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The Fifth Direction
Sacred centres in Ireland
Anyone who starts to take an interest in the medieval texts relating
to Ireland quickly picks up the idea that the country was divided
into ‘fifths’. Indeed, the Gaelic word cuigeadh still means ‘fifths’
(singular coiced) and the modern-day Gaelic expression which translates
literally as ‘the five fifths of Ireland’ refers to the political
divisions of Ulster, Connacht, Leinster and Munster. Yes, you have
counted correctly. There are only four ‘fifths’ in Ireland. The early
legends subdivided Munster into east and west, but this is an artificial
adjustment. The earliest clearly datable references to the cuigeadh
relate to the kingdoms which emerged in the fifth and sixth centuries.
At this date Ireland is considered to be divided into fifths but only
four functional divisions are recognisable.
Ireland divided into four 'fifths' (adapted from Rees and Ress).
A region known as Midhe (perhaps meaning ‘middle’ or ‘neck’), which
incorporated the royal centre at Tara, was regarded as having pre-eminent
status and has for many centuries been popularly considered to be
the fifth coiced. Yet, politically, from the iron age onwards, Midhe
was under the domination of one or other adjoining kingdoms. Tara,
with its impressive group of ditched earthworks and the Lia Fail (Stone
of Density, used for the coronation of the High Kings of Ireland),
indeed had enourmous prestige in the medieval literature yet, when
the kings met annually (at Beltain), they did so at a natural outcrop
known in recent years as Aill na Mireann, but probably traditionally
as Carraig Choithrigi (the Stone of Divisions), which is situated
near the less-impressive earthworks on the Hill of Uisnech. Furthermore,
it is Uisnech, not Tara, which is the geographical mid-point of Ireland.
For instance, it is claimed that a beacon fire on Uisnech can be seen
over a quarter of Ireland .
Midhe is not the missing fifth coiced. Nevertheless, the earliest
literary sources suggest that this five-fold division is of immemorial
antiquity, a suggestion generally accepted by historians and archaeologists.
What we are looking at is less a five-fold division which had pragmatic
functions for politics and government than at a mythological concept
which forms a fundamental level of symbolism within Irish tradition.
In a book of Celtic mythology published in 1961  (which has survived
the ravages of academic debates and developments much better than
many later works) Alwyn and Brinley Rees develop a detailed appreciation
of this cosmological symbolism.
In essence, it requires us to think of five directions. Modern western
thinking counts four cardinal points (north, south, east and west)
but the Irish, along with several other traditional Indo-European
cultures and the Chinese, think of five directions - the fifth being
‘here’ or ‘centre’.
Mahjong tile for 'centre'
The logic of this is impeccable. ‘North’, ‘south’
and such like are all essentially relative terms - what is north of
me at this moment might well be south of you or vica versa. Everything
is relative to ‘here’ This fifth direction is also the axis mundi,
the Cosmic Axis, which manifests worldwide as the World Tree and its
derivatives, such as the maypole. For each of us, the centre is ‘here’.
Yggdrassil, the World Tree of northern traditions.
This cosmological symbolism begins to explain the sanctity given to
crossroads. Although more difficult for the modern mind to comprehend,
crossroads were once considered to be the most magical places, credited
with powers of protection and healing, and favoured places for magical
spells and love auguries. Crossroads were also dangerous places -
penal courts often met there, the pillory or stocks and, traditionally,
the gallows were so sited. Suicides, gypsies, witches, outlaws and
other reprobates were buried there - as innumerable labourers repairing
roads have discovered .
Nine Mens Morris board.
Traditional north European board games strongly reflect this same
‘four-sides-and-centre’ form. ‘Nine Men’s Morris’ was a common persuit
throughout the medieval period and crudely-scratched ‘boards’ survive
on the stone seats of a number of medieval church porches and the
like. This game has survived today in the similar, but less-interesting,
‘Noughts and Crosses’. Of at least equal antiquity are a different
family of related games which the Irish knew as Brandubh and the Vikings
as Hnefatafl (‘King’s table’). One contestant defends the King, who
starts play at the centre, from the other contestant, whose pieces
start from the four sides.
