When we study the mythic sources, we can’t know for certain from whence sprang the island of Ireland.
But regardless of how it happened, Ireland was born, and eventually, she sprouted life. Great murky forests of oak, ash, birch, and rowan covered the island, interspersed with wide-open grassy plains on which horses rode like traveling kings and dank, misty bogs of prehistoric peat which would swallow up any careless creature who wandered too deep into the mire. Back then, there were giants in these lands; literal Giants like the Irish Elk with his murderous horns spread out from horizon to horizon.
This is how it was for a long time in Èrin, longer than any human mind could fathom, and for all this time, the island was devoid of human life. But eventually, that changed, and the history of Ireland as we know it began.
One day, long ago, a stag or an elk or a hawk perched atop some lofty place would have spied sails on the horizon and ships beneath those sails filled with men. This, as far as we know, was the first migration of mankind into Èrin. A wandering tribe led by a woman called Cessair beached their ships upon these shores, built strongholds and farmsteads, and prospered here, as they had never prospered before in whatever foreign land it was from which they came.
One among them was called Tuan, and he was a strange character, well versed in all sorts of mysterious magic. It was his magic that allowed him to survive when many others didn’t. Some say that a great and malevolent God once murdered all of mankind in a furious deluge, an unrelenting flood, except for one well-prepared man and his family and the animals on his ship. But in truth, it was not only Noah who survived that terrible judgment. Floodtides rose all over the world, and just as the floods destroyed the tribes of the descendants of Cain, so too were the tribe of Cessair wiped out. All the creatures who dwelt upon the land in Èrin were killed in that storm except for Tuan. He alone survived when the storm abated, we don’t know how, and he lived out the rest of his life in a wasteland, alone. But when he finally died, he was immediately reborn with all his memories intact into the body of a beast. Many lives he lived and many times he died, in many forms, but always Tuan remained in Èrin.
Of course, he thought that he would forever live in isolation, an exile from the companionship of mankind who had all drowned in The Flood. But he was wrong. One day he was sitting on a cliff staring out at the sea, which had taken everything from him, and he saw billowing sails on the horizon and many ships beneath them. Those ships were full of men, and how his heart must have come close to bursting with the joy of the sight. The vessels beached, and from them came forth the tribe of Parthalán, wandering the seas. Parthalán’s people prospered in Èrin, and Tuan prospered among them. It was the four sons of Parthalán who first divided the land into four quadrants or provinces, as it still is divided today. They first brought cattle, beer-halls, druids, champions, and laws to this island, until at last a wasting sickness spread among them, a terrible plague which spared neither child nor adult. All died in that plague except for Tuan, who once more found himself alone. Many times he lived and many times he died, in many forms, but always Tuan remained in Èrin.
As is the way of things, he eventually found himself once more on a clifftop, after who knows how many lifetimes, staring out to sea at the sight of many ships sailing once more to Èrin. The people on those ships were steered to this island by a man called Nemed, whose wise judgment led his people to prosper here, and Tuan prospered among them.
This time there came neither flood nor plague to retard the spread of humankind on this land, but rather a fierce and vicious enemy. Barbarous sea pirates sailed in from the western horizon where there lived no men but only monsters of the deep. These raiders and ravers and rapers called themselves Fomòraigh, or Fomórians by some, and they beached on Érin’s shores and immediately commenced to harass the tribes of Nemed. Eventually, Nemed’s people suffered under a heavy tax for one-third of their food, livestock, goods, and children.
Tired of paying this tribute to greedy pirates, they rose up in revolt and fought four great battles. The people of Nemed were victorious in the first three battles, but the fourth battle was essentially a draw. In the fourth and final battle, thirty thousand men of Nemed’s people attacked Conann’s Tower, an island fortress, by land, while another thirty thousand struck by sea. None took comfort in the outcome of the fourth battle, for by the time it had ended, there were so few left of the Fomòraigh and the people of Nemed that it seemed inevitable they would all perish regardless, weakened as they were. So the Fomòraigh cut their losses and took to their ships once more, sailing out to whatever sea they called their home. The tribes of Nemed fractured in that time of confusion and disorder, and they spread in groups to the four cardinal directions, North, South, East, and West. Tuan alone remained in Érin as he had always done, and he lived and died as it seemed he was cursed to do forever.
It was a long time before any other tribe of mankind sailed to Èrin, but of course, it was inevitable that more would come. Those that came next claimed descent from the exiled tribes of Nemed who had sailed East, and some say they made it as far as Greece in their travels. When they returned, they had changed dramatically from their ancestors who had once dwelt in Èrin, and now they called themselves Fir Bolg, which means Bagmen, or perhaps Bellymen. The Fir Bolg were a powerful people who possessed physical strength like Tuan had never before seen. The Bagmen prospered here, and Tuan prospered among them.
