Pre-Christian Ireland (3)

Eleanor Hull
Pre-Christian Ireland | start of chapter
New Grange: Recess in Chamber

New Grange: Recess in Chamber

From the earliest times of which we have any record the inhabitants of Ireland were a Gaelic-speaking race, though it is not to be inferred that this language was aboriginal. At least for 1500 years the Celtic tongues have been spoken only in the extreme west of Europe—in Ireland, and the west of Scotland, the Isle of Man, Wales, Cornwall, and Brittany. They once had a wider range, but were pushed west by the spread of Roman culture and of the Latin language and by the Teutonic tribes who invaded the western half of the Empire and brought about its fall. It was probably from the mountain zone of Central Europe that the Celtic tongues spread over to the west. These people lived in pile-dwellings and were not given to movement.

Of the earliest inhabitants of the Celtic lands we know little with certainty. The latest researches in ethnology suggest the conclusion that the earliest race of which remains have been found in Ireland was a short, dark, and long-headed people, correlated with the Mediterranean European stock, who maintained intercourse with their brethren over the sea. Their blood, however, was not quite pure, and remains of individuals of alien racial character have also been found.

These people are assigned to the late Stone (Neolithic) and Early Bronze Ages; they were the builders of the dolmens, or cromlechs, whose structures remain over an area extending from Japan, India, and Syria, along the north coast of Africa, and round by Spain, France, Holland, and Denmark, besides Cornwall, Wales, and Ireland. This race has given to Wales, Scotland, and Ireland the majority of their small brunette inhabitants. The wide distribution of their monuments would suggest a seafaring people, coasting along the shores, for the larger number of the dolmens are near the coast. They must have had a solemn cult of the dead; no one who has visited the great tombs of New Grange or Dowth on the banks of the Boyne, or who has seen the impressive alignments and the massive menhirs, or standing stones, at Carnac in Brittany, can fail to feel the reality of their belief in some form of worship connected with the dead.

These people were traders and workers in metal—copper, tin, and gold; and long before the arrival of the conquering race of tall, fair-haired people, who became dominant over many parts of Ireland, they were working gold in Wicklow and exporting, among other articles, the beautiful gold lunulæ, or crescent-shaped neck ornaments, which have been found in Denmark, the north of France, Belgium, and Germany, in Cornwall, Wales, and Scotland, and in great numbers in Ireland itself. History has no beginning, and more than a thousand years before Christ traders may have been exchanging their wares along the Mediterranean shores, by way of Sicily, Spain, and Ireland, and so north to the Baltic.

At a period which is supposed not to be older than between 350–400 B.C. a new race came to Ireland. These were a tall race of fair-haired people, who brought with them the use of iron, and their arrival in Ireland marks there the beginning of the Iron Age. A people of Nordic origin, they came from the north of Europe. They were much like the Northmen and Normans, who in later days were to dispute with them the supremacy in Ireland, forerunners perhaps of the vikings who were to pour into Ireland in the ninth and tenth centuries. Being equipped with better weapons, they conquered[19] and assured domination over the original inhabitants, who probably differed from them, not only in race, but in religion and language; and, though there is no reason to think that the older peoples were inferior in courage and skill to their conquerors, the new-comers oppressed them as slaves and enacted laws to prevent intermarriage between the conquered and the conquerors. The old inhabitants seem to have sunk into the ‘unfree communities’ (daer-chlanna) or serfs; they had no rights, being despised by the ruling race as inferiors and reduced to servile ways of making a livelihood.[20]

The earlier Mediterranean people seem to have had a matriarchal form of life and government, memories of which lingered on in the tradition that the provincial assemblies, such as those of Tara and Taillte were founded in commemoration of famous women, and were held in celebration of their burial-feasts. War and learning were alike presided over by women-goddesses; there was a group of three war-goddesses, Morigan (or Neman), Macha, and Badb; another group, collectively called Brigit, presided over poetry and art. The cult of fairies and of well, stream, and forest spirits, and perhaps also the worship of animals, seems to belong to the most primitive forms of belief, and was widespread; but attempts to analyse the different strata of ancient beliefs can at present only be conjectural.

