The most amazing thing about the Hill of Uisneach, located on a quiet public road between Athlone and Mullingar, is how little most Irish people know about the place which has been known as the “heart chakra of Ireland” for generations.
Tribal people from North America, Australia, Tibet and Egypt have made pilgrimages to this sacred site and yet Irish people have only become aware of its significance with the advent of guided tours over the past two years or so.
Located on a working farm which changed hands 16 years ago, the hill was virtually forgotten about throughout most of the 20th century and yet it arguably has a significance which surpasses the 5,000 year old Stone Age tomb at Newgrange.
Known as the true center of Ireland, Uisneach is one of the most historic and sacred sanctuaries across the entire world.
The land owners, David and Angela Clarke, and a small, committed team began to facilitate guided tours two years ago. I was lucky enough to experience the spectacular views and wonderful energy around this Co Westmeath hilltop during a recent visit.
It’s an amazing place, and yet it remains an undiscovered gem for anyone looking for treasures off the beaten track during a tour of Ireland.
The roots of Uisneach go back beyond recorded history. It was seen as the gate to the mythical fifth province of Ireland, Mide, accessed via a sacred stone called ‘Aill na Mireann’ (the Catstone) which is one of the main attractions on our guided tour.
The huge boulder symbolizes the entire island and beneath it is the resting place of Eriu, the goddess of Ireland.
Representatives of all five provinces used to meet on this hillside to pass laws, play their ancient games, and participate in pre-Celtic fire ceremonies.
The flame of Ireland was kept alive here for centuries, symbolizing eternal love and the throne of divinity, and many believe it was no coincidence that the site’s significance was forgotten by the people when Ireland was colonized by the British Empire.
Our two hour tour was made all the more entertaining by the story-telling of local guide, Marty Mulligan, who is known as a bit of a legend around Mullingar.
“This is the real Ireland that you don’t see in the tourist brochures,” he jokes to our mixed group as our tour begins in the public car park. “This is a sacred site which is well known to Native Americans and Aborigines but, funnily enough, it’s yet to be discovered by most Irish people.
“The majority of our visitors are Irish-Americans, people who are on a spiritual journey and who want to connect with their past. This place was almost forgotten until David and Angela bought it 16 years ago and now we are finding that more people are coming every year.”
Marty guides us up the hill to an ancient conjoined ring fort, known as The Palace, where he regales us with tales of the ancient Irish and their encounters with the spirit world.
“In ancient times it was said that this site divided Ireland into ‘knowledge in the west, battle in the north, prosperity in the east, music in the south, and royalty in the center,” he says.
Dagda, the leader of the Tuatha De Danann, also lived here and Marty shows us a section of the ceremonial road which linked Uisneach to Tara, the seat of the High Kings.
Marty stops at the site of the ancient fire ceremonies and tells us that we can see 20 of Ireland’s 32 counties, across all four provinces, from this amazing vantage point. Even in winter, the view is spectacular on a clear day.
He says that legendary warrior Fionn MacCumhaill is known to have visited Uisneach and that the hill was visited by St Patrick in the fifth century. St Patrick’s plan to build a church here was opposed by the O’Neill clan and, as a result, he supposedly put a curse on the sacred stones.
However, a well was later constructed at the site in St Patrick’s honor and it was here, in 1111, that an important synod took place to divide Ireland into Christian Dioceses which still exist to this day.
Marty brings us to the huge field where the pre-Celtic Irish developed traditional games such as hurling – the sport was believed to have ‘legalized’ violence between warring tribes – and sites such as St Patrick’s Well, St Patrick’s Bed, and the spectacular Catstone.
Our hearts are warmed up on a cold winter’s afternoon by a cup of hot tea in the traditional cottage, which has been transformed into a beautiful little visitors’ center, complete with an open fire. Here Marty enthuses about the nature of his job.
“People have been coming here for thousands of years,” he tells me. “For us, as guides, it’s an honor to keep the stories about this place and the fires alive.”
He tells me that Chief Arvol Looking Horse, spiritual leader of the Sioux people, visited the site in 2001 to pray for world peace, along with late actor John Hurt and singer Donovan.
“Chief Looking Horse knew about the significance of this place, which is also known as the ‘Navel of Ireland’, long before he came here,” says Marty. “Many native people come here on a spiritual journey. Uisneach is as significant to them as Standing Rock in the USA or Uluru in Australia.”
Another guide, Justin Moffatt, tells me that interest in Uisneach grew after locals revived the ancient Bealtaine fire festival at the site six years ago.
“It’s the most primal thing in the world to sit around a fire. People love the idea that the ancient Irish were enjoying a fire festival here thousands of years ago,” he tells me.
“There has been a revival of interest in the ancient Irish. People are looking for something a bit different when they come to Ireland these days and what better experience is there than retracing the steps of the Fir Bolgs and the Tuatha De Danann?
“This is the true heart of Ireland, a magical place. Uisneach has played a part in just about every significant Irish event, be it political, cultural, religious, mythological, or geographical through the ages.”
Guided tours of the Hill of Uisneach will take place every Wednesday to Sunday from May 1. Tours commence from the public car park at 1pm. To book a tour in advance, please check out the website www.uisneach.ie. Please note that the sacred site is not open to the public at other times.
Ciaran Tierney is a journalist, blogger, and digital storyteller based in Galway, Ireland. You can check out his Facebook page here