’s centre in Corlea, which is located exactly where the trackway was found. Noel Carbery was our guide on a recent visit and we couldn’t have asked for a more enthusiastic and knowledgeable person to answer our questions and show us around. 

Visitor Centre

Building the road was a massive undertaking and must have taken hundreds of people working together. Using dendrochronology to date the oak, archaeologists determined that the trackway was constructed in 148BC, placing it in the Iron Age. It is speculated that it provided a routeway from the Shannon to the royal inauguration site of Rathcroghan in Co Roscommon, allowing wheeled vehicles to cross the bog. We can picture warriors in their chariots and full regalia following a ceremonial way to some great feast at Cruachain.

The trackway was held in place by means of wooden stakes

Ironically, its very magnitude proved its undoing – it was so heavy it sank into the bog within ten years of being built. Oak planks were laid on runners, occasionally supported by additional brushwood, and fixed in place with stakes which served to peg the boards to the underlying peat and keep them from moving around. A layer of peat on top may have helped to even out the surface.


Gaps are filled in with branches and saplings of oak, ash or birch

The builders showed considerable skill in splitting the logs to form planks and in whittling the stakes and boring the sockets, using metal axes and adzes. Gaps were filled in with round saplings  and brushwood.


Top left – 2000 year old silver birch bark, beautifully preserved. Top right – some shrinkage of the interior wood is visible. Below – is this woodworm?

The excavation and conservation was as large an effort as building the road. Once the planks were revealed they had to be kept dry, then immersed in special substances and freeze dried. Finally, they were returned to Corlea, to the new visitor centre where they are kept in climate-controlled conditions. Nevertheless, some deterioration is inevitable and on our visit we observed shrinkage of one runner away from its bark, and some signs of what looked like woodworm in one of the planks, indicating the difficult task of conserving two thousand year old timbers.


There is lots of fascinating information at the Visitor Centre about other trackways (including some from much earlier) and about building methods. I particularly loved the little diorama that an artist had made showing the trackway under construction. We also learned a lot about the bog itself, which surrounds the Visitor Centre on all sides.

Modern Bog Trackway

Top – a modern bog trackway, in the form of narrow-gauge railway tracks. Below left – this bog is being ‘milled’ to provide fuel for a power station. Below right – a more traditional cutting to provide domestic fuel

The Corlea Trackway deserves to be much better known than it is. I highly recommend a visit if you’re anywhere close by – it’s not everyday you get to walk beside a 2000 year old royal road!

Home sweet home

The Navel of Ireland

eyes of the goddess

Today we happened upon the Navel of Ireland. That’s the name given to the Hill of Uisneach in the townland of Loughanavally, in the barony of Rathconrath, in the county of Westmeath. It’s an archaeological centre of powerful cultural significance, one of (possibly) six ‘royal’ sites in the island of Ireland.

palace rendering

Seen in the developing visitor centre below the Hill – an artist’s reconstruction of the ‘Royal Palace’ on the Hill of Uisneach, County Westmeath

Today, Ireland is divided into four provinces: Leinster, Ulster, Munster and Connacht. The Irish word for this division is cúige, which literally means ‘fifth part’. That’s confusing, until you learn that there was, before the Norman invasion, a fifth province, known as Mide. The Irish word Midhe means ‘middle’. Mide has survived as a county – Meath; but this large county was divided in two during the time of Henry VIII, and we now have both Meath and Westmeath.

Justin the guide 2

catstone in context 2
Upper picture – Justin, our tour guide, explains the significance of the earthwork known as the ‘Royal Palace’. Lower picture – approaching the Navel of Ireland, the focal point of the Hill of Uisneach

Uisneach was probably the ancient headquarters of the fifth province, but was also particularly important because it was the place where all the provinces came together. The provinces were formerly administered by the dynasties, or ruling families of the day, and it is likely that they met up here to ensure that laws were fair and consistent through the whole of the land, and also to exchange news and stories, to feast, and to hold contests. In that latter context the tradition survives – rugby and hurling contests between the provinces in Ireland are madly important events – and their followers positively tribal!

ancient trackway 2

distant fort 2

Upper picture – an ancient trackway appears to lead to another circular enclosure on a distant hilltop (shown in the lower picture)

Uisneach is privately owned – and a working farm – but we are fortunate that the owner fully appreciates the significance of the place and allows access – by permission – through the services of a number of guides who are well versed in its known history and traditions. Our tour guide today was Justin – a complete Uisneach enthusiast. We followed him for two hours and were shown many of the currently accessible sites. There are very many more: access to others is being worked on, as is a small visitor centre, so a visit to Uisneach is an evolving experience. Some of the hill was excavated, intermittently, over a period of years during the 1920s by R A S Macalister and R L Praeger. In 2001 a long term project was started by Dr Roseanne Schot  of NUI Galway: this is continuing. Future plans for the archaeological investigations include aerial Lidar surveys which could uncover hidden features and artefacts without excavation.

Justin talks about the first archaeological excavators of the Hill (left) and (right) describes the ‘wood henge’ which has been found by laser scanning on the Hill’s summit

While the science of archaeology is being focussed on Uisneach, the equally important investigations of folkore and mythology (the stories of the hill) are also in full swing. Naturally, St Patrick made an appearance on the hill back in the day (we were shown his stone ‘bed’) and I was fascinated to read, later, that Geoffrey of Monmouth in his 11th century History of the Kings of Britain tells how stones from Uisneach were magically transported to Stonehenge. From the top of the hill it is said that you can see twenty counties – and all four (five?) provinces. The day of our visit was not quite clear enough for this, but we did ascend to the summit, where we could see the remains of a passage tomb – perhaps five thousand years old – although these had been disturbed and disbursed by the Ordnance Survey, who placed a trig point there back in the 1800s.

walking to the catstone

Our visit to The Catstone, an enormous glacial erratic which became the meeting place of the chieftains of all the provinces of Ireland

The goal of our little expedition was the Navel of Ireland – by tradition the centre of the whole land, and the place where the meetings of dynasties took place. It’s a little way on from the summit of the hill and only enjoys some of the views, but it is marked by an enormous natural boulder set into a circular earthwork of human construction: Justin painted a word picture for us of each of the chieftains sitting at the head of his own province on the banks of the earthwork and facing the stone while all the important affairs of state were discussed. Culturally this was where the provinces met. In relatively modern times the boulder has been called The Catstone: some say this is because it resembles a cat, others would have it that a cat is a traditional symbol for a place where our world meets the ‘otherworld’.

decorating the goddess

Upper left – the entrance to Uisneach symbolises the Bealtainne Fires which have been celebrated on the hilltop. Upper right – an image of Lugh on the shores of the lake (middle pictures) where he is said to have met his end. Lower picture – Eriu being adorned with autumnal hues

On our way down from the hill we met with a large crowd coming up. They were off to the Catstone for a ceremony of their own which involved drumming and singing – and, possibly, making contact with the ‘otherworld’ themselves. I think there’s a continuity here: a gathering place imbued with some deep significance and referenced to Irish mythology through Eriu, a goddess who gave her name to Ireland, and Lugh – a god or ancient hero who, according to the stories, met his death in a lake near the summit of the hill. Whatever your beliefs, there’s no denying that the Hill of Uisneach has been an empowering place in ancient times, and remains so today.

With thanks to Justin for such an erudite and enthusiastic tour of the Hill, and great appreciation of the interest and generosity of the Clarke family in allowing the Hill to be researched and visited

Below – off to the ceremony on Uisneach Hill

ready for the ceremony