Irish Historical Mysteries: The Milesians


Ireland is a land particularly rich in myth, a source both of charm and, as indicated, sometimes also of irritation to historians seeking truth. Miranda Jane Green defines a myth as 'a symbolic story, similar to a parable, a means by which human imagination can express a concept whose meaning is too complex and profound to be conveyed by simple verbal messages'. (1) This is a benign and in its context acceptable definition of the origin legends and folk tales of ancient peoples, but we might add that in modern times a myth can also be composed of negative, tribalistic prejudices which justify exclusion of or oppression of other communities.

But it is with pre-historic and largely benign myths, and not later and more pernicious historical myths that we are concerned with at this point. Green lists the three great collections of prose tales which enshrine the best known Irish myths. Firstly there is the Mythological Cycle, including the Lebor Gabála or 'Book of Invasions' and the Dinnshenchas or 'History of Places'. Secondly, there is the Ulster Cycle, the most important stories concerning Cú Chulainn being contained in the Táin Bó Cuailnge or 'Cattle Raid of Cooley'. Thirdly, there are the tales of the Fionn Cycle, concerning Fionn Mac Cumhaill and his warrior band the Fianna.

Now there would be very few indeed willing to argue that Cú Chulainn or Fionn were real historical personages, but it would be fair to say that many if not a majority of Irish people who know of the Milesians would have an impression that they actually existed. The outlines at least of the traditional stories concerning the Milesian and other ancient invaders of Ireland are well known to most of us. According to these accounts the first successful colonisers of Ireland were the Fir Bolg, who were then conquered by the Tuatha De Dannann, who themselves were overcome by the sons of Míl, led by Eber and Eremon. The documentary sources for these stories is, as already indicated, the Lebor Gabála Érenn, commonly called the 'Book of Invasions', but more exactly translated as the 'Book of the Taking of Ireland'.

The definitive edition of the Lebor Gabála was edited by R A S MacAlister for the Irish Text Society, and published in five parts between 1938 and 1956. (2) This critical and heavily annotated edition is hard going for all but the specialist, but the general reader can also benefit by dipping into the English translation of the text. As MacAlister explains, there are five 'redactions' or versions of the text, which are found in the Book of Ballymote, the Book of Leinster and elsewhere. The Lebor Gabála is structured in ten sections, the first dealing with the Creation, the third to the seventh with the earliest invasions of Partholón, the Fir Bolg, Tuatha De Dannann and so on, the eighth describing the invasion of the sons of Míl or the Gaedil, and the ninth and tenth consisting of the Roll of Kings.

Until the late nineteenth century scholars were inclined to accept the Lebor Gabála as essentially accurate in its historical details. The first scholar to demonstrate that the invasion tales should not be taken literally was Eoin MacNeill, who established early Irish history on a scientific basis. While later scholars have taken the work he commenced some stages further, MacNeill's pioneering publications, such as Phases of Irish History and Celtic Ireland, can still be read profitably today. In contrast, John O'Hart, author of Irish Pedigrees, solemnly traced the origins of Irish families back to the Milesians, and from them to to Adam and Eve! Even today, we can find stories concerning the Milesians repeated uncritically as fact, for example, in the various surname or 'clan' histories which are sold in heraldic shops and elsewhere.

MacAlister of course approached the Lebor Gabála in the spirit of MacNeill, and in the introduction to his edition of the work, he notes that the third to sevent sections were in fact interpolated into an earlier document. This earlier document is simply a 'History of the Gaedil' based on the history of the Jews in the Old Testament. Thus Íth was stated to have espied Ireland from Breogan's Tower in Spain, just as Moses espied the Promised Land from the Summit called 'Pisgah', and there are also other parallelisms and similarities. Furthermore, the 'History of the Gaedil' was originally transmitted orally according to the methods of the Druidic schools, only being written down after many years, and then by different scribes, from which resulted the different versions. (3)

The scholar who mounted the most devastating assault on the uncritical tendency to accept myth as fact was Thomas F O'Rahilly, author of the trenchantly and entertainingly written Early Irish History and Mythology. Indeed O'Rahilly was even prepared to question some of MacNeill's findings and was more radical in his critical analysis than MacAlister. O'Rahilly posited that the Lebor Gabála was essentially a work of fiction compiled from the eighth century on by learned men seeking to reconstruct Irish history in pre-Christian times. Thus several recensions or revised editions of the work exist down to the twelfth century, with indications that there was originally a smaller, more basis work to which later authors added. This is shown by the fact that in the most primitive version, Míl had only two sons, Eber and Eremón, to which a third son, Ír, was soon added, and eventually there was a total of eight 'sons'. (4)

The principal motives of the various authors were firstly to unite the population by obliterating the memory of previous and different ethnic groups, secondly to weaken the influence of pre-Christian pagan religions by converting their gods into mere mortals, and thirdly to manufacture pedigrees into which the various dynastic groups could conveniently be fitted. Thus it is now accepted that the Tuatha De Dannann were simply pre-Christian gods converted into human form, for example, the Celtic god Lugh became a mortal king. (5)

O'Rahilly's most important conclusion is that it is really not posible to select a date at which a line can be drawn between fact and fiction in old Irish manuscripts. (6). Even the accounts of historical persons such as Colm Cille and Brian Ború blend fact and ficition, so that in short we must always maintain a cautious and critical attitudes towards sources. We have indicated that even today Ireland remains a country with a great attachment to myth, and so it is not surprising that there still can be found many unquestioning believers in the tale of the Milesians, who are blissfully unaware that it represents synthetic or artificial history and genealogy constructed in medieval times.



(1) M J Green, Celtic Myths, London 1994, page 7.

(2) R A S MacAlister Editor, Lebor Gabála Érenn: the Book of the Taking of Ireland, 5 parts, Dublin 1938-56.

(3) MacAlister Ed, Lebor Gabála, 1, pages ix-xxix.

(4) T F O'Rahilly, Early Irish History and Mythology, Dublin 1956, pages 195-96.

(5) Eoin MacNeill, Celtic Ireland, Dublin 1981 Edition, pages 43-63.

(6) O'Rahilly, Early Irish History, page 263.

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