At the time just prior to St. Patrick in the 4th and 5th centuries CE, Ireland was divided into five kingdoms, known as the five fifths of Ireland: Ulster, Meath, Leinster, Munster, and Connacht. While these are called kingdoms, there were times when they had more than one king and they were not stable.
The Irish hierarchy placed the king on top, followed by poets, druids, legal men, skilled craftsmen, freemen, and slaves. The primary loyalty was to the clan and alliances between clans were temporary at best.
At the bottom of Irish society were the tuath or people who were ruled over by a single, local rí or king. A series of local agreements sometimes bound the local kings together. There were times when a strong king, known as the ruire, would be accepted by the local kings as an overlord. There were frequent wars, battles, and intrigues which made the structure of Irish society very unstable.
The pagan Celtic gods and goddess were localized deities with links to the sacred landscape. The Celts did not have a tendency to anthropomorphize their deities, retaining their animistic heritage. The religion was not centered on sacred buildings or structures and ceremonies took place in conjunction with sacred places in the landscape.
Located in the west, Connacht was considered the kingdom of learning. The wisest and greatest druids and magicians were found here. The men of Connacht were famed for their eloquence, their handsomeness, and the ability to pronounce judgment. The chief city in Connacht today is Galway.
Connacht takes its name from the Connachta dynasty which descended from the mythical King Conn of the Hundred Battles. Connachta means “the descendents of Conn.” According to the Annals of the Four Masters, on the night of Conn’s birth the five roads to the Hill of Tara were discovered. Some say that Conn ruled for 20 years, while others say it was 50 years. The stories say that Conn was killed by Tipraite Tírech, the king of the Ulaidh.
Located in the north, Ulster was associated with battle valor and boasting. This kingdom was known for having the fiercest warriors in all of Ireland. The queens and goddesses of Ulster were associated with battle and death. The chief city in Ulster today is Belfast.
The Ulaidh were a group of tribes which lived in the region and the name Ulster comes from these tribes. According to oral tradition, Emain Macha (Eamhain Mhacha or Navan Fort) served as the “capital” or cultural center of the Ulaidh. While this site is often called a “fort,” it was actually a ceremonial site. Irish mythology tells of the founding of Emain Macha by the goddess Macha sometime between the 7th and 5th centuries BCE. Macha was associated with war, horses, and sovereignty.
Located in the south, Munster (Cúige Mumhan) was known as the kingdom of music and the arts. Munster’s fairs were considered to be the greatest in Ireland. The chief city in Munster today is Cork. The area encompassed by this ancient kingdom is made up by the counties of Clare, Cork, Kerry, Limerick, Tipperary, and Waterford.
The Gaelic God Muman is the source of the name Munster. The “ster” ending comes from the Norse word “stadir” meaning “homestead.”
In Irish mythology, there were a number of goddesses associated with Munster, including Anann (the Celtic personification of death and the goddess of cattle), Grian, Clíodhna (the queen of the Banshees of the Tuatha Dé Danann), Aibell (Aoibheali, the Fairy Queen of Thomond), and many others. In South Munster, it is said that the wails of the banshee can be heard echoing in the valleys and glens at night.
Clíodhna (also spelled Clíodna or Clíona) is a goddess with healing powers. She has three magickal singing birds: one is blue with a red head, one is red with a green head; and one is speckled with a gold head.
The Faery Queen Áine, whose name means “brightness, heat, or speed,” is also associated with Munter. She is an earth goddess associated with the Morrígan. According to the stories, she lives in Cnoc Áine (Knockainey), a hill which rises above the Munster plain. She is the source of the gifts of poetry and music.
Located in the east, this kingdom was known as the seat of hospitality. This was the center of the important trade through which rich foreign wares such as silk and wine entered Ireland. The men of Leinster had a reputation for being noble in speech and the women of Leinster were known for their beauty. The chief city in Leinster today is Dublin.
The name Leinster is derived from Laigin, one of the major tribes which had once inhabited the region. The “ster” ending comes from the Norse word “stadir” meaning “homestead.” The tribes of Leinster were united by Úgaine Mór (Hugony, the Great) who allegedly built the hill fort of Dún Ailinne. Sources are divided about when Úgaine Mór lived, but some indicate that it was about 669 to 593 BCE.
According to the stories, Úgaine Mór had 22 sons and 3 daughters and so he divided his kingdom into 25 portions with the idea that this would prevent his children from encroaching on each other.
The first Christian influence was in Leinster. Palladius (later Saint Palladius) arrived here in 431 and established Christianity.
Meath (the Kingdom of Mide) was known as the kingdom of Kingship. It contained the Hill of Tara, the traditional seat of the High King of Ireland. Rath na Ríthe (Ringfort of the Kings) refers to the earthwork of Tara.
Meath means middle which comes from the fact that it is in the middle of the island. Tradition indicates that the Kingdom of Meath was created by Tuathal Teachtmhar in the first century CE.
For thousands of years the Hill of Tara has been a spiritual or sacred place. It was here that the goddess Maeve lived and reigned. By the 3rd century CE, the High Kings would come to the Hill of Tara to have their status certified. Every three years a feis (a very large banquet) would be held here. According to the stories, more than 1,000 princes, poets, priests, druids, musicians, jesters, and athletes would come together for a week to celebrate. At this time, laws were passed, disputes settled, and important issues discussed.