Table of contents
The origins of Lebor Gabála ÉrennPurporting to be a literal and accurate account of the history of the Irish race, Lebor Gabála Érenn (hereinafter abbreviated as LGE) may be seen as an attempt to provide the Irish with a written history comparable to that which the Israelites provided for themselves in the Old Testament. Drawing upon the pagan myths of Celtic Ireland - both Gaelic and pre-Gaelic - but reinterpreting them in the light of Judaeo-Christian theology and historiography, it describes how the island was subjected to a succession of invasions, each one adding a new chapter to the nation's history. Biblical paradigms provided the mythologers with ready-made stories which could be adapted to their purpose. So not surprisingly we find the ancestors of the Irish enslaved in a foreign land, or fleeing into exile, or wandering in the wilderness, or sighting the "Promised Land" from afar.
Four Christian works in particular had a significant bearing on the formation of LGE:
- St Augustine's De Civitate Dei, "The City of God," (413-426 CE)
- Orosius's Historiae adversum paganos, "Histories," (417)
- Eusebius's Chronicle, translated into Latin by St Jerome (379)
- Isidore of Seville's Etymologiae or Origines, "Etymologies" or "Origins" (early 7th century)
Numerous fragments of Irish pseudohistory are scattered throughout the seventh and eighth centuries, but the earliest extant account is to be found in the Historia Brittonum or "History of the Britons," written by the Welsh priest Nennius in 829-830. Nennius gives two separate accounts of early Irish history. The first consists of a series of successive colonisations from Spain by the pre-Gaelic races of Ireland, all of which found their way into LGE. The second recounts the origins of the Gael themselves, and tells how they in turn came to be the masters of the country and the ancestors of all the Irish.
These two stories continued to be enriched and elaborated upon by Irish bards throughout the ninth century. In the tenth and eleventh centuries, several long historical poems were written that were later incorporated into the scheme of LGE. Among the many authors of these important sources, four poets stand out:
- Eochaid ua Flainn (936-1004) from Armagh
- Flann Mainistrech mac Echthigrin (died 1056), lector and historian of Monasterboice Abbey
- Tanaide (died circa 1075)
- Gilla Coemáin mac Gilla Shamthainne (flourished 1072)
Textual variantsFrom the beginning, LGE proved to be an enormously popular and influential document, quickly acquiring canonical status. Older texts were altered to bring their narratives into closer accord with its version of history, and within a century of its compilation there existed a plethora of copies and revisions. Five recensions of LGE are extant, surviving in about a dozen medieval manuscripts:
- First Redaction: preserved in The Book of Leinster (circa 1150) and The Book of Fermoy (1373).
- Míniugud: this recension is closely related to the First Redaction. It is probably older than the surviving MSS of that redaction, though not older than the now lost exemplar on which those MSS were based.
- Second Redaction: survives in no less than seven separate texts, the best known of which is The Book of Lecan (1418).
- Third Redaction: preserved in both The Book of Ballymote (1391) and The Book of Lecan.
- O'Clery's Redaction: written in 1631 by Míchél Ó Cléirigh, a Franciscan scribe and one of the Four Masters.
LGE was translated into French in 1884. The first complete English translation was made by R A Stewart Macalister between 1937 and 1942. It was accompanied by Macalister"s own critical notes and an introduction, in which he made clear his own view that LGE was a conflation of two originally independent works: a History of the Gaedil, based on the history of the Israelites as set forth in the Old Testament, and an account of several pre-Gaelic settlements of Ireland (to the historicity of which Macalister gave very little credence). The latter was then inserted into the middle of the other work, interrupting it at a crucial point of the narrative. Macalister theorised that the quasi-Biblical text had been a scholarly Latin work entitled Liber Occupationis Hiberniae ("The Book of the Taking of Ireland"), thus explaining why the Middle Irish title of LGE refers to only one "taking," while the text recounts more than half a dozen.
