The mythological and sacred centre of Ireland The Hill of Uisneach, in County Westmeath, has played a part in just about every significant Irish event; be it political, cultural, religious, mythological and geographical. The centre of Ireland in many ways, this enigmatic hill is one of the most sacred and historic sanctuaries in the world. Standing at 596ft above sea level, the summit of Uisneach commands extensive panoramic views over the central plain, with no less than 20 counties visible on the horizon. The roots of Uisneach lie beyond recorded history but its surviving monuments and relics range in date from the Neolithic, early Bronze Age to the medieval period, indicating human activity spanning some five millennia.
In mythology, Uisneach is the resting site of the earth goddess Ériu and the sun god Lugh and, as such, was regarded as sacred ground. Uisneach was seen as a gateway to the mythical fifth province, Mide. For centuries, the fifth province was accessed at ‘Aill na Mireann’ (the Stone of Divisions) a sacred, fissured and fragmenting limestone boulder on the south west slope of the Hill. It is under ‘Aill na Mireann’ that Ériu is resting.
Uisneach became the seat of the High Kings in later years and ancient texts state it became customary for the claimant to the high throne of Ireland to ‘marry’ Ireland’s founder Ériu at a ceremony on Uisneach. 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. It was linked to Tara by a ceremonial road, a section of which remains today. Noted Irish figures such as the legendary warrior Fionn Mac Cumhaill visited the Hill and a well was named in his honour. It was in the fifth century that Uisneach was visited by Saint Patrick, intent on establishing a church on this most sacred of sites.
In more recent years it became a site of political rallies, with Daniel O’Connell, De Valera and Padraig Pearse addressing the masses from ‘Aill na Mireann’. James Joyce was a regular visitor, enthralled by Uisneach’s many stories and links to the modern world. Chiefs from Native American tribes have spoken reverentially of Uisneach and in 2001, Uisneach hosted a summit where Native American Chiefs intermingled with Irish natives and shared respective histories and traditions. In 2017, Uisneach had the honour of hosting Irish President Michael D Higgins, at the Bealtaine celebration, where he hit the first fire.
One of the most enduring legends of Uisneach is that it was the location for the first great fire to be lit in Ireland. Hearths were extinguished in every Irish home and fireplace in the country, in anticipation of a new flame from Uisneach’s Bealtaine fire. Using the flame from Uisneach, fires were then ignited on the other sacred hills of Ireland. As the centuries progressed, the great fire became the catalyst for the Bealtaine festival, an annual gathering and fair at Uisneach that continued to early modern times. It was often the first chance of the year for neighbours to greet each other after a long and often times, bitter winter and great celebrations ensued, not only at Uisneach but throughout the country. This year on the Hill of Uisneach there will be a sustainable, organic, planet friendly, renewable Bealtaine Fire Celebration on 9th May. Celebrating the gathering of the ‘Four Corners of the World’, where different indigenous groups will share in this ancient festival of feasting, dancing, music, art, tournaments and trade all culminating in the spectacle that is the lighting of The Ancient Fire at Bealtaine on the Hill of Uisneach.