For the great Gaels of Ireland
Are the men that God made mad.
For all their wars are merry,
And all their songs are sad.
To celebrate our National Holiday tomorrow, I’m offering this post on the myth, legend and history of the origin of Ireland, as covered in the famous Book of Invasions.
The Book of Invasions, written by a Christian monk on the 12th Century, is a long historical and mythical account of the origin of Irish people. It jumps around a bit because there are actually 10 books within this ‘Book’. It starts with the Gaels and then returns to them near the end. The Book of Invasions consists of stories that had been in existence for over a thousand years before they were ever written down. In these stories, there are giants, sorcerers, epic wars, supernatural people, gods, magic spells, and quite a few facts. That’s because Bards/Druids kept these stories alive by memorizing them and retelling them over and over again. Druids believed knowledge was too sacred to be written down, so they kept it in their heads and, consequently, had amazing powers of memorization.
So sit back with a pint of Guinness and read of the story of Ireland . . .
Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, lived the Gaels, descendants of a Scythian prince. It is written in the Book of Invasions that Scota, daughter of a Pharaoh of Egypt, created the Irish language. The Gaels lived in Egypt at the time of Moses, and then they wandered the world for 440 years before eventually settling in the Iberian Peninsula. It is here, in northwest Spain, somewhere around 100 B.C.E., that a man named Íth climbed a tower and glimpsed Ireland, in the extreme distance. After that, he was determined to reach this ‘distant emerald island’.
Now the Book travels back further in time, to approximately 2400 B.C.E. Noah (the guy who built the ark) told his granddaughter Cessair to flee to the western edge of the world because a great Flood was coming. (It seems absolutely hilarious to me that anyone would come to IRELAND, possibly the wettest country on the planet, to get away from a FLOOD.) Cessair, her dad Bith, and quite a few others set out in three ships. By the time they arrived in Ireland, two of the ships had been lost at sea. The only survivors were 50 women (including Cessair) and 3 men (Cessair's husband Fintán, her father Bith, and the ship’s captain, Ladra). The 50 women were divided among the men. (If I were Cessair, I’d be totally pissed). When the Flood came, Fintán was the only one to survive because he spent a year under the waters in a cave called ‘Fintán's Grave’. He became known as ‘The White Ancient’ because he lived for 5500 years after the Great Flood and witnessed the later settlements of the island in the guises of a salmon, an eagle and a hawk. Okay, this is the legend part (duh), but remember, all legend has at least a grain of truth. Just because we don’t know how a man could live for over 5000 years and morph into a fish, doesn’t mean it can’t happen.
Three hundred years after the Flood, Partholón, another descendant of Noah, settled in Ireland with his three sons and all their people. They were somewhat like gods of chaos and nature. After ten years of peace, war broke out with the Fomorians, a race of cranky pirates. The Partholonians were victorious, but their victory was short-lived. In a single week, they were wiped out by a plague — five thousand men and four thousand women — and were buried on the Plain of Elta to the southwest of Dublin, in an area that is still called Tallaght, which means ‘plague grave’. A single man named Tuan, survived the plague. Like Fintán before him, Tuan survived for centuries and went through a succession of metamorphoses, so that he could witness later Irish history and pass these stories down.
Thirty years after the extinction of the Partholonians, Ireland was settled by the people of Nemed (Nemedians), whose great-grandfather was a brother of Partholón's. Their occupation reads like one long, continuous war, mostly with the Fomorians, a motley group of weird-looking types. In one final, epic sea battle, both armies were destroyed. A flood covered Ireland AGAIN, wiping out most of the Nemedians. A handful of survivors were scattered to the four corners of the world.
One group of Nemedians settled in Greece, where they were enslaved. 230 years later, they escaped Greece and made their way back to Ireland. Known as the Fir Bolg or ‘Bag Men’, this group probably came to Ireland via a circuitous route through Scotland, as they had many Pictish characteristics. They, and their King Aengus, held this island for only 37 years, being chased all the way across the country to the far western Aran islands, creating Dún Aengus fort, as their last refuge.
Dun Aengus Fort
While the Fir Bolg occupied Ireland, the Tuatha Dé Danann, ‘The People of the Goddess Danu’ arrived from ‘the far north’ (possibly Scandinavia). They were also descendants of Nemed, but, unlike the Fir Bolg, they were said to be beautiful and had learned magic and druidry. This is the civilization most talked about in legend. They are the ones who fought the Fir Bolg and chased them to the Aran Islands. The Danann were god-like individuals who formed a human civilization and ruled for 150 years.
Now, remember the guy from the beginning - Íth, who climbed the tower in Spain and became obsessed with finding the ‘emerald island’ in the distance? Well, he hopped on a boat and made it to Ireland, only to be killed when he got here by some jealous old noble. The Milesians, sons of Íth’s uncle Míl, come to Ireland to avenge his death and conquer the island. Among this group was Amergin, the famous bard, who would have kept much of this history alive.
When they arrived in Ireland, they advanced to Tara, the royal seat, and demanded the kingship. On the way they were greeted in turn by three women, Banba, Fodla and Ériu, who were queens of the three co-regents of the land. Each woman welcomed the Milesians and told them that her name was the name by which the land was known, and asked that it remain so if the Milesians were victorious in battle. Amergin, the bard, promised that it would be so. (Ériu won, by the way, and eventually this island’s name got anglicized into Erin.) At Tara they were greeted by the three kings of the Tuatha Dé Danann, who defended their claim to the joint kingship of the land. The Milesians were advised to return to their ships and sail out to sea to a distance of nine waves from the shore, so that the Tuatha Dé Danann might have a chance to mobilise their forces. But when the Milesians were beyond ninth wave, the druids of the Tuatha Dé Danann conjured up a ferocious storm. The Milesian fleet was driven out to sea, but Amergin was able to dispel the wind with his own poetic magic. In two ensuing battles, the Tuatha Dé Danann were defeated. They were allowed to stay in Ireland, but only underground. Consigned to the Underworld or Otherworld, they became known as ‘Aes Sidhe’ or the people of the mound, faeries, nature spirits, and the like.
The last part of the Book deals with a seemingly endless succession of Ard Rí or High Kings of Ireland, whose lives revolved around cattle raids and wars. Tra-la.
And that, in a nutshell, is the epic tale, spanning ten books, of the beginning of what is the Ireland of today. Now, I wish you a most joyous St. Patrick’s Day. I’m off to go celebrate by raiding my neighbour’s cattle.