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The Five Invasions of Ireland

Irish Mythology has no creation myth which explains how things came into being. The world, or more specifically, Ireland, was always there. The Mythology states that, before the Celts, there were five waves of invaders. Each had a profound effect on the land.

By Steve Blamires

Five successive groups of invaders are said to have arrived in Ireland before the present day Gaels arrived. The first three groups are known by the names of their respective leaders and the last two by the names of the races involved.These five invaders were:

The Fir Bolg
The Tuatha De Danann

The first of these Cessair was a woman and she arrived with her mainly female companions before the Biblical Flood. She was said to be a grand-daughter of Noah and he, with his inside information, warned her of what God had up his sleeve for the wicked peoples of this world.She fled to Ireland because, "She thought it probable that a place where people had never come before, and where no evil or sin had been committed, and which was free from the world's reptiles and monsters, that place would be free from the Flood."

She arrived forty days before the deluge but two of her three ships were wrecked and she eventually came ashore at Corca Dhuibhne which is the Dingle Peninsula in Co. Kerry. The total crew of the ship that survived was fifty women and three men. These men were Cessair's father Bith, son of Noah; Ladra the pilot of the ship; and Fionntán. They divided the women amongst the men and amongst Fionntán's women was Cessair herself. The other two men soon died and Fionntán, horrified at the prospect of having to see to the fifty women on his own, fled. Cessair consequently died of a broken heart and soon after all the other women died too, leaving Fionntán all alone in this new country.

A curious passage in the Lebor Gabala Erenn gives an account of one of the other men, Ladra: "Ladra, the pilot, from whom is Ard Ladrann named he is the first dead man of Ireland before the flood. He died of excess of women, or it is the shaft of the oar that penetrated his buttock. Whatever way it was, however, that Ladra is the first dead man in Ireland." Whether this strange insertion was meant to be deliberately humorous or not we shall never know!

During his various shape-shifting he witnessed all the great events thet took place in Ireland...

A variant account of this first invasion of Ireland states that Noah had refused entry into the Ark to these three men because he believed them to be robbers for some reason or other. Cessair had offered to bring them to safety if they accepted her leadership which they gladly did and they duly arrived in Ireland. The story thereafter is much the same as the one just recounted. Cessair is given a more important role in this version though in that she is credited with bringing the first sheep to Ireland.

Fionntán, the sole survivor of Cessair's expedition, lived to be five and a half thousand years old and during these long years he took on various forms including that of a salmon, an eagle and a hawk. During his various shape-shiftings he witnessed all the great events that took place in Ireland and he passed on this knowledge to the historians before he eventually died. That is why we know of Cessair and her companions and all of the many events that took place long before anybody was there to write it all down. So much for the first invasion.

Ireland then lay waste for several hundred years after Cessair and her companions died until eventually Partholon arrived with his followers. Partholon is a corruption of the original form of the name Bartholomaeus which was said to mean "son of him who stayed the waters" and consequently he is associated with the post-deluge invasion of Ireland whereas Cessair was the pre-deluge invader.

According to the Lebor Gabala Erenn he was a Greek who fled Greece after slaying his father and mother in an unsuccessful attempt to take the kingship from his brother. After seven years of wandering he arrived in Ireland with his wife and his three sons with their wives. Of these it is said that Beoil made the first guest-house in Ireland, Brea instituted cooking and duelling, and that Malaliach was the first brewer who made ale from fern. Partholon also brought with him four oxen which were the first cattle in Ireland. At the time they arrived in this new country there was only one clear plain in all of Ireland, so they set about making more room for themselves and cleared another four plains.

The next invader, Nemed, which is an old Celtic word for a holy or secred place, thus giving him druidical connections...

After thirty years in Ireland Partholon eventually died but his survivors and descendants continued to inhabit the country for a further five hundred and twenty years by which time they numbered over nine thousand. They were all overtaken by a plague however and they all died between two Mondays in May. All, that is, except a character called Tuán mac Cairill, son of Partholon's brother Starn. He seems to have been very similar in nature to Cessair's Fionntán in that he too lived for a very long time, took on various forms a salmon, a stag, a boar and an eagle, witnessed all the great events which shaped Ireland and subsequently recounted them to the latter day historians and recorders. And so the second invasion came to an end.

The next invader, Nemed, which is an old Celtic word for a holy or sacred place, thus giving him druidical connections, arrived thirty years after Partholon's people had been wiped out by the plague. He had a fleet of numerous ships, but on their journey they came across a tower of gold in the sea. Greedy for the gold they went to take the tower but the sea rose in a great torrent and swept them all away except for one ship. This was Nemed's own and on board were his wife Macha, his four sons and their wives, and twenty other people. After a year and a half of wandering they eventually landed in Ireland.

