I arrived at the car parking spot at the southern foot of the Hill of Uisneach, not really knowing what to expect, wondering about access and trespass and all that. There's an official sign outside the entrance that lists some of the monuments on the hill. Past this and at the farm gate entrance is another sign saying that Uisneach is a working farm and that permission to enter the site may be gained by ringing 087 2576434. Please respect these wishes.
I called the number and got through to a voicemail, left a message about my intentions and headed in and up. Immediately in front of you as you ascend is an ancient trackway – to the left is the modern path/track – guess which one I took. Some way up this my phone rang – it was David Clarke, the landowner. I explained to him my interest and he readily gave me permission. I continued on my way, heading for what is marked on the OS map as two side-by-side raths, one of which I had read has a souterrain. The two raths are in fact conjoined, part of an intriguing, complex habitation and multi-period site. I have just today got a plan of the site from when McAllister and Praeger excavated the place back in the twenties. I will attempt to describe this site in its own individual fieldnotes, but this first time here I had only a cursory scout around the place. As I rooted around I spotted a 4 by 4 arrive over by a yurt-like structure and thought I'd better go over and introduce myself.
The driver was the landowner, the aforementioned David Clarke. After the usual pleasantries he showed me some of the monuments. He also gave me a flyer from last year's Festival of the Fires (cancelled this year to allow the farm and the archaeology to 'recover'). The flyer has a description and some folklore of some of the sites and a handy map with all the main monuments on it and a suggested walking tour. Before setting off on this i checked out some of the remaining artworks about the site. The Button Factory stage still stands but is showing signs of dilapidation – hilltop weather not being conducive to wooden structures.
I started my tour proper just by Lugh's Lough, so-called as legend has it this is where the harvest God Lugh (Lunasa) was drowned, before being interred in Lugh's tumulus, a barrow to the north-east. David said that the whole tour would take about an hour and a half. I guess that's for people with half an interest – I would suggest half a day at least to TMAers.
Just west of the lake are the remains of a cashel/dun. It's very overgrown back there, but the walls reminded me of the Clare cashels. Further west of here is the highest point of the hill with its cairn, unfortunately named St. Patrick's Bed. It's ruined and has a trig point plonked in its centre (ho hum). You can see landmarks in 22 of the counties of Ireland from here, allegedly.
South-west through two fields is the Cat Stone, Aill na Mireann (The Stone of Divisions). This is a huge crumbling glacial erratic, enclosed in its own henge. There is some doubt as to which came first, the stone or the henge – I haven't seen any excavation notes anywhere, but I seriously doubt that the stone was moved by anybody/thing but a glacier. This is the sacred omphalus of Ireland, the centre of the kingdom of Eriu, the heart of the mythical fifth province of Mide. Descending through the thorn trees in the field with their rag offerings towards the stone, the heavens opened up. I was able to shelter and remain completely dry in the hollow of the crumbling stone. I felt cocooned here, unfazed by the weather and utterly blissful. This is a special place.
As with all the monuments, I wished i could have stayed a bit longer, but there was still so much to see and I had to be in a friend's near here for dinner in a couple of hours.
I moved on over to Finnleascach's well, a natural spring at the base of another rath. I took a sup here, thirsty despite the rain. This is said to have once been enclosed by its own earthen bank. The water was steadily trickling, but given that I was on a working farm with plenty of livestock, I was a little unsure of it. The rath has quite a large, prostrate stone in its flattened interior. I believe that this may once have stood.
I moved on again, back up to what is described as the 'ancient palace', the conjoined ringforts. I scouted around there some more and then headed up the field to see if I could get a better view of it from higher ground. No such luck, but there was still Lugh's tumulus, over the wall in the next field. This is marked as a barrow, but it doesn't have any external ring or fosse. It rises to over 2 metres high, and the views to the east are extensive.
I was on the last leg of my visit to Uisneach and at this stage I didn't want to leave. I'm not a great vibes person, nor do I go in for the legendary stuff too much (though this is changing the more I find out). Uisneach still has me in its grip 5 days later. I can say that I was blown away by the place, but I can't tell you exactly why. None of the monuments, bar Aill na Mireann, are all that spectacular. Yet, the feeling remains that this is a special place, far more powerful and interesting than the more famous Tara.