The old Irish traditions of origin, which describe the arrival in the country of a succession of peoples called the race of Partholan, the sons of Nemhed, the Firbolg, and the Milesians or children of Mileadh, are not to be regarded as having an historical basis. The actual facts of ethnology do not support these myths. But they in a general way indicate the early belief in the existence of races older than the dominant fair-haired, tall people of historic times, who were known as Milesians. The old legends describe the earlier race, called the Firbolg, as a small dark people who were despised by the conquering Milesians; they were supposed to be possessed of every evil trait of character. To the newer and superior race the Firbolg were as truly “meere Irish” as the Gaelic speaker was in later days to the speaker of English, and he was despised accordingly.

A body of people, known as the Erainn, seem to have been dominant in Munster and to have emigrated from the north of Kerry into Co. Antrim, while portions of the same communities are found in Connacht and Meath. These people have been thought to have given their name to the country, but this derivation is very doubtful.[21] They may have been scattered fragments of a population more widely spread in ancient times. Ptolemy, writing about a.d. 150, speaks of Brigantes in South-eastern Ireland similar to the inhabitants in the north of Roman Britain of the same name, and of Manapii on the coast of Wexford, whose name associates them with the Belgic people on the Continent. More important were the Cruithne or Picts, whom we meet in historical times occupying the whole of Scotland north of the Forth to the Orkneys, as well as the islands of Skye and Lewis. In Ireland they peopled the parts of Eastern Ulster, now known as Cos. Down and Antrim. Tradition gives them a much wider area; they seem to have occupied large parts of the present counties of Armagh, Tyrone, Derry, and Fermanagh. It would seem likely that they were once the dominant race in Ireland as in Scotland, although no trace of their language remains in Ireland. In Scotland there are a number of place-names which retain the word, such as Clais-nan-Cruitneachad, “Hollow of the Picts,” in Sutherland; Carnan Cruitneachad, “Cairns of the Picts,” in Ross; and Cruitneachan or “Pict’s places” in Inverness.[22] The constant Irish tradition is that they passed over from Ireland to Scotland.

In early Christian days several well-known teachers from the North of Ireland went over to teach Christianity to these Pictish peoples of Scotland. St Finnbarr, Abbot of Moville, in Co. Down, St Moluag of Bangor in the same county, SS Comgall and Cainnech or Kenneth, the companions of St Columcille, were all north of Ireland Picts, who made their home among the Picts of Scotland; dedications to them are found all over Pictland. Another headquarters of Pictish missions was St. Ninian’s “White House” in Galloway, then also a Pictish district. The descent of the Picts and Scots on Northern Britain in the latter part of the fourth century was probably the result of a combination of the Northern Picts of Ireland with those of Caledonia. The link of race would make the two peoples natural allies.

Roman, British, and Saxon records alike confirm the accounts of the Irish chronicles as to the onslaught made upon Britain by the Picts and Scots or Irish. Ammianus Marcellinus says:

“At that time the trumpet, as it were, gave signals for war throughout the Roman world. … The Picts, Scots, Saxons, and Atticotti harassed the Britons with incessant invasions.”

Later he tells us that Theodosius had been sent to Britain to drive back the Picts from the gates of London.[23]

Gildas writes that Britain groaned in amazement under the cruelty of two foreign nations, the Scots from the north-west and the Picts from the north.

“The Britons abandoned their cities and the protection of the wall, dispersing in flight, and the enemy pursued them with unrelenting cruelty, butchering our countrymen like sheep.”

Bede tells us that they came at two intervals, being checked for a time by the return of the Roman troops at the appeal of the Britons and by the building of the second wall between the Forth and Clyde, to endeavour to push the invaders back into the mountainous parts of Britain. In this they appear to have been unsuccessful.

The Irish annals place these events in the reigns of Crimthan (Criffan) the Great, who “gained victories and obtained sway in Alba [Scotland], Britain and France,” and in that of his successor, Niall of the Nine Hostages, who reigned from 379 to 405.

“The power of the Cruithne [Picts] and of the Gaels advanced into the heart of Britain and drove the inhabitants to the Tyne. Their power increased over Britain, so that it became heavier than the Roman tribute, because the aim of the northern Cruithne and Gaels was the total expulsion out of their lands.”[24]

It was into an almost solid Pictish population that, near the close of the fifth century, Fergus the Great, son of Erc, with his brothers, Loarn (Lorne) and Angus, passed over with a body of followers from Dalriada in Ulster (now Co. Antrim) into Argyllshire, and made a settlement there. The title of Lorne is still retained in the family of the Dukes of Argyll as that of their eldest sons. Their new home, then called Alba, henceforth became known as Scotia Minor, to distinguish it from Scotia Major, the name by which Ireland was commonly known at least up to the fifth century at home, and much later on the Continent. Scotia, or Scotland, was finally adopted as the general name for Alba and gradually dropped as a title for Ireland.

