The 5 Fifths of Ireland

In ancient Ireland, our ancestors found significance and meaning in everything, not just people and animals but in such things as the seasons, the wind, dreams, and so on. It’s hardly surprising, then, that certain numbers took on sacred meaning too.

Probably the first which comes to mind is the number 3; you don’t have to know much about Irish mythology to be aware of that. Think of the Triune Goddess, for example; many female Irish deities were represented in threes, the most famous being the Morrigan, Goddess of War and Strife, represented by the three sisters, Macha, Anann and Badb.

But today I’m going to tell you about the number 5. It crops up quite a lot in Irish mythology, yet it’s not quite as in your face as the number 3, so you may not have noticed it.

The Celtic Fivefold Symbol may be a good way of explaining the significance of this number. It consists of four interlocking circles with a fifth in the centre containing the points at which all four circles meet.



Please excuse the standard of the illustration; I made it myself, and it’s the first I have ever made that is not hand drawn, but I think it at least gives you some idea of what the symbol represents.

The first four circles represent those aspects of our world which come in fours and thus represent wholeness, and which exist outside of us, for example the elements fire-air-earth-water; the directions South-North-East-West; the seasons spring-summer-autumn-winter.

Here is where the symbol seems a little out of sync with Celtic thinking to me; circle no.1 starts with the rising sun in the east at spring. Well, the Celts, or at least the early Irish, believed that the new year began in the dark of midwinter just as the day began at sunset, not with the rising sun. Also, they believed life rose from the womb of the mother earth. It would make more sense to me then that the symbol should be skewed round by one circle, and no.4 be at the top. Just my thoughts, I am no expert on the matter.

So what was the 5th element which unified them all? It’s something esoteric and indefinable, something which exists within us and everywhere, a balanced uniform power which can be accessed by the human mind, which represents the centre of all, transition, transcendence, ascension, spirituality, balance, knowledge of all. I don’t even know if it has a name of its own, enlightenment perhaps, or the divine. Someone reading this will know, I’m sure.

So now we know why the number 5 was so auspicious. But here is another more practical application which demonstrates an alternative use of the number. We’re going back to the Ogham alphabet. You can read more in depth about Ogham in my post, Ogham The Secret Code of Our Ancestors.

Basically, though, the letters consist of a number of marks above, below or crossing a base line, like this…



The concept of numerology, or as Wikipedia puts it, ‘belief in the divine, mystical relationship between a number and one or more coinciding events’, has been around since ancient times. It is used repeatedly in the Bible, and also throughout Irish mythology.

In numerology terms, the true meaning of a word can be determined by assigning its letters a numerical value. With Ogham, as you can see from the image, each letter can easily be represented by a numerical value. No letter has more than 5 lines. And because Ogham is a set of letters representing sounds, it can be applied effectively to any language. Ogham really is the secret code of our ancestors.

So what? Well, it just demonstrates another mystical/ practical use of the number 5. According to Patricia Monaghan in The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore, the ancient Celts counted in fives, and tens – the number of digits on both hands and feet – and multiples thereof. She states that…


‘although there is no written evidence of a numerological system whereby each number was given a specific mystical meaning, the repetition of certain numbers suggests such a belief. The iteration of numbers 3 and 5 in various mythological contexts is an especially strong indication that such numerology originally existed and has been lost.”


So without further ado, I would like to present to you my 5 favourite fives in Irish mythology, starting with…



The 5 Fifths of Ireland

Today there are four provinces, Leinster, Munster, Ulster and Connacht, but in ancient times, there was also a fifth called Mide, which literally means ‘middle’. They no longer serve any political or administrative purpose, other than as cultural, historical, and sporting units.

These five provinces were known as cuig cuigidh na hEireann, the ‘five fifths of Ireland’. Leinster, Munster and Ulster are all combinations of the old Irish names with a Viking influence, the Old Norse word staor, meaning ‘land of’;

  • Leinster, from Laighin and staor.
  • Munster, from Mumhain and staor.
  • Ulster, from Ulaidh and staor.

