centre and divisions of sacred Ireland
Ireland has maintained
its sacred division of the land into the 21st century, though
the site of Uisneach, from which the land was divided, is not
the best known feature or most widely visited site of the island.
But together with the other sacred sites, it continues to reveal
insights into the pagan organisation of the land.
and the stone of divisions
country is in need of a centre, and Ireland has remembered where
its sacred navel was and remains: Uisneach. The sacred division
of the island in four, the “meridian” dividing the
two halves, then the “horizontal cut” dividing those
parts even further, was done at Uisneach, the sacred centre. As
such, the five provinces were created: Ulster, Leinster, Munster,
Connacht, and Meath, the latter around the centre at Uisnech.
The name Meath is derived from the Latin word media (middle),
emphasising the importance of centrality.
Uisneach may not have been a veritable fortress, but its deep
inland location provided sanctuary. Most foreign invaders would
enter the country via the rivers of Leinster and work their way
up the river valleys. As such, the last part of the province to
be conquered would be the area in the midlands, east of the River
Shannon, i.e. Uisneach.
is credited with lighting the first fire at Uisneach. He pushed
the Formorians, legendary giants with one eye, one arm and one
leg, to the coastal fringes. Legend also has it that the followers
of Nemhedh eventually dispersed across Europe and were succeeded
by the Fir Bolg, who are said to have come to Uisneach, and from
there they divided the country.
Each province was ruled by one of five brothers responsible for
prosperity, order and justice for all. It is recorded that each
provincial king, when attending these assemblies, had to wear
a “hero’s ring of red gold” which he left behind
on his chair as a tribute for the High King. To quote Carry Meeghan:
“This formed the basis of sacral kingship, a concept that
survives to this day on some of the islands and in certain remote
parts of the country.”
Apart from Nemedh, the centre is also linked with Lugh, who came
here to rescue his mother’s people from the heavy taxes
demanded from them by the Formorians. After their defeat, Lugh
ruled from Uisneach, and it is said he died here also. This brings
the concept home that the king ruled from the sacred hill, in
the centre of his land, Ireland. It also shows the tradition of
the king (identified with the sun) marrying the land, often identified
with the goddess.
it forms the sacred centre, we could presume that Uisneach would
be a majestic or at least intriguing mountain. That is not the
case. Uisneach is a 181 metres high limestone outcrop west of
Mullingar. What makes Uisneach “sacred”, may indeed
just be the fact that it sits in the centre of the island. Still,
despite its small size, it is of sufficient size to fit its purpose.
Archaeological digs have revealed that huge fires were burnt here
from Neolithic times onwards. The near circular sanctuary, 55
metres in diameters, was defined by a ditch 120 cm deep and one
metre broad at the base. These two concentric beacon rings around
the central Uisneach fire point have been identified as a “fire
eye”, which has been discovered on several megalithic depictions,
such as the “Hill of the Hag” at Loughcrew. The Old
Irish word súil means both “eye” and “sun”,
and it seems fire connected both.
Stone of Destiny, at Tara
ritual fires were then relayed to other hills, and so onwards,
until all of Ireland was “lit”. Beacon fires could
indeed be seen from here to over a quarter of Ireland, and in
most directions the hills upon the horizons could relay the message
of the beacon as far as the seacoast. It should not come as a
surprise that this ritual occurred at Beltane, the fire festival.
John Totland, as recently as 1740, recalled such chains of fires,
“which being every one […] in sight of some other,
could not but afford a glorious show over a whole nation.”
According to Totland, a pair of fires was lit at each site, “one
on the cairn”, “another on the ground”, together
evoking the rising sun. “I remember one of those Carns on
Fawn-hill […] known by no other name but that of Bealteine,
and facing another such Carn on the top of Inch-hill”, in
his native region of the Inishowen peninsula. Other observers
from his time confirmed that such events indeed occurred at Uisneach,
the fire was lit, other rituals occurred. Tradition has it that
at Beltane, cattle were driven through two fires, to preserve
them from future accidents. It is this tradition, which survived
in many places, from which the expression “a baptism by
fire” comes: literally, cattle, as well as people, were
baptised by fire, to protect them from harm. That the tradition
is not just medieval folklore but dates from ancient times was
substantiated by excavations at Uisneach, where carcasses of animals
that had been burnt were found on the site: they were sacrifices
to the gods.
were the rituals of the fire god. What about the mother goddess
which he married? Uisneach is believed to have been the burial
place of a goddess, Eriu, or Erin. She is the goddess who gave
her name to the island: Eire, Ireland. The rocks were her bones,
the earth her flesh and the rivers her veins. Legend has it that
this Mother Goddess was buried underneath the Cat Stone, on the
southwestern slope. The stone is named as such because it is said
to resemble a cat. However, its Irish name is Ail na Mirenn, or
Stone of Divisions, underlining its central location; from here,
the “body of the Mother Goddess”, Eriu, was divided.
was the “central centre” of Ireland. One of the local
centres (provinces) of Ireland was at Cruachain, the residence
of the kings of Connaught, the O’Connor Don. Each local
centre is reminiscent of the Uisneach. Here, the area is dominated
with small hills and mounds, creating the local sacred landscape
from which the local kings ruled.
