Irish Pagan Heaven

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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CHAPTER V....continued

7. The Pagan Heaven and a Future State.

Names and Situations.—There was a belief in a land of everlasting youth and peace, beautiful beyond conception, and called by various names:—Tir-nan-óg [Teernanogue], i.e., the 'Land of the [ever-]youthful people': I-Bresail, or I-Brazil, the 'Land of Bresal': Mag Mell [Moy Mell], the 'Plain of Pleasures': and several others. Sometimes it is described as situated far out in the Western Ocean: sometimes it was deep down under the sea or under a lake or well: sometimes it was in a hollow shee or fairy-hill. The inhabitants were the side [shee] or fairies, who were immortal, and who lived in perfect peace and in a perpetual round of harmless pleasures.

But it was not for human beings, except a few individuals who were brought thither by the fairies, as will be told below.

This pagan heaven legend did not escape the notice of Giraldus Cambrensis. He tells the story of the Phantom Island, as he calls it, off the western coast, and how, on one occasion when it appeared, some men rowed out towards it, and shot a fiery arrow against it, which fixed it. To this day the legend remains as vivid as ever: and the people believe that if they could succeed in throwing fire on it from their boat, it would fix it, as happened before the time of Giraldus.

Immortality of the Soul.—We know from classical writers that the ancient Gauls or Celts taught, as one of their tenets, that the soul was immortal; and that after death it passed from one human body to another: and this, it appears, applied to all human beings. But in Irish literature I cannot find anything to warrant the conclusion that the pagan Irish believed that the souls of all men were immortal. A few individuals became immortal in Fairyland, and some other few lived on after death, appearing as other men, or in the shapes of animals, as will be presently related. But these are all palpable exceptions, and are put forward as such in the legends.

A few persons were brought by fairies to the happy other world, and became immortal: and the time passed there so obscurely and pleasantly that a whole century appeared only the length of a year or so. Once a person got to Fairyland he could never return, except, indeed, on a short visit, always in a boat or on horseback, merely to take a look at his native land: but if once he touched his mother earth, the spell of youth and immortality was broken, and he immediately felt the consequences. Bran, the son of Febal, had been sailing with his crew among the happy islands for hundreds of years, though they thought it was only the length of an ordinary voyage. When they returned to the coast of Kerry, one man jumped ashore, against solemn warning, but fell down instantly, and became a heap of ashes, Ossian, the son of Finn, did not fare quite so badly when he returned to Ireland riding an enchanted steed, after his 300 years' sojourn in Tirnanoge, which he thought only three years. Traversing his old haunts, the wonder of all the strange people he met, for his size and beauty, he on one occasion, in trying to lift a great stone, overbalanced himself, and had to leap to the ground, when he instantly became a withered, bony, feeble old man, while his fairy steed galloped off and never returned.*

Metempsychosis.—The foregoing observations regarding the pagan Irish notions of immortality after death apply in a great measure to their ideas of metempsychosis. In our romantic literature there are legends of the re-birth of human beings: i.e, certain persons, commonly heroes or demigods, were re-born, and figured in the world, with new personality, name, and character. Thus Cuculainn was a re-incarnation of the Dedannan hero-god, Lug of the Long Arms. In other cases human beings, after death, took the shapes of various animals in succession, and re-appeared as human beings. Mongan of Rathmore Moylinny, king of Dalriada, in Ulster, in the seventh century—a historical personage—was fabled to be a re-incarnation of the great Finn mac Cumail of the third century. This same Mongan went, after death, into various shapes, a wolf, a stag, a salmon, a seal, a swan; like the Welsh Taliessin. Fintan, the nephew of Parthalon, survived the deluge, and lived in the shapes of various animals successively for many ages, after which he was re-incarnated in the sixth century as a man named Tuan Mac Cairill. This Tuan was a celebrated sage, and no wonder, for he witnessed all the remarkable things that happened in Ireland from the time of Parthalon, a lapse of some thousands of years, and related everything to St. Finnen of Magh Bile.

These stories are scattered, and have no thread of connexion: they do not coalesce into a system: they are told of individuals, in palpable exception to the general run of people, and many of them are stated to be the result of magical skill. There is no statement anywhere that all persons were re-born as human beings, or underwent transformations after death. Stories of a similar kind are current among most early nations. There are accordingly no grounds whatever for asserting that the ancient Irish believed in the doctrine of general metempsychosis; and this is also O'Curry's conclusion.

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* The whole story will be found in my Old Celtic Romances.