Their king was a man called Eochaid, and he ensured the prosperity of his people for many years until he was grown old with many winters. Near the end of his life, King Eochaid began to have bad dreams, which is always an ominous sign for any kingdom. He dreamed of wandering bands of pirates sailing to Èrin as the Fomòraigh had once done, destroying all that he had built in these fertile lands. He called the wisest of his men, César, to interpret his dreams using magic. César warned Eochaid that there was indeed a powerful race sailing over the seas to Érin, who wielded power so great that the Fir Bolg could never hope to defeat them in battle. Tuan once more bore witness to the sight of ships on the horizon sailing towards his home.
Some say it happened in clouds of mist so thick that a man could not see his hand before his face. Some say it was a clear Spring morning. However it was when it happened, the ships landed, and those that sailed the ships burned their boats upon the shore as a sign of intent. They called themselves the Tuath Dé but were later called by others the Tuath Dé Danann, meaning either the Tribe of the Goddess Dana or perhaps the Tribe of the Earth-Gods. In fact, they were distant cousins of the Fir Bolg, who now stood in awe at the sight of them.
The Tuatha Dé Danann were descendants of the people of Nemed who sailed into the north of the world after the final battle with the Fomóraigh at Conann’s Tower, and they had spent the centuries between then and their return learning many secret crafts and powerful magics. Ancestral bonds aside, the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Fir Bolg went to war at the battle of Magh Tuiread, in which the Fir Bolg were soundly defeated. However, in this battle, the king of the Tuatha Danann lost his arm in single combat with the Fir Bolg champion, Sreng. King Nuada was no longer physically whole after the loss of his arm. Therefore the law decreed that he was no longer fit to rule, and so Nuada was replaced by Bres, who was half Tuatha Danann and half Fomóraigh.
At this point, the Fomóraigh lived in barren islands on the north and west coast from whence they would launch their raids, but their influence multiplied with Bres governing the Tuatha Dé. Eventually, just as the tribes of Nemed had been before, the Tuatha Dé Danann found themselves paying heavy tribute to the Fomóraigh, one-third of all their goods, food, livestock, and children.
The tax was a contentious issue, and it caused a healer called Dian Cecht to attempt a risky and unheard-of procedure on the former king Nuada. Nuada had his missing arm replaced with an arm of pure silver that could function as well as any human arm, thus gaining him the name Nuada Airgedlám or Nuada Silverhand. Nuadha raised a rebellion against the unworthy Bres, who summoned an army of Fomóraigh to fight in the second battle of Magh Tuiread. In this battle, Nuada was slain by the seemingly indestructible Balor Poison-Eye, who was in turn killed by the mysterious young warrior called Lugh. Lugh was a descendent of Fir Bolg, Fomóraigh, and Tuatha Dé Danann, and he led the armies of the Tuatha Dé to victory against the Fomóraigh and drove them back to their island fortresses. These many dramatic events were witnessed by Tuan, who had not yet shaken the curse of his ages-long life.
The tribes of Danann were prosperous then for a long time, and Tuan prospered among them until at last more ships were spied on the southern seas, sailing to Érin. These ships were crewed by the Míl Espáine, which means Soldiers from Spain, and they landed on the shores and met with the Tuatha Dé to negotiate terms of peace. However, it is said that the Míl Espáine were rude and insulted the women of the Tuatha Dé Danann, thus ending any hopes of peaceful cohabitation. What followed was a brief war in which the Dananns were almost defeated, until at last a truce was brokered. The terms of the ceasefire stated that the Míl Espaine would claim sovereignty of all the land of Érin above the ground, while the Tuatha Dé Danann would rule the realms beneath the Earth’s surface. This agreement makes sense when we consider that one possible translation of the name of that tribe means “Tribes of the Earth-Gods.”
Some say that they dwell there still, deep in the wild and earthy places on this island, from whence they sometimes venture out into the world, and it’s bad luck upon the man or woman who crosses their path. We know very little of Tuan’s fate after the battle between the Dananns and the Míl Espáine, but we are told that he lived long enough to witness the conquest of Christianity in Èrin and that he related the long history of everything he had seen in his many lives to either Saint Patrick or Columcille. The fact may be that he’s out there still, in the shape of a hawk or a dog or a stag or a man, bearing witness to all the deeds of the current occupants of Érin, perhaps apprehensively awaiting the arrival of new waves of settlers to beach their ships upon our shores as so many have done before.
