Feature Articles – The 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.
by Philip Coppens
Uisneach and the stone of divisions Each 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. Nemhedh 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. As 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. The Stone of Destiny, at Tara These 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, at Beltane. Once 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. These 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. Uisneach 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. Oweynnagat 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. A 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. At 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. The 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. It 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.