Most people today will tell you, if you ask, that there are four provinces in Ireland, namely, Ulster, Munster, Leinster and Connaught. What many people are not aware of is the fact that in the distant past, there were actually five provinces, the fifth one being the province called Royal Mide.
At the beginning of the 2nd century A.D., and twenty-five years after the slaughter at Magh Cru in Connaught, Tuathal Teachthmar, son of the slain high king, Fiachaidh Fionnoladh, traveled from Scotland to Ireland at the head of a large army, and re-claimed the throne in the name of his father’s Milesian forebears. After a series of country-wide, bloody battles against the rogue tribes, in which Tuathal was victorious, he was crowned Ard ri of Ireland at the Stone of Fal, sited on a hill called Tara, in an area that we know today as county Meath. Tuathals’ first official act as the new sovereign was to convene a Feis (general assembly) at which all nobles, chiefs and loyal clans would gather and swear allegiance to him and his descendants. At the Feis, sweeping new laws were established and the customs, annals and records were carefully noted and inscribed by the Ard Ollamhs, in the Roll of Kings, also called the Psalter of Tara. Any previous law, custom or record not included in the Roll, was deemed to be false and irrelevant.
Tuathal, a visionary, knew that cohesion was key to his reign, now that he had united the disparate factions. He had to somehow hold the country together and ensure that a return to unrest and upheaval, caused by clan in-fighting, old grudges and disputes over land and property, would never be repeated. He knew instinctively that a form of centralized leadership would be the favorable way forward. After a series of meetings with his Nobles, Druids and Ard Ollamhs, it was decided that a permanent seat of power be created. To fulfill this revolutionary idea, Tuathal annexed portions of territory from each of the four existing provinces and created a fifth. With Tara at its center, the new province, was named Mide, and would be recognized as the seat of absolute Royal power, with Tuathal its undisputed sovereign.
Hill of Tiachtga
On the Hill of Ward, sited on land annexed from the province of Munster, and where the Druidess Tiachtga, daughter of the high Druid, Mug Ruith, was buried, Tuathal had a fortress constructed in her honor and re-named it the ‘Hill of Tiachtga.’ Built as an imposing ring-fort, it was surrounded by a deep earthen ditch, had a sturdy, exterior timber palisade that encircled the large enclosure, and heavy oak entrance gates. Inside, the great hall, stables, dwelling houses and storage areas were well protected and guarded at all times. There, every year, on the eve of Samhain, the Druids gathered and held their celebrations, the most important ceremony being the lighting of the first of the winter fires. The top of the hill was sacred ground and only accessible by the Druids, except on the Festival of Samhain, when members of the public were permitted. Local legend suggests that the Druids may have practiced human sacrifice at Tiachtga and it is thought that it later became a place of pilgrimage for women who were childless.
Samhain marks the end of the old year and the beginning of the new one. The Celtoi peoples further believed that this was a time of transition, when the veil between their world and the next was lifted, allowing the spirits of all who had died since the last Oíche Shamhna (Eve of Samhain) to make the transition to the next world. The Druids felt that this world and the otherworld were closest at Tlachtga and it was there that the festival of Samhain, or Halloween, was started. The old year's fires were extinguished and, after sunset, the ceremonial New Year Samhain fire was lit on the hill. Torches were lit from this sacred fire and carried to seven other hills around the county including Tara and Loughcrew, and then went on to light up the whole country.
The hill got its name from a landowner named Ward, whose family had been evicted during the invasion of Oliver Cromwell in 1649. The confiscated land was given to one of Cromwell’s faithful soldiers as a reward for services rendered. Ancestors of the Ward family, whose forebears owned the land, and after whom the hill was named, still live in County Meath today.
Hill of Uisneach
At the Hill of Uisneach, in the portion taken from the province of Connaught, a second fortress was erected in a similar style as the one at Tiachtga. Uisneach, believed to be the geographical center of Ireland, was, until the reign of Tuathal, the place where all kings were crowned, and the ceremonial site of the celebrations of Beltaine (mayday.) Beltaine marked the beginning of summer, the time when the animals were driven out to the summer pastures. Rituals were performed to protect the cattle, crops and people, and to encourage growth. Special bonfires were kindled, and their flames, smoke and ashes were deemed to have protective powers. (It is believed that the Nemedian Druid, named Mide, lit the first fire there.) Countrywide, all household fires would be doused and then re-lit from the Beltaine bonfire. These gatherings would be accompanied by a feast, and some of the food and drink would be offered to the aos sí (fairies) to ensure a year of good luck and prosperity. In the province of Ulster, Beltaine was known as Lammas, and a fair has been held in Ballycastle, Co. Antrim, uninterrupted for more than three hundred years.
