Nemid (or Nemed) and the Nemedians in Ireland

From The Irish Fireside, Volume 2, Number 30, January 21, 1884.

Thirty years after the destruction of Partholan’s colony,[1] Nemid, a hardy adventurer from the borders of the Black Sea, proceeded westwards across Europe. He probably obeyed the directions of some oracle in not making any stay till, crossing the two seas in thirty skins of some kind, he reached the ‘Wooded Isle.’

Our old northern city, Armagh, is said to have taken its name from his wife; a doubtful tradition, as the word simply signifies ‘High Field.’

Nemid brought one thousand followers into the island. He seems to have been an ambitious and unscrupulous chief, for he employed four artificers of the Fomorian (African) race to build him four castles in the four quarters of the island; and in order that no contemporary chief or king should possess piles of equal magnificence, he had the poor fellows murdered on the completion of their work. The names of the hapless gobans have been preserved—Rog, Robog, Rodin, and Rooney.

A blessing could not attend on such a vile deed. Their relatives and tribes generally gathered to the island in their long galleys; they selected Torry island in the bleak northern sea as their rendezvous, and thence poured their hordes down on the thinly inhabited land. If Nemid was deficient in a sound moral sense, he had no lack of animal courage. He engaged and defeated them in pitched battles in Ulster, Conacht, and Munster; but Leinster proved fatal to him and his people. There he lost his life, and his people their liberty.

Severe was the slavery in which the Nemedians were held by these Fomorach, who are represented as savage and ogreish in their disposition. A woman was appointed their income-tax collector, on the ground that no man can be so bad as a bad woman—other things being equal.

She obliged every Nemedian family in the island to bring to an appointed spot near the shore of Loch Erne, on the festival of Samhuin, (End of Summer, 31 Oct.) three measures of cream, three measures of wheat, and three of butter.

Their burdens becoming intolerable, the oppressed race uprose to a man against their tyrant rulers, attacked them in their stronghold in Tor Inis (Island of the Tower, Tory island), and killed them nearly to a man. However, an absent Fomorach chief, returning with the crews of twenty-five galleys, assailed the victors, and so deadly and determined was the struggle on the strand that neither party paid attention to the rising of the tide, till numbers on both sides were swept away in the strong rush of the waves.

Some of the Nemedians, under the command of Jarvan, sailed away in their wicker vessels, and passing among the western isles, afterwards called the Hebrides (Isles of St Brigid), rounded the northern extremity of Caledonia and gained the southern coast of Sweden and the flat woody isles of Jutland.

They announced to the natives that they were skilled in all the mysteries of the occult sciences, and would open colleges for general instruction. They were granted four cities, whose sites in the nineteenth century are not known, but whose names were Falias, Gorias, Finnias, and Murias.

After a couple of centuries of the exercise of their talents in teaching magic and divination, the whole of the race suddenly felt a wish to return to the land of woods, of sunny hills, of clear lakes and rivers, and of green plains, the memory of which had been vividly preserved for five generations.

Accordingly they got into their galleys, and made their way west and south, bringing with them a magic spear, a magic sword, a magic cauldron, and a magic Lia Fail, or stone of destiny—a gift from every one of their cities. They came in sight of the mighty giant pillars of the Northern coast, and still steering southwest, found shelter in the waters of Lough Foyle.

After the fatal fight at Torry, another party of the Nemedians had made their way from promontory to promontory, till they reached the remote land of Greece. They found people there speaking a dialect of their own tongue, and at first showing them kindness; but this state of things was soon changed.

They were reduced to the rank of serfs, and where barren hills occurred, they were obliged to carry soil up to their tops in leathern sacks, and hence the name Firbolg (bag-men), which their descendants have ever since borne. Their condition becoming insupportable, they assembled, seized on the chips of their cruel taskmasters, and sought again the Western Isle, under the command of the five leaders, Slainge, Ruaighre (Rory), Gann, Gannan, and Seangan. Everything about our early ancestors was marvellous. These chiefs landed in the mouths of five rivers, none of which is necessary to be here mentioned, except our own darling Slaney, into the bay at whose mouth steered Slainge and his craft.

All the chiefs proceeding inland, met in the fertile plain of Bregia, overawed or subdued the descendants of the ill-conditioned Fomorians, took possession of some houses, built others, cultivated the land, kept mighty herds of cattle, concluded marriages, and thanked the heavenly host and the local deities that their bitter bondage was passed, and that they had a fruitful island to inhabit, where they might live in freedom, subject only to such laws as had been handed down from father to son among their ollamhs for the general good of the community. For thirty-six years they enjoyed peace and plenty, the few clan battles that took place not being worth mention, but at the end of that halcyon period, say 800 A.C., they were roused from their rest by the unwelcome visit of their kindred, the Danaans, now returning from the Jutland Isles, 237 years after the ancestors of both peoples had separated at the strand of Torry.

It was told to King Achy (Chevalier) that a foreign people had been discovered in the fastnesses of Magh-Rein in Leitrim, and that they had penetrated so far from the great northern inlet by means of a fog raised by their skill in occult knowledge. Calling his council together, they despatched Sreng, a man of singular conduct and prowess, to ascertain the race, the country, and the present object of these intruders.