Hnefatafl board with pieces shown at starting positions.
An old Irish baldic poem draws a direct analogy between Brandubh and
the position of the High King at Tara, with the men of the four cuigeadh
arrayed in the appropriate directions .
The history of Tara is complex. The most visible remains today are
two conjoined iron age hillforts (see illustration p18), in one of
which now stands the Lia Fail. The ritual importance of the site extends
much further back, however, as the so-called ‘Mound of the Hostages’
(all these names are simply high Victorian myth-making derived from
mistaken readings of medieval literary sources) proved, on excavation
to be a neolitihic passage tomb. Aligned to the ‘Mound of the Hostages’
is the ‘Banqueting Hall’ which is probably neolithic and a cursus-like
feature on which all the major roads of ancient Ireland converged.
Aerial photographs reveal a number of otherwise-invisible circles
and mounds in the vicinity .
The surviving earthworks at Tara.
The literture relating to Tara reveals a more complex cosmological
mythology. To develop briefly just one aspect, the Ulster Cycle of
the medieval literature describes how the trouble-maker Bricriu erected
a banqueting hall at Tara and arranged a feast which led to three
of the legendary heroes of Ulster contesting the Champion’s Portion
(see boxed text on ritual dismemberment). According to the Rees’:
‘The account of the construction of Bricriu’s Hall certainly embodies
a calendrical symbolism. It took seven of the Ulster champions to
carry every single lath, and thirty of the chief artificers of Ireland
were employed in constructing and arranging the building. The hall
contained the couches of the twelve heroes and it was built in the
course of one year.’ 
The King who, myths say, brought about the construction of Tara had
365 people in his household, became king at the end of his seventh
year, and provided a feast at Samhain which lasted seven days. To
emphasise the calendrical connections, we are told that he had twelve
foster-fathers and was given a nominal kingship which would elapse
at the end of one year.
This symbolism links into wider cosmological concerns, as John Matthews
has recognised: ‘the story of the great Irish hero Cuchulainn describes
how, when his last and greatest battle was going badly, Cuchulainn
strapped himself to a stone monolith, which represented the central
backbone of creation, and drew strength and support from it.’ 
Both Tara and Uisnech, two axis mundi of Ireland, are associated with
stones of a size which would readily brace a fading hero.
Bronze sculpture of Cu Chulainn tied to a monolith, with the raven-goddess of death on his shoulder.
If this seems all too androcentric, perhaps it worth mentioning that
Janet McCrickard  has noted that at Tara there was a grianan (literally
‘the abode of the sun’ but known from the legends to be an elevated
and well-lit room from which men were excluded). She suggests this
could have been an ‘observatory’ for a solar cult among the women,
maybe a tantalising clue to an area of ritual unknown, or intentionally
ignored, by the male storytellers and scribes.
Drawing by David Taylor of a statue cast in 1916 by Oliver Shepherd which stands in Dublin's main Post Office.
Tara may be cosmologically the centre of Ireland, but the geographical
centre is over thirty miles to the west. Between the modern towns
of Mullingar and Athlone is the Hill of Uisnech. On the slopes of
the hill is the natural outcrop known as the Stone of Divisions. However,
while Tara is in fertile and accessible terrain, the geographical
centre at Uisnech is less hospitable. To the south and east are lakes
and bogs, to the west and north are rivers and Lough Ree. Nevertheless,
legends suggest that Uisnech was the symbolic focus of Ireland long
before Tara ; early Christian activity was quick to establish
a major monastic site nearby, at Clonmacnoise, on the banks of the
Reinforcement of the five-fold cosmological concept of Ireland comes
from the clearly-recognisable presence of sacred centres in each of
the four cuigeadh. In Ulster, Navan Fort near Armagh appears to be
one of several sites which make up the remains of a complex of royal
centres. The much-criticised visitors’ centre explores the idea that
Navan Fort fits neatly with the epic literature relating to Eamhain
Mhacha, but nothing could be further from the truth. This is not to
say that the sites near Armagh were not important - the skull of a
Barbary ape, found at Navan Fort and dated to the fifth century BC,
may be taken as evidence for exotic gifts ‘fit for a king’. The nearby
artificial pool, known today as the King’s Stables, has produced a
number of iron age votive offerings including large ceremonial trumpets.
