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

First Foot

‘…According to local folklore the first foot was planted on Irish soil at Donemark on the shores of Bantry Bay in 2680 BC…’

Ireland's first arrivals passed by this pebble beach on their way to Donemark

Ireland’s first arrivals passed by this pebble beach on their way to Donemark

This statement (from Fuchsia Brand’s leaflet on Heritage) was guaranteed to send me scurrying for my history books. And – yes – I found many references to the event: an event which, to my mind, was surely one of special significance for Ireland: the first human ever to have set foot in this land – it must have deserved commemoration… Surely, there must at the very least be a plaque marking the spot? For a moment I wondered if this could be the long sought explanation for the enigmatic piece of Rock Art that’s on display in Bristol’s Museum & Art Gallery – the carving is about the right age…

Bronze Age Footprints in Bristol's museum

Bronze Age Footprints in Bristol’s museum

So, a similar example of Petrosomatoglyphia is what I was hoping to find on the shores of Bantry Bay, a mere stone’s throw from our home here in Cappaghglass. But – before that expedition – let’s just go back to the history for the moment. Back – in fact – to the Lebor Gabála Érenn (The Book of the Taking of Ireland), which was written down in the 11th century and – allegedly – based on earlier source material. It takes a bit of wading through: I used a commentary edited and translated by R A Stewart Macalister and published by the Irish Texts Society in Dublin in 1938, but it’s well worth the effort. There’s a lot I had never understood before about the earliest history of the people of Ireland.

lebot gabala book frontispiece

It’s a long story… The book is a collection, in five protracted parts, of all the poems and traditions which had been written and learned by the Bards, telling the history of their nation. There’s a lot of repetition: like the Gospels there are several versions of each episode and it’s a bit dizzying to try to get a clear overall picture of events. So, settle down and imagine the visiting Bard you have given hospitality to in your tower house on a winter’s night is regaling you with tales of your ancestors.

A Meeting of Bards (at Boscawen-Un Stone Circle, West Penwith, Cornwall

A Meeting of Bards (at Boscawen-Un Stone Circle, West Penwith, Cornwall)

Everything has to go back to Noah, who was only allowed to take with him on the Ark his own sons and their wives. One of his sons, Bith, had a daughter – Cesaire (or Cessair). As she had to stay behind so also did her father, but they built their own ships, three of them, and set sail with two other men and a large company of women, looking for a land which ‘knew no sin’ because it had never been populated: there they would settle and aim to re-found the human race in a green and fertile place. Their voyaging took them to many parts of the known world and they came eventually to the north of Spain – which we know today as Celtic Galicia. Cesaire knew that this wasn’t the Utopia they were seeking but she climbed to the top of a very tall tower and, in the far distance, she spotted Ériu – ‘…where no evil or sin had been committed, and which was free from the world’s reptiles and monsters…’

Cesaire would have needed a tower like this to catch a glimpse of Ireland from northern Spain...

Cesaire would have needed a tower like this to catch a glimpse of Ireland from northern Spain…

And so it was, forty years before the Great Flood engulfed everything, Cesaire’s expedition sailed up to the mouth of the Mealagh River, passing on the way the most beautiful landscapes they had ever seen – landscapes that we are fortunate to see every time we set out to explore our own new horizons.

Bantry Bay - the landscape today

Bantry Bay – the landscape today

Now it was time to glimpse for ourselves this remarkable site – Dún na mBarc – the place of the boat – (Donemark -Dunnamark Townland) in the parish of Kilmocomogue. We drove up the unremarkable N71 through Bantry town and turned in to its attractively situated golf course, then made our way down to the shore. Disappointingly, that is also unremarkable: it’s got a brooding, although not unattractive atmosphere about it. We came there at low tide and saw mud-flats – alive with foraging birds, including a very fine Old Nog – the huge stones of a disintegrating quay, and distant views to the Sheep’s Head and Beara Peninsulas.

Landing Place? At Donemark

Landing Place? At Donemark

Old Quay at Donemark

Old Quay at Donemark

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Alas, there were no footprints, no plaque, no signification of the very important history of this site: there was only our imagination to fill in the gaps. I could envisage Cesaire’s Bronze Age boat (only one survived the full journey) making its way up the azure waters admiring the emerald green of the landscape and passing by some of Ireland’s most dramatic scenery. They landed on ‘…a Saturday, the fifteenth day of the moon at Dun na mBarc…’

Kerry Mountains

Mountains of West Cork

We did find a single commemoration of this event: in the tranquil gardens of the National Learning Network Centre, which is not far from the mouth of the river. It is a work of art, made in 2013 by the students of the Centre, under the guidance of Michael Ray and the auspices of the West Cork Arts Centre – you may remember both from this recent post. Voyage of Stories’  recalls that pioneering arrival in the form of a boat sculpture made of steel, copper and glass and set up over a pool. The glass tiles tell of invasions and emigrations both ancient and modern in Irish and English. It’s a good way to commemorate the journey and those early settlers, we thought.

'Voyage of Stories' at Donemark

‘Voyage of Stories’ at Donemark

Now, Finola – at my side and wearing her Archaeologist’s hat – is tutting at my unquestioning acceptance of the dating of this milestone in Ireland’s history, bearing in mind that the passage graves at Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth appear to be some 5,000 years old and – she says – there were people living in Ireland earlier than that! But my view is that there’s history, and there’s story… Well, perhaps history is always someone else’s story but give me a good tale any day, especially one woven with adventure and romance and told at the fireside.

Family Life (Caleb Bingham 1845)

Family Life (Caleb Bingham 1845) New Orleans Museum of Art

So now you know all about Cesaire, who was the first to step from that frail vessel which had travelled all the way from Egypt in those far off days. But perhaps I should also tell you a little more: the three men on that voyage faced the prospect of serving no less than fifty women between them if they were to populate this new land. The Lebor Gabála Érenn is quite frank about this: ‘… Ladra, the pilot, from whom is Ard Ladrann named he is the first dead man of Ireland before the flood. He died of excess of women, or it is the shaft of the oar that penetrated his buttock. Whatever way it was, however, that Ladra is the first dead man in Ireland…’ while Bith – Cesaire’s father – was already aged before the voyage and also passed away soon after. That left one man – Fionntán – who was so frightened by the prospect of facing all those women alone that he ran away and hid in a cave. There he changed into a Salmon and survived the Flood which, sadly, overcame Cesaire and her companions. The shape-shifting Fionntán went on to live for five and a half thousand years (by my reckoning that means he’s still alive!) and recorded all of Ireland’s history (including at first hand the account of Cesaire’s voyage) – which he then taught to the Bards of Ireland so that it would be taken out into the world…

But all that is for another day!

made harbour