We know nothing more of Tuan, but we know that the common consensus among medieval Irish scholars was that we ourselves, the present-day Irish people, are the descendants of the Míl Espáine who came from over the seas and defeated a race of gods in battle. But of course, the truth of these events is lost to us now, and we have only these tiny, distorted scraps of insight into what really happened in those turbulent times.
At this point in our tale, we pass from the realms of allegorical myth and Christianised folklore into the realms of verifiable history. Though for the purpose of my works, I only rarely make any distinction between the two.
Obviously, it’s difficult to argue that there were literally immortals like Tuan Mac Carraill and God-men like the Tuatha Dé on these lands in the past, but it’s unnecessary to do so in the context of this essay. My work bridges the worlds between myth and fact to illuminate a point, and I believe that in the human mind, a thing can be both true and untrue simultaneously.
I here relate a tale of the mythic history of the Irish people and the lands they inhabit, a story, not a dull and meticulously researched historical narrative. The value of such dull, historically verified records is great, but it is a work better handled by others than myself. I merge history and myth with the best of intentions, and I do not hide the fact that my work often tends more towards the mythic than the historic.
With this in mind, I think we can accept that in the minds of human beings, who are wonderfully imaginative, it’s the story that counts and not the history. It’s worth noting that the events recorded thus far in our tale have been passed down to us from Christian scribes and secular poets in medieval Irish monasteries, who often expressed contempt for the pagan barbarity of the stories they were putting to parchment. Many a young scribe would have been torn between his duty and his obligation to Christianize the tales he was copying down to spread his agenda. As such, the legends of Ireland’s past are to be studied with a skeptic’s eye, as they have not reached our ears in the same form as they would have reached the ears of our ancestors.
But we know some things almost certainly. We know that the first recorded Viking raid in Ireland occurred around 795CE on Lambay Island. The Vikings were Scandinavian sea pirates who raided, reaved, rap
ed, and enslaved those they harassed in much the same way as the Fomóraigh had done centuries before them. What followed was two hundred years of piracy and warfare between Gaelic Irish and Scandinavian pirates. The result was that the Viking raiders eventually established several towns, trading outposts, and cities in Érin, most notably at Dublin and Waterford. Over time the Norse settlers began to breed with the native Irish and married into Irish families and tribes until eventually, there existed in Irish Viking settlements a hybrid culture of Norse and Gaelic tradition. Conflict still occurred between the two groups, as can only be expected, and the already weakened Norse influence in Ireland was finally reduced to insignificance at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014, in which High King Brian Boru’s forces won a hard-fought Pyrrhic victory over the Norsemen of Dublin, Orkney, and Man. Much of Viking culture has survived in the present culture of Irish cities, though the peak of their power and influence in this isle began to decline at Clontarf a thousand years past.
In 1169 a new fleet of invaders landed on Irish shores, and it was these warriors and vagrant knights who would most influence the course of Irish history up to the present day. These were the Normans, descendants of Norse Viking raiders and settlers in Northern France. They took advantage of the fragmented nature of Irish inter-tribal relations to launch an invasion on a scale that had not been seen since the days of the Fomòraigh in ages out of time. The Norman ships were guided to these shores by an Irish King in exile, Diarmad Mac Murrough, who had been dethroned and banished by the then High King, Ruadri Úa Conchobar. Diarmad fled to France and sought out the Anglo-Norman King Henry, who permitted him to recruit from among his Norman vassals in Europe and Wales to retake the exiled King of Leinster’s throne in Ireland.
The Norman knights were a military force that was unrivaled on the battlefields of 12th century Europe, wearing heavy chain mail coats and steel helms, riding great raging warhorses, charging enemy lines with long lances and spears. The Norman cavalry charge was the equivalent of a weapon of mass destruction compared to the light infantry tactics of most native Irish warbands. Many a brave champion of the Gael was put to rout when facing down a Norman charge. Eventually, Diarmad sold off his daughter to one of these Norman adventurers in exchange for his services before dying mysteriously within a year. The man who thus inherited Diarmad’s kingdom in Leinster was called Richard de Clare, though he is more often remembered by his father’s nickname: Strongbow. Strongbow proved a capable commander in dealing with Gaelic warfare. He conquered many tribes and built Norman fortifications on their lands before his rapid expansion was checked by his King, Henry, who sailed to Èrin in 1171 to lay claim to all lands conquered on this isle by the Norman mercenaries, who were all sworn to serve him. Henry landed his fleet in Waterford City, which had previously been a Viking city, and an Irish settlement before that, and the history of Anglo-Irish relations was thus bound inseparably for the next eight centuries. Norman settlements grew and expanded as Normans conquered lands, and English settlers claimed lands of their own by Henry’s goodwill at the expense of the Irish who once inhabited them. This process of foreigners settling lands in Ireland by force would continue for centuries to come.