But these all substantially predate the medieval legends of Eamhain
The Channel Four programme this February, which reported on the Time
Team ‘visit’ to Navan Fort, made clear that the iron age sites are
strung out over several miles and local archaeologists have yet to
form a detailed understanding of the relationships between the various
earthworks. The most recent excavations at Navan Fort revealed a vast
round iron age temple which was deliberately burnt to the ground and
covered over with a stone cairn. The excavators noted that the stones
had been placed in ‘wheel-like’ segments and suggested that this was
a deliberate intention to symbolise a ‘navel’ or ritual axis mundi.
The excavated remains include the base of the central wooden post,
the centre of the ‘wheel’ . Excavations at Haughey’s Fort, overlooking
the King’s Stables pool, have revealed another major site, a possible
precursor to Navan Fort itself .
Tara, Navan Fort and Dun Ailline (The Hill of Allen in the sunrise-facing
front, Leinster) are all recognised as so-called ‘royal centres’ in
the Celtic iron age. However, they share a distinctive feature with
a specific type of neolithic ritual site - henges. They all have banks
with internal ditches. This makes them unsuitable for defence.
Raffin Fort is another major (although smaller) ‘royal centre’ which,
when recently excavated, revealed cultural continuity from the late
bronze age into the iron age; again a neolithic site was found underlying
all the later earthworks. Quite what these so-called ‘royal centres’
really were used for is subject to intense debate. We should not think
of them primarily ‘residential’ bases for royalty but rather as the
focus of seasonal gatherings, inaugurations, law courts, and other
social and political activities. According to Conor Newman, Director
of the Tara Survey project, ‘more importantly, they provided a symbolic
tribal focus’ . The axis mundi/World Tree symbolism is clear as
an other feature of early Irish ‘royal centres’ is the bile or inauguration
tree. At least four such sites have a bile at the focal point; a sacred
ash also stood at Uisnech 
Further back, to use the traditional Irish directions, a now-eroded
earthwork known as Rathcrogan Mound, at Cruchain on the plains of
Roscommon, was the centre of Connachta power and took its place in
importance alongside Tara, Uisnech, Navan Fort and Dun Ailinne. In
more recent centuries it was regarded as one of Ireland’s most important
cemeteries - and was the location of one of the great fairs of ancient
Ireland . Although things might not be as simple as they look
- recent geophysical surveys suggest that Rathcrogan Mound is just
part of a scatter of monuments covering some four square miles .
This is a far from exhaustive list of medieval Irish ‘royal centres’.
Indeed, much remains to be discovered and, above all, understood about
these ‘royal centres’. For instance, one avenue of approach is to
look at place-names with the element riogh (‘royal’). In Leinster
alone this suggests that more investigation is needed at Dinn Ríogh
and Nás na Ríogh. And it is not only the centres themselves which
are of interest, but also the ‘gaps’ in between. Excavations in the
peat deposits near Colea revealed a prehistoric roadway made from
timber. This was no ‘brushwood path’ but built for wheeled traffic
and had a ‘monumental character indicative of power, prestige and
authority’. It seems never to have been used; indeed, a short section
may never have been finished. One explanation of its intended purpose
is as a ritual route linking Uisnech and Cruchain .
Five-fold Christian Cosmology
One almost consistent feature of these chief ‘royal centres’ is that
they acquire a major early Christian neighbour. Tara alone seems to
be the exception, perhaps because of its proximity to Dublin. Uisnech
may be why St Ciaran was attracted to Clonmacnoise around AD 545.
Navan Fort seems certainly to be been why St Patrick founded the cathdral
at Armagh. Well, historical evidence indicates that it seems most
unlikely that St Patrick had anything to do with the origins of Armagh,
but long-standing rivalry between the ecclesiastics of Armagh and
Kildare for authority over all Ireland’s churches meant that it was
imperative that history was rewritten to give St Patrick a starring
role at Armagh.
