Irish Pseudohistory and Lore of the Master Poets Part 1

There is a certain orchestrated haziness of the way in which the authors of sagas have handled native Gods, and this can be exploited for literary effect. As with Manannán’s epiphany to Bran, or that of Midir to the unhappy Eochaid Airem, the Gods intrude and then are lost in sight, leaving the question of their nature and potency open. In other words, if you do not know what a being is, you cannot not guess what it intends to do with you. Slipperiness combines unsettlingly with the capacity to overpower.

This haziness underlies the recurrence of phrases of strenuous mythological revival in Irish literary history, in which attempts are made to tie down the Gods with some new and less ambiguous intellectual frame. The best well known of these phases is the 19th Century Irish Revival but some of its foundations were laid down a millennium earlier, when the intellectual energies of Irish scholars were first galvanised by the prospect of clarifying Irelands ancient past and the place of the Gods within it.

In this piece, we will examine the 10th, 11th and 12th Centuries in relation to Irish literary history, crossing a millennial divide. Irish military success in the later 10th Century brought the Viking wars to an end and stabilised the political scene, enabling a multifaceted scholarly revival and reorganisation of monastic learning (see ‘Crossing Historical and Literary Boundaries: Irish Written Culture Around the Year 1000’ P. Simms-Williams and GA. Williams). Works typical of the time clearly aimed to bolster Ireland’s cultural memory, so we find attempts to rescue, reassess, and revive the writings of a few centuries before. Irish largely replaced Latin as the language of scholarship, older sagas were redacted, and several large, famous manuscripts (effectively one-volume libraries of vernacular texts) were produced. In these are found the earliest extant copies of most of the treasures of early medieval literature, so that what descends to us from that literature no doubt owes something to the tastes of the clerical compilers of the central Middle Ages ( ‘History or Fable’ Schluter).

A crucial dimension of this cultural stocktake was the creation of a chronological narrative for the Island’s past, which would integrate all the sources (biblical, native and classical) known to Irish scholars  at the time( ‘The Literature of Medieval Ireland, 800-1200’ M. Ní Mhaonaigh).  This seductive fabrication (often called synthetic history) possessed two core strands, both of which revolved around the question of who held power over the land. The first strand investigated the story of how the Gaedhil (Gaels) and how they came to Ireland, and the second tackled the story of the Island’s pre-Gaedhil inhabitants, imagined as a sequence of settlers/invaders. The Gods were represented as the last pre-Gaedhil or prehistoric people to have wrestled for the control of Ireland. This was the development of an idea which had been around since at least the 8th Century of that once, a long time ago (cue Stars Wars theme song) the God-people were in charge. Noted Professor Thomas Charles-Edwards of Oxford University, pointed out that this looks like a procedure for denying pagan divinities any existence in the current world- Christian orthodoxy would regard them as demons- by relegating them to an ‘innocuous’ past, in his book ‘Early Christian Ireland’. Thus distanced, they could be regarded safely, even with admiration, as figures of cultural significance.

I do use the term pseudohistory a lot but not in the derogatory sense. Our contemporary sense of history is (ie what really happened) differs from that of medieval writers, who regularly shaped stories about the past involving blatantly artificial narratives and genealogies. The purpose of these stories was to explain and exemplify how the past related to the present, often giving accounts of how people, places, and political institutions had come into being.  For our purposes, the crucial innovation of the Irish pseudohistory lay in its explicit insistence that the Tuatha de Danann had been a race of men and women not Gods, phantoms, unfallen humans, fallen angels, or any other form of theological fauna. The importance of this development can hardly be overstated, as a basic faith in the fundamental historicity of this narrative prevails for centuries, so that it effectively became Ireland’s official framework for It’s native Gods. They were to float within it, preserved as it were, until the middle of the 19th Century.