Connacht comes from Connachta, which was the name of a large tribe which ruled that province.


Ail na Mireann, the Stone of Divisions at Uisneach

Ail na Mireann, the Stone of Divisions at Uisneach


According to mythology, Ireland was split into five kingdoms by five brothers of the Fir Bolg tribe, who ruled before the invasion of the Tuatha de Danann. It was thought that the borders of all provinces met at the Ail na Mireann, the Stone of Divisions, which is located at the Hill of Uisneach, and was considered the very centre-point of the land. You can read more about the Hill of Uisneach in my post, Uisneach Ancient Ceremonial Site of the Bealtaine Festival.


“Connacht in the west is the kingdom of learning, the seat of the greatest and wisest druids and magicians; the men of Connacht are famed for their eloquence, their handsomeness and their ability to pronounce true judgement.

Ulster in the north is the seat of battle valour, of haughtiness, strife, boasting; the men of Ulster are the fiercest warriors of all Ireland, and the queens and goddesses of Ulster are associated with battle and death.

Leinster, the eastern kingdom, is the seat of prosperity, hospitality, the importing of rich foreign wares like silk or wine; the men of Leinster are noble in speech and their women are exceptionally beautiful.

Munster in the south is the kingdom of music and the arts, of harpers, of skilled ficheall players and of skilled horsemen. The fairs of Munster were the greatest in all Ireland.

The last kingdom, Meath, is the kingdom of Kingship, of stewardship, of bounty in government; in Meath lies the Hill of Tara, the traditional seat of the High King of Ireland. The ancient earthwork of Tara is called Rath na Ríthe (‘Ringfort of the Kings’).”

Taken from a poem called Ard Ruide. the Dinnseanchas


the five sacred trees of ireland

The five sacred trees of Ireland were known as The Guardians of the Five Provinces. It is believed that chieftains would have been inaugurated beneath their sacred tree, thus connecting them to both the powers of below and above. Sadly, records show that all five sacred guardian trees mysteriously fell together at some point during the C7th, although no reason was ever given.


sacred tree


The Eo MughnaEo is the old Irish word for the yew tree, yet legend claims the Eo Mughna was actually a mighty oak. It was said to have been a son of the original Tree of Knowledge. It was the only one of the five reputed to have borne the three fruits, apples, acorns and hazelnuts, just like the branch from which the seeds were originally obtained. It was supposedly located at Bealach Mughna, on the plain of Magh Ailbhe, now known as Ballaghmoon in Co Kildare.

The Bile Tortan – Said to be an Ash, the Tree of Tortu stood at Ard Breccan, near Navan in Co Meath.

The Eo Ruis – The Yew of Rossa was said to have stood at Old Leighlin in Co Carlow.

The Craeb Daithi – The Branching Tree of Daithe was also a great Ash, located at Farbill in Co Westmeath.

The Craeb Uisnig – This sacred tree, another Ash, was to be found at Uisneach. The Craeb Uisnig was sacred to Lugh, and was known as the ‘Tree of Enchantment’, as Druid’s wands were often made from ash. You can find out more in my post, Guardians of the 5 Provinces.

the five roads of ireland

In Irish mythology, the Annals of the Four Masters claim that there were five main roads, or slighe (pronounced slee)  radiating out from the Hill of Tara to various parts of Ireland.

Slighe Asail (pronounced slee ass-il) ran west from Tara to Lough Owel in Westmeath, and may have continued in a north-westerly direction.

Slighe Midluachra (pronounced mee-loo-hra) went north from Slane, past Dundalk, round the base of the highest of the Fews mountains called Carrigatuke (but formerly known as Sliabh Fuad) near Newtown-Hamilton in Armagh, to the ancient Navan Fort (Emain Macha), and on to Dunseverick on the northern coast of Antrim.

