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Updated on June 18, 2013


To most, Ireland is known for its lush, green fields, hard-drinking on St. Patrick’s Day (and the rest of the year for that matter), and bitter fighting between Catholics and Protestants in the northern part of the island, which finally ended with a peace agreement signed in 1998. More obscure is the rich and vibrant history of ancient Ireland, before the English conquest, before the Viking invasions, before the coming of St. Patrick and Christianity. An epoch filled with the wonder and adventure of kings, warriors, poets, and brehons. As W.B. Yeats said, “I would, before my time to go, sing of Old Eire and the ancient ways.”

According to legend, the first settlers on the Emerald Isle were a group called the Firbolg, a Celtic people who supposedly came from Greece, where they had been long enslaved. They were followed by the Tuatha DeDanann, more Celts, whose origins are shrouded in mystery, perhaps the Middle East or even Egypt. Although smaller in number, the Tuatha asserted their dominance over the Firbolg, forcing them to the wastes of Connaught on the west coast. The DeDanann purportedly possessed mystical powers, living a happy and harmonious existence in their new home. The tranquility was not destined to last, as another wave of immigrants known as the Milesians arrived around 1,000 B.C. They were yet another Celtic tribe, who migrated from central Europe to Spain, before braving the stormy seas to Ireland. Their fabled poet Amergin celebrated in verse the 3 brothers who led the way for the Milesians: “Eremon hath conquered her. Ir, Eber have invoked for her. I invoke the land of Ireland.” One brother, Ir, of course, provided one of the numerous names to the majestic island, Irland or Ireland. Others include Eire, Eirinn, Scotia, and Hibernia, which is what the Romans called it.

The newcomers defeated the Tuatha DeDanann at the epic battle of Taillte. In myth, the surviving DeDanann faded into the hills to become the magical Sidhe, the Little People or Leprechauns, who haunt the deserted glens and remote areas of rural Ireland. People there still listen for the wail of the Banshee when tragedy strikes. For those less inclined to the fanciful, the Milesians most probably intermarried with the DeDanann and the earlier Firbolg, the three groups combining into the first Irish people. The Milesians or Celts were victorious- “Long, long ago, beyond the misty space, of twice a thousand years. In Erin did there dwell a mighty race. Taller than Roman spears, like oaks and towers, they had a giant grace.”- “The Celts”- Thomas D’Arcy McGee.

During much of the early Celtic period, Ireland was divided into many small kingdoms, which warred with each other constantly. This warfare is highlighted in the Irish Iliad, the “Tain Bo Cualigne”- the Cattle Raid of Cooley, which features Ireland’s most famous warrior, Cuchullain, the Hound of Cullan, and his magical spear, the Gulga Bae. Cuchullain bears some similarities to the Greek Achilles- half-man, half-god; his bright flame ordained to burn but briefly. The Hound led the Red Branch, fabled fighters who served the king of Ulster. His titanic duel with Connaught champion Ferdiad (akin to Achilles vs. Hector) is recounted in this small segment of the poem- “Woe him on the hillock. The brave Hound before him. Last year, I foretold it. That sometime he’d come. Hound from Emain Macha (Ulster).” Ferdiad, no doubt, suffered the same fate as Hector.

Around the dawn of the Christian era, mighty kings were able to unite the whole island under their singular rule. They bore regal names like Conn of the Hundred Battles, Niall of the Nine Hostages, and Cormac MacArt. The kings took as their royal seat the hills of Tara, which was the ancient capital of the Tuatha DeDanann, just north of present Dublin. A group of warriors known as the Fianna protected Tara, and also traveled throughout Ireland keeping the peace, and meting out justice. The most well-known Fianna leader was Finn MacCool, whose band conjured up images of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table. The law enforced by the Fianna, was administered by the Brehons, wise men who occupied one of the highest rungs in Celtic society. It took a Brehon 20 years of study to master an extensive knowledge of the law and all its intricacies. A sense of legal practice under the Brehons can be found in this piece attributed to Cormac MacArt: “What is the worse pleading and arguing? Contending against knowledge, contending without proofs, taking refuge in bad language, a stiff delivery, a muttering speech, hair-splitting, uncertain proofs, despising books, turning against custom, shifting one’s pleading, inciting the mob, blowing one’s own trumpet, shouting at the top of one’s voice.”

Along with the Brehons, another profession held in great esteem was the poet. A king would search high and low to find the right bard to record his exploits for posterity. Traveling poets were accorded the utmost respect and courtesy when they stopped at a town or village. Nobles, even kings, were afraid that to offend a bard might mean the blackening of their names in satiric prose for all eternity, a fate worse than death. Regard for wielders of the pen has endured down the centuries in Ireland, as even today, writers are eligible for some form of tax exemption due to their craft. The next great change in Irish society after the Celtic dawn would not be initiated by the sword or fire, but one man holding a shamrock. His name? Patricius or St. Patrick.


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