Human history has repeatedly demonstrated that you are only as indigenous as you are able to resist the next wave of invaders or mass migrations that followed your own invasion or migration. Invariably, the proto-history of historical peoples involves the clearing out of monsters (usually the existing local inhabitants) from a given territory and the establishment of that fantastical ideal someone is always arrogantly and self-servingly referring to as “civilization”. The captains of the invaders become gods and culture heroes, while the unfortunate former residents are relegated to the folkloric dust pile as mythical horrors which we are lucky to be rid of. The currently accepted academic definition of indigenous peoples reflects our enlightened modern moral sensibilities in its suggestion that they are “living descendants of pre-invasion inhabitants of lands now dominated by others. They are culturally distinct groups that find themselves engulfed by other settler societies born of forces of empire and conquest” (Anaya, 2004, p3). It does not however, in the narrowness of its purview or overt focus on the impact of a particular time period (the Age of Exploration, and given we were able to do a lot of irreparable damage during that time), accurately reflect the overall history of the brutish little species Homo sapiens. Succinctly put, nobody is a native of anywhere. You are just the latest resident, and you established your residency the same way everyone else in history has—you took it from someone else. Sure, that someone else might have been an uncouth fellow or Neanderthal, but someone was always there first. Now this can and has entailed varying degrees of oppression and outright extermination, and since we are collectively trying to improve our manners, we rightfully express chagrin (or horror, depending on how bad you actually feel about supplanting entire cultures through less than friendly means) about our ancestors’ unpleasant behavior. But bear in mind, when I say “our ancestors”, I’m not being rhetorical. I truly mean all our ancestors, both oppressors and oppressed.
Seventy thousand years ago, Homo sapiens (no doubt in search of places with fewer man-eating carnivores and improved dating opportunities) started spreading out from Africa, probably knocking a few Cro-Magnon on the head in the process when they were parked on a desirable piece of real estate. You see Homo erectus had moved out of Africa about a million years ago, and his descendants likely thought everything was copasetic until waves of hairless humans began appearing on the horizon. Round about 12,000 years ago there was the Neolithic Revolution (the transition from hunting-gathering to agriculture), an important aspect of which is the development of sedentary settlements. You can’t have a bunch of hirsute nomads tromping across your farm seasonally, so even though bands of hunter-gatherers may have moved through the area for thousands of years, you’re just not going to put up with that anymore. So you squat on a parcel of land, build walls, raise armies, and claim that your god bequeathed you your 20 acres and a mule. Archaeologists have suggested that the Proto-Indo-European peoples living somewhere near the Caspian Sea around the 5th Century B.C. suddenly began spilling out into Anatolia, the Aegean, Western Europe and Central Asia, probably running roughshod over whoever happened to be living there already. There were Indo-Aryan migrations into the Indian subcontinent, followed by a series of invasions from Central Asia. From Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages, Germanic tribes from Scandinavia moved south. Romans moved north. Huns, Avars, Slavs, Bulgars and Alans pushed west. Arabs swept out of the Middle East into Africa and Europe. Everybody was heading somewhere else, fleeing bad mojo, bad weather, bad hunting, bad farmland, or big bands of bad people. This leads us to the Irish.
Now, I’m not picking on the Irish, they were simply courteous enough to document a version of proto-historical things for us in appropriately named records such as the 11th Century A.D. Lebor Gabála Érenn (“The Book of the Taking of Ireland”, or more colloquially, “The Book of Invasions”), which appeared to have been heavily influenced by earlier Medieval works for much of its source material (both Pagan and Christian). The Lebor Gabála Érenn makes one thing abundantly clear – the Gaels (a Celtic-speaking ethnic group that includes Scots, and whom we typically associate with the modern Irish), were relative latecomers to the Emerald Isle, mythologically preceded by the monstrous Fomorians, Nemedians, Fir Bolg, and Tuatha Dé Danann, the earlier residents of an Ireland that had been occupied since roughly 8000 B.C. (archaeologists have found evidence of Mesolithic hunter-gatherer communities in Ireland at about the time the last Ice Age was beginning to recede). Those Mesolithic humans had terrible penmanship, thus we have to rely on those few clues we can dig up. This is true for most of Europe, until the Romans got a hankering for world domination. Lucky for the Irish, the Romans never really got around to seriously stomping Ireland beneath centurion boots, and the few references to Ireland by the Romans confirm that by about 50 B.C., Ireland was already firmly in the hands of Gaelic tribes. Unluckily for aficionados of ancient history, more extensive written records of the early history of Ireland had to await the arrival of Christianity (and monks with lots of free time). This is when folklore, steeped in oral traditions passed from one generation to the next comes in really handy.