Slighe Cualann ran south-east through Dublin, crossing the River Liffey by the hurdle-bridge that gave the city the ancient name of Baile-atha-Cliath (pronounced Bol-ya ah Clee-ah, meaning ‘the town of the hurdle-ford’). It then passed what is now known as Donnybrook, before heading south through the old district of Cualann from which it took its name, and then heading up the coast to Bray.

Slighe Dala ran south-west from Tara through Ossory in Co. Kilkenny.

Finally, Slighe Mór, also known as An tSlí Mhór, (meaning ‘The Great Way’) led south-west from Tara, joining the Esker Riada near Clonard, along which it continued until Galway. The current M6 motorway also follows this route.


“And one time Manannan’s cows came up out of the sea at Baile Cronin, three of them, a red, and a white, and a black, and the people that were there saw them standing on the strand for a while, as if thinking, and then they all walked up together, side by side, from the strand. And at that time there were no roads in Ireland, and there was great wonder on the people when they saw a good wide road ready before the three cows to walk on. And when they got about a mile from the sea they parted; the white cow went to the north-west, towards Luimnech, and the red cow went to the south-west, and on round the coast of Ireland, and the black cow went to the north-east, towards Lis Mor, in the district of Portlairge, and a road opened before each of them, that is to be seen to this day.”

From Of Gods and Fighting Men by Lady Gregory


the five streams of ireland

The five streams of Ireland flow from the Well of Knowledge, but it has many names, such as the Well of Segais, and Connla’s Well. There seems to be much confusion over where this well might be located; it is attributed to be the source of the River Boyne, but equally, it has been said to be found at the source of the River Shannon. It was also said to be located at the centre of  the Otherworld, Tir na Nog, thus being everywhere and nowhere.


River Boyne

River Boyne


The Well of Knowledge  was said to be a pool of crystal clear water in which swam five salmon. Surrounding the pool were nine sacred hazel trees which were in leaf, in blossom and in fruit all at the same time. They dropped their nuts into the water, and these were eaten by the salmon. Anyone who ate the nuts or the salmon, or drank the water would receive knowledge.

Fionn mac Cumhall ate a salmon of knowledge, and thereafter, every time he bit his thumb, he was able to access his second sight, and thus seek the knowledge he required. Boan was drowned trying to visit the well in search of knowledge.

Each stream was said to represent one of the five provinces of Ireland, but even more interestingly, they were said to represent our five senses, without which wisdom, or knowledge, cannot be acquired.

I love that last phrase; today, our knowledge comes from books (or computers, tv etc). Our ancient ancestors knew that true wisdom could only be acquired by utilising all of our senses, and thus by individual experience.

In the story of ‘Cormac’s Adventure in the Land of Promise’, Cormac finds himself surrounded by fog. When it lifts, he is wandering through the Otherworld. Manannán shows him the Well of Knowledge with its five streams flowing out into Ireland, and says of it, “Everyone drinks from these streams, but only the poets and those skilled in the arts drink from both the streams and the well itself.”

I’ve not yet come across any text which names the five streams, but I suspect the Boyne and the Shannon were probably two of them.

the five invasions of ireland

According to an ancient text named the Lebor Gebála Érenn, there were five invasions of Ireland in antiquity, the invasions f CessairPartholonNemed, the Fir Bolg and the Tuatha de Danann.

Cessair, grand-daughter of Noah, arrived in Ireland forty days before the Great Flood with fifty female and three male companions. They landed at the Dingle peninsula in Co Kerry. It wasn’t long before two of the men died, leaving Fintan alone in charge of fifty women. Unable to cope, he fled, and poor Cessair died soon after of a broken heart.

With their leader dead, and all the men gone, it wasn’t long before the other women followed suit. Fintan, however, went on to survive the flood and live into St Patrick’s time. He was a shape-shifter, managing to transform into the figure of a salmon, a hawk and an eagle, among others. Thus he acquired great wisdom, and went on to advise many of Ireland’s High Kings.


Fintan, the salmon of Knowledge?

Fintan, the salmon of Knowledge?