The contents of Lebor Gabála ÉrennThere now follows a brief outline of the text of LGE. The work can be divided into ten "books":
- From the Creation of the World to the Dispersal of the Nations - a retelling of the familiar Judaeo-Christian story of the creation, the fall of Man and the early history of the world. In addition to Genesis, the author draws upon several recondite works for many of his details (eg the Syriac Cave of Treasures), as well as the four Christian works mentioned earlier (ie The City of God, etc).
- The History of the Gael from the Dispersal of the Nations to the Sighting of Ireland - a pseudo-Biblical account of the origin of the Gael as the descendants of the Scythian prince Fénius Farsaid, one of seventy-two chieftains who build Nimrod's Tower (ie the Tower of Babel). His grandson Gaedel Glas "cuts" the Irish tongue from the original seventy-two languages that arose at the time of the dispersal of the nations. In this book the Gael undergo a series of trials and tribulations that are clearly modelled on those with which the Israelites are tried in the first five or six books of the Old Testament. Gaedel Glas is married to Scota, the daughter of Pharao of Egypt. His seed are in Egypt at the time of Moses and leave during the Exodus; they wander the world for four hundred and forty years before eventually settling in Iberia. There a man called Bregan builds a tower and the city of Braganza. From the top of the tower his son Íth glimpses Ireland.
- The Settlement of Cessair - this book constitutes the first interpolation in the Liber Occupationis. Cessair is the granddaughter of the Biblical Noah, who advises her and her father, Bith, to flee to the western edge of the world on account of the impending Flood. They set out in three ships, but when they arrive in Ireland two of the ships are lost. The only survivors are Cessair, forty-nine other women, and three men (Cessair's husband Fintán Mac Bóchra, her father Bith, and the pilot Ladra). The women are divided among the men, Fintán taking Cessair and sixteen women, Bith taking Cessair's companion Bairrfhind and sixteen women, and Ladra taking the remaining sixteen women. Ladra, however, soon dies (the first man to be buried on Irish soil). Forty days later the Flood ensues. Fintán alone survives by spending a year under the waters in a cave called "Fintán's Grave." The White Ancient, he lives for 5500 years after the Deluge and witnesses the later settlements of the island in the guises of a salmon, an eagle and a hawk.
- The Settlement of Partholón - three hundred years after the Flood Partholón, who is of the same seed as the Gael, settles in Ireland with his three sons and their people. After ten years of peace war breaks out with the Fomorians, a race of evil seafarers led by Cichol Clapperleg. The Partholonians are victorious, but their victory is short-lived. In a single week they are wiped out by a plague - five thousand men and four thousand women - and are buried on the Plain of Elta to the southwest of Dublin, in an area that is still called Tallaght, which means "plague grave." One man only survives the plague, Tuán Mac Cairell, who (like Fintán Mac Bóchra) survives for centuries and undergoes a succession of metamorphoses, so that he can act as a witness of later Irish history. This book also includes the story of Delgnat, Partholón's wife, who commits adultery with a henchman.
- The Settlement of Nemed - Thirty years after the extinction of the Partholonians, Ireland is settled by the people of Nemed, whose great-grandfather was a brother of Partholón's. During their occupation, the land is once again ravaged by the Fomorians and a lengthy war ensues. Nemed wins three great battles against the Fomorians, but after his death his people are subjugated by two Fomorian leaders, More and Conand. Eventually, however, they rise up and assault Conand's Tower on Tory Island. They are victorious, but an ensuing sea battle against More results in the destruction of both armies. A flood covers Ireland, wiping out most of the Nemedians. A handful of survivors are scattered to the four corners of the world.