Since the lion’s share of our Irish proto-history comes to us through a Christian filter, the mythological timeline for Irish occupation starts with Noah’s flood. It is said that around 2061 B.C., a gentleman named Partholón (son of Sera, son of Sru, a descendant of Magog, son of Japheth, son of Noah) and his followers decided that the Middle East was getting soggy and crowded and set out for Ireland, arriving on Erin’s shores exactly Tuesday, May 15th (2520 years after the creation of the world, and 300 years after the Flood). To Partholón’s surprise, a race called the Fomorians, led by a chieftain named Cíocal had already been there for 200 years. The 11th Century Leabhar na hUidhre (“The Book of the Dun Cow”), the earliest extant piece of literature we have in the Irish language traces the genealogy of the Fomorians to Shem (Noah’s eldest son), commenting “”Behold, how it came about that Shem was the first man to be cursed after the Deluge. It is he that has begotten dwarfs, the Fomorians, men with goats’ heads, and all deformed beings that are found among men. That is the reason the descendants of Shem were exterminated, and their country given over to the Children of Israel, because of the curse their father had put upon him. Shem is the ancestor of monsters” (Jubainville, 1903, p52). Some scholars argue that the Fomorians are a memory of the original indigenous inhabitants of Ireland or their gods, but the name itself may derive from Formoire, Old Irish for “From the Sea”, which many have taken to suggest they were either “sea pirates” or monsters of the deep. Historians less inclined towards fantastic realism debate whether the Fomorians were actually African raiders preying on local settlements or Norsemen, while those with a little more lyrical edge argue over whether they were giants, half-goats, or mermen. Of course, when Partholón’s gang arrived, battle ensued, but apparently the Fomorians were already busy bashing each other’s heads, so this is not unexpected. Seathrún Céitinn (referred to in English as Geoffrey Keating) was a 16th Century Irish priest and historian, and references the presence of the Fomorians prior to Partholon, and seems to indicate that a few escaped after their defeat.
Some of the authors reckon another conquest of Erin before Partholon, viz., the conquest of Ciocal the son of Nel, the son of Garbh the son of Uthmhoir, from Sliabh Ughmhir and Lot Luaimhnioch his mother. They lived 2O0 years by fishing and fowling, till they met with Partholon in Erin, so that the battle of Magh Iotha was fought between them, in which fell Ciocal, and in which the Fomorians were destroyed by Partholon. In Inbhior Domhnann Ciocal with his people took harbour in Erin. Six ships their number: fifty men and fifty women the crew of each ship of them (Keating, 1904, p70-71).
A 9th Century A.D. Latin text called the Historia Brittonum attributed to Welsh monk Nennius mentions Partholon, as well as the fact that his attempted colonization of Ireland was an abysmal failure. Everybody apparently died from a plague rather quickly.
Long after this, the Scots arrived in Ireland from Spain. The first that came was Partholomus, with a thousand men and women; these increased to four thousand; but a mortality coming suddenly upon them, they all perished in one week (Nennius, 1819, p6-7).
Along come the Nemedians. Apparently, Partholon had not completely eradicated the Fomorians, as they were there again to meet Nemed and his entourage when they arrived in Ireland. Nemed was supposedly a Scythian (from the Caspian Sea area), and with a fleet of forty-four ships set sail for Ireland with the intention of settling down. Opinions vary, but this is dated in the literature sometime between 2350-1731 B.C. Of course, hostilities with the Fomorians were inevitable, and Nemed knocked some Fomorian heads together for a few years, killing a few Fomorian kings, and generally following in the grand tradition of Partholon, then died nine years after arriving on scene along with 3000 of his fellow Nemedians. The Fomorians, clearly sick of being bullied, decided to oppress the remaining Nemedians for the next 200 years, until Nemed’s son Fergus Red-side (who would have had to have lived for an impossibly long time) led a revolt and fought the Fomorians in an apocalyptic battle, eventually abandoning Ireland entirely with the thirty remaining Nemedians in a single ship, rumored to be heading for Greece. Ireland was then said to be relatively empty for the next 200 years.