In 563 the great-grandson of Fergus granted the island of Iona (or Hi) to St Columcille, known in Scotland as St Columba, and the saint repaid this courtesy by arranging for the release of the young colony from some of its dues to the mother-country and by officiating at the coronation of Aedan, its king. Scottish Dalriada grew in power and influence, and in the reign of Kenneth MacAlpin (d. 858) the submission of the Picts and the marriage of the King to a Pictish princess united the country under one crown. But the religious bonds which held together the monasteries under the Columban Rule in both countries, and the love of both for their great founder, kept the two Dalriadas of Antrim and Argyll closely united, and it was only the Norse descents on the coasts of Cantyre at the end of the eighth century that finally severed the connexion of Argyllshire with the old country.

Coming farther south, the study of place-names shows that there was a large infiltration of Gaelic peoples throughout the north-western portions of England, while in Anglesea, the Isle of Man, and over considerable districts in Wales they formed an important element in the population. The intermixture of the Cymric and Gaelic races probably began very early, but the distinction between the two was recognized well into historic times in Britain, and we hear much of the Gwyddel or Gael in old Welsh literature.

In the Isles of Man and Anglesea a Gaelic population of Irish origin and speaking Irish inhabited the islands up to the Norse period. They were only partly driven out by the Norse from Man, and of the names occurring in the early inscriptions in that island almost half are Gaelic. The island had been Christianized by the Irishman MacCuil, originally one of the most violent adversaries to St Patrick’s mission. To show his penitence he placed himself, at the saint’s suggestion, in an open boat, his feet being locked together with an iron fetter, the key of which he threw into the sea. He had neither rudder nor oar, and only one small and poor garment for covering. Departing quickly “from this Irish land,” he was bidden by the saint to come to shore wherever the boat might drift, there to remain obeying the commandments of God. He came to the coasts of Man (Evonia) and found there two holy bishops, with whom he worked, succeeding them on their deaths in the episcopate.[25]

In Central and South Wales and in the neighbouring counties of Somerset, Devon, and Cornwall traditions of large Irish settlements are found in both Welsh and Irish literature, and these are confirmed by the existence of ogham inscriptions in a form of Irish older than that of any existing manuscript and by the large number of Gaelic place-names.

An old statement in Cormac’s glossary of ancient words, written probably in the tenth century, says that the Irish made great depredations in these districts, and that in the middle of the third century they built forts in Cornish Britain; “for not less was the power of the Gael in the West over the sea than it was in Ireland itself.” He speaks also of forts built by Crimthan the Great a century later. Allowing for national exaggeration, we may yet accept this old account as substantially true. About the time of Cormac MacArt, in particular, very close relations seem to have existed between the Britons and the Irish kings. Armies of British came over to assist in Irish wars, and there were frequent intermarriages between princes and princesses of the British and Irish royal houses.[26]

A well-substantiated story relates that in his day (254–277) a sept named the Deisi were expelled from their patrimonial lands in Meath and driven south, part of them settling in Leinster and South-eastern Munster, and another body crossing over to South Wales and making their home there.[27] The Welsh Iolo manuscripts mention three invasions of Wales by the Irish, in one of which the leader, Aflech Goronawg, took possession of Garth Madryn, but, having married the daughter of the king of the country and won the goodwill of the inhabitants, he obtained the rule of the district for himself and his descendants, who remain still intermixed with the original Welsh.[28] They were the parents of Brychan, the head of the great family of saints of that name, one of the “three saintly tribes of Britain,” the other two being Cunedda and Caw. They are largely represented in North-east Cornwall, having settled down among the Irish already established there, but their original home was in Brecknock, which, with Carmarthen and Pembroke, was to a considerable extent peopled by Irish, who probably had the upper hand until the withdrawal of the nation from foreign wars after the death of Dathi early in the fifth century.

These settlers appear to have come chiefly from two centres, Leinster and Co. Kerry. The former band belonged almost exclusively to Wexford, Waterford, and Ossory, and a number of Ossorian names are found both in Cornwall and in West Brittany on lapidary inscriptions. Of Kerry names Map Laithen, said to have been erected in Cornwall in the time of Crimthan, was probably the work of the Hy-Laithen from that county. The Maccodechet stone at Tavistock shows that a portion of the Deceti sept from Kerry settled in this neighbourhood; their name is found also in Anglesea. Of two stones at Lewannic, one bears the Kerry name Ullagnus (Olcan or Olacon) and the other the Irish word ingen, a daughter.