After several centuries of development, the culmination of the pseudohistory came in the final quarter of the 11th Century with ‘Lebór Gabála Érenn’ or the ‘Book of Invasions’. This highly influential Irish prose-and-verse treatise was written in order to bridge the gaping chasm between the Christian world chronology and the prehistory of Ireland (‘Irish National Origin-Legend:Synthetic Pseudohistory’ J. Carey). To the learned classes of medieval Ireland, as elsewhere, the primary source of history was the Bible; its narrative had been explicated and expanded by early Christian writers who had established precise chronologies for biblical events. As part of this process, figures from classical mythology such as Jason and Theseus, who were considered fully historical, were sometimes slotted into the timelines of the kings and high priests of Israel. A further important dimension to this medieval infilling of the Bible was an attempt to trace the decent of various peoples of the world, past and present, all the way back to notional ancestors in the Book of Genesis. But here Ireland’s men of learning came to a dead end: they possessed a vibrantly rich and well known body of oral traditions about the origins of the people of their own island, but could not find no reference to the Irish either in scripture or the works of Christian world history. S0 who, they asked themselves, were they? And where had they come from?

All versions of Lebór Gabála provided the same basic answer (‘Mediaeval Recensions of the Lebor Gabála’ RM. Scowcroft).  There are two strands to the story, and the first begins with Noah. Thanks to the Flood, he becomes the last common ancestor of humanity. His (non-biblical) daughter Cessair and her group of 150 women and 3 men are the first humans to reach Ireland. Desperately seeking shelter from the oncoming deluge, all of them drown except for Fintan mac Bóchra, who escapes in the form of a salmon and magically lives on in the form of different animals for approximately 3 and a half thousand years. Thusly, he becomes one of the most authoritative ‘ancient witnesses’ to the tradition (‘Surviving the Flood:Revenants and Antediluvian Lore in Medieval Irish Texts’ E. Ní Cárthaigh).

Thusly, Cessair’s line comes to an end. After Cessair are the people of Partholón son of Sera, a distant descendant of Cessair’s uncle, Japhet, a son of Noah. The Partholonians are wiped out by disease, but in some versions, as with Fintan, a single survivor escapes this catastrophe named Tuán mac Cairill who also used the forms of animals to survive through the ages (‘Scél Tuáin mac Chairill, Éiru’ J. Carey).

The next wave were the people of Nemed, a descendant of one of Partholón’s brothers. The original meaning of Nemed is ‘sacral’ which in itself is a native word Irish Law-Tracts used for free persons of rank, but the semantic range of the term is very complex. When applied to a person, it means dignitary or as a referral to the legal inviolability or privilege to said person as well as a concept of sanctuary or a sacred place that offers sanctuary. It has been used with regularity to mean ‘church’ in medieval times (‘Notes on the Text and Authorship of Early Irish Bee-Laws’ K. McCone). Its used here underscores the belief amongst the Irish that their societies roots were deep in the past. They imagined that Nemed’s descendants had introduced some of the Island’s most enduring political and geographical institutions, including kingship itself, the seating of the royal power of Tara and division of the country into provinces. With the exception of a few, the Nemedians are all but obliterated by a tidal surge during a seaside rebellion against the Fomór (whose origins have never been agreed on) (‘Mermaids, Leprechauns, and Fomorians: A Middle Irish Account of the Descendants of Cain’ S. Rodway). Some of the survivors made for Britain where they become the ancestors of the Britons, others find their way to Greece (Fir Bolg) and become enslaved landworkers and the last band go north where they grew skilled in the magickal arts and develop superhuman abilities in four mysterious cities (Tuatha Dé Danann). This tribe or race then become Irish pseudohistory’s take on the god-people. In time, both the Fir Bolg (after rebelling against their Greek enslavers) and the Tuatha Dé return to Ireland. A battle for the right to rule the land breaks out between the two distant kin and the Tuatha Dé take ownership of the island.

And this is the first of the two strands of the Lebór Gabála. The second strand follows the journey of another race of people descended from Japhet, son of Noah, who are destined to become the Gaedhil. After the debacle at the Tower of Babel, a Scythian noble, Fénius Farsaid (translates to ‘Irishman the Pharisee’ in Old Irish), extracted all the best bits of the new jumbled languages of man and from them creates the world’s first artificial ‘perfect’ language being Irish (‘The Ancestry of Fénius Farsaid’ J. Carey).  It is Farsaid’s son, Goidel Glás, who gives the name to his descendants and their language as Goídelc or in modern times Gaeilge. After a few periods taken and blended with that of the Book of Exodus, the Gaedhil settle in Spain and Portugal. From the tower of Braganza, their king Bregon glimpses Ireland . Later his grandson Míl Espáine (or ‘Spanish soldier’ in Old Irish) invades the island and defeat the Tuatha Dé. The Gaedhil also known as the ‘sons of Mil’ or Milesians in later texts, now rule Ireland and the Tuatha Dé are sent into exile.