Several hundred years later, Parthalon fled Greece after killing his parents in an unsuccessful attempt to wrest the crown from his brother. He arrived in Ireland with his extended family, and after thirty years of peaceful settling, he eventually died. His descendants continued to prosper for a further 520 years until they numbered over 9000 people, but unfortunately, they were completely wiped out by plague inside of a week. Except for Tuán mac Cairill, Parthalon’s nephew, who seemed to play a very similar role to Fintan.

Thirty years later, along came Nemed. By this time, the sea-faring Fomori race had moved in to lay claim to Ireland, but Nemed fought them off over the course of three battles. When he died, the Fomori attacked his descendents. Only thirty managed to escape with their lives. Interestingly, Semeon, a grandson of Nemed’s went to Greece where he settled and fathered the Fir Bolg race, who were later to return to Ireland. Another grandson, Beothach, fathered the Tuatha de Denann people.

When the Fir Bolg arrived in Ireland, they divided the land into fifths, and Ireland prospered under their rule. However, after only 37 years, the Danann arrived and defeated the Fir Bolgs in the First battle of Moytura. You can read more about that, if you’re interested, in my post, Irish Mythology |  The Tuatha de Danann Come to Ireland.

Other ‘famous fives’ in Irish mythology…

  • the five sacred names of Tara
  • the five-pointed spear of Ailill mac Máta
  • the five Urgriu brothers said to have killed Fionn mac Cumhall
  • the five paths of judgement in Brehon law
  • the five celebrated hostels of Ireland
  • the smallest family unit consisted of five people and was called a geilfine.

thank you for visitingWant more mythology? Sign up to my mailing list!
Or get one of these!

77 Comments on “The 5 Fifths of Ireland

    • Thank you, Steve. Symbols and numerology are way above my head, but it can’t be ignored, it clearly meant something to our ancestors, and it’s there in all the old stories. They loved hidden meanings, riddles and metaphors too. I think then, people listening would have understood or been able to work it out, but for most of us today, that understanding has been lost. Still fascinating, though, especially the triune Goddess, I’d love to know more about that. 😊 Are you back from your Cumbrian trip? Hope the weather improved.

      Liked by 1 person

        • Oh… maybe I’m just very forgetful but I didn’t realise you lived in Kendal. I’m from Barrow, so not that far away. August has been very wet and dull here too. And now the nights are already drawing in… I’ve really noticed that this year, because the days have been so dull. But it cleared up last night and we were treated to the MOST spectacular sunset! So it’s not all bad. 😊

          Liked by 1 person

  1. Magical. I fully intended to read this post and click ‘like’ at the end of it and then run off and go about my day. But it’ll be on my mind all day instead. Posts like this are what makes questions like ‘what’s the point of blogging’ redundant. Ali for President. Now for you. 😀

    Like

  2. Awesome post, Ali. Thank you1! Funny, I’ve been wearing a five circle ring my mom gave me for several years now, never knew its origins or symbolism until now. I learned tons of other things from this post, too. Threes and fives, and I’ve also been fascinated by nines. I know they are multiples of three, but also the number of power – if I have understood correctly, potential + intention + action. Nine, the year by which all children should be in apprenticeships–in ancient times that is. 🙂 I wonder if there is literature to support that? However I am trusting my senses on its accuracy. Beautiful saying that, experience truly is the currency of wisdom also because it is not saught outside ourselves in the way that reading and others’ oppinions are. We can be caught up in knotts over the outside, what people think, the latest interpretation, when all along the silence within us and the truth in our senses could lead us to the truths we yearn for. Totally incidentally, I grew up in a family of five. Occasionally, just my own specific conception, I sometimes think of five as a transformation symbol since the first four represent stability and the fifth is the change/momentum to a new balance/constant uncertainty/flow of beginnings from endings/why motion is possible. Just swirly thoughts this very late night I am past tired.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think you are spot on about that 5th circle, Éilis! Transformation is at least one of its roles, I’d say. I’m quite intrigued that you have a ring with this symbol on it… that must be quite unusual! I wonder how your mum came to have it. I love your ‘swirly thoughts’, too… what a wonderful expression! I might have to borrow it, Éilis!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. What an amazing post! So many interesting things to learn about Ancient culture of Ireland!
    I tried to imagine the Well of Knowledge. It must be such a mystical place!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is, Hari. No one really knows where it is, although there have been all kinds of guesses, like the source of the River Boyne, and the source of the River Shannon. Of course, if it in Manannán’s land, then it is in the Otherworld, so of course we’re not going to find it. It does sound quite beautiful and idyllic, though. Thanks for stopping by, Hari!

