The Ancient Irish

New Grange

New Grange, Ireland.

Megalithic tombs (Knowth, Dowth, New Grange) = pre-Celtic culture – indigenous population from middle 4th millennium. Bell Beaker folk > proto-Celts (?) = beginnings of Irish (British) Celtic culture. Little or no (archaeological) evidence – between 2000 > 3000 BC.

However – Celts (Hallstadt type) reached Ireland by middle of 6th century. Migration continued to Britain/Ireland until Belgic invasion in 1st century BC. In what form they arrived = uncertain. According to Lebor Gabala (The Book of Invasions) = 6 invasions = (1)Cessair; (2) Partholon; (3) Nemed; (4) Fir Bolg; (5) Tuatha De Danaan; (6) Mil Espane.

Thus – Ireland > settled by a succession of different tribes. Separate ethnic groups.

Ireland of ancient tales = 4 provinces called coiceda (fifths). (1) Ulaid (Ulster); (2) Connacta (Connaught); (3) Lagin (Leinster); (4) Mumu (Munster). (5) = Mide (Meath). Perhaps 4 became 5 after emergence of a new power centre.

Mide = ‘middle’  – encompassed both Bruig na Boinde (New Grange) and Teimuir (Tara) = setting of early mythological tales. Cu Chulain = pre-4th century BC. Territory of Ui Neill – who supplanted the Ulaid by the 4th century BC.

Mide – numerous burial grounds = setting for the early mythological cycle. Peopled by Tuatha de Danaan (people of the goddess Danu). Presented by Lebor Gabala as a wave of invaders. In tales = denizens of otherworld = the Side. The Side interact freely with people.

Ulaid – capital = Emain Macha (near Armagh). Primary setting – historical tales of Ulster Cycle. King = Conchobar (son of Ness). Champion = Cu Chulain.  Connachta – capital = Cruachu – west of Ireland. May have originally occupied Mide. Thus – Queen Medb – identified as daughter of King of Temuir. Medb – once a fertility goddess.

Ulster Cycle tales – reflect (?) historical conflict – Ulaid and the emerging Ui Neill of Mide. Storytellers – moved Medb + Ailill from Temuir to Cruachu. Mumu – peripheral role in Ulster Cycle. King = Cu Rui son of Dare.

Chronology = pre-Christian. Ulster cycle – pre-dates Ui Neill appropriation of Emain Macha. Ulster tradition formation = between 2nd century BC and 4th century BC..

Tripartite society = warrior class (+ king); priest class (druids); farmers/freemen. Thus – Bronze Age, upper barbarism, patrilineal accession. King – of a tuath (tribe). Often subject to an over-king. The High-King = a fiction (to explain rule of Ui Neill). Thus Tuatha de Danaan = a tribal society. Tribalism = lower barbarism + upper savagery.

Kingship = originally sacral = sacred kings. Kings (mythological tales) = euhemerised gods. Some traditions – tribal king = ritually married to the tribal goddess. (e.g. Medb). In others – sympathetic relationship to land.

Later Irish history – king chosen from extended family unit (position usually contested by other family members). Thus – heirs, rivals. Irish kings – not battle leaders (either have vestiges of divinity) or have young champion as heir and rival. Divinity vestige – Cu Rui. Irish society (especially of the Historical Tales) = aristocratic.

Irish year = 2 part division – winter, summer (light and dark). First day winter/new year = Samuin (1st Nov). Feast (Samuin) = gave rise to Halloween or All Saints Day.

Samuin = day of changes, births, deaths, open door (real and otherworld). Suggests regeneration myths, ritual slayings. Samuin (Samain?) = most important day of re-creation and rebirth in Ireland.

First day of may = Beltene = beginning of summer > May Eve, Walpurgisnacht, May Day. Beltene = less important than Samuin. Fire of Bel. Irish Bel = descendant of continental god Belenos (‘bright fire’). Beltene > fertility rituals. Pryderi = born – May Day (connected with colts). Rites of Beltene – cattle. Beginnings of spring + autumn – celebrated.