This brief account does not convey what it is like to actually read the ‘Lebór Gabála’. I have not given the differences between the recensions or have I given a sense of the pseudohistorians complex chronologies or their Tolkienesque enthusiasm for family trees of imaginary characters. It must be admitted that the ‘Lebór Gabála’, important as it is among medieval Irish writings, is not the place for seeking historical fact. What is does highlight however is the manner of simple repeating structures decorated with detail. These structures are basically biblical, relating to Exodus and the Flood, and insistent motifs include plagues, migrations, dispossessions, the colonisations of deserted lands, and the reduction of once sovereign people to servile status under oppressive rulers (‘Leabhar Gabála, Part 2:The Growth of the Tradition’ Scowcroft). It can also reflect the political and social climate of the time of writing as many works have and still do today. One prime example is Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’ which is a mix of Classical mythologies, biblical referencing, and political struggles of Dante’s time to create the ‘map of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory’ as we still envision it today in popular culture.

Versions of this pseudohistorical scheme seem to have emerged into the mainstream of Irish learning during the later 900’s, when the lore of the professional poets began to influence monastic authors deeply and significantly (‘Literacy and Identity in Early Medieval Ireland’ E Johnson). We do not know who gave it its final and lasting form as ‘The Book of Invasions’, but the task was complete around 1075. The many works which rapidly followed was the labour of many hands extending over 2 to 3 generations.

These scholars, while busily rearranging, cross-referencing, and interpolating, looked for much of their source material to moral instructive accounts of Irish history put into verse by a small number of poets during the late 10th and 11th centuries (‘Lebar Gabála, Recension 1’ J Carey). When compared  with contemporary ideas of writing history, these early ideas and methods, differ greatly. For us, it is obvious to put faith under close scrutiny using the comparison of sources, and the evidence of eye witnesses, but the redactors of ‘Lebór Gabála’ preferred to conflate and layer variant traditions in a sedimentary, accretive mass. The prose-and-verse of the treatise perfectly suited this approach, because the verse was basically primary and fixed, while the prose might not only allude to variant versions of a given incident, but also attempt to bring them into harmony.

The compilers of ‘Lebór Gabála’ seem to have drawn from the work of 4 poets in particular. The earliest was the Armagh cleric Eochaid ua Flainn (certified death 1004) described in the Annals of Ulster as a “sage of poetry and historical tradition”, marking him out to be a top scholar (‘Lebar Gabála, Recension 1’ J Carey). His poetry seems to have been designed to accompany a pseudohistorical tract which was the major nuclei around which the original ‘Lebór Gabála’ condensed. This tract must therefore been in existence around 1004, when Eochaid died, and its contents can be distilled from ‘Lebór Gabála’, as we have it. The second poet is a shadowy Connaught figure named Tanaide who reportly died around 1075 ( see Carey ‘Lebór Gabála, Recension 1). A major poem on the reigns of the various kings of the Tuatha Dé is ascribed to him in the 1st and 3rd recensions of ‘Lebór Gabála’, and his allusion to the familiar story of the loss and restoration of Nuada’s arm gives the flavour of the kind of moral instructive verse produced by the pseudohistorical school:

“Noble slender Núada ruled for seven year

Over the fair-haired wolf-pack;

[That was] the eager fair-haired man’s reign

Before coming into Ireland.

It is in grievous Mag Tuiread, without predestined death,

The yoke of battle fell;

His kingly arm was severed

From the bright champion of the world.

Bres ruled seven years, no bright interval;

On account of his beauty, the lord of poems

Held the kingship of the plain of tender nuts,

Until the arm of Núada was healed.”