- The Settlements of the Fir Bolg, Fir Domnann and Fir Gálioin - One group of the seed of Nemed settled in Greece, where they were enslaved. Two hundred and thirty years after Nemed they flee and return to Ireland. There they separate into three nations: the Fir Bolg, Fir Domnann and the Fir Gálioin. They hold Ireland for just thirty-seven years before the invasion of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
- The Settlement of the Tuatha Dé Danann - the Tuatha Dé Danann are descendants of another group of the scattered seed of Nemed. They return to Ireland from the far north, where they have learned the dark arts of pagan magic and druidry. They contest the ownership of Ireland with the Fir Bolg and their allies in the First Battle of Moytura (or Mag Tuired). The Dé Danann are victorious and drive the Fir Bolg into exile to the neighbouring islands. But Nuada, the king of the Dé Danann, loses his right arm in the battle and is forced to renounce his crown. For seven unhappy years the kingship is held by the Bres before Nuada's leech Dian Cécht fashions for him a silver arm, and he is restored. War with the Fomorians breaks out and a decisive battle is fought: the Second Battle of Moytura. Nuada falls to Balor of the Evil Eye, but Balor's grandson, Lugh of the Long Arm, kills him and becomes king. The Tuatha Dé Danann enjoy one hundred a fifty years of unbroken rule.
- The Milesian Invasion - The story of the Gael, which was interrupted at the end of Book 2, is now resumed. Íth, who has spied Ireland from the top of Bregan's Tower, journeys to Ireland to investigate his discovery. There he is welcomed by the rulers, but jealous nobles kill him and his men return to Spain with his body. The Milesians, or sons of his uncle Míl Espáne, set out to avenge his death and conquer the island. When they arrive in Ireland, they advance to Tara, the royal seat, to demand the kingship. On the way they are greeted in turn by three women, Banba, Fodla and Ériú, who are the queens of the three co-regents of the land. Each woman welcomes the Milesians and tells them that her name is the name by which the land is known, and asks that it remain so if the Milesians are victorious in battle. One of the Milesians, the poet Amergin, promises that it shall be so. At Tara they are greeted by the three kings of the Tuatha Dé Danann, who defend their claim to the joint kingship of the land. It is decided that the Milesians must return to their ships and sail out to sea to a distance of nine waves from the shore, so that the Tuatha Dé Danann may have a chance to mobilise their forces. But when the Milesians are "beyond nine waves," the druids of the Tuatha Dé Danann conjure up a ferocious storm. The Milesian fleet is driven out to sea but Amergin dispels the wind with his poetry. Of the surviving ships those of Éber land at Inber Scéine (Kenmare River in the south-west of the country, while those of Éremón land at Inber Colptha (the mouth of the Boyne). In two ensuing battles at Sliabh Mis and Tailtiu, the Tuatha Dé Danann are defeated. They are eventually driven out and the lordship of Ireland is divided between Éber and Éremón.
- The Roll of the Kings of Ireland before the Introduction of Christianity - Modelled on the Biblical Book of Kings, this book recounts the deeds of various kings of Ireland, most of them legendary or at best semi-legendary, from the time of Éber and Éremón to the early fifth century of the Christian era.
- The Roll of the Kings of Ireland after the Introduction of Christianity - A continuation of the previous book. This book is the most accurate part of LGE, since it is concerned with historical kings of Ireland whose deeds and dates are preserved in written records.
The historical accuracy of Lebor Gabála ÉrennThe manner in which Celtic-speaking peoples came to be in possession of the island of Ireland is still a matter of conjecture. However, four separate invasions or migrations can be distinguished (the dates given below are highly doubtful):
- Pretanic - Between about 700 and 500 BCE P-Celtic-speaking people colonised Britain and Ireland from the continent. There is no real evidence of an organised military invasion, but by the sixth century ancient Greek geographers knew these islands as "the Pretanic Isles". In Britain they were absorbed by later invaders, except in the extreme north, where they were known to the Romans as Picti, or "painted peoples." In Ireland their descendants - wherever they managed to preserve some measure of cultural, if not political, independence - were known as the Cruthin, a Gaelic or Q-Celtic form of Priteni, which is believed to be their original name for themselves. The name Britain is thought to be derived from Priteni.
- Bolgic or Ernean - The Builg or Érainn were various names of another P-Celtic-speaking people who invaded Ireland around 500 BCE. They were a branch of the continental Belgae, and of the same stock as the Britons. According to their own traditions, they came to Ireland via Britain. They were also known as the Fir Bolg.
