Ireland has historically been divided into four provinces, although the Irish language word for this territorial division, cúige (literally "fifth part"), indicates that there were once five — Meath (now incorporated into Leinster with parts going to Ulster) being the fifth.
The four provinces are:
The origins of these provinces (loosely federated kingdoms with somewhat flexible boundaries) of which there were five in existence prior to the coming of the Normans can be traced to the overriding influence exerted in their respective territories by the great Irish dynastic families of O Neill (Ulster), O Melaghlin (Mide), O Brien (Munster), O Conor (Connacht) and MacMurrough-Kavanagh (Leinster). 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, i.e. ‘fifth parts’, 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 they have become associated with groups of specific counties, although they have no legal status. They are today seen 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 after the Norman occupation in the twelfth century.
Six of the nine Ulster counties form modern-day Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland is often referred to as a province of the United Kingdom. These two inconsistent usages of the word "province" (along with the use of the term "Ulster" to describe Northern Ireland) can cause confusion.
This dinnseanchas poem named Ard Ruide (Ruide Headland) poetically describes the kingdoms of Ireland. Below is a translation from Old Irish:
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').
Galway (Galway City) · Leitrim · Mayo · Roscommon · Sligo
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