Ireland by this time was being used as a base by the strange race known as the Fomoire and after three great battles Nemed defeated them and built himself a strong fort in south Armagh. Nemed eventually died from the plague and the Fomoire returned and imposed heavy taxes on his survivors. After a while the survivors of Nemed's original people decided they had had enough of the Fomoire's oppression and they staged a revolt. They put up a good fight but were eventually over-powered by the evil Fomoire and only one ship managed to escape from Ireland with a crew of thirty warriors on board.

According to tradition later groups of settlers in Ireland were descended from these fleeing warriors. One grandson of Nemed's, Semeon, went to Greece where his progeny later became the race known as the Fir Bolg; another grandson, Beothach, fathered the race that would become the Tuatha De Danann and one of his sons, Fearghus Leathdearg, went to Britain and fathered the race that would later be known as the Britonic people. There are points within Nemed's story which imply that he was originally of the race later to be known as the Tuatha De Danann the fact that his name is a well-known Celtic one associated with druids and, consequently, the Tuatha De Danann; his wife Macha is a goddess of the later Tuatha De Danann; his fight against the Fomoire who were by tradition the enemies of the Tuatha De Danann and the constant reference to threes his was the third invasion, they were thirty years at sea before finding Ireland, they had three great battles with the Fomoire, thirty warriors escaped Ireland, three of his descendants fathered the three main races all hint at these people actually being the forerunners to the Tuatha De Danann. Whether this was deliberate or whether it indicates a corruption in the original story of the five invasions we do not know but, for us at least, it does not really matter.

The last two invasions were not by induviduals but by whole rases of people.

From this we can see that the first three invaders of Ireland all bear striking similarities to each other and may well have come originally from one source which was later changed and adapted to suit the tastes of the day. Of the many legends which deal with these three invaders there are many which claim each one cleared more and more of the plains of Ireland and caused more and more rivers to burst forth and lakes to fill up which accounted for the way Ireland appeared to the Bronze Age Celt listening to these pseudo-histories. It is worth noting at this point that the Irish mythology is in a way unique amongst world mythologies in that it does not have a Creation myth, a story explaining how things came into being, as all other world mythologies and religions do. From what we can gather the Irish Celts believed that the world, or more specifically Ireland, had always existed but it had been changed and shaped throughout its existence by the successive waves of invaders and in-comers into the form that appeared to the Celt of the day.

The last two invasions were not by individuals but by whole races of people. The first of these was the Fir Bolg who, as we have just seen, were believed to be descendants of Nemed; so they were, in a sense, returning to their rightful lands.

The word Fir means men and the word Bolg can mean bag so the name Fir Bolg may mean 'Men of the Bag' and there are various legends explaining how they got this curious name. One legend says that while they were in Greece they were under bondage to the Greeks and they were forced to carry good soil to the high places and infertile regions in order to make Greece more suitable to agricultural development. They moved this good earth around in large leather bags and hence earned the name Men of the Bags. Another legend claims that the sharp cacti and bushes which they had to brush through whilst carrying these bags cut their legs and they took to wearing trousers in order to protect themselves. These trousers they made from the old and torn earth-bags and, hence, the name Men of the Bags which really referred to their leggings. Another tradition claims that while they were in Greece they carried around with them little bags containing soil from Ireland which had the effect of warding off the numerous poisonous snakes and reptiles which they encountered in Greece and, again, they earned the nick-name Men of the Bags because of this.

Another meaning of the word Bolg though is 'spear' and it could be the Fir Bolg actually means 'Men of the Spear' or spear-throwing warriors. This, to me, seems much more likely, especially as in one later legend specific mention is made of their very effective spears. Whatever the name originally signified we no longer know.

When they arrived in Ireland, which was destitute of people, five brothers divided the land amongst themselves and this explained the five fifths of Ireland. It is also said that during their captivity in Greece they became very numerous and actually split into three main sections there were the Fir Bolg proper, the Gaileoin, and the Fir Domhnann.

According to tradition the Gaileoin got their name, which means 'Javelins of Wounding', from the two words 'gai' a javelin and 'leoin' to wound, because they dug the hard clay of Greece with these short stabbing javelins. The Fir Domhnann were named after the deepness, 'domhaine' in Irish, of the clay after it was heaped on the bare Greek rocks.

It is the members of the Tuatha De Danann who make up the complete Irish Celtic pantheon.