- Laginian - Around 300 BCE three closely related P-Celtic-speaking tribes arrived in Ireland from Armorica (Brittany). They were known as the Lagin, the Domnainn and the Gálioin. In Ireland they conquered the southeastern quarter of the country - which became known as Laighean, or Leinster, after them - and the west (Connacht). The Érainn, however, remained in control of the north and south. This is probably how Ireland first came to be divided into four provinces. Some of these tribes also settled in Britain (possibly from Ireland). In the southwest the Domnainn (Latin: Dumnonii) gave their name to Devon, while in the northwest they founded Dumbarton and the kingdom of Strathclyde.
- Goidelic or Gaelic - Around 100 BCE a Q-Celtic-speaking people invaded Ireland from Aquitania in southwest Gaul. They arrived in two separate contingents: the Connachta, who landed at the mouth of the Boyne and carved out a fifth province for themselves around Tara between Ulster and Leinster; and the Eoganachta, who insinuated themselves into Munster and gradually became the dominant force in the south of the country. Goidel - or Gael - was the P-Celtic name the native population gave to these invaders, and which they themselves adopted in time.
The next taking, however, that of the Nemedians, is thought to be a mythologised version of the historical Bolgic invasion of the fifth or sixth century BCE. This belief is supported by many details in the text of LGE, a discussion of which is beyond the scope of this article.
The next two takings are an obvious bowdlerisation of history. The Fir Bolg and their allies are clearly the Érainn again, invading the country for a second time because their ancestors the Nemedians were portrayed as having abandoned the country (which the historical Érainn never did). The Tuatha Dé Danann are a wholly mythical people who have been substituted for the historical Lagin, Domnainn and Gálioin. It has been suggested that this confused state of affairs arose because the Laginian invasion was not a true taking, since the Laginians only conquered about half the country. Nevertheless, the First Battle of Moytura probably does reflect an historical victory of the Lagin over the Érainn in County Sligo (the location of two townlands known as West and East Moytirra), by virtue of which the Lagin conquered the western province. The Second Battle of Moytura, however, was entirely fictional, as most likely were the Fomorians.
The Milesian invasion is clearly a semi-legendary version of the historical Goidelic invasion. Éber and Éremón (whose names mean simply "Irishman" and "Ireland") have replaced the historical leaders of the Eoganachta and Connachta respectively. The name of their father Míl Espáne is similarly derived from the Latin Miles Hispaniae, "a soldier of Spain."
The Roll of the Kings before the Introduction of Christianity contains much that is of interest to historians, but a lot of it is confused and bowdlerised. For example, the story of Tuathal Techtmar, who is depicted as a High King of Ireland in the early second century of the Christian era, is thought to be another version of the Goidelic invasion, Tuathal Techtmar being in reality the historical antecedent of Éremón. Éber's real antecedent, Mug Nuadat, is similarly displaced. There are also doublets of the Bolgic and Laginian invasions in the stories of two other kings, Lugaid mac Dáire and Labraid Loingsech. Most of these bowdlerisations were politically motivated: by providing the pre-Gaelic peoples of the island with pedigrees going back to Míl, the Gael hoped to deny them any prior claim to the country, and so justify the Gaelic conquest.
As mentioned earlier, The Roll of the Kings after the Introduction of Christianity is the most accurate part of LGE. For the most part, these kings are familiar to us from other sources. It should also be pointed out that whereas the first eight books of LGE are usually regarded as part of the Early Mythological Cycle, the last two books are properly assigned to the Historical Cycle.
- Lebor Gabála Érenn, original text edited and translated by R A Stewart Macalister, D. Litt
- Part I: Irish Texts Society, Volume 34, London 1938, reprinted 1993. ISBN 1870166345.
- Part II: Irish Texts Society, Volume 35, London 1939. ISBN 1870166353.
- Part III: Irish Texts Society, Volume 39, London 1940. ISBN 1870166396.
- Part IV: Irish Texts Society, Volume 41, London 1941. ISBN 1870166418.
- Part V: Irish Texts Society, Volume 44, London 1956. ISBN 1870166442.
- O'Rahilly, T F, Early Irish History and Mythology (Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1946)