Irish Pseudohistory and Lore of the Master Poets Part 2

The Irish pseudohistorical tradition is quite plainly a rat’s nest but, the stages of it’s growth can be reconstructed (‘Leabhar Gabhála, Part 1’ Snowcroft). The point may not need labouring, but the story of successive invasions is demonstrably not pre-Christian as it developed gradually in early Christian Ireland (‘Native Elements in Irish Pseudohistory’ J Carey and ‘Cultural Identity and Cultural Integration: Ireland and Europe in the Middle Ages’ D Edel). The very concept of a universal history ofthis kind belongs to medieval learning, not native tradition. But no race of people lacks a story about where they come from, and the original nucleus of the pseudohistory is the narrative of the coming of the Gaedhil ( ‘Early Christian Ireland’ TM Charles-Edwards). We know that material about the legendary ancestors of the Irish existed as early as the 7th Century, because early poetry associated with Leinster mentions Íbir, Éber, and Éremón, figures who appear lateramong the grandsons of Míl Espáine in the story of the Gaedhil takeover ( ‘The Celtic Heroic Age’ JT Koch & J Carey). Míl himself, however, could not have entered the tradition before the late 7th Century, when, thanks to the writings of Isidore, the Irish first conceived of the Spanish-Irish connection, and so a good amount of knitting new material onto old was clearly going on (‘Literacy and Identity in Early Medieval Ireland’ E Johnston).

A rudimentary written account of the Gaedhil’s wanderings already existed by the 9th Century, at least 2 centuries before the composition of ‘Lebór Gabála’. This can be verified because of an importantfable style poem, known from its first lines as “Can a mbunadas na nGaedel” (whence did the Irish originate?), which cannot have been composed later than 887, when its author, Máel Mura Othna, died (‘In Search of Mael Mura Othna’ J Carey). While we know that the ‘Lebór Gabála’ compliers did not use this poem, minute details embedded about the wandering of the Gaedhil chime very close with it that a single source must ultimately have fed into both. This source must therefore have been in existence, in written form, before 887 (‘Leabhar Gabhála, Part 2′ Snowcroft).

Crucially, “Whence Did the Irish Originate?” does mention the Tuatha Dé. It tells us that the Gaedhil, having travelled from Scythia via Spain, reached Ireland and found the Tuatha Dé already there. But there is no suggestion of any other existing or previous inhabitants. It also contains suggestions that the Tuatha Dé began by being less than friendly, and though the phrasing is obscure we are clearly told that the Tuatha Dé gave the men of the Gaedhil wives in exchange for keeping one half of the Island. The poem does not actually make explicit, as documented elsewhere, that this means the half that lies beneath the earths surface, but this seems likely (‘Leabhar Gabhála, Part 2’ Snowcroft).

This is striking on two levels. First, it is broadly compatible with the representation of the Tuatha Dé in the Old Irish sagas, although it contains details of a primordial encounter between men and Gods, which the sagas do not. One strand of saga-tradition had depicted the Tuatha Dé as the Island’s antediluvian aboriginals, still in residence because free from original sin and therefore invisible and immortal; this is precisely the situation in the 3rd part of “The Wooing of Étaín”, for example. Secondly, there is no evidence in Máel Mura’s poem that the Tuatha Dé have shipped in from anywhere else: they are in their native land. This corresponds to the major mythological sagas like “The Second Battle of Moytura”, and certainly before the 9th Century there seems to be no assertion anywhere that the Tuatha Dé had been invaders (‘Notes on Cath Maige Tuired’ G Murphy).  This and the very idea of the mythological idea of inermarraige between the Gods and Gaedhil, was empathetically excluded from the tradition by the ‘Lebór Gabála’ compilers.

While the body of tradition about the migrations of the Gaedhil was clearly primary, by the mid 10th Century it had been gradually augmented by accounts of the preceding settlements or invasions. Traditions about the pre-Gaedhil settlements spread like suckers from the root story of the Gaedhil. Partholón seems to have been worked in first (Material of Íth is also found attached to Partholón, supposed to have lived thousand of years earlier. It is a strong suggestion that the story of Partholón may have budded from that of Míl). His name is the Irish version of Batholomew and learned Irishmen could read in Isidore that this is a Syriac name meaning “he who holds up the waters” (‘Leabhar Gabhála, Part 2’ Snowcroft). Accordingly, Partholón became mac Sera “son of the Syrian”, and the first man to settle in Ireland after the waters of the Flood subsided (‘Irish National Origin-Legend’ J Carey). Nemed seems to have been added next as another doublet of Míl, which results in 3 different invasions; Partholón, Nemed, and the Gaedhil under Míl.

This scenario is precisely what appears in the ealist account of the Irish invasion stories to have survived. It is not an Irish text, but a Welsh one the ‘Historia Brittonum’(History of the Britons), composed in Latin by an unknown cleric circa 830 (‘Wales and the Britons’ TM Charles-Edwards). Its author devotes some time to the origins of the inhabitants of his neighbouring Island, and says that he has taken his information from “the most learned of the Irish” (‘Historia Brittonium’ Th Mommsen edition). His account is recognisably a kind of prototype of ‘Lebór Gabála’ and it is a crucial witness to the early development of the pseudohistory. For the author of the ‘Historia Brittonum’, there were only 3 sets of invaders of Ireland being “Partholomus”, “Nemedius”, and the “miles Hispaniae” (Míl Espáine), but later he does mention one “Builc”, having misunderstood the ‘bags’ of the Fir Bolg as a personal name.