David Clarke seems to understand what is in his care and is not ashamed to exploit it commercially – see the link to the Festival of the Fires website – but I got the sense from him that he's one of us, maybe not a TMAer, but someone who cares about these heritage sites and wants other people to care about them too.
Ah, childhood memories... (despite being a national monument, the Hill of Uisneach was where farming realations of mine used to graze their cattle.) When I was a kid, long before I knew anything about history, I remember standing on the summit, absolutely gobsmacked by the view. On a clear day you can see landmarks in twenty counties, and many of the locals will claim to have seen the gleaming white Round Tower over O'Connell's grave in Dublin's Glasnevin cemetary. This is a nice link to the past as one of O'Connell's monster meetings for Catholic Emancipation was held at Uisneach (the remnants of an iron flagstaff are still embedded in the catstone).
The idea that the souterrains represent in plan form the stallions of the dagda, I'm inclined to take with a pinch of salt as one of Michael Dame's more dubious ideas.
For fellow holy well afficionado's, St. Bridget's well at nearby Killare Village is a perfect, barely christianised remnant of the sacred landscape.
Rathnew is a large rath, with a deep embankment and fosse and a smaller, conjoined section about half its size on its western quarter. Not much remains of the houses that once stood here, but there is much of intrigue to make the megalithic adventurer happy.
In the western 'annex' is a circle of low stones, mostly embedded into the ground, some proud of the ground by about a maximum of 20 cms. It's about 5 metres in diameter with a standing stone at its centre. This stone is about three quarters of a metre tall and is a place for offerings, coins of varying worth on the day I visited. MacAllister notes it as a "dolmen-like stone". Like a few places on Uisneach that day, it had a magical air about it. It also must be pointed out that the ring is probably modern, as mentioned elsewhere and it doesn't appear in MacAllister and Praeger's plan.
The annex has two entrances, at the west and south. The defensive works here are impressive – an outer bank, a fosse (now darkened and alley-like under the covering trees) and an inner bank. The fosse continues onto the bigger part of the rath at the north, but starts to fill up fairly quickly in this sector.
Slightly north of east, there is an opening, with two seeming jambstones or gate stones. South of the entrance the fosse clears out again. Inside this large rath there are the remains of habitation structures, one of which MacAllister and Praeger excavated and left with quite an extensive plan. In its western sector, before it meets the annex, is a souterrain, now filled in and inaccessible. Pity.
This is a fascinating place, somewhere I'd like to explore in greater depth, and intend to do so now that I have the plans of the place.
Entry on the National Monuments database, interesting because it lists the monuments on the Hill of Uisneach (I believe there are more):
Description: One of a cluster of monuments situated on the Hill of Uisneach. Nearby monuments include a barrow (WM024-173----) 200m to the N, an earthwork (WM024-068) is 390m to the SE, an ancient road (WM024-067) runs onto the S side of the monument, a ringfort (WM024-063) and holy well (WM024-60) are located 390m to the SSW, an earthwork (WM024-065) is 290m to the W, a second earthwork (WM024-062) is 270m to the WNW, a pond (WM024-064002-) is 170m to the NW. The monument was described in 1963 as a 'large pair of conjoined ringforts, with hut-foundations (WM024-066002-) visible in the either part' (SMR file 1963). This ringfort was excavated in 1925-8 by R. A. S. Macalister, who believed that the larger ringfort was the mythological 'palace of Tuathal Techtmar'. On the 1837 edition of the OS 6-inch map the monument is depicted as a large circular ringfort with D-shaped annexe on the E side of the ringfort. On this map a 'Cave' or souterrain is annotated and depicted in the centre of the ringfort, the E quadrant of the ringfort interior has been divided into two small areas defined by earthen banks which run off the N & E side of a rectangular shaped platform located in the S quadrant of the ringfort. This rectangular platform appears to be the foundations of a hut site. A second possible hut site is depicted in the centre of the W annexe on the 1837 edition of the OS 6-inch map.
Compiled by: Caimin O'Brien
Date of upload: 26 January 2011