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.
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.
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!
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.
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’.
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