In reality however we can compare these mythical peoples with known actual Celtic tribes the Fir Bolg would appear to have been the Belgae people who occupied modern day Belgium and parts of southern Britain, the Gaileoin were actually the Laighin, the main tribe of present day Leinster, and the Fir Domhnann were the Dumnonii tribe who occupied vast parts of Britain and western Europe. So even at these early stages we are able to identify elements amongst the mythology which are confirmed by history.

The Fir Bolg were only in possession of Ireland for thirty- seven years before the Tuatha De Danann invaded and drove them out to Islay, Rathlin, the Isle of Man, and Arran. Much later the Scottish Picts drove them out of Scotland and they ended up back in Ireland.

This last lot of invaders, the Tuatha De Danann, are the most interesting from a mythological point of view and it is the members of this strange race who make up the complete Irish Celtic pantheon. The meaning of their name is open to interpretation although it is most commonly given as 'The People of the Goddess Danu'.

The word Tuatha does mean people but it specifically refers to rustic people and it is the root from which the present day Gaelic and Irish words for farmer and the countryside come. The implication of this word is that it is the ordinary people as opposed to the gentry or nobility who are being referred to. Tuatha also means the North and in the main legend dealing with the arrival in Ireland of the Tuatha De Danann "Cath Maige Tuired" the Battle of Moytura it is specifically stated that they came from the North. They also went on to develop the agricultural potential of Ireland and all this information is in fact already contained within the little word Tuatha.

The 'De' part of their name does mean goddess and the Danann part does refer to the goddess Danu. It was this same goddess who gave her name to the river Danube and to the country of Denmark. There is however an inconsistency in calling these people the 'People of the Goddess Danu' because this implies that Danu was an important goddess for one reason or another, perhaps even a mother goddess who was believed to be the great mother of this whole race. If we examine Irish Celtic mythology, however, in any detail we will discover that Danu is in fact a relatively obscure goddess and is certainly not a mother-goddess figure. It is also known that the Celts held all of their gods and goddesses to be of equal importance, so why single out a relatively obscure goddess, give her a status which she did not deserve and which went against one of their main religious tenets, and then call themselves after this goddess?

The answer to this may well lie in a misunderstanding as to why Danu was used as a tribal name. All of the Celtic deities had specific functions and associations and one of Danu's main associations was with craftsmanship and artistic ability. Because the deity's name was often interchangeable with his or her function it may well be that Tuatha De Danann actually means the People of the Goddess of Craftsmanship or, to put it a bit more simply, the Artistic People. Judging by the amazing Celtic artefacts and works of art in the form of jewellery and intricately prepared weapons and utensils which have come down to us today, this may well be a far better interpretation of their name than the People of the Goddess Danu which tells us little and is actually inconsistent with Celtic belief.

The sons of Mit arrived in Ireland from Spain and ... eventually took possession of it from the defeated Tuatha De Danann.

These people then arrived in Ireland, fought with the entrenched Fir Bolg, defeated them and then took over the sovereignty of Ireland themselves. They too set about clearing plains and causing new rivers and lakes to burst forth and it is the adventures of the Tuatha De Danann which go to make up the whole corpus of knowledge we now refer to as the Mythological Cycle.

These, then, are the five invasions of Ireland according to ancient tradition. Things did not stop there with the Tuatha De Danann though because later stories tell us how the Sons of Mil arrived in Ireland from Spain and, after many adventures and battles, eventually took possession of it from the defeated Tuatha DeDanann. These Sons of Mil are said to be the forefathers of the Gaelic people, both Irish and Scottish, and their descendants are therefore technically still in charge of Ireland.

Mil's full name is "Miles Hispaniae" which simply means soldier of Spain. This association with Spain is due to a fanciful derivation of the Latin word for Ireland Hibernia being derived from Iberia or Hiberia.

Mil's arrival in Ireland, or strictly speaking his sons' arrival in Ireland, is given yet again in the Lebor Gabala Erenn which from the mythologist's point of view is an absolute treasure-house.

According to the ancient tradition the people of Scythia were descended from Noah's son Japheth and one of their members was Fenius the Ancient who was amongst the people who went to build the Tower of Babel. Fenius was a great linguist and when the languages were separated by God he alone retained knowledge of them all. His grandson was called Gaedheal Glas and he fashioned the Irish, or Gaelic, language out of the seventy-two languages then in existence. Gaedheal and his descendants lived inEgypt and Gaedheal himself was friendly with Moses. According to one story Moses saved Gaedheal's life after he had been bitten by a serpent by touching the affected part with his rod. The skin turned green at this place and hence his name Gaedheal Glas which means green. Moses also then proclaimed that Gaedheal would forever be safe from serpents and in whichever land he finally settled there would be no serpents there to molest him or his descendants.

