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Old Ways, Old Secrets: Pagan Ireland

Myth, Landscape, Tradition
Jo Kerrigan
O'Brien Press


After the Flood

According to the Leabhar Gabhdla, Ireland's first inhabitants were led by Parthalon, arriving from Greece about 300 years after the Deluge, and landing at the mouth of the Kenmare River in Kerry. Another 300 years later, it tells us that 9,000 of his people died in a single week on Sean Mhagh Ealta Edair (modern Tallaght in Dublin). Tellingly, the old name for Tallaght translates as the 'Plain of the Plague', adding strength to this brief record of a long-ago calamity.

Following this virtual wipeout of Parthalon's descendants, Ire­land was apparently left empty for 30 years. Perhaps the story of disease and sudden death spread along the seaways, and it was avoided. But then, from Scythia on the borders of Europe and Asia, came Nemed and his sons. If they were hoping for peace and quiet in their new home, however, they didn't get it. Soon after their arrival, the Nemedians were attacked by a particularly unpleasant band known as the Fomorians, who counted the ter­rifying Balor of the Evil Eye among their number. Balor, a kind of weapon of mass destruction who echoed the death-dealing abilities of the Greek Medusa, had only to look upon someone to kill instantaneously.

The Fomorians appear to have been sea pirates rather than settlers, descending on Ireland at regular intervals to loot and demand protection money. Legend suggests that they had an outpost on Tory Island off Donegal. Possibly early Norsemen, the Fomorians are the baddies of Irish legendary history, reap­pearing at intervals to create panic and havoc throughout several waves of settlers.

Discouraged by the rapacious demands of the Fomorians, the surviving Nemedians, we are told, emigrated in three separate directions: one group to northern Europe, one to Greece, and one to the neighbouring island of Britain. First to return was the Grecian group, who again settled Ireland and became known as the Fir Bolg, or Bag Men, from their sensible habit of carrying good, rich earth in woven bags wherever they went, so that they could be sure of making the land fertile. Small, dark, gentle farm­ing folk, they cared for the land and worshipped the spirits of nature who made the rain fall, the sun shine, and the crops grow.

The People of Danu

The Nemedians who had gone to the northern lands had spent their time perfecting the arts of divination, druidism and philos­ophy. (This does suggest that, even back in earliest times, such craft was known to be taught in the far North, in Scandinavia, perhaps even in Russia.) A couple of centuries later, these emi­grants came back as the skilled, wise and powerful Tuatha De Danann, or people of Danu, the great earth goddess. Powerful in the arts of magic, they easily overcame the unwarlike Fir Bolg.