Aitchison's reconstruction of the five-fold medieval plan of Armagh, showing principal chureches and a 'sacred way'/market place to the (sacred) east.
More than hagiographical symbolism was invoked in these ruthless arguments.
The whole layout of the medieval city of Armagh seems to have been
laid out as a five-fold cosmological model, further asserting the
right to be the spiritual centre of the country. The evidence for
this is difficult to summarise but has been approached in Aitchison's
book-length work, Armagh and the Royal Centres in Early Medieval Ireland.
He examines many of the ideas and discoveries presented in this article
Indeed, the stimulus to get to grips with this wide-ranging material
was provided by Aitchison’s impressive integration of myth and archaeology.
Michael Dames’ Mythic Ireland covers many of the same ideas in a more
accessible manner, introducing many additional suggestions. Several
of Dames’ ideas and observations have crept into this article without
overt reference; my apologies and thanks. The pioneering work of the
Reeses remains as solid foundations for both these later authors.
All these three books provide profound insights into the interlocked
relationship between mythology and physical places which makes the
Irish literature and landscape so special. In this article I have
skipped all too capriciously across the surface.
1: Michael Dames, Mythic Ireland, Thames and Hudson, 1992 [recently
reissued as a paperback; see reviews section of this issue], citing
R.A.S. Macalister. Macalister’s excavation of the summit of Uisnech
in 1927 revealed a substantial layer of ash, with vast quantities
of animal bones suggesting ritual feasting, probably on May Eve. Dames
argues that only two concentric rings of beacons (one on the coast),
with the centre at Uisnech, could provide a country-wide system of
2: Alwyn and Brinley Rees, Celtic Heritage: Ancient Tradition in Ireland
and Wales, Thames and Hudson, 1961.
3: A more detailed discussion of crossroads and related ‘liminal’
sites appeared in my article ‘The metaphors and rituals of place and
time: an introduction to liminality’ in Mercian Mysteries No.22 February
4: Nigel Pennick, Games of the Gods: the Origin of Board Games in
Magic and Divination, Rider, 1988.
5: Peter Harbison, Pre-Christian Ireland: From the First Settlers
to the Early Celts, Thames and Hudson, 1988 (revised paperback edition
6: N.B. Aitchison, Armagh and the Royal Centres in Early Medieval
Ireland, Cruithne Press/Boydell and Brewer, 1994. It is no coincidence
that the modern term ‘wasteland’ is derived from ‘west land’. The
contrast with a ‘civilised east’ is graphically demonstrated in the
romantic mythology concerning nineteenth century attempts to tame
the ‘Wild West’ of America. More recently, the ‘hippy era’ awoke an
interest in the religions of the east, claiming for them a spiritual
mysticism which was considered to be lacking from the materialist
emphasis of western religious institutions. The structuralism of the
iron age seems to be alive and well over 2,000 years on!
7: Alby Stone, The Questing Beast and other Cosmic Dismemberments,
Heart of Albion Press, 1993.
8: Alby Stone, Ymir’s Flesh: North European Creation Mythologies,
Heart of Albion Press, 1997.
9: Stone, The Questing Beast, op. cit.
10: Rees and Rees, op.cit.
11: John Matthews, The Celtic Shaman - a Handbook, Element, 1991.
12: Janet McCrickard, The Eclipse of the Sun: an Investigation into
Sun and Moon Myths, Gothic Image, 1990.
13: John Michell, At the Centre of the World, Thames and Hudson, 1994.
14: Current Archaeology No.134 (1993) p44-49.
15: Archaeology Ireland No.31 (1995) p28-30.
16: Archaeology Ireland No.31 (1995) p38-40.
17: Raftery, op. cit. A summary of Celtic tree lore associated with
sacred sites is provided in John Matthews, Taliesin: Shamanism and
the Bardic Mysteries in Britain and Ireland, Aquarian, 1991.
18: Harbison op.cit.
19: Archaeology Ireland No.25 (1993) p20-3.
20: Barry Raftery, Pagan Celtic Ireland: the Enigma of the Irish Iron
Age, Thames and Hudson, 1994.
21: Aitchison, op. cit.
Originally published in At the Edge No.2 1996.
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