After many years and different adventures the descendants of Gaedheal left Egypt and travelled around the Mediterranean Sea for a long time before they arrived in Spain which they subjugated by force. Their king at that time, Breoghan, built a great tower to protect their newly acquired territory and one clear evening his son Ith saw Ireland from that tower. Mil was Breoghan's grandson and he left Spain curious to learn about his ancestors' homes of Scythia and Egypt. His first wife died in Scythia but when in Egypt he remarried the pharaoh's daughter who was called Scota. It was she who gave her name to the tribe who later became the Scots. Between his two wives he fathered no less than thirty-two sons and six of these sons Eibhear, Amhairghin Glungheal, Ir, Colptha, Erannan and Eireamhoin whose mother was Scota, later play an important part in the taking and naming of Ireland from the Tuatha De Danann.
Amhairghin sang a magic verse which calmed the seas... Mil set sail for Ireland but stopped on the way in Spain to sort out some trouble that was brewing there and, unfortunately, was killed before he had a chance to resume his journey to Ireland. Meanwhile his uncle Ith had already set sail for Ireland and landed with his party just as the kings of the Tuatha De Danann were holding a counsel to determine how best to divide the land amongst themselves. Ith came up with a suggestion which, on the surface, seemed very fair but on his way back to his boats the Tuatha De Danann became suspicious of his motives and killed him. His followers returned to Spain and teamed up with the sons of Mil to return to Ireland and take it by force.

As they approached Ireland, Erannan climbed the mast to have a better look at the place, fell and was killed. Another of Mil's sons, Ir, rowed ahead but his oar broke: he fell backwards into the sea and was drowned. Finally they landed at Inbhear Sceine (Kenmare Bay in Co. Kerry) and Amhairghin was the first to set foot on Irish soil. The sons of Mil encountered the three Tuatha De Danann goddesses Banba, Fotla and Eriu each of whom asked that Ireland be named after her in turn. This was granted and then the sons of Mil met their respective husbands MacCuill, Mac Ceacht and Mac Gréine.

These three gods asked that they be allowed to keep the kingship of Ireland for a mere three days more and that during that time the sons of Mil should return to their ships and wait off the Irish coast a distance of nine waves. They agreed to this but while sitting out in their ships the Tuatha De Danann druids caused a great storm to spring up which swept them further out to sea and was in danger of swamping their ships until Amhairghin sang a magic verse which calmed the seas and they were able to return. In a fit of anger Donn threatened to kill everyone in Ireland once they arrived there and, at this, the wind blew up again and he and his brother Aireach were drowned. The surviving sons of Mil eventually landed in Ireland at the Boyne estuary and after a great battle against the Tuatha De Danann at Tailtiu (Teltown in Co. Meath) they were victorious. From them it is claimed are descended the present day inhabitants of Ireland and Scotland, known collectively as the Gaels.

The magic song which Amhairghin sang to calm the waves is very similar to the shape-shifting tales recounted by Fionntán and Tuán and this for some reason seems to have been an integral part of assuming the kingship and sovereignty of Ireland. A version of this strange song has come down to us today and is as follows:

I am a wind of the sea,
I am a wave of the sea,
I am a sound of the sea,
I am an ox of seven fights,
I am a stag of seven tines,
I am a hawk on a cliff,
I am a tear of the sun,
I am fair among flowers,
I am a boar,
I am a salmon in a pool,
I am a lake on a plain,
I am a hill of poetry,
I am a battle-waging spear,
I am a god who forms fire for a head.
Who makes clear the ruggedness of the mountains?
Who but myself knows where the sun shall set?
Who foretells the ages of the moon?
Who brings the cattle from the House of Tethra and segregates them?
For whom but me will the fish of the laughing ocean be making welcome?
Who shapes the weapons from hill to hill?
Invoke, People of the Sea, invoke the poet, that he may compose a spell for you.
For I, the druid, :who set out letters in Ogham,
I, who part combatants,
I will approach the rath of the Sidhe to seek a cunning poet that together we may
concoct incantations.
I am wind of the sea.

From this amazing diversity of ideas and pseudo-history mingling with known factual history we can begin to see why the Irish mythology is so vast and so complex. This brief look at the Celtic peoples and the Irish 'coming into being' legends should also serve to point out that it is useless to talk in the all-encompassing terms of 'the Celts' or 'Celtic' as these words must be refined before we can even begin to understand just what people are being referred to and, consequently, which pantheon of deities is involved and which corpus of legends surrounding them, and of course, which magical system is being discussed.


This article first appeared in SEANCHAS, Volume 4, no. 2 which was published in 1992 by CELTIC RESEARCH & FOLKLORE SOCIETY, Spion Kop, Lamlash, Isle of Arran, Scotland. ISSN 0956-3873.

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