Imbolg (Imbolc) = February 1st = beginning of lambing season. Associated with goddess Brigit (Briganti in Britain). Feast day of saint Brighid > February 1st.

Lugnasad = August 1st (after Lug) seems > harvest festival. See – pastoral and agrarian festivals. Autumn round-up/assembly (Uliad) = closer to Samuin (Wasting Sickness of Cu Chulain). Ulaid = pastoralists, therefore pastoralism and agriculturalism

Celtic/Irish religion = no pantheon > localised deities, localised functions. Important deities = Lugos (Irish Lug, Welsh Lleu). See – Lyon, Leiden, Legnica. Also – Mercury.

Belenos (bright) – rough counterpart to Apollo. Maponos – Welsh Mabon, Irish Macc Oc. Means ‘great son’. Ogmios = Gaulish Heracles (Lucian) – god of eloquence. Cernunnos (horned) = horned figure [bull?]. Epona = goddess (great horse). Esus, Taranis, Teutates = trio (Lucian). Appeased by sacrifices > hanging, burning, drowning respectively.

The Otherworld – in south west Ireland = House of Dond. Dond = chthonic deity. Found in pre-Celtic burial mounds of the Side [Tuatha = megalithics?]. In tales of Cu Chulain > otherworld ruler = Labraid Luathlan.

The Side = transformation ability (invisible, or > birds, animals). Macc Oc = euhmerised Maponos – but – Dagdae, Mider, Baoand, Etain, Medb, Caer Ibormeith, Cu Rui = no continental counterparts. Many quasi-divine characters associated > animals, natural features. Totemic? Clan symbols?

Boand = ‘white cow’ (also Irish Boyne). Dagdae = Echu (horse). The Wooing of Etain > love affair between Boand/Dagdae (=cow and horse) = reconciliation. Boand = Neolithic, Dagdae = Bronze age. Thus – reconciliation between Bronze Age invaders and indigenous Neolithic population.

Macha = enhanced horse goddess. Similarly – epithet of Etain = Echrade (horse troop). A number of Side appear as birds – Mider and Etain leave Temuir as swans. Oengus (Mider’s foster son) and Caer Ibormeith return to Bruig na Boinde as swans.

Canare Mar’s un-named father discloses himself as Mess Buachalla in the form of a bird. Fand and Li Ban first present to Cu Chulain as birds. [Bird motifs = megalithic?]. Boyne burial mounds = dwelling of the Side. The hero never stays – tanist? Interrex?

Linguistics – difference Irish and British languages. Thus – Indo-European q > p (British) > c in Irish. Thus – four = petwar (British) + cethair (Irish). Latin equus > Irish Ech.

Creation and origin myths – the Leabhar Gabhala (The Book of Invasions) = Lebor Gabala Erenn. Found in the Leabhar Laignech (12th century). Tells of mythical invasions of Ireland, includes – Ever Living Ones + Tuatha de Danaan (Children of Danu).

Irish Creation Myth – Christian writers – made Cesair = grand-daughter of Noah. Her parents = Bith and Birren. Set out in 3 ships > to escape deluge. One ship survives > lands Corca Dhuibhe (Dingle Penenisula, County Kerry). 50 women + 3 men survived. Included – Ladra (the pilot) + Fionntan, Bith and Ladra die – Fiontann left alone with women. Feels inadequate and flees. All eventually perish.

Lugh Lamhfada – Lugh of the Long Hand – senior of the gods, patron of all arts and crafts, eventually – demoted > Lugh-chromain (stooping Lugh) from these Anglicised > leprechaun. Thus “…the medieval records are no true reflection of pre-Christian Celtic mythology.” Thus – “…examining these stories from an Indo-European viewpoint, the pre-Christian motifs can be discerned.”




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