But the Danaans at the same time had come to a similar resolution, and forwarded to Achy’s Court their champion Breas. The two deputies came in sight of each other in a short narrow defile, and the first impulse of each was to cover his body with his red-rimmed shield, grasp one of his spears in the act of flinging, and reconnoitre his man.

Breas was the first to speak, and Sreng was delighted to hear his own tongue, a variety of the Gaelic, spoken by the stranger. After the exchange of a few words they laid down shield and spear, advanced and took hands, and then, seating themselves on an overturned tree-trunk, began their conference.

Each in turn related the fortunes of his own people from the fight of Tor Inis, and then came the real business of the moment on the carpet (grass in this instance). Breas requested, on the part of his King Nuadh, half the island. It was sufficiently large for both peoples, and their first care would be to enter into a strict alliance with each other, for the common defence of the country against the Fomorach and all other foreign marauders.

‘This,’ said Breas, ‘will bring a great advantage to your side. Our druids are so powerful that they have only to walk through the ranks of slain after a fight, and by their words of power they restore each warrior to his vigour of yesterday.’

Sreng, considering this assertion a bit of boast, retorted—‘Dar do lamh (By your hand!) O Breas, I am glad to hear of this power in your wise men, hoping that an alliance may ensue. But if the fight was between you and us, their skill would be of no avail. If we fight, every horseman’s attendant kern will bring into the field a dozen pointed stakes of the quicken tree, and, as each Danaan warrior falls dead on earth, his body shall be transpierced and fastened to the soil by the stake of power.’

Breas merely shook his head, and no more was said of druid’s spell or virtue of mountain ash.

Sreng engaged to report the proposal to his king and council on his return to Tara, and then, after making an exchange of their spears—Sreng’s being heavy, sharp, and rounded at the end, Breas’ slender and finely pointed—they separated with mutual expression of esteem.

Achy and his council came to the resolution of refusmg the offer, and the forces on both sides moved to the unincumbered plain of Moy Tuir (Plain of the Towers), near Cong.

There the fight commenced on midsummer day, devoted to the worship of Beal (the sun), and lasted till evening.

Achy and his guard being afflicted with intolerable thirst withdrew to a spring in the neighbourhood, and thither they were followed by three Danaan chiefs. Round the spring they struggled with intense fury, and after the lapse of a few minutes the Firbolg King and his three foemen lay bereft of life on the bloody grass.

Still undismayed, the Firbolgs, commanded by Sreng, renewed the fight every morning for four days, in the last of which he encountered the Danaan King, and by a mighty stroke which clove his shield in two, he swept away his hand.

A skilful Druid stopped the blood, and a skilful worker in metals afterwards made a silver hand with articulated fingers, secured it on the maimed limb, and the wearer is known in the Bardic annals by the name of Nuadh Airgeadh Lamh (Nua of the silver hand).

On the fifth morning the brave Sreng, finding that he headed but three hundred fighting men, sent a herald to Nuadh claiming the right then universally acknowledged among foes of the same race—of battle waged between equal numbers on both sides.

Nuadh, either influenced by respect for the gallantry of his opponents, or feelings of race, or contempt of what so small a body could effect, invited Sreng, and a dozen of his best warriors to meet himself and the same number of his own chiefs between both camps, and hold a conference. It was held, and an offer made by the Danaan King of the fifth part of the kingdom was accepted.

All of the Firbolg family through the kingdom then repaired to Conacht, and there abode, keeping up a good understanding with the dominant Danaans.

The cyclopean ruins of Dun Aengus on the south-western cliffs of Arranmore still attest their energy and skill.

Down to the reign of Conn of the Hundred Fights—second century of the Christian era —their province was called Cuigead Sreing (Sreng’s portion).

The peasantry of Conacht and neighbouring portions of Ulster and Leinster at this day are considered the descendants of the brave and stubborn Firbolgs.


[1] Some three hundred years after the flood, Partholan (pr. Parrolaun), an exile from Migdonia (Macedonia?) in Greece, on account of the crime of parricide, landed in Inver Sceine (Kenmare River), accompanied by his wife, his three sons, and their wives, and a thousand soldiers. Partholan’s favourite residence was at Inis Samer in Lough Erne. It got that name, meaning Samer’s Island, from his wife’s greyhound, which he killed in revenge for her infidelity, a shabby and unjust instance of retaliation. It is gratifying to think that Irishwomen in general have not followed the evil example of this early bean thierna of our country. Partholan died thirty years after his arrival at Moynealta (Plain of Birds) in Meath. His sons divided the fertile island between them, and there is little recorded of the deeds of themselves and their people for three hundred years; the chief occurrences during the time being the bursting out of lakes and rivers. To weaken our confidence in the certainty of this early settlement, we are told that at the period last mentioned, the whole colony being settled between Howth (Ben Edair) and the Dublin hills, all were swept off by a plague. The present village of Tallaght (Tam Leacht, Plague Monument) is said to have got its name from this circumstance. The ancient writers called it Tamleacht Muintir Parthal in, ‘The Plague Monument of Partholan’s People,’ to distinguish it from other plague cemeteries through the country.