      Like

      • I just realized that there are many “sets of five” in Chinese culture too! The five elements (fire, earth, metal, water and wood), the five directions (north, east, south, west and center) and their five guardians, the five grains to offer the earthly deities, the five household gods, etc. 😀

        Liked by 1 person

        • There you go, Hari, that number 5 is so important and yet it seems to have slipped by our notice. I particularly like your five directions, with centre it reminds me very much of the Celtic fivefold symbol. 😊

          Liked by 1 person

  4. “Sadly, records show that all five sacred guardian trees mysteriously fell together at some point during the C7th, although no reason was ever given.”
    That could be the makings of a very good fictitious story. Any chance of that, Ali?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I rarely comment, but I read your posts and am constantly impressed by the depth of knowledge, obvious love of the land, people, culture, and history of Ireland, and the research which must go into your posts. But I had to comment on this one, because it’s one of your best. I enjoyed it immensely and learned much. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! 😁 I didn’t know what to say when I first read your comment, it’s such a huge compliment. I have gradually fallen in love with this land, I have to say, the more I’ve learned of its past and it’s heritage. I never had much attachment to place until I came to Ireland, and then it took me by surprise, I wasn’t expecting it, but I felt I was home. I dont want to live anywhere else, but I must admit that I do wish we would see more sunshine! 😂

      Like

  6. Great article. I particularly love the way that your theme has blended history and the Lore into a unique teachingbased on the five-fold lesson. I study the language, and share it with others in a group called Teanga na nDraoithe on Facebook. Your insights often help us learn the language in a creative way. You are a Story-Teller. Thank you so much for doing this work.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much! I am touched and honoured that something I have written may have helped you and your group with learning the language, that is quite amazing. I will have to look you up on Facebook.

      Like

  7. I had no idea what the The Celtic Fivefold Symbol represented nor the significance of the number 5 in Irish mythology. A very interesting and informative post.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. That is the most fascinating, well researched post. I knew nothing of the significance of 5 in Irish mythology. I believe we were from Connacht which figures since I have a brain the size of a planet… Kidding!!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I thought, when I saw your drawing of the circles, why isn’t north at the top – even the ancients would have that at the top you’d think – and then you go and posit it should be there too. Seems like we’re on the same page? And the Salmon of Knowledge – did Douglas Adams have that in mind when he come up with the Salmon of Doubt? I enjoy the way numbers can be found in nature and legend – Fibonacci say numbers in nature everywhere so hardly surprising it appears here in so may ways. (PS Douglas Adams and Fibonacci are two of my five dinner guests at my end of the universe dinner party)

    Liked by 3 people

    • Yes, Ed was talking about the science of numbers in nature. I have to say that my brain starts hurting when numbers are involved… maths is NOT my strong point. Salmon of doubt? I don’t know… Craig has a raven called Doubt. If I’m at your end of universe party, I’ll just have to have more wine while Fibonacci and Douglas Adams start discussing numbers. Or maybe I’ll have some mead and live forever…

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I do enjoy your posts, Ali! This one sent me down a numerology wormhole for a little while, as it turns out I’m a five 🙂 And that Fintan sounds a bit of a weakling – giving up and leaving all those women, then he gets to live a long life as a shapeshifter! Hardly seems fair…

