Celtic Ireland: The Ancient Provinces
“What did I have?” said the fine old woman.
“What did I have?” this proud old woman did say.
“I had four green fields. Each one was a jewel.
But strangers came and tried to take them from me...
What have I now?” said the fine old woman.
“What have I now?” this proud old woman did say.
“I have four green fields.
One of them’s in bondage.
In strangers’ hands who tried to take it from me…
My fourth green field will bloom once again,’ said she.
Excerpted from “Four Green Fields” by Tommy Makem
For centuries, many Irish and the descendants of the Irish diaspora, particularly in the U.S., have dreamed of a united Ireland, envisioning the day when the whole island would exist as a single national entity. Tommy Makem’s song, “Four Green Fields,” alludes to this dream and to the four traditional provinces of Ireland: Ulster, Leinster, Munster, and Connacht. This post is about those provinces (and a possible fifth one), including a bit of myth and / or folklore associated each.
The province of Ulster is composed of the six counties which now make up Northern Ireland (Antrim, Down, Armagh, Londonderry, Fermanagh and Tyrone) plus three counties now in the Republic of Ireland (Monaghan, Cavan, and Donegal).
Ulster is the home of Cuchulain, one of the greatest of Ireland’s legendary heroes. He was the nephew of the King Conchobhar of Ulster and was called the Hound of Ulster. Cuchulain is said to have lived in the first century B.C. A series of stories about his deeds were written in the 8th century A.D. The series is known as The Ulster Cycle. His mother, Dechtire, was kidnapped on her wedding night by the god, Lugh, who appeared to her as a fly. She accidentally swallowed the fly and became pregnant, giving birth to Cuchulain. He had supernatural powers even as a young boy and, at the age of 7, he defeated 150 warriors in order to gain access to his uncle's court. He grew up to be handsome and popular with the ladies. While he had many adventures and accomplishments, he is best known for single-handedly defeating the army of Queen Maeve of Connacht when she sent it to steal the famed Brown Bull of Ulster. This story, one of the most renowned in Irish myth and folklore, is called Táin bó Cuailnge (The Cattle Raid at Cooley).
Leinster starts on the east coast of Ireland and stretches westward to the middle of the island. The counties in this province are: Carlow, Dublin, Kildare, Kilkenny, Laois, Longford, Louth, Meath, Offaly, Westmeath, Wexford, and Wicklow.
One of Leinster’s most legendary heroes is a warrior named Fionn MacCumhail (aka Finn MacCool) who lived in the third century A.D. He was the leader of a famous band of Irish warriors called the Fianna. Fionn’s grandfather, a druid, wanted to kill him from infancy because of a prophecy. As a result, Fionn’s mother, Muireann, entrusted her baby to the care of two women: Bodhmall and Liath Luachra, a female warrior. They raised him in secret in a forest on the Slieve Bloom Mountains in Leinster and Liath trained him to be an exceptional warrior.
A series of stories called The Finnian Cycle tells of his life and exploits. One of his best known legendary deeds was building the Giants Causeway. This rock formation (which many people claim occurred naturally) still can be visited today in Co. Antrim. Finn also was romantically interested in Grainne, daughter of the High King, Cormac MacArt, who ruled Ireland from Tara in Leinster. That, however, is a story for another post.
Located in southwestern Ireland, Munster includes the counties of Clare, Cork, Kerry, Limerick, Tipperary, Waterford.
Áine, a moon goddess, is strongly associated with the province of Munster. She is a goddess of love, fertility, protection, and summer. A story from Irish mythology recounts how Áine was raped by Ailill, the King of Munster. She bit off his ear. According to Celtic tradition, kings were supposed to be in excellent physical condition so Áine, by ripping off Ailill’s ear, took away his kingship.
In Co. Limerick, there is a hill, Cnoc Áine, which, in folklore, is sacred to Áine. Ritual celebrations of the goddess took place on the hill as recently as the 19th century. Lough Gur in Co. Limerick, is another site associated with the goddess. She is said to have married Geroíd Iarla, an Earl of Desmond. Things apparently didn’t go well in the marriage, though, because Áine banished him to the bottom of the lake.
The northwestern coastal counties of Galway, Mayo, and Sligo and the two counties of Leitrim and Roscommon in the Midlands make up the province of Connacht.
A massive archaeological site, Rathcroghan in Co. Roscommon, is located in Connacht. Its existence dates back to the Iron and Bronze ages. It's also a mystical site. The Oweynagat or The Cave of Cats is located there. The Oweynagat is said to be an entrance to the Otherworld. Folk belief is that at midnight on Samhain, the Sluagh Sidhe, a host of evil faeries, fly out of the mouth of the cave and proceed to wreak havoc. They kill cattle and sheep, ruin crops, and attack humans who are out wandering alone. But the Sluagh Sidhe don't just kill humans; they steal their souls. The poor soulless humans then are forced to belong to the Sluagh Sidhe for all eternity.
If you’re interested in exploring the Otherworld but don’t want to risk running into the Sluagh Sidhe, there is said to be another entrance. It is the Keshcorran Caves in Co. Sligo. Of course, all sorts of faeries, ghosts, and other supernatural beings inhabit the Otherworld, so I’d advise you to think carefully before attempting to crash into their world.
Some scholars claim there is a fifth province in Ireland. They call it Mide, which means “middle.” Some say it is located at the center of Ireland and connects the other four provinces the way the inner circle of a wheel connects the spokes. Others say it is a mystical region which can be accessed only through a portal. The place is considered to be the mythological and sacred center of Ireland. According to folklore, the entrance to Mide is Uisneach or the Cat Stone, which also is called The Naval of Ireland. It is located at the geographic center of the island. Eiru, the goddess for whom Ireland (Erin) is named is said to be buried under the Cat Stone.
Eriu had two sisters, Banba and Fódla. When the Milesians (a Gaelic race, possibly from what is now Spain) invaded the island in ancient times, the three sisters stood strong against them, demanding that they leave. When the leader of the Milesians responded to Eiru with contempt and insults, she sentenced him to death. As a result, he drowned. The Milesians, however, did not stay away. Ultimately, the two sons of King Milesius, Eber and Eremon, became kings of ancient Ireland. The O’Neil clan claims they are descended from the Milesians. For her part, Eiru has gone down in Irish myth as Ireland embodied in female form.
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