Ireland is known for its rich tradition of folklore, mythologies and stories. Many of the stories were recorded in the great Annals or other significant tomes that recorded both history and story. Hidden in bogs and other hideaways as Cromwell’s English forces approached Ireland, torches at the ready to burn Ireland’s monasteries, monks saved the stories from obscurity through their ingenuity and courage.
Other stories were simply passed down from generation to generation in the oral storytelling tradition. Many stories take on a legendary tinge, mixing fact and fancy. The story of the goddess Ériu is one such story, blending fact and fiction in the very best way.
In pre-Christian times, Celtic civilisation had a strong history of revering the Divine Feminine, and this is possibly best epitomised in Ireland’s namesake, Ériu.
Ériu (today more commonly known as Éire) is the Irish name for Ireland – named after this powerful female goddess.
Along with her sisters Banba and Fódla, Ériu and her sisters are known as Goddesses of Sovereignty. With such a title and legacy, Ériu is a fitting name for the sovereign nation of Ireland.
Like Niamh Cinn Óir, Ériu came from the spiritual tribe of the Tuatha Dé Danann, although, unlike Niamh, she has no link to Tír na nÓg. As the stories relate, the Tuatha Dé Danann arrived on the west coast of Ireland through a mystical fog, recognised as powerful gods and goddesses whose origins were of an otherworldly realm (of note, “Dé” is the Irish word for god).
In Irish folklore, the Tuatha Dé Danann were a tribe with magical abilities, led by both powerful male and female leaders. While they honoured the differences between men and women, there was great equality in their society, leaving room for powerful female leaders, rulers and goddesses.
It is said that Ériu and her sisters were asked to represent the Tuatha Dé Danann when meeting the Milesians, a rival race who arrived in Ireland long after the Tuatha Dé Danann, intent on dominating the country. A patriarchal society, the Milesians were led by their druid, Amergin.
Ériu and her sisters, with their intuitive powers, sensed that the age of the Milesians was coming upon Ireland, and it was time for them to return through the spiritual veil. Amergin met the three sisters atop Uisneach, the sacred hill in the heart of Ireland, where they requested that Amergin name Ireland after them.
Ériu’s sovereign presence and connection to the land greatly impacted Amergin. So he named the land after her, leaving their powerful feminine legacy embedded in the land for future generations to come. In Irish poetry, Banba and Fódla are occasionally referenced as alternative names for Ireland as well.
Uisneach, the sacred hill where this meeting happened, is still considered sovereign ground to this day. Located in Co. Westmeath in the centre of Ireland, the Hill of Uisneach is a very special place of cultural, spiritual, mythological and historical importance to Ireland, and, according to Uisneach, it is “one of the most sacred and historic sanctuaries in the world.”
Today, a famous fire festival takes place on Uisneach each May to celebrate Bealtaine, one of the ancient Celtic festivals, to mark the start of spring, and honour the goddess Ériu.
On the sacred site, there is a famous Catstone, known in Irish as Ail na Míreann (literally translates as the “stone of divisions”), under which Ériu’s final resting place is said to be located.
Interestingly, modern Ireland’s first female president, Mary Robinson, who was inaugurated in 1990, stated in her inspiring inauguration speech (read the whole speech here):
The Fifth Province is not anywhere here or there, north or south, east or west. It is a place within each one of us – that place that is open to the other, that swinging door which allows us to venture out and others to venture in.
Ancient legends divided Ireland into four quarters and a ‘middle’, although they differed about the location of this middle or fifth province. While Tara was the political centre of Ireland, tradition has it that this Fifth Province acted as a second centre, a necessary balance.
If I am a symbol of anything I would like to be a symbol of this reconciling and healing Fifth Province.
| Mary Robinson, President of Ireland, 3rd December 1990
Ériu’s reach is long, and her influence is strong. It is also a female name in Ireland today, often spelt Éirin, showing the goddess’s continued importance. Said to be the meeting point of the five ancient provinces of Ireland, historical records show that her burial site has remained an influential meeting point for thousands of years. Many Irish leaders have delivered inspired speeches and hosted meetings at this powerful point of confluence with legendary origins.
Today, the four recognised provinces are Leinster in the east, Ulster in the north, Connacht in the west and Munster in the southeast. In Irish mythology, the fifth ancient province was Míde (meaning centre), at which Uisneach is centrally located. Scholars and folklorists theorise that the fifth province may once have referred to a spiritual gateway, the pathway connecting our world to the spiritual world from which the Tuatha Dé Danann once appeared.
Ériu’s existence reminds us that in Celtic civilisation, female goddesses were recognised and respected, with powerful women revered as leaders in bygone communities.
Ériu’s legacy of leadership and the power of the feminine still inspires Irish culture and leadership to this day.
Amazingly, the ancient pagan festivals celebrating the transition from one season to the next are still celebrated in Ireland. On February 1st, we celebrate St Brigid’s Day (Ireland’s newest bank holiday) to mark the start of spring. Samhain, celebrated at Halloween (did you know the origins of Halloween are Irish?), is the start of the winter season – heralded by the folklore figure, the Hag of Beara. Lughnasadh (August 1st) is the start of autumn.
And May 1st – the festival of Bealtaine – is the start of summer. Nowhere is this celebrated more than atop the hill of Uisneach, where a huge fire festival lights up the night skies each year. The modern reincarnation of this ancient festival clearly takes its inspiration from the old pagan ways. In fact, the prime star of the show? None other than the goddess Ériu is honoured throughout the festival.
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