Celtic Junction Arts Review
The Hill of Uisneach
Mary K. McCormick
In the summer of 2018, as I began to prepare for my third trip to Ireland, I thought of the early Yeats poems I’d just studied in my first Celtic Junction literature class in May. We read the ancient Celtic legends, the mythic sources of the poems. After re-acquainting myself with Irish literature, I hoped to feel a deeper connection to my Irish ancestors on the trip.
Prof. Patrick O’Donnell had explained recurring themes in the legends–nature images, shape-shifting between humans and animals, the equality of women. The legend of Cuchulain the great warrior, who had battle skills but also mental prowess—law, magic, the arts of music and storytelling; his father, Lugh of the Long Arm, the sun god; the story of the Children of Lir, turned into swans on the shore of a lake by their jealous stepmother. No man dared come to the Hill of Tara without his wife for the feast of Samhain (Halloween).
This tour would focus on the ancient sites in the Midlands of Ireland. I thought of the shape-shifting in Yeats’ poem, The Song of Wandering Aengus.
…I dropped the berry in a stream And caught a little silver trout …It had become a glimmering girl With apple blossom in her hair Who called me by my name and ran And faded through the brightening air.
Our first stop was the market town of Mullingar, capital of County West Meath, homeland of my McCormick ancestors. My long-lost cousin George, who moved to Ireland late in life, had traced our forebears back to the ancestral village a few miles away. Just to the north lay the real lake from the legend of the Children of Lir. This place was freighted with significance for me.
On the second day of our tour, we drove to the Hill of Uisneach (Oos-knock), just outside the town. Many believe that the ancient female goddess Ériu, from whom Ireland is named, is buried beneath a stone there.
As soon as our bus stopped in the Visitor Centre parking lot, a grey-haired, ruddy-faced man in jeans bounded up the steps and introduced himself to the driver. “Hi! I’m Martin Mulligan! I’ll be your tour guide today!”
He glanced back at the passengers. “Look at all of ya! And you’re all wimmin!” Then he spotted Leo, the only guy. “There ya are! And aren’t you just blessed amongst wimmin!” Everybody laughed. Marty didn’t miss a beat. I rose from my seat, eager to see and climb this ancient Hill.
But first, Marty led us over to a gnarled white Hawthorne tree, the fairy tree, surrounded by large stones. Clutching his thick walking stick, he sat down on one of the stones. We gathered around.
“When I was a wee lad at my parents’ knees,” Marty began, “they told me the old tales of ancient Ireland. I love these stories. Here’s the tale of the birth of Lugh of the Long Arm, the God of Light.”
“Eithlinn was the daughter of one-eyed Balor of the Evil Eye. She was the most beautiful girl in Ireland…”
Marty acted out the story of Lugh’s parents, who were transformed into gorgeous birds, his eyes gleaming, waving his walking stick. Everyone listened, spellbound, like first graders during reading hour. It was the Celtic legends, brought back to life. Patrick had told us that Lady Gregory gathered these stories from the Irish peasants and shared them with Yeats, who turned them into magnificent poetry.
Our bard then led us up to the top of the Hill, passing several modern sculptures on the way–a stone head of Ériu with blue mosaic swirls, her hair made of branches, and a wooden carved head of Lugh. The site is still a working cattle farm. We picked our way along, trying to avoid the cow pies.
The Hill is only 596 feet above sea level, an easy climb. When we got to the top, Marty explained that the Hill of Uisneach has been the geographical and spiritual center of Ireland for 5,500 years. It was the center of celebrations every year on Beltane, May 1st, one of the four equinox / solstice fire-setting celebrations. The High King, a tribal chieftain, held court at the Hill of Tara and the Hill of Uisneach.
Tens of thousands of people would trek to Uisneach for Beltane from Connaught in the West, Ulster in the North, Leinster in the East and Munster in the South. The kings of the county tribes were the only ones allowed to wear the Irish red gold, as rings, and seven colors in their clothes. The storytellers could wear six colors, and the warriors five colors.
At these celebrations, the county kings would take off their red gold rings and place them on the chair next to the High King to show their fealty. If one of them dropped his ring into the High King’s goblet, it was a challenge. The county king was declaring that he wanted to be the High King.
But it wasn’t easy. The candidate had to act as an apprentice for four years, and only then would qualify for a three-year term as High King. Strength in battle was not enough. The High King must be honest, wise, full of integrity. He must know the stories, ensure the success of the crops, respect the people, and govern them well. What mattered for the ancient Irish was the fertility of the land, and the fertility of the people, said Marty, winking and waving his stick over the rolling green farmlands below.
Women were totally equal to men in ancient Ireland, in every way, he asserted. He pointed to grey stones set in the grass. The top of the Hill has two stone circles. The smaller one represents the head of a woman, and the larger one her body. Two circles on a smaller adjoining hill represent a man.
On top of the Hill, you can see a panorama of part of twenty counties, or two-thirds of the country.
“It’s the safest place in Ireland,” he said.
A shiver passed through me, a feeling of awe. My forebears, my dad’s people, had walked in these same green fields.
“I stand here,” Marty said, raising his staff, “and I think about the fact that human beings stood on this hill 5,500 years ago. I find that very comforting…”
He pointed to an area at the bottom of the Hill where there were two rows of trees, with a slightly depressed area between them. Archeologists believe that was the ancient road down which the people would travel for the big celebration of Beltane. I could almost see the ancestors, men and women, processing solemnly, in their colored cloaks, leaning on walking sticks, moving along that wide road between those trees to the sacred Hill.
“I’m so inspired by this place,” said Marty, “that last year, I got up early and climbed to the top of the Hill at 4:52 a.m. to see the sunrise on Beltane. I help gather the fuel for the signal fire every year. I was meditating as the sun rose, ‘having a moment,’ when I thought I heard harp music. I thought to myself, ‘I’m really having a moment.’ He paused, smiled, and scanned the group. “Then I looked behind me, and saw that a guy with a harp had shown up.”
Marty was a six-color storyteller. His lively spirit had infused the legends and summoned up the ancestors, returning them to a near-life.
As we ambled back down the Hill, I fell in beside him, and told him that my McCormick people came from Collinstown. “I know the town,” he said, “Just north of Mullingar.”
“Mary Fay, a widow and my great-great-grandmother, came over on the boat with her seven sons and one daughter,” I said. “One son died on the boat, so it must have been a coffin ship.”
“And they had the better of it,” Marty said, his voice somber. I nodded to show that I understood—the people left behind were starving.
He continued. “And they couldn’t afford to come back to Ireland, because they were sending money over to support the rest, and to bring more over to America. They say that the expats in the nineteenth century saved Ireland. Now, since the Great Recession, there are forty million people of Irish descent out there, and it’s said that they will save Ireland again, with the tourism.”
He paused, glanced down at his shoes, then raised his head.
“I visited New York for the first time a couple years ago,” he said. “I met up with some Irish Americans that my friend fixed me up with, at a pub. We got on like a house on fire. We drank and told stories all night. I don’t remember the next day at all.” He grinned at the memory.
“When I came back, I said to my friend, ‘They’re just like us.’ My friend said, ‘They are us…’”
* Unless otherwise noted, photo credits are the author’s, Mary K. McCormick