Through the centuries many events and stories change in the retelling for many reasons. Exaggeration, bias or perhaps hostility to the subject matter or the outcome of the event led to inevitable distortion and misrepresentation of the reality. We must allow for this fact as we study ancient documents relating the events of the distant past.
Manuscripts started to emerge from Monks and Monasteries hundreds, and in some cases a thousand years or more after certain events were documented by them. One can only imagine what happened to these stories before the Monks and Scribes began to recount them in document form. It is a difficult job to interpret these stories. Nonetheless, these stories are a rich source of information as to the beliefs and religions of the Celts.
We find our information in manuscripts and the earliest of these is the Cathach of St. Columba of Iona which is kept in the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin and comes from the late 6th or early 7th Century in date, almost two hundred years after St. Patrick arrived in Ireland (c.400 CE) and is a copy of the Old Testament Psalms and written in Latin. The manuscript known as the ‘Cathach’ ‘, a psalter or book of the Psalms. It is conceivable that this, the earliest surviving Irish manuscript, was written in the lifetime of the saint, if not as traditionally claimed by Columba himself. (Columba died in 597 CE.) The decorative features which characterised the later magnificent manuscripts are already present in simple form in the Cathach.
The earliest known manuscript of Native Stories was The Book of Armagh (C.808 CE) and was kept in a leather satchel. It was a small personal copy of the Old Testament written for the leader of the Armagh community that included a number of stories about St. Patrick and written in Irish and Latin and this makes this document of great help to us. The St. Patrick that emerges from this manuscript is far different from the St. Patrick we learn of from his own manuscripts (St. Patrick‘s Confession, which appears to be a genuine copy written by him). In the former he emerges as a sort of mystical warrior, a hero figure, and in the latter a hard working gentle and humble man. What is really important here is the fact that The Book of Armagh is the first book we have that is a book written in Irish by Irish people. This demonstrates that even though the stories in this manuscript are about Saints some of the material to do with them, appear to be borrowed from earlier stories of earlier Christian mythology.
The earliest manuscript relating stories of Ireland‘s warrior society that we know of is The Book Of The Dun Cow which was compiled in 1106AD, The Book of Leinster around 1150AD at the same time as another book known simply as Rawlinson‘s Manuscript.
The Book of Ballymote was written in 1390/91 and was produced by scribes and remains to this day at Trinity College, Dublin and is an invaluable source of information for historians.
We must remember when we start to interpret ancient texts that three dates need to be applied:
1. The date of when the text was published.
2. The date the text was written
3. The date of when the story of which the text relates is set.
When we look at, for example, a manuscript written in the 14th century, the events depicted in this hypothetical manuscript may be copies of earlier texts written, let‘s say in the 13th Century, but relating to events in the 10th Century and thus confusion and disinformation is entirely possible. The first date we can be sure of and the second date more difficult because they may be copies of copies and so on and so forth, copying was very common in ancient Ireland and thus the third date is completely wild because the storytellers set things in the ancient past at supposed dates. All we really know about the third date is that this was what the story tellers choose as the date. Thus, for the most part, the real dates of events are beyond our knowledge.
However, many of these stories are mythological which renders the date unimportant. The stories can still tell us many things about the culture, traditions, religions and beliefs of ancient Irish society and this is where these myths and sagas have their real significance.
The earliest known tales of Irish tradition in terms of language are from the 8th Century just before the arrival of the Vikings. We will be looking at four different strands of Mythology (A modern classification techniques which was different from pre-modern methods. We will characterise the stories by the Characters involved rather than the events they describe which was how the pre-modern documents categorised them.
1. The Ulster Cycle.
2. The Fenian Cycle.
3. The Cycle Of The Kings
4. The Mythological Cycle.
The Mythological Cycle is a cycle is very much concerned with tales from the Book of Invasion which documented how various tribes came and settled in Ireland down through the centuries. Our interest in this book for now is what it documents in relation to a tribe known as the Tua De Danaan. They are portrayed as a tribe of people with magical powers but realistically we can infer with some confidence that these were the Gods and Goddesses of pre-Christian Ireland. There are no dating indications with this grouping and we can not imply dates but we can have early or late stories in the Mythological Cycle. These stories were mainly composed by Christians so they naturally embedded religious elements into the stories.
The medieval manuscripts, primarily the Lebor Gabála Érenn imply that the first ever groups of immigrants who arrived in Ireland were some of the descendants of Noah. They tell of a woman named Cessair, a granddaughter of Noah who arrived here along with forty-nine women and three men prior to the Biblical flood which was to eventually sweep all of them away with the exception of Fintan who survives in various guises by becoming a shape-shifter and turning into a salmon for the duration of the flood and eventually, after a series of animal transformations, he becomes a man again and tells his people‘s story.
The next group to settle in Ireland were led by Partholon who supposedly arrived after the Biblical Flood with a thousand followers who multiplies to four thousand and then all were dead within a week after a plague. All of which were buried in Tamhlacht (Tallaght) – the plague grave. Interestingly, many of the stories were tied to real place names and this gave them an element of substance. The story of Partholon was relayed by the lone survivor of the plague and his name was Tuan mac Cairill through a series of animal transformations he survived into Christian times and relayed his tale to St. Finnian. (The story is documented in The Book of Dun Cow).
Tuan told St. Finnian that he witnessed many of the waves of invaders including the Nemedians, Firbolg and the Tuatha De Danaan. He claimed he crawled off to a cave as an old man and went to sleep. When he awoke he was a young stag and this process kept repeating itself each time he became old and he was reborn as a boar, an eagle and eventually as a salmon. During his life as a salmon he was eaten by the wife of a chieftain and passed into her womb to be reborn as Tua mac Cairill (son of Cairill.)
The tale of the Nemed was recounted in some detail to St. Finnian by Tuan. They were the third group (according to the Book of Invasions) to come to Ireland. The country had been empty for many years when Nemed sailed to Ireland to settle at Tory island. His wife Macha died and was buried at Ard Macha (Armagh).
He went to battle with the Formorians (a divine race said to have inhabited Ireland in ancient times) and was victorious but soon after he fell victim to plague, along with 3,000 others and died. The survivors separate into three different tribes, Fir Bolg, Fir Domnainn, Fir Galeoin and all depart Ireland (Eriu as it was known then) to different lands. The Fir Bolg went to Scandinavia and learned magic and decided to return to Ireland where they ruled until the arrival of the fifth group to settle here, according to Lebor Gabhala Erenn, the Tuatha De Danaan.
They went to war with the Fir Bolg in Sligo and the latter were defeated but The Tuatha De Danaan was led by their first King Nuada who lost an arm in the battle which meant he was no longer eligible for Kingship, according to the rules of the Tuatha De Danaan, and he was replaced by King Bres.
The new king was not at all popular because he lacked generosity and hospitality. Under his tyrannical rule times were not good in the Kingdom of Ireland and revolution was inevitable. The people started to manufacture weapons and in time Bres was removed from Kingship and Nuada, who had had his arm restored by physicians, and he ruled for many more years. He eventually became known as Nuada of the Silver Arm and is, perhaps, the statue we still see at Tandragee in County Armagh. Bres, assisted by the Formorian Balor attempted to retake the Kingship and war followed. When the youthful Lugh joined Nuada‘s court he stood down to allow the youthful warrior to lead the attack against the Formorians and during this battle Nuada was killed and beheaded but Lugh led the Tuatha De Danaan to victory.