On my recent holiday to Ireland, which was action packed, my sister suggested going to visit The Hill of Uisneach, a local place steeped in mythology and history. I’d been feeling tired, trying to fight off a cold so the thoughts of climbing hills didn’t appeal to me in the least. Still, it was a nice gesture so I said I’d love to go.
It was a muggy day, not too cold but, as is often the case, the sky was laden with swift-moving clouds in tones of dirty white to grey to slate. Ah, but when the sun peeked through the moody sky, it cast a beautiful light over the landscape.
The drive itself took about fifteen minutes. My brother was wise enough to take a map and I sat back and enjoyed the rolling hills and forty shades of green.
The landscape became hillier as we approached the site. Gorse and mayflower were blooming in abundance and we passed a hedge of wild Hortensia nestled amongst the verdant vegetation. There was no sign of this historic site, but my brother looked up from his map. “It must be around here somewhere,” he said.
We pulled up to a little lay-by near a small bungalow directly on the main road.
“Why don’t we just knock on the door and ask,” I said.
“Fire ahead then,” both answered in unison.
I, being the older one, reluctantly got out of the car. I noticed on the other side of the road there was an impressive wrought-iron gateway with stone pillars and a brass sign which gave the name of some stately-sounding house like Lugnaghsea House or something to that effect. Feeling like an intruder, I had to walk around to the side of this smaller lodge house to find the entrance. My brother and sister looked on.
The open vegetable patch at the back and the compost heap, along with a few colourful bits and bobs indicated that this was the house of a person immersed into alternative, grow-your-own vegetables and ‘let’s get back to nature’ trip. The back garden was separated by a fence and a gate which opened up to more hilly fields and low stone walls.
Before I had a chance to find the buzzer, the patio door was opened with gusto and a youngish fellow came out.
“Hi,” I said. Sorry for intruding, but we’re looking for the Hill of Uisneach.”
“Yep, it’s right behind this house,” he said. “Just climb over the stile, take the path along the gorse bushes and head straight up towards… .”
I heard the word palace, cat stone, centre of Ireland and became mesmerised as my imagination took me off to far-away mythical lands. I assumed my siblings were taking it all in too as they were out of the car at this stage. Pity I hadn’t done a bit of research before coming, I thought, but I could always do it later.
“Just hold on a second and I’ll give John, the landlord, a call,” he said.
“Oh, doesn’t the land belong to the State?” I asked.
“No, he bought the land about ten years ago. He’s has lots of cattle in the field.”
He clicked the numbers onto his mobile and I heard him tell the landlord about us and our quest. “No, I don’t think they have a dog,” he answered. He finished his call and told us it was fine, we could go ahead and check it out.
We thanked him profusely and climbed over the stile. My sister went marching off, followed by my brother, while I wandered behind them.
My sister turned around. “Where do we go to now?”
“Why, weren’t you listening too?” I asked, slightly ashamed of my lack of concentration. I pointed in the general direction and we laughed as we looked ahead.
A herd of cattle stood on the hill and even as we proceeded those few meters, they lined up in unison. It was like something out of the Showdown at the O.K. Corral. The head cow looked like it meant business, and I wondered if it was a bull ready to stampede, or whatever bulls do. I knew I wouldn’t stand a chance if he decided to attack but decided to take a photo anyway. Sadly that photo is buried somewhere in the archives.
In the distance, a man on a motorised buggy came speeding toward us.
My sister and brother were already chatting to the fellow in the buggy as I made my way towards them, doing my best to avoid cow pies and squelchy bog land.
Although I had five pairs of shoes in my luggage, I’d not taken my walking shoes and was wearing my favourite leather boots.
The man was friendly, and informative, if slightly bemused. He pointed behind him, saying ‘The palace is up above.’ He then turned to me, saying, ‘Now, don’t get your hopes up’ Ah, that Irish humour.
What a strange image that conjured up – palace – in the middle of a landscape of fields. Wise man, I thought. Buying this land. It’ll be a place of pilgrimage in a few years. It’s already started.
He told us a group of locals had come to celebrate the Bealtaine Fest a couple of weeks previously and that a group of foreign pilgrims came there a couple of months ago. How right he was when he said most of the locals have never been there. I had grown up in the vicinity and had never been there either. None of us had. And yet, he told us that a group of Germans had walked from Fore (another local historic site) all the way to this place. They knew more about it than the locals.
“This is a serious spiritual place, if you’re into that sort of thing,” he said. “It’s even older than The Hill of Tara. When you reach the summit, you’ll be able to see all the bordering counties. You’ve got Lough Ennell over to the left, the Slieve Blooms in front of you, and … .”
I was already there in my mind, wandering through the mystical navel of Ireland, as someone eloquently named it.
He pointed out the lake, the palace, and the cat’s stone which we did finally find. It was a pretty large boulder, a marking stone, a place of worship, a secret meeting place? Take your pick.
According to various sources, the original stones at Stonehenge were transported from this place to the U.K. I wouldn’t even begin to imagine how that feat was achieved, but then again there was magic in the air in those days when giants and Lilliputians roamed the forests, the glens and the rocky coastal paths. There were portholes to other dimensions, gods of strength and courage, potions that enabled you to perform otherworldly feats. Before the Age of Reason set in. The imagination was the doorway to miraculous lands. They say the stone is so named because it resembles a cat holding onto a mouse.
Now, I have a pretty good imagination but there’s no way I could see any resemblance. We never did find the palace, not that I expected to. Of course it referred to the remains of an old castle so it was probably one of the small groups of stones we came across.
When we entered the sacred enclave, like a fairy fort, in the centre of which was a circular formation of small stones, my brother said.
“Here, can you feel the energy.”
Well, I had to be honest. I didn’t feel anything particular, no tingling, no sense of long-dead ghosts, but I did feel as if I was in an altered state of reality. It was similar to the feeling I had when I recently went to another sacred place in Germany. It was as if this place was suspended in a protected honeycomb of serenity.
“Feel that rush of warm air.” My brother said. Well, I never could be sure whether he was having me on but I sensed he was serious. So we all stepped back out and in again through the portal to fairyland.
“Yes, now that you mention it … .” The power of suggestion never ceases to amaze me, but I tried to feel it, not to get talked into it.
We continued on, as a soft mist enveloped us, finally reaching the summit where we had a fantastic view of the surrounding lakes and hills. The purple hills appeared to touch the low-lying rain-filled clouds. Then the soft mist transformed into soft rain and finally into continual rain and we squelched our way back to the car, each of us locked in this special moment and drenched in long-lost memories of ancient druids and another time on this island.