They tell us that the posterity of Nemheda dwelt nigh two hundred years in Ireland; that, from time to time, they like their predecessors, the followers of Partholan, were attacked by a sea-roving race, known at that remote period by the name Fomorians, which is a Keltic term, meaning sea-robber; that in consequence thousands of the settlers, near Cork, in the south of Ireland, perished from plague and pestilence ; that the Fomorians held strong towers of defence along Donegal and Deny, and chiefly in Tory Island, or the Island of Towers; that the native Nemedians made there one grand united attack on them, unlike not the effort made by the Irish in the eleventh century against the Danes at Clortarf: that the Fomorian forces were aided by the arrival of other pirate invaders; that in the battle thus renewed, and fought with savage fierceness on the strand of Tory Island, the Nemedians and their foes perished in thousands, either by the sword or in the rolling billows of the angry Atlantic, rushing in to appease, as it were, the fierce wrath of such merciless contending foes. The surviving Nemedians, after a time, forsook the Irish shore, and sailed, under three independent leaders, from the land of their fathers; some under Briotau Maol, to Britain; some to Scandinavia or Northern Europe; others under Simon Breac, or the Speckled, to South-eastern Europe. During a space of two hundred years, the Sea-robbers and a few Nemedians had the “Noble Island” completely to themselves (Bourke, 1887).
The final set of pre-Celtic Irish colonists were reputed to be the fearsome Fir Bolg. The Fir Bolg, assuming they existed, are actually believed to have been immigrant Gallo-Germanic tribe called the Belgae from northern Gaul, or alternatively “a malevolent race of immortals” (Mac Neill, 1920, p88).
These “Fir Bolgs” are found in myth as the next colonizers of Ireland. Varying traditions say that they came from Greece, or from “Spain” — which was a post-Christian euphemism for the Celtic Hades. They consisted of three tribes, called the “Fir Domnann” or “Men of Domnu”, the “Fir Gaillion” or “Men of Gaillion”, and the “Fir Bolg” or ” Men of Bolg”; but, in spite of the fact that the first-named tribe was the most important, they are usually called collectively after the last. Curious stories are told of their life in Greece, and how they came to Ireland; but these are somewhat factitious, and obviously do not belong to the earliest tradition (Squire, 1905, p68).
The Fir Bolg represent the last set of non-Celts in Ireland before the arrival of the Tuatha Dé Danann (People of the goddess Danu) around 1477 B.C., the heroes of which are thought to represent pre-Christian Celtic deities, the memory of which survived well into the establishment of Christianity in Ireland, when all of this was written down and the Tuatha Dé Danann became mythological, but mortal, kings and queens. Tuatha Dé Danann king Nuada defeated the Fir Bolg, lost an arm in the process, and couldn’t be king anymore. Dynastic nuttiness followed.
Of special importance in this connection is the statement that the Fir Bolg were subdued, but not exterminated; indeed the chroniclers enumerate a number of places in the country where communities of Fir Bolg remained down to their own time. This can mean only that in the time of the chroniclers there were people in the country differing from the dominant race in appearance, and possibly also to some extent in religion and in language; and that these were rightly regarded as being survivors of an earlier population, who had been at some time conquered by the Celtic-speaking people to which the chroniclers themselves belonged. This is an ethnological datum of great importance, indicating the existence, in the early days of Christianity in the country, of a recognized strain of aboriginal blood (Fletcher, 1922, p77).
Finally, the Milesians arrive from the Iberian Peninsula. These were the Gaelic Celts. They fought a war with the Tuatha Dé Danann, and Ireland was divided. The surface went to the Milesians. Beneath the ground was given to the Tuatha Dé Danann, who became the daoine sídhe, or more familiarly, faeries.
