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At the Edge / Bob Trubshaw /

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The Fifth Direction
Sacred centres in Ireland

Bob Trubshaw

The five directions

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 map

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 [1].

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 [2] (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

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 [3].

Nine Mens Morris board

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

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 [4].

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 [5].

Tara map

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.’ [10]

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.’ [11] Both Tara and Uisnech, two axis mundi of Ireland, are associated with stones of a size which would readily brace a fading hero.

Cu Chulainn statue

Bronze sculpture of Cu Chulainn tied to a monolith, with the raven-goddess of death on his shoulder.
Drawing by David Taylor of a statue cast in 1916 by Oliver Shepherd which stands in Dublin's main Post Office.

If this seems all too androcentric, perhaps it worth mentioning that Janet McCrickard [12] 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.

More centres

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 [13]; early Christian activity was quick to establish a major monastic site nearby, at Clonmacnoise, on the banks of the Shannon.

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 Mhacha.

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’ [14]. Excavations at Haughey’s Fort, overlooking the King’s Stables pool, have revealed another major site, a possible precursor to Navan Fort itself [15].

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’ [16]. 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 [17]

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 [18]. 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 [19].

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 [20].

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.

Armagh map

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 [21].

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 communication.
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 1995.
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 1994).
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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