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Very interestingly informative, Ali, tracing fascinating features of Irish mythology and the connects to number five, which in turn is also in consonance with the pantheistic philosophy. Which of the five states are you from? The mysterious disappearance of the five trees is truly intriguing. You seem to have drunk deep from the crystal clear waters of knowledge well in being able to weave those strands together here into a fine tapestry…beir bua.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Raj, you are such a smooth talker, thank you for the fine compliment. I live in Ulster, the province of fearsome warrior men and women! I’m not sure that applies to me, however. I think the sacred trees were actually cut down by Christian priests, sadly. There are stories of that happening, and the wood being used to build the roofs and furniture of churches. Apparently, sacred trees were torn down right across Celtic Europe at this time. If I did get to drink from the well of knowledge, it was only the tiniest sip, and it showed me just how little knowledge I actually have. I’m trying to do something about that.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. What a fantastic post Ali, which clearly demonstrates just how much knowledge you have about your beautiful homeland 🙂 I partlicularly love this: ‘…Our ancient ancestors knew that true wisdom could only be acquired by utilising all of our senses, and thus by individual experience…’ This is something we could all do well to remember today isn’t it, so bombarded are we… Fascinating to read about Noah’s descendants and wow…9000 killed in a week from the plague? Scary. And I admit to having a little giggle when I read about Fintan being left with 50 women and running away, unable to cope. Poor man. But at least he found a unique way to survive 😉 Wonderful read Ali, from start to finish ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Sherri. I know, I love that sentence about the acquiring of knowledge. You can read as many books about something as you want, but that doesn’t bring understanding. Understanding is a very personal and individual thing, it comes through our experiences and our reasoning. It makes such sense, and when I first read that, it was quite a revelation, it really resonated with me. Why we still persist in believing ancient civilisations were no more than savages is beyond me.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Great post, enjoyed reading it very much. I would pester my Mam and Granny for old stories and sometimes they gave in. My Aunt Frances was the best tho, she would tell me stories about Eire`s old heroes and heroines. Then I received a wonderful gift. A illustrated book about Nuada of the silver arm and Lugh of the shining spear. Interesting that you mention the East, when I do my circle I always start with opening the East gate first and the fifth, represents the wholeness of the universe and the creation mist.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes. It would make perfect sense, I agree. Except where the ancient Irish are concerned. It just doesn’t correspond with what I have learned about their beliefs, in my opinion. However, there is a school of thought that their origins are Indo-European, so perhaps it comes from a far more ancient belief system they originally brought with them on their travels.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Reblogged this on and commented:
    “Our five senses, without which wisdom, or knowledge, cannot be acquired.” This is going to be a quote pinned on my notice board. Thanks Ali for a wonderful post. J

    Liked by 1 person

  15. One thing I’ve often wondered is what happened to the old province of Midhe. Where did it go and why? Was it because that was where the country was handed over to the Milesians? Any ideas?

    Liked by 1 person

    • It was to do with the Norman and the English, I think. They divided Ireland into its counties and the old provinces got ignored. I think, if I remember right, they wanted to remove all associations with Irish kingship, and dissolving the high kings country was a symbolic and powerful way of doing it. Hmmm… I need to look into that in more detail.

      Like

  16. Extremely interesting Ali, great post. You almost gave us a lesson in sacred geometry there. I wonder how many other fives we can find??? Off the top of my head all I can think of is the five kings.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Think of it as the science of nature, it exists in everything and mankind has started to use it in various forms, such as construction. Most churches town squares etc are built using these principles to some extent or another. Just look at all the spirals and shapes our ancestors left carved into rocks. its not a subject that I am too well up on, but it is fascinating nontheless.

        Liked by 1 person

  17. Cracking post. Loved the photo at the top, and your river photo and the one of the sacred tree too. Awesome sauce. Was very taken with the point about knowledge coming from our senses. There’s something to be said for that, we don’t trust ourselves any more. Don’t believe in what we feel. The alphabet was interesting too. Reminded me of cuneiform….

    Liked by 2 people

Please feel free to join in the conversation...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s