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In Search of the Irish Dreamtime

Archaeology and Early Irish Literature
J. P. Mallory
Thames and Hudson
Book Cover


From Chapter 1: Discovering the Oldest Irish Tradition

.. .the Irish date their history from the first aeras of the world.. .so that in comparison with them, the antiquity of all other countries is modern, and almost in its infancy!
- Roderic O'Flaherty1

In 1188 a 42-year-old prelate, diplomat and scholar spent three days entertaining the citizens of Oxford with a public reading of his first-hand account of a wild and inhospitable people' who were 'so barbarous that they cannot be said to have any culture', and 'wallowing in vice' so much so that they contaminated any visitor to their shores. They were also the 'most deceitful' people in the world although, as we will soon see, the speaker was not very hard to fool. Their only saving grace was that they seemed to have a good sense of rhythm. The speaker, Giraldus de Barri, more commonly known as Giraldus Cambrensis or Gerald of Wales (fig. 1.1), having recently finished his fieldwork among this abhorrent people, had just completed a book about them as he could no longer refrain from 'offering to public view the light of wisdom burning clearly and carefully trimmed'. It is claimed that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Baldwin of Forde, never tired of reading it. Needless to say, Giraldus' work did not enjoy quite such a high reputation among the wild and deceitful sub­jects of his book, the people of Ireland.2

Giraldus divided The History and Topography of Ireland (Topographia) into three parts, each of which he read out on separate days.' On the first day the poor of Oxford were invited to hear about the landscape and animals of Ireland, especially the birds (Giraldus believed that along with gold, birds from Ireland would make a suitable tribute to Britain);4 there was even a section on beavers that was just plain padding as Giraldus well knew that there were no beavers in Ireland5 (we will be reminded again of this fact later on). They also got to hear his dismissal of the notion that St Patrick had driven the snakes out of Ireland; according to Giraldus (and here he was correct), Poisonous reptiles had never made it to the island in the first place. As Giraldus' book was in Latin it is difficult to know what an uneducated audience made of it. His friend, Walter Mapes, had written to him lamenting that his 'works, being in Latin, are understood by only a few persons'.6 Perhaps the audience only turned up for the sandwiches.

On day two Giraldus invited the highest ranks of Oxford academics, who would have had no problem with Latin, to his reading of part two on the wonders and miracles of Ireland. Stories of the miraculous activities of Irish saints would have been common fare for such an assembly but one can only wonder what they made of his account of a fish with gold teeth, a talking wolf (fig. 1.2), a half-man-half-ox or a wandering church bell. On the final day it was the turn of the rest of the scholars, the knights and some other citizens to hear his account of the six attempted colonizations of Ireland. As we will need to revisit these in detail later, they are as follows:

  1. Caesara (Irish Cesair), granddaughter of Noah, attempted to colonize Ireland with a party of three men and 50 women but all were drowned in the Flood.
  2. Bartholaunus (Partholon) and his people came to Ireland 300 years after the Flood and cleared forests to work the land. In another 300 years the population of Ireland had climbed to 9,000. Bartholaunus' people fought and won a major battle against a race of Giants (Fomorians) but a pestilence induced by their rotting corpses carried away the entire population save Ruan (Tuan) who survived until the time of St Patrick to relate the early history of Ireland.
  3. Nemedus (Nemed), a Scythian, arrived with his sons and they too engaged against pirates (Fomorians). The population eventually covered the entire island but the majority died in battle once again fighting the Giants (Fomorians). Nemed and his descendants held Ireland for 216 years. The survivors abandoned Ireland and returned to either Scythia or Greece.
  4. The five brothers and sons of Dela (the Fir Bolg) then arrived in Ireland, which they divided up into its five provinces (the four current provinces with a central province of Meath (the 'middle'). After a time, one of the brothers, Slanius (Slaine) became the sole ruler and first king of Ireland.
  5. The descendants of the fourth colonization suffered major losses against another invader from Scythia (that Giraldus does not mention by name but who are known in Irish as the Tuatha De Danann). His account of this invasion is subsumed in his treatment of his fifth (our sixth) colonization.
  6. Eventually Ireland was colonized by the Sons of Milesius (Mil) who had come from Spain. They divided Ireland into halves under Herimon (Erimon) and Heber (Eber) and after the death of Heber, Herimon became the first king of the Irish 'race'.

Giraldus continued the story up through St Patrick and the coming of Christianity, the raids and settlements of the Norse, and until the barbarous Irish found them­selves under the enlightened rule of Henry II, the 'invincible king', who (with some help from Giraldus' relatives) managed to conquer a substantial part of the land. A considerable portion of this section was also given over to the character assassination of the Irish, justifying the civilizing activities of the British crown.