And so on in this vein for another 6 quatrains, the kennings, stereotypical phrases, and asides on display here are all characteristic of the genre. To be fair to the poets, they were labouring under exacting and untranslatable metrical demands and the poems of ‘Lebór Gabála’ are superb examples of the kind of learned versifications of historical memory in which they specialised. Nonetheless, it is easy to see why it was found desirable to attach a prose apparatus setting out the data under curation (dán direch or strict-metre syllabic poetry).

The work of the 3rd poet, Gilla Cóemáin mac Gilla Samthainne (year of death 1072), would not be specially relevant to the representation of the Gods were it notthat we know that he had something to do with an important prose tract, the ‘Lebór Bretnach’. This text provides crucial evidence for how the Gods were imagined by the learned scholars of the period; Gilla Cóemáin may himself have been responsible for it (‘Three  Historical Poems ascribed to Gilla-Cóemáin’ P.J Smith). The last of the 4 poets was not used by the original ‘Lebór Gabála’ compilers as it would seem. The scholar Flann Mainistrech (of the monastery), death circa. 1056, was head of the monastic school of Monastarboice, County Louth (‘Medieval Ireland: an Encylopedia’ S Duffy). Poems of his, nonetheless rapidly incorporated into ‘Lebór Gabála’ as it underwent recasting and interpolation, and some of them are of great importance. One of these poems gleefully details on how each God met their demise.

These poets were the fountainhead for the national narrative which the ‘Book of Invasions’ made canonical. But what sources had these poets drawn upon originally? The answer lies in the pre-‘Lebór Gabála’ development of the pseudohistory.  A core of ideas about the geographical origins and peregrinations of the Gaedhil, clearly involving at least some written scholarly material, but still developing and shifting, seems to have been in existence before the 10th Century.  The Bible provided the major model for this kind of history, augmented by Christian authorities and biblical commentators; the pseudohistorian’s curious connection between the Gaedhil on the one hand and Spain, Greece and Scythia on the other was derived from these sources. To a significant degree this connection was based on the kind of false etymologies loved by medieval scholars. The idea of a link between Ireland and Spain, whence Íth son of Bregon had first sailed with the Gaedhil to their future homeland, goes back to the encyclopedist Isidore of Seville, who thought of Spain as the ‘mother of all races’ and had wrongly connected Hibernia with (H)Iberia (The Irish National Origin-Legend’ J Carey). Isidore also derived the Greeks from Noah’s son Japhet and ascribed Greek connections to the Gauls. Because of the similarity of names, Gaeldom’s men of learning soon took the latter to reference themselves (‘We are greeks in our Origin:New Perspectives on the Irish Origin Legend’ B Jaski).

Another example of this kind of etymological history was the standard assertion that the ancestors of the Irish had ultimately come from Scythia, an area notoriously vaguely imagined in the Middle Ages, but roughly to be identified with modern Ukraine and Kazakhstan (watch out, Borat). Scythia features in several Irish sources as well as all versions of ‘Lebór Gabála’, and the connection is based merely on the resemblance between two Latin words, Scythae (Scythians) and Scotti (the normal term for Irish) (see ‘The Ancestry of Fénius Farsaid’ J Carey). Even Míl Espáine, the ancestor of the invading Gaedhil and thus putative forefather of all the ethnic Irish, was an etymological figment. Transparently  not originally a name, it is rather a translation of the Latin phrase for a ‘soldier of Spain’ (miles Hispaniae), a form which actually occurs in the earliest pre-‘Lebór Gabála’ account of the wanderings of the gaedhil to survive (‘Leabhar Gabhála:Part 2’ Snowcroft). It is a tribute to the ingenuity of Ireland’s learned classes that the huge edifice of ‘The Book of Invasions’ could be built on such slight foundations. It is sometimes excitably claimed that genetic analysis, which shows a link between the inhabitants of Ireland and those of present day Basque country, points to the historical truth of ‘Lebór Gabála’. As the idea of a Ireland-Spain connection can be conclusively shown to be a learned development of the 7th Century, this is a coincidence, particularly as the same genetic markers are also very common in Britain (‘The Origins of the Irish’ JP Mallory).

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

Seán Ó Tuama.

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