When we come to Christian times proofs of intercommunication multiply. Christian inscriptions in Irish begin about the middle of the fifth century. Of these Wales has a hundred and thirty-five, Devon and Cornwall thirty-three, and there are others in the Isle of Man. They show that Christian teaching must have been accepted among the Irish for some time in their own country, if it had found its way at this date among the immigrants into Britain. The discovery of these Irish Christian inscriptions strongly supports the ancient and persistent tradition that the south-eastern portions of Ireland had received Christian teaching at a very early date. It is with this district that the names of the pre-Patrician saints and churches are connected, and we find episodes in the Lives of these saints which show a constant intercourse with Britain.

The chief of the pre-Patrician saints are St Ailbe in Emly, Co. Tipperary; St Ibar of Bec Éire, or ‘Little Ireland,’ in Wexford Harbour; the pilgrims from which place gave their name to Bec Éire, now Beckery, at the sacred haunt of Glastonbury, which was constantly visited by Irish from this district; St Abban of Moyarney, on the borders of Wexford; and St Declan of Ardmore, in Co. Waterford. Some Lives add St Kieran of Saigher (Seir), in King’s County, who is identified with St Piran of Cornwall, but he seems clearly to be of later date.

The exact dates of all these early saints are uncertain. Whether pre-Patrician or not—and the weight of testimony certainly is on the side of a date earlier than St Patrick—these little Churches must have arisen independently of his preaching. Passages in St Declan’s Life show that they prided themselves on their separate origin and organization, and difficulties arose when Patrick presented himself in the Deisi country. The controversy between the two Churches may be only a reflection of a later dispute for priority between Cashel and Armagh, thrown back into the time of the principal founders of the Churches of Northern and Southern Ireland; but it is exactly the sort of controversy that was inevitable if these Southern Churches looked back to an independent origin and an earlier date than that of the Apostle of Ireland, whose later glory had obscured their own.[29]

We may note that there was a close connexion between these early saints. Declan, Ibar, and Ailbe were friends, and St Ibar was Abban’s maternal uncle as well as his teacher. He is said to have crossed from his own monastery of Bec Éire, or Beckery, in Wexford to the west of Britain, where he landed among pagans and built a church at a place called by him by the same name; this is undoubtedly the site of Glastonbury, which, like the original oratory beside which the great church of Malmesbury was afterward built, was founded by Irish hermits. Both Britain and Ireland are said to have been largely heathen in his time, and in Wexford few would listen to his teaching. Yet pilgrims, anchorites, and monks passed in large numbers both to and from Ireland. Three thousand went with Ibar. In an Irish Litany which is one of the most ancient documents of the Irish Church there is an invocation to thrice fifty clerics who went with St Abban on pilgrimage, and also to thrice fifty other pilgrims who came with him to Ireland, of the men of the Romans and Letha (Armorica or Latium?).

In spite of the confusions in date in these old Lives, it seems unnecessary to reject their witness to the existence of small communities of Christians in the South of Ireland before St Patrick which are otherwise in accord with all we know from other sources. Eventually reports of the existence of these churches were carried to the Bishop of Rome, and in the year 431 Palladius was sent by Pope Celestine to preach to the Scots “believing in Christ.”

Outside the borders of Ireland itself there are undoubted proofs that the country was recognized as Christian before the time of St Patrick. Already about 350 we find an Irish bishop presiding over the see of Toul, named Mansuetus, or Mansuy, of whom a twelfth-century writer says: Fuit idem venerandus pater, sicut relatu maiorum didicimus, nobili Scotorum genere oriundus.[30]

In Gaul, about 430, we find an early Irish Christian with the undoubtedly Gaelic name of Michomeri, which Professor Meyer thinks to be a corruption of Michomairle. He lived at Auxerre and died in Champagne. Heric’s versified Life of Germanus says of him: Discipulus qui sanctum virum de Hibernia fuerat prosecutus, cui Michomeri vocabulum fuit. We remember also that, before 432, St Patrick found at Auxerre and brought back with him to Ireland a bishop named Iserninus, born on the borders of Carlow and Wicklow. The native name of this bishop was Fith.

