Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland

By Lady Francesca Wilde

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The earliest historic race of Ireland was a pastoral people called Firbolgs, said to be of Greek or Eastern origin; probably a branch of that great Celtic race which, having passed through Europe and round its shores, found a resting-place at last in Ireland. Of the Fomorians, Nemedians, and other minor invaders, we need not speak, as they have left nothing by which to track their footsteps. The old annalists bring them direct from the Ark, and in a straight line from Japhet. The coming of Pharaoh's daughter from Egypt with her ships may be also considered apocryphal. But the Firbolgs begin our authentic history. They had laws and social institutions, and established a monarchical government at the far-famed Hill of Tara, about which our early centres of civilization sprung, and where we have now most of those great pasture-lands—those plains of Meath that can beat the world for their fattening qualities, and which supply neighbouring countries with their most admired meats.

I cannot say that the Firbolg was a cultivated man, but I think he was a shepherd and an agriculturist. I doubt if he knew anything, certainly not much, of metallurgy; but it does not follow that he was a mere savage, no more than the Maories of New Zealand were when we first came in contact with them.

The Firbolgs were a small, straight-haired, swarthy race, who have left a portion of their descendants with us to this very day. A genealogist (their own countryman resident in Galway about two hundred years ago) described them as dark-haired, talkative, guileful, strolling, unsteady, "disturbers of every Council and Assembly," and "promoters of discord." I believe they, together with the next two races about to be described, formed the bulk of our so-called Celtic population—combative, nomadic on opportunity, enduring, litigious, but feudal and faithful to their chiefs; hard-working for a spurt (as in their annual English emigration); not thrifty, but, when their immediate wants are supplied, lazy, especially during the winter.

To these physical and mental characters described by MacFirbis let me add those of the unusual combination of blue or blue-grey eyes and dark eyelashes with a swarthy complexion. This peculiarity 1 have only remarked elsewhere in Greece; the mouth and upper gum is not good, but the nose is usually straight. In many of this and the next following race there was a peculiarity that has not been alluded to by writers—the larynx, or, as it used to be called, the pomum Adami was remarkably prominent, and became more apparent from the uncovered state of the neck. The sediment of this early people still exists in Ireland, along with the fair-complexioned Dananns, and forms the bulk of the farm-labourers, called in popular phraseology Spalpeens that yearly emigrate to England. In Connaught they now chiefly occupy a circle which includes the junction of the counties of Mayo, Galway, Roscommon, and Sligo. They, with their fair-faced brothers (at present the most numerous), are also to be found in Kerry and Donegal: and they nearly all speak Irish.

By statistics procured from our Great Midland Western Railway alone I learn that on an average 30,000 of these people, chiefly the descendants of the dark Firbolgs and the fair Dananns, emigrate annually to England for harvest work, to the great advantage of the English farmer and the Irish landlord. The acreage of arable land for these people runs from two to six acres.

Connecting this race with the remains of the past, I am of opinion that they were the first rath or earthen-mound and enclosure makers; that they mostly buried their dead without cremation, and, in cases of distinguished personages, beneath the cromlech or the tumulus. Their heads were oval or long in the anteroposterior diameter, and rather flattened at the sides: examples of these I have given and descanted upon when I first published my Ethnological Researches, which have been fully confirmed by the late Andreas Retzius. It is, however, unnecessary, even if space or advisability permitted, for me to allude to such matters, as that great work the "Crania Britannica" has lithographed typical specimens of this long-headed race.

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