Provinces of Ireland

From Wikishire
Jump to: navigation, search
The four provinces:
Leinster in green, Munster in yellow
Connaught in blue, Ulster in red

Ireland has historically been divided into four provinces:

The Irish language word for this territorial division, cúige, literally meaning "fifth part", indicates that there were once five; the fifth province, Meath, was incorporated into Leinster, with parts going to Ulster.


The origins of these provinces (loosely federated kingdoms with somewhat flexible boundaries), of which there were five before the Norman invasion, can be traced to the overriding influence exerted in their respective territories by the great Irish dynastic families of Uí Néill/O'Neill (Ulster), Uí Máeilsheáchlainn/O'Melaghlin (Meath), Uí Briain/O'Brien (Munster), Uí Conchobhair/O'Conor (Connaught) and Mac Murchadha-Caomhánach/MacMurrough-Kavanagh (Leinster).

A "king of over-kings", a rí ruirech was often a provincial (rí cóicid) or semi-provincial king to whom several ruiri were subordinate. Entities belonging to the 1st and 2nd millennia are listed. These do not all belong to the same periods. Over the centuries, the number of provincial kings varied between three and six. No more than six genuine rí ruirech were ever contemporary, with the average being three or four. Also, following the Norman invasion, the situation became somewhat more condensed and complicated than previously.

After the Norman invasion

In the post-Norman period the historic provinces of Leinster and Meath gradually merged, mainly due to the impact of the Pale, which straddled both, thereby forming the present-day province of Leinster. In the Irish Annals these five ancient political divisions were invariably referred to as cúigí ("fifths") such as the fifth of Munster, the fifth of Ulster and so on. Later record-makers dubbed them provinces, in imitation of the Roman imperial provinciae.

In modern times the provinces have been recognised as groups of counties, with no administrative significance is known at common law. They are today seen mainly in a sporting context, as Ireland's four professional rugby teams play under the names of the provinces, and the Gaelic Athletic Association has separate provincial councils and Provincial championships.

The provinces were supplanted by the present system of counties from the 13th century.

Six of the nine Ulster counties form modern-day Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland itself is sometimes called The Province.

The Provinces

Province Flag Gaelic name Population (2011) Area No. of
Chief city
Leinster Flag of Leinster.svg Laighin
Cúige Laighean
2,501,208 7,600 sq miles 12 Dublin
Ulster Flag of Ulster.svg Ulaidh
Cúige Uladh
1,954,727 8,321 sq miles 9 Belfast
Munster Flag of Munster.svg Mumhain
Cúige Mumhan
1,243,726 9,527 sq miles 6 Cork
Connaught Flag of Connacht.svg Connachta
Cúige Chonnacht
542,039 6,868 sq miles 5 Galway

Poetic description

Flag of Mide, the former fifth province of Ireland

This dinnseanchas poem named Ard Ruide (Ruide Headland) poetically describes the kingdoms of Ireland. Below is a translation from Old Irish:

Connaught 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').