Taking the history of the Irish as summarized above, it becomes apparent that tribal fragmentation was the typical state of our early society, just as it was the early state of all European societies, and indeed all societies in general. What was the glory of the unified Roman Empire built from but a wolf-cult in the hills? How long had Greeks been raping and killing each other until they were forced to unify or die on the point of Persian spears? Did the Empire of the British, which saw relatively few sunsets, not begin its days in a genocide of native Britons by foreign migrants from Germany? And Germany, what of her? One of the most successful territorial expansions in history was conducted only seventy years ago by the Germans, a nation of people who used to ambush each other in forests for the sake of stealing a few cattle or slaves. And was that people’s most recent expansion not checked by their own distant cousins, the descendants of Saxon tribes who had once left their ancestral forests to sail to Britain with thoughts of conquest? When considering the flow of European history over these past two millennia, has it not the seeming of a tremendous cosmic irony?
The historical and mythic pattern here is self-evident, but it must be repeated lest it’s forgotten. Migration is an inherent fact of life and always has been. People have been moving from place to place in search of building a better life for themselves and their offspring for so long that it’s branded upon our mythology, and it forms the basis of our national identities. We Irish are allegedly descended from Milesians, Norsemen, Normans, British, and Germans, among many others. And we are not unique in this regard. The English are descended from Germans. The Romans claimed their origins in mythic Troy. The Scots are descended from Irish (and perhaps vice versa). The Norse claim descent from the Aesir who, some sources claim, migrated from the East. We Westerners are almost descended from Indo-Europeans, a topic that deserves a lengthy essay of its own. And surely I need not even mention the Americans who further complicate the already confusing picture.
All of us have ancestors who came from elsewhere, took lands forcefully where they could not take them peacefully, secured them from invasion, and mixed their DNA with other peoples’ to create offspring of mixed heritage whose genes survived long enough to eventually make us. Modern DNA testing agencies like www.23andme.com offer the opportunity to break down your genetic makeup by geographic region, showing what percentage of your DNA is Northern European or Mediterranean or African or Neanderthal, etc. These test results offer a fascinating perspective on an individual’s ancestral identity, but they also provide a helpful insight.
Everyone is made up of a mixture of genetic inheritance from across the globe, though most of us possess a majority of DNA from one specific region. I have seen people post their results online displaying about 90% Northern European genetics, with the remaining 10% being a mixture of different ethnicities. Likewise, an African’s results might show 90% African DNA with a mix in the remaining 10%. The results indicate that, yes, we are all to some extent mongrels, but we are more genetically homogenous than we might think. Migration has affected every person alive on this planet to some degree, but we’re also strongly linked to our greater geographic regions and the peoples who have inhabited them longest.
The point of this essay is twofold. The first is obvious: to educate the Irish themselves, among
others, about their ancestral myth of origin, which too many have forgotten. The second: to shine some of the light of history on the migration culture of the modern world, which has been a topic of international urgency and state policy for years. The issues of migration and cultural mixing have never been so widely debated and likely to cause a potentially violent disagreement as they are today.
Since 2015, almost the majority of European political discourse has been centered on the issues of national sovereignty and the responsibilities (or otherwise) of European states to accept the millions of migrants arriving from the Middle East and Africa over the past few years. Migration has become a divisive topic in recent times, and I have often witnessed a lively conversation grow cold when the subject is raised. Many people have become afraid to raise the issue in conversation at all for fear it causes disagreement, but it’s a topic that must not be ignored if it’s ever to be handled with maturity and reason.
Here are some things we all know about migration, and I’m sure most of us would agree that these are perfectly reasonable statements.
1 – It is not inherently devious or malevolent to go somewhere where you have more opportunities to be successful than you have at home.
2 – We are all the product of migration, no matter how long our people have been where we live.
3 – It’s not unusual for migrants to band together to take advantage of the vulnerability of the people who inhabit the lands they want to settle.
4 – Migration in large numbers irrevocably changes the identity and the culture of both those who settle and those who are settled, in some ways for the better, in some ways for the worse. The Irish are the perfect example of this, at home and abroad, as history has proven.
5 – It is not immoral or cruel to voice your concern about the effects that large-scale migration will have on the land you call home and the culture which prevails there, nor is it unreasonable to attempt to limit the damage which will inevitably be done.
