Open main menu
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

either from Britain or the European continent. At any rate it was not until well on in the Bronze Age, perhaps about 600 or 500 B.C., that the Goidels, the first invaders speaking a Celtic language, set foot in Ireland. The newcomers probably overran the whole island, subduing but not exterminating the older race with which they doubtless intermarried freely, as pre-Celtic types are frequent among the populations of Connaught and Munster at the present day. What the language was that was spoken by the neolithic aborigines is a question which will probably never be settled. The division into provinces or “fifths” (Ulster, Leinster, Connaught, E. Munster and W. Munster) appears to be older than the historical period, and may be due to the Goidels. Between 300 B.C. and 150 B.C. various Belgic and other Brythonic tribes established themselves in Britain bringing with them the knowledge of how to work in iron. Probably much about the same time certain Belgic tribes effected settlements in the S.E. of Ireland. Some time must have elapsed before any Brythonic people undertook to defy the powerful Goidelic states, as the supremacy of the Brythonic kingdom of Tara does not seem to have been acknowledged before the 4th century of our era. The early Belgic settlers constituted perhaps in the main trading states which acted as intermediaries of commerce between Ireland and Gaul.[1] In addition to these Brythonic colonies a number of Pictish tribes, who doubtless came over from Scotland, conquered for themselves parts of Antrim and Down where they maintained their independence till late in the historical period. Picts are also represented as having settled in the county of Roscommon; but we have at present no means of ascertaining when this invasion took place.

Classical Writers.—Greek and Roman writers seem to have possessed very little definite information about the island, though much of what they relate corresponds to the state of society disclosed in the older epics. Strabo held the inhabitants to be mere savages, addicted to cannibalism and having no marriage ties. Solinus speaks of the luxurious pastures, but the natives he terms an inhospitable and warlike nation. The conquerors among them having first drunk the blood of their enemies, afterwards besmear their faces therewith; they regard right and wrong alike. Whenever a woman brings forth a male child, she puts his first food on the sword of her husband, and lightly introduces the first auspicium of nourishment into his little mouth with the point of the sword. Pomponius Mela speaks of the climate as unfit for ripening grain, but he, too, notices the luxuriance of the grass. However, it is not until we reach Ptolemy that we feel we are treading on firm ground. His description is of supreme importance for the study of early Irish ethnography. Ptolemy gives the names of sixteen peoples in Ireland, several of which can be identified. As we should expect from our knowledge of later Irish history scarcely any towns are mentioned. In the S.E., probably in Co. Wicklow, we find the Manapii—evidently a colony from N.E. Gaul. North of them, perhaps in Kildare, a similar people, the Cauci, are located. In Waterford and Wexford are placed the Brigantes, who also occur in Yorkshire. The territory to the west of the Brigantes is occupied by a people called by Ptolemy the Iverni. Their capital he gives as Ivernis, and in the extreme S.W. of the island he marks the mouth of the river Iernos, by which the top of Dingle Bay called Castlemaine Harbour is perhaps intended. The Iverni must have been a nation of considerable importance, as they play a prominent part in the historical period, where they are known as the Érnai or Éraind of Munster. It would seem that the Iverni were the first native tribe with whom foreign traders came in contact, as it is from them that the Latin name for the whole island is derived. The earliest form was probably Iveriyō or Iveriyū, genitive Iveryonos, from which come Lat. Iverio, Hiverio (Antonine Itinerary), Hiberio (Confession of St Patrick), Old Irish Ériu, Hériu, gen. Hérenn with regular loss of intervocalic v, Welsh Iwerddon (from the oblique cases). West of the Iverni in Co. Kerry Ptolemy mentions the Vellabori, and going in a northerly direction following the coast we find the Gangani, Autini (Autiri), Nagnatae (Magnatae). Erdini (cf. the name Lough Erne), Vennicnii, Rhobogdii, Darini and Eblanii, none of whom can be identified with certainty. In south Ulster Ptolemy locates a people called the Voluntii who seem to correspond to the Ulidians of a later period (Ir. Ulaid, in Irish Lat. Uloti). About Queen’s county or Tipperary are situated the Usdiae, whose name is compared with the later Ossory (Ir. Os-raige). Lastly, in the north of Wexford we find the Coriondi who occur in Irish texts near the Boyne (Mid. Ir. Coraind). It would seem as if Ptolemy’s description of Ireland answered in some measure to the state of affairs which we find obtaining in the older Ulster epic cycle.[2] Both are probably anterior to the foundation of a central state at Tara.

Legendary Origins.—We can unfortunately derive no further assistance from external sources and must therefore examine the native traditions. From the 9th century onwards we find accounts of various races who had colonized the island. These stories naturally become amplified as times goes on, and in what we may regard as the classical or standard versions to be found in Keating, the Four Masters, Dugald MacFirbis and elsewhere, no fewer than five successive invasions are enumerated. The first colony is represented as having arrived in Ireland in A.M. 2520, under the leadership of an individual named Partholan who hailed from Middle Greece. His company landed in Kenmare Bay and settled in what is now Co. Dublin. After occupying the island for 300 years they were all carried off by a plague and were buried at Tallaght (Ir. Tamlacht, “plague-grave”), at which place a number of ancient remains (probably belonging, however, to the Viking period) have come to light. In A.M. 2850 a warrior from Scythia called Nemed reached Ireland with 900 fighting men. Nemed’s people are represented as having to struggle for their existence with a race of sea-pirates known as the Fomorians. The latter’s stronghold was Tory Island, where they had a mighty fortress. After undergoing great hardship the Nemedians succeeded in destroying the fortress and in slaying the enemies’ leaders, but the Fomorians received reinforcements from Africa. A second battle was fought in which both parties were nearly exterminated. Of the Nemedians only thirty warriors escaped, among them being three descendants of Nemed, who made their way each to a different country (A.M. 3066). One of them, Simon Brec, proceeded to Greece, where his posterity multiplied to such an extent that the Greeks grew afraid and reduced them to slavery. In time their position became so intolerable that they resolved to escape, and they arrived in Ireland A.M. 3266. This third body of invaders is known collectively as Firbolgs, and is ethnologically and historically very important. They are stated to have had five leaders, all brothers, each of whom occupied one of the provinces or “fifths.” We find them landing in different places. One party, the Fir Galeoin, landed at Inber Slangi, the mouth of the Slaney, and occupied much of Leinster. Another, the Fir Domnand, settled in Mayo where their name survives in Irrus Domnand, the ancient name for the district of Erris. A third band, the Firbolg proper, took possession of Munster. Many authorities such as Keating and MacFirbis admit that descendants of the Firbolgs were still to be found in parts of Ireland in their own day, though they are characterized as “tattling, guileful, tale-bearing, noisy, contemptible, mean, wretched, unsteady, harsh and inhospitable.” The Firbolgs had scarcely established themselves in the island when a fresh set of invaders appeared on the scene. These were the Tuatha Dé Danann (“tribes of the god Danu”), who according to the story were also descended from Nemed. They came originally from Greece and were highly skilled in necromancy. Having to flee from Greece on account of a Syrian invasion they proceeded to Scandinavia. Under Nuadu Airgetláim they

  1. The importance of the commerce between Ireland and Gaul in early times, and in particular the trade in wine, has been insisted upon by H. Zimmer in papers in the Abh. d. Berl. Akad. d. Wissenschaften (1909).
  2. On the subject of Ptolemy’s description of Ireland see articles by G. H. Orpen in the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland (June 1894), and John MacNeill in the New Ireland Review (September 1906).