Today, Uisneach consists of a set of monuments and earthworks spread over two square kilometres. Around and upon the hill there are the remains of circular enclosures, barrows, cairns, a holy well and two ancient roads. On the southwest side of the hill is a large, oddly-shaped limestone rock inside a circular enclosure. It is almost 20 ft. tall and thought to weigh over 30 tons. In Gaelic it is called the Ail na Míreann (stone of the divisions,) and it is said to have been the place where the borders of all the provinces met.
Hill of Tailtiu
On land taken from the province of Ulster, Tuathal had a third fortress erected, again, similar in design to Tiachtga and Uisneach, it was dedicated to Tailtiu, the last queen of the Fir Bolg and the foster mother of Lugh, the Celtic warrior and champion. Lugh was the son of Cian of the Tuatha De Danann and Eithniu, the daughter of Balor, leader of the Fomorians. Their union was a dynastic marriage, following an alliance between former enemies, the Tuatha and the Fomorians. His father gave Lugh to Tailtiu, in fosterage, a common practice of the times that ensured peaceful relations between the two races. It was decreed that each year a festival of games should be held to commemorate the death of Tailtiu.
The festival became known as Lughnasagh and the games were similar to the ancient Olympic games and included athletic and sporting contests, trading of animals, the drawing-up of contracts, and matchmaking. Trial marriages were conducted, whereby young couples joined hands through a hole in a wooden door, a form of hand-fasting. The trial marriages lasted a year and a day, at which time they could be made permanent or broken without consequences. Another solemn ritual performed was the cutting of the first of the year’s crops. After the cutting, some of it would be brought to the hill and ceremoniously buried. A meal of fresh corn and bilberries would then be made and everyone would partake. The Hill of Tailtiu was where the principal assemblies of the early Uí Néill dynasties were held.
Hill of Tara
In the center of the land taken by Tuathal from the province of Leinster, sat the Hill of Tara. The hill was first established as a place of sacred and political significance by the Tuatha De Dannan as early as 3500 BC. On the summit, with the Stone of Fal (stone of destiny,) as the focal point, sat the Royal Enclosure, a hilltop stronghold which was surrounded by an internal earthen ditch and further secured by a high, external bank. Within the confines of the structure, in addition to the dwelling houses, storage areas and stables, several important raths were built, the most significant being the Royal Seat and Cormac’s House. Slightly north of the enclosure sat a passage tomb called the Mound of the Hostages and further north, a three banked ring-fort named the Rath of the Synods. To the south of the Royal Enclosure lay a ring-fort known as Laoghaire's Fort, named after one of Irelands high kings, Laoghaire mac Neill, who, according to legend, was buried there in an upright position. Farther north was the long, narrow rectangular feature known as the Banqueting Hall and nearby, three ring barrows, circular earthworks, known as the Sloping Trenches and Gráinne's Fort. Later, a roadway was constructed which linked Tara with Navan Fort in Co. Armagh, in the northern province of Ulster.
With the amalgamation complete, Tuathal embarked on a program of restoration at Tara. A sturdy timber wall was installed around the site and the earthen ditches were deepened and strengthened. Watchtowers were erected and would be manned at all times, and heavy wooden gates, installed opposite the long, approach ramp ensured security for those inside. When the work was completed, Tuathal convened a general meeting during which it was decreed that a new province be named. The province of Mide would henceforth be the dynastic center of Ireland where all future coronations, major royal and political decisions made and legal matters discussed. A Feis would be held every third year, soon after Lughnasagh, whereby new laws and customs would be instituted. Disputes over land ownership, inter-tribal squabbles and other petty crimes would be judged and settled by the Brehons (lawmakers) in court hearings, their decisions being final and absolute.
During the rebellion of 1798, United Irishmen formed a camp on Tara but were attacked and defeated by British troops on 26 May, 1798. Sometime later, the Stone of Fal was moved to mark the graves of the 400 rebels who died on the hill that day. In 1843, the Irish Member of Parliament Daniel O'Connell hosted a peaceful political demonstration on Tara in favor of a repeal of the Act of Union which drew over 750,000 people, and indicates the enduring importance of the Hill of Tara. During the turn of the 20th century the hill was vandalized by British Israelis who thought that the Irish were one of the Lost Tribes of Israel and that the hill contained the Ark of the Covenant.
Tara today, the enduring legacy of high king Tuathal Teachthmar, continues to impress and is included in the World Monument Fund's watch List of the 100 Most endangered sites in the world. In 2009, it was included in the 15 must-see endangered cultural treasures in the world, by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC.
Information verified by Geoffrey Keating’s “History of Ireland” and Michael O’Cleary’s writings in the “Annals of the Four Masters.”
Further information provided by the “Annals of Ulster,” the “Annals of Clonmacnoise,” the “Book of Invasions” and the “Book of Leinster.”
A special thanks for the invaluable information provided by Wikimedia.
Books for sale:
Out of the Ice: Ireland Then and Now.
Don’t Die with Regrets: Ireland and the Lessons my Father Taught Me.
The Journey: A Nomad Reflects.