The standard first settlement, Cessair and her entourage, is absent from the ‘Historia Brittonum’. Cessair’s settlement is a kind of stillbirth and seems to be a very late addition to the tradition and continued to be of doubtful canonicity for some time. It can be observed from Gilla Cóemán’s poems, that he changes his mind about Cessair, for example. It is interesting, therefore, that she may nonetheless be of some degree of antiquity. John Carey has plausibly suggested that she was a Leinster figure, perhaps a Goddess associated with the confluence of the 3 rivers Barrow, Nore and Suir near Waterford in Munster, which is one of the most impressive natural water features of Ireland (‘The Origin and Development of the Cessair Legend’ J Carey). If this is so, we can observe antique material being incorporated into the pseudohistory long after it assumed its basic shape. Also conspicuous by its absence in the ‘Historia Brittonum’ is the invasion of the Tuatha De. It is this absence that brings us at last to consideration of their position within the pseudohistory, and within ‘Lebór Gabála’ in particular.

It has been long clear to scholars that the Gods were the last major group to be incorporated into the pseudohistory, which is hardly surprising. Nemed and Partholón have no value outside pseudohistorical tradition, but there existed a substantial body of independent material about the Tuatha Dé that varied conspicuously in detail and tone, which made them awkward to assimilate.

There is both direct and indirect evidence for the process of integration. Direct evidence includes the absence of the Gods in the list of invasions in ‘Historia Brittonum’, circa 830, as just noted; significantly, they are also omitted in a 9th Century set of texts preserved in the ‘Book of Ballymote’ (‘Leabhar Gabhála, Part 2’ Snowcroft). Further evidence is also visible within ‘Lebór Gabála’ itself, which carefully makes Ireland’s various invasions keep time with ‘world empires’ eg Assyrians, Persians, etc. The Tuatha Dé are the only race whose reign does not synchronise with such an empire, and this points to them having been belatedly spliced into the scheme.

Indirect evidence for the late integration of the Gods is provided by one of the notorious perversities of Irish mythology: confusingly, its Gods fight not one, but two “Battles of Moytura” (‘Notes on Cath Maige Tuired’ G Murphy). The first battle is the conflict between the Tuatha Dé and the Fir Bolg. The scholary consensus has long been that the second battle, because of its obviously archaic roots , is the original, while the first is merely an uninspired doublet. It seems that the idea of a battle between the Tuatha De and the Fir Bolg was a rationalising invention of the pseudohistorical school, intended to supplant the tradition of mythological conflict between the Gods and Fomór.. This may have been part and parcel of stripping the Tuatha Dé of their supernatural status, but it had been made necessary by the fact that the Tuatha Dé had been shoehorned into the narrative of successful invasions.  Instead of the Gaedhil defeating the Fir Bolg, the Tuatha Dé, now edged between the two, had to play two roles, vanquishing the Fir Bolg on one hand before themselves falling before the incoming Gaedhil on the other. This mythological scenario is very odd for it has the ethnic Irish inflicting military defeat on their own Gods. But in retaining the ancient tradition of a Tuatha Dé victory at Moytura, while redefining the vanquished as the human Fir Bolg rather than the supernatural Fomór, the pseudohistorians no doubt felt that they had arrived at a tidy solution. Unfortunately for them ( but fortunate for students of mythology) the Fomór defeat by the Tuatha Dé was clearly tenacious in tradition an impossible to uproot (‘Anecdota from Irish Manuscripts’ O Bergin, RI Best, K Meyer & JG O’Keefe).

It seems that the initial integration of the Gods into the scheme of invasions probably took place late in the 9th Century, and indeed “The Second Battle of Moytura” may have been originally composed as a grand restatement of the traditional doctrine in the face of a fabricated mimic intended to supplant it (‘Myth and Mythography’ J Carey). The 2nd battle was in turn absorbed into the structure of the pseudohistory during the 11th Century. The poems of Eochad ua Flann and Tanaide only mention the 1st battle, but Flann Mainistrech knew of both, significantly terming them the “first” and the “great” battles of Moytura, respectively (‘Leabhar Gabhála’ Snowcroft). Carey points outthat saga tradition added lustre to stretches of ‘Lebór Gabála’, for example, the narrative of the 2nd  or great battle is significantly less dry than the 1st. There is some evidence that the idea of the 1st battle against the Fir Bolg never really took off in Irish tradition outside the pseudohistorical school but a lacklustre Middle Irish saga on the subject appears to be an attempt to promnote the story in literary circles (‘Cath Maige Tuired Cunga’ {The Battle of Moytura at Cong} J Fraser).

Go raibh maith agat as do chuid ama ag léamh an aiste fhada scríofa seo.

Seán Ó Tuama.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: