The Goddess Ériu is one of the most famous of all the old Irish personalities mainly because Ireland is named after her – Éire being the old Irish word for Ireland. Ériu is considered the goddess of Irish sovereignty and the mother figure associated with the abundance of the land.
Throughout the centuries she has often been used as a personification of Ireland itself and has appeared as such in many tales and paintings.
Most of the stories about Ériu don’t do her justice or depict her as the magnificent goddess that she was. The fact that Ireland was named after her would suggest that she was a hugely important and significant figure, even to the invading Milesians.
One story tells of Eriu falling in love with a Fomorian king named Elatha. Usually, Fomorians were very ugly and deformed, but Elatha was a handsome man. It is said that Elatha and Eriu had a son called Bres. Bres went on to be the King of An Tuatha Dé Danann when the former King Nuada had to step down due to injury. But Bres proved to be a bad king and deeply unpopular. He was ousted from the throne as soon as Nuada was fit to regain his position.
During the time of the Milesian Invasion, Ériu and her two sisters, Banba and Fódla, were married to the three kings of An Tuatha Dé Danann – Mac Greiné, Mac Cuill and Mac Cécht – the same three that killed the high king Lugh. Their leadership was also questionable, and it can be said that the Milesians might not have invaded Ireland if it were not for the king’s jealousy and paranoia.
It happened that a man called ‘Ith’, brother of Mil, the king of Spain, came to visit Ireland. He met with the kings while they were squabbling over affairs of the land. He told them how fortunate they were to be ruling such a wonderful country with her plentiful harvest, her honey, her fish, her wheat and her temperate climate. He advised them to maintain a good brotherhood and to have a good disposition. Then he left them to return to Spain.
The kings were suspicious that Ith was planning to take Ireland for himself. They sent their best warriors after him to kill him. It was only when Ith’s murdered body was brought back to Spain that the sons of Mil decided to invade Ireland to avenge their uncle’s death.
When the Milesians arrived in Ireland, Ériu met the Milesian chiefs at her domain on the sacred Hill of Uisneach. She promised that she would bless their mission if they called the land after her. The Milesians were so impressed by Ériu that they agreed. It doesn’t seem logical that they would bestow this honour to the mother and wife of bad kings. Ériu must have been so much more important in Ireland than is reflected in the literature.
Occasionally, Ériu was depicted in her true light. Long ago, it was said that a man who wanted to be king of Ireland had to marry Ériu, which is to say he had to marry the land itself. Like a husband he was sworn to love the land, defend it, and help it to prosper. Only if Ériu gave him a golden cup full of red ale could he be king at Tara. She sat in her long low house with a roof of white bronze, next to a golden tree. She wore a crown of gold on her head and had a silver cauldron of ale by her side. If the man who came to her was the true king, she would hand him the ale and the Stone of Destiny would roar, and he would rule until Ériu chose a new husband.
Ériu is buried under the most famous monument on the hill of Uisneach – Ail na Mireann – the Stone of Divisions, which marks the centre or heart of Ireland where the provinces meet.