The central feature is the Mound or Rath of Cruachain. She seems
to be a local version of Erin and was named after the goddess
Crochen Croderg. She was born of the sun goddess Etain (a local
version of Lugh?), dropping from her apron as she passed over.
When she fell, she went into the ground through the Oweynagat,
the Cave of the Cats. The cave is mentioned in the Book of Leinster
as one of the three caves of Ireland, the others being at Howth,
outside of Dublin, and Dunmore, in Kilkenny. We note that the
presence of a cat seems to be important, as the “Cat Stone”
is the stone where Erin was apparently buried at Uisneach.
is a natural fissure, about 120 feet deep into the limestone,
on the side of one of the earthworks that are part of Cruachain.
Apparently, there was once an inscription in the cave, dating
from the early Christian era, and written in Ogham, which read:
“Stone of Fraech, son of Medbh (Maedbh).”
The cave has a small entrance – easily missed. We should
see it as the “vulva” of the Mother Goddess, through
which we enter her womb – the underworld. It should thus
note come as a surprise that her “female organs” are
aligned to the sun. Her entrance is aligned with the rising sun
at midsummer, shining into the cave. Croderg itself means “blood
red”, the colour of the setting sun… but also no doubt
expressing the menstrual blood, with the sun penetrating into
the cave no doubt symbolising fertilisation of the womb by the
solar light. It should thus not come as a surprise to learn that
this deity had a daughter, the infamous Maebh, who would become
the queen of Connaught and whose palace was said to be mound of
Rathcroghan – from which the kings ruled. The cave itself
is said to be her burial place.
much more impressive local central is Rock Cashel, the seat of
the King of Munster. The word Cashel is an anglicized version
of the Irish word Caiseal, meaning “fortress”. In
legend, this rock in the middle of the plains was formed by the
devil, flying overhead with a large stone in his mouth, dropping
it. It should not come as a surprise that it is something of a
geological anomaly and its conical shape obviously identified
it in the minds of our forefathers as a natural sacred centre.
A hill in the north of county was said to be the “Devil’s
bit” missing. Indeed, a strange gap in a hill can be seen
in Devil’s Bit Mountain (481 metres), which is situated
due north of the Rock of Cashel, near Templemore. The story illustrates
how one local myth can never be looked upon in isolation and how
the various myths brought various sites across the island together.
some point, the High Kings installed themselves at Tara, 30 miles
north of Dublin, Ireland’s present capital. In his notes
on Ireland, dating from 82 AD, the historian Ptolemy of Alexandria
fixes the position of the capital cities of each of the five Irish
kingdoms by giving longitude and latitude figures for each of
them. Tara is not included, which suggests that at that time,
Uisneach was still the sacred centre.
But it is at Tara, in roughly 400 AD, that St Patrick entered
into a power struggle with the Celtic elite, by lighting a rival
Spring Equinox ritual fire on the Hill of Slane, as direct competition
to the ritual fire lit from Tara. Again, Tara’s light was
supposed to be the first light, but Patrick outperformed the king,
in a show of strength. It shows a shift from Uisneach to Tara,
somewhere between 82 and 400 AD.
word Tara simply means hill. Legend says it contains the tomb
of Tea, the Queen of the ancestors, in yet another display of
the kings marrying the Mother Goddess, i.e. the land.
The best known feature of the site is the Mound of the Hostages,
the name having nothing to do with any archaeological evidence
found there, but the result of 19th century naming conventions.
Its special status is confirmed through various excavations, which
have found over a hundred bodies, making it the most “popular”
mound in Ireland. It would suggest that certain privileged people
were buried in the
presence of the “tomb of the goddess”. The mound is
the oldest monument on site, dating from about 3000 BC. The mound
has a short subterranean passage, into which the sun shines on
November 8 and February 8, dates identified as the beginning of
winter and spring. The phenomenon works by placing a sill stone
at the entrance, aligned to the horizon, so that a beam of light
will enter the passage, striking the backstone, where there are
carvings with circles and arcs. These must, once again, symbolise
a unique interplay between solar deity and the fertility of the
mother. We note that the period between the two days roughly coincides
with the length of a human pregnancy, i.e. nine months.
is at Tara that the role of sacred kingship has been best preserved.
The new king had to seek acceptance from the gods. For this, a
sacred stone, the Lia Fail, or Stone of Destiny, had to cry out,
showing the divinities had accepted the new ruler. The sacred
stone was said to have been brought to Ireland by the Tuatha De
Danaan. The stone is a somewhat ordinary, phallic standing stone,
but there is a tradition which links it with the Stone of Destiny
that the Scottish kings used in their coronation ceremonies, and
which from the early 14th century onwards became a central part
of the English coronation ceremonies. Whether the Stone of Destiny
currently held in Edinburgh castle is indeed the stone on which
once the mythical kings of Ireland were crowned, or not, Ireland
is able to clearly demonstrate how sacred kingship and marrying
the land went hand in hand, and how the land was divided, in a
very holographic manner.