The intercourse with Gaul was constant, both in commercial and Church matters, and the Life of St Ailbe tells us that he had been long a pupil in the school of Hilary, Bishop of Poitiers (350–356). Jerome, who was still a young man at the time of his death, likens Hilary’s Latin eloquence to the rush of the river Rhone. He was, too, the first writer of church hymns, and his hymn Hymnum dicat is found among the ancient collections used in the Irish churches. It may have set the example of the use of hymns in the Irish church offices, for the Irish hymnologies are among the oldest in Western Europe. Those used in liturgical worship were all in Latin, but there are besides a number of religious poems composed for personal ends, many of them in honour of saints or as charms to ward off danger or disease, both in Latin and Irish. The beautiful eucharistic hymn Sancti venite is purely Irish in origin.

It is through the writings of St Jerome that we know that one of the two exponents of the Pelagian heresy, either Pelagius himself or his companion Cœlestius, was of Irish birth. He tells us that he was descended from the Scots (Irish) de vicinia Britannorum, and that he was “reared on Scotch porridge.” He would appear to be speaking of the author of the teaching he was combating and not, as is usually thought, of Cœlestius, its principal exponent. Both travelled widely. Though the teaching of Pelagius found its most numerous adherents in Britain, he did not address himself to the Britons; he is found in Rome, in Sicily, and in Palestine. Had he not retired from Rome before the descent of Alaric with his Goths in 409–410, he would with his own eyes have witnessed the sack of the Eternal City. It may, perhaps, be permitted us to suppose that it was the stir made by his doctrines which was the immediate cause of the mission of Palladius to Ireland, as it was the cause of the mission of Germanus to Britain.

Two years after the first visit of Germanus from Gaul in 429 Pope Celestine consecrated Palladius and “sent him to the Scots believing in Christ as their first bishop,” so that, to borrow the words of Prosper of Aquitaine, “while he laboured to keep the Roman island [Britain] Catholic he also made the barbarous [i.e., pagan] island [Ireland] Christian.”[31]

It was during the wars of Niall of the Nine Hostages (379–405), who was himself of mixed Irish and British blood, his father Eochadh Muighmheadhon having married Cairionn of the dark ringlets, daughter of the King of Britain,[32] that Patrick was brought as a slave-boy to the land in which, in after days, his lot was to be cast. The ambition of this prince plunged his country into the wars both of Britain and of the Empire. Irish onslaughts in company with the Picts had obliged the leaders of the Britons to implore the return of the Roman legions which had been drawn off to protect the Empire from the assaults of the barbarians at their own gates. When these troops were finally withdrawn Britain, harassed by the Picts and Scots on the north as well as by Saxon pirates on the south, and abandoned by the Romans, rallied at last to attempt its own deliverance. Under Maximus and under the later Constantine, who were elected leaders of the revolt in Britain, British armies passed over to Gaul to contest the title to the Empire of the West. Both were received with acclamations, and before both the Roman and German armies retired across the Alps; in 408 Constantine became master of Gaul and Spain. In these important events, which have been much obscured by modern historians, bodies of Scots or Atticotti took part; they formed two bands or brigades, called the Honorians, and fought on the frontiers of Gaul along with mixed mercenary bodies of Moors and others who took the same name. Many of these Atticotti, whom St Jerome says he had met in Gaul, seem to have been drawn from the Irish settlers in Argyllshire and from Ireland. This accords with the Irish accounts, which say that Niall passed over to Gaul with a mixed body of troops drawn from Scottish Dalriada as well as from Ireland. He is said to have plundered in the neighbourhood of the river Loire, and there he met his death, but not by the armies against whom he was fighting. For a king of Leinster, who had been banished by Niall to Alba, accompanied the Dalriadian contingent to Gaul, and one day while Niall was resting in the shade by the river he had his revenge by casting an arrow at the King from the shelter of an oak grove on the opposite side, and so slew him.

King Niall was succeeded by Dathi, a Connacht prince, who continued the wars of his predecessor in Gaul and who is said to have been killed by a flash of lightning in the Alps. Dathi’s body was brought back to Ireland and buried at Cruachan, the place of interment of the Connacht kings. With his death the external wars of Ireland came to an end, and the country, freed from the distraction of foreign expeditions, had time to organize its internal affairs and to build up its system of social and religious life. The power of Niall’s family did not pass away with his death. With one brief interval, when Dathi’s son, Olioll Molt, was king, the race of Niall sat for five centuries without a break upon the throne of Ireland. They were elected alternately from two branches of the family, and were known as the Northern and Southern Hy-Neill.