We have now to consider what happened In Ireland before the close of the De Danann period, and this brings us to the fifth and last settlement of the country, the coming of the Milesians, who are the race from which the present Irish people, If they belong to the old Irish race, and not to the Norman or English settlers, who came over afterwards, are descended. If your family has one of the old Gaelic surnames, which generally have an “O” or a “Mac” before them, you are a Milesian yourself, so you should be Interested to hear how your ancestors came to Ireland. They are supposed to have come from Scythia by way of Egypt, Crete and Spain. Wherever they came from, they seem to have had long wanderings, and to have been very glad to reach the shores of Ireland, which they called Inisfail, or the “Island of Destiny,” because one of their prophets had foretold that they should inhabit it. It is just possible, as some legends relate, that they came over from Spain, with which in early times Ireland had friendly communication. It is said in one story that there was a great famine in Spain, which forced the Milesians to leave; and they arrived in a large fleet of boats on the north coast of Ireland. But if the followers of Milesius really came from Spain, they would more likely have landed on the south coast, so that we cannot be sure if the old tradition of their origin is true. However this may be, they made inquiries about the rulers of the country to which they had come. They were told that three brothers ruled the land in turn, but that at present they were all gathered at Aileach, in Ulster, quarrelling over the division of a number of jewels which had belonged to their ancestors. Ith, the Milesian leader, entered the room while the dispute was going on, and they were so much struck by his appearance that they referred the question to him, and asked him to settle the dispute. This he did by dividing the jewels equally between them, and then he told them that he could not think how anyone, and especially princes, could spend their time in wrangling and quarrelling-, when they were so happy as to live in such a beautiful island as Inisfail. He said that he had never visited such a delightful land before, where it was neither too hot nor too cold, where fruits and plenty abounded, where the grass was green and the trees luxuriant, and the hills and soft valleys made the landscape beautiful. In such a land, he said, the people should always live in friendliness and harmony together. When he had said this, the princes felt shame at their quarrelling, and Ith bade them a gentle farewell (Hull, 1908, p20-21).
Genetically, humans share about 96% of the DNA of chimps. Take any two human beings, and their DNA is 99.9% identical. Thus, ethnicity, ancestry, race, and national origin are obviously social constructs, but nonetheless figure prominently in our history of kicking each other around, so much so that we invent complex mythological genealogies, dubious supernatural justifications, and folkloric battles of titans to explain how those people most like us landed on top, or on the bottom, as the case may be. Gods have a nasty habit of giving away stuff that they don’t have property rights to, and we take this to mean two things (1) that gods have a special fondness for humans (or is it humans have a special fondness for gods. I always get those two confused), and (2) if our gods happen to give us a land grant that unsuspecting locals already inhabit, the locals must be monsters, and the only good monster is a dead monster. We use mythology as shorthand for an inglorious history of cultural violence and an endless cycle of displacement. The mythical history of Ireland simply mirrors the mythical history of largely every other culture, creed, or nation that has ever existed, firmly rooting itself in the primordial, as if the state of human affairs at any given point in time was inevitable. Sadly, as paleontologist Simon Conway Morris observed, “If there were a clear prospect that such evils were part of a barbarian past, then at least we might find a small crumb of comfort. No such prospect exists: no scientific analysis can even remotely answer or account for past and present horrors of human behavior.” Makes you wonder what they’ll say about us when the next historical wave of barbarians comes through. I hope they at least make me into a cool monster.
Anaya, S. James. Indigenous Peoples in International Law, 2nd ed., Oxford University press, 2004.
Arbois de Jubainville, H. d’ 1827-1910. The Irish Mythological Cycle And Celtic Mythology. Dublin: O’Donoghue, 1903.
Hull, Eleanor, 1860-1935. Pagan Ireland: by Eleanor Hull. 2d ed. Dublin: M. H. Gill, 1908.
Keating, Geoffrey, 1570?-1644?. Keating’s History of Ireland. Dublin: M.H. Gill & Son, Ltd., 1904.
Bourke, Ulick Joseph, 1829-1887. Pre-Christian Ireland. Dublin: Browne & Nolan, 1887.
Fletcher, George, b. 1862. Ireland. Cambridge [Eng.]: The University press, 1922.
Mac Neill, Eoin, 1867-1945. Phases of Irish History. Dublin: Gill, 1920.
Nennius, active 796. The “Historia Brittonum”. London: Printed for J. and A. Arch, 1819.
Squire, Charles. Celtic Myth & Legend, Poetry & Romance. London: The Gresham publishing company limited, 1905.