Hill of Ushnagh
|Hill of Ushnagh|
|Summit:|| 597 feet N292489 |
The Hill of Ushnagh, or Uisneach is a hill of 597 feet in Westmeath, in the Barony of Rathconrath. This which was an ancient ceremonial site which in the days of the Gaelic kings of the island was reputed to the centre of Ireland, and the meeting place of its kingdoms. There are remains here from many ages back into prehistory, and the significance of the hill in the Irish past is told more in legend than in history.
While it is not the exact geographical centre of Ireland, in Irish mythology it is often considered to be the symbolic navel of the land, It is associated with the fire festival of 'Bealtaine'.
Its name is ancient, known in Irish Uisneach. This name gives a name to the townland, Ushnagh, in which the hill is found.
The hill stands on the north side of the R390 road, five miles east of the village of Ballymore and beside the village of Loughanavally. The Hill of Uisneach occupies parts of four adjacent townlands: Ushnagh Hill, Mweelra, Rathnew, and Kellybrook.
The Stone of the Divisions, otherwise known as the Cat Stone is found on the south-west side of the hill (53°29’13"N, 7°33’56"W). It is a large, oddly-shaped limestone rock almost 20 feet tall and thought to weigh over 30 tons. It lies inside a circular enclosure. In Irish the stone is called the Ail na Míreann ("stone of the divisions"), as it is said to have been where the borders of the provinces met. The common name the 'Cat Stone', is apparently because it resembles the shape of a sitting cat.
Based on co-ordinates alone, some believe that it may be the site named as Raiba or Riba by Claudius Ptolemaeus (Ptolemy), the Greek-Egyptian astronomer and cartographer, writing in his Geographia around the year 140 AD.
The site consists of a set of monuments and earthworks not just on the hill itself but over an area of 500 acres. Around and upon the hill are the remains of circular enclosures, barrows, cairns, a holy well and two ancient roads.
The biggest enclosure was excavated in the 1920s by R.A.S. Macalister and R. Praeger and showed evidence of occupation from pre-history up to the early Middle Ages.
The actual geographical centre of Ireland has been measured by modern instruments are determined as lying is near the western shore of Lough Ree, further to the west (53°30’0"N, 8°0’0"E) in the townland of Carnagh East, still in Roscommon, so an estimation of its lying at Ushnagh is remarably accurate for eancient days.
In Irish mythology
The ceremonial centre of the land at Uisneach, the navel of Ireland, is said to have marked the meeting point of the borders of Leinster, Munster, Connaught, Ulster and Meath. Tradition tells that Bealtaine fires were lit and Druidical ceremonies held on the hill.
In the Lebor Gabála Érenn (Book of the Takings of Ireland), the Nemedian Druids of Mide' (Meath) lit the first Bealtaine fire there. This fire could allegedly be seen from the Hill of Tara and, when those at Tara saw it, they lit their fire.
There is reference to the name in the story of "Deirdre of the Sorrows", one of the best known stories of pre-Christian Ireland. Deirdre was born with a prediction that her beauty would be so great that Kings would wage wars to fight for her. Conchobar mac Nessa, King of Ulster, kept her hidden away from birth for himself in the future. When older however she fell in love with Naoise, a handsome young warrior, hunter and singer at Conchobar's court and they escaped to Scotland accompanied by his fiercely loyal brothers Ardan and Ainnle, the sons of Uisneach.
According to a popular passage from the same record, Ériu, a tutelary goddess sometimes seen as the personification of Ireland, meets the invading Milesians at Uisneach where, after some conversation and drama, the Milesian poet Amergin promises to give the country her name.
Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae ("History of the Kings of Britain") claims a common belief that the stones of Stonehenge were brought to Britain from Uisneach.
- Alwyn and Brinley Rees: 'Celtic Heritage' (Thames and Hudson, 1961) pp 159-161 ISBN 0500270392