6 – Migration is no more or less a human right than conquest by violence is, and we are all descendants of conquerors as well as migrants. The ultimate law of human history is, and has always been thus: those who can do something and get away with it for long enough decide what is right and wrong. Prospering to the point where you get to write the history books has many benefits.
Despite the contentious nature of discussing migration, nobody seems to question whether it was right or wrong for the so-called Celtic peoples, who inhabited this island and shaped the prevailing culture here for so long, to conquer the Neolithic artisans who built such impressive monuments as Newgrange, Knowth, Dowth, Knocknarea, Uragh Stone Circle, and many others. We Irish claim we are a “Celtic people” while chastising the British (specifically the English) who invaded and settled our lands, never sparing a thought for the Native Irish who our “Celtic Ancestors” displaced by their insular migration.
Nor should we.
Nobody asks the Scandinavians to apologize for Lindisfarne and the Great Heathen Horde. The French don’t chastise the Italians for Caesar’s genocide in Gaul. These are things forgotten, but one thing is sure: if anyone alive today were alive when Caesar sailed from Gaul to Britain after he had caused chaos among the people he conquered, that person would likely be on the cliffs of Dover to meet the enemy with hostility in defense his home and the traditions of his ancestors, just like the Britons were. That isn’t wrong; that’s just human nature. But neither was Caesar’s will to conquer wrong, for both of these motivations are what make us human. Only the victor decides who was wrong, and that doesn’t come until the ashes have been swept up and baked into the bricks used to build new temples.
Vae Victis. Woe to the vanquisehd. It was a Celt who said that to a Roman once, as he plundered Roman gold.
I say this for those of you who may be in doubt, or who have been cowed to silence by those louder and more assertive than yourself: You are not a racist or a bigot or a Nazi or a Fascist if you are concerned about the potentially adverse effects of large-scale immigration into your homeland. Nor are you a saint or an example of moral superiority if you ignore the potentially damaging effects of said immigration and focus only on the potential positive effects of migration or the supposed ethical responsibilities of those more prosperous societies who must receive said migrants. If you expressed any degree of skepticism towards migration in 2010, for example, you would not be subject to the same societal backlash as you would be if you were to do so today. But the past few years have caused the divide to grow and polarize to the point where it’s almost impossible to discuss the topic intelligently anymore. No doubt there will be some backlash to this article for even daring to put forth an opinion that deviates from the prevailing narrative.
Looking at this topic from the Irish perspective, it’s necessary to discuss our people’s history as the eternal exiles, destined to emigrate away from our island home time and time again in search of better opportunities or to flee persecution, as our ancestors have done so many times before.
We all know the story. The Flight of the Earls, The Wild Geese Fled, Famine Zombies on Coffin Ships, World War Mercenaries, Railroaders and Canalmen, Post Recession Youth. It seems that almost every second generation of Irish natives is caught on the unceasing wheel of emigration and return, eternally doomed to wander the Earth seeking new homes in foreign lands like the Tribes of Israel or Cain’s offspring.
Many Irish have a more welcoming and tolerant attitude towards immigrants because we have so often been emigrant ourselves, which I don’t think is a flaw on our part. But there are many lessons to be learned from the history of the Irish abroad. I ask you, what nation to which the Irish traveled in large numbers was not changed by their influence? Do you think America or Britain or Australia would be different than they are today if the Irish had never settled those lands in such large numbers? A survey in 2013 revealed that there are 34 million Americans who call themselves Irish, but there are less than 4 million Irish people in Ireland itself. In the 2011 Census, 2 million Australians claimed Irish identity, amounting to 10% of the Australian population. A national survey in Canada in 2014 revealed that 4.5 million Canadians clai
med Irish descent. In every country we’ve sailed to, we have changed the very face of that country noticeably, in some ways for the better, but in other ways for the worse.
The case of the Irish abroad is not unique, because any large-scale migration of a foreign culture into another culture will cause social friction and conflict, thus driving social and cultural change, which may or may not be beneficial in the long run. These are factors worthy of careful consideration if the lessons of the past are to instruct us as to the best course of action for the future.
And perhaps the wandering spirit of that eternal witness, Tuan Mac Carraill, would scoff at our folly to think we could resist the flow of history where so many tribes before us have been conquered or driven off from these shores, though none of them left without first assembling on the plains of martial contest. If he’s still out there, no doubt Tuan wouldn’t be surprised to see new ships, with new faces, sailing to Érin once more with dreams of conquest.
If you found this article interesting, consider checking out my book “Unchaining The Titan” for many more essays which also analyze old myths and make them relevant to modern life. Click this link to learn more about how the old tales can improve your life.