History of Ireland: Myths + Tales

The Kilkenny Castle in Ireland

Did you know that Ireland is the only country in the world to have a musical instrument as it’s the national symbol? It’s the harp, one of the first instruments to have been created. You can visit some of the oldest harps in the world at Trinity College in Dublin.

Harpists used to be highly valued members of society and were celebrated as artists and poets. The harp is only one example of Ireland’s rich history. Eriu, a.k.a Ireland has one of the most fantastical creation stories filled with wars and magic forever cemented into the mythology of the Irish.

Ireland is the third-largest European Island and is currently politically divided between the Republic of Ireland and the Northern Island, which is a part of Great Britain.

Origin Story

Ireland is located in the Atlantic Ocean near continental Europe. It is surrounded by the North Channel, the Irish Sea, and St. George’s Channel. In the Gaelic language, Ireland is known as Eire.

One theory holds that the name is derived from the Irish name Eriu, the daughter of the goddess Ernamas of the Tuatha De Danann. The Tuatha de Danann were a supernatural race that inhabited Ireland before the Milesian invasion.

Legend holds that when the Milesians conquered Ireland, the Tuatha De Danann, Eriu, and her siblings - Banba and Fodla - asked that the island be named after them. Eriu became the most commonly used name, whereas Banba and Fodla were used as nicknames.

The second theory is that Eire was derived from the Erainn, the chief tribe of the Munster region in the south. They were mentioned in Ptolemy’s Geography in the 2nd century CE.

Ptolemy referred to the Erainn as the Iverni, which could have given the Romans their name for Ireland - Hibernia.

Erui, Banba and Fodla (right)

The Milesians

Eire translates to ‘abundant land’ or ‘plentiful land’ which pays homage either to the goddess who lived here and blessed the land or the tribe that owned these rich lands.

Human Arrival

For a long time, humans were spreading across the globe but nobody came to Ireland. Historian Jonathan Bardon says, “It is an arresting thought that human beings had been living in Australia for 40,000 years before the very first people came to live in Ireland.” Bardon and his team think this was because of the Midlandian Ice Age whose ice sheets began melting only around 15,000 BCE in Ireland.

Before human settlement, Ireland was home to only plants and animals that had crossed over from the European mainland along with the glacial ice sheets that had floated over. During this time Ireland and Britain were both separated from continental Europe.

Humans finally arrived between 7,000-6,500 BCE at Coleraine, where the oldest archaeological site in Ireland is found.

The first inhabitants were hunter-gatherers who traveled in small groups from place to place. They used flint to create weapons. They built houses out of wood and used bark and animal skin to build dome roofs. These huts were built to be used as communal lodges for extended families. They had a single fire pit in the center and a round opening in the roof for ventilation. According to archeologists, they seem to have had rituals involving painting themselves and other objects.

Around 4000 BC there was a dramatic transformation of the Irish economy. These people suddenly went from living off of hunting in forests to clearing trees and creating fields to grow crops.

It is rumored that Ireland once was a very dense forest. So dense that a red squirrel could travel from the north tip to the south without having to even touch the ground. It could just hop from tree to tree. However, most of those trees were cut down in order to have land to grow crops. The image of Ireland today, of rolling green pastures and bogs, is largely due to those of the Neolithic Era.

The Ceide Fields near Ballycastle are the oldest known farming fields in the world! They were discovered by a local teacher who was harvesting peat from a swamp for his fireplace. He noticed that the stones were carefully, almost deliberately placed. His discovery led to the excavation of the site and a Neolithic settlement of houses, field systems, walls, and tombs were found.

Once the Mesolithic era arrived, the houses became stronger and more elaborate. 3,000 years after the first human settlement, the land was finally tamed and people settled into well-built communities. From then on, farming sustained the Irish and they became the nation they are today.

Mythical Origin

An Illustration of Irish tales

As the Irish began to build communities, they also built a strong oral tradition of mythology. They wanted to know how their country came to be. Was it made by aliens? Did it involve magic? Did Gods and/or Goddesses have something to do with it? These seem highly unlikely, but Irish mythology might suggest otherwise.

Now known as the ‘mythical origin’, the early Irish believed their history began during the Great Flood in the Bible. Cessair, the grand-daughter of Noah, was denied a place on the Ark so she fled to Ireland and brought her friends with her. She arrived in Ireland with three men and forty-nine women. As the water levels rose, everyone except one man named Fintán mac Bóchra drowned. He hid in a cave, where he lived for the next 5,500 years, and became known as the ‘White Ancient.’

The second lot was led by Partholon, the great-grandson of Noah after the Great Flood. Unfortunately, their colony was destroyed by disease and all of them died in less than a week. Then came Nemed who can also be traced back to Noah. That group came from Scythia and settled in Ireland but were attacked by the Fomorians, sea pirates, and eventually fled the country.

So it seemed Ireland was unconquerable. Almost two hundred years passed before Ireland was inhabited again. A group called the Fir Bold came from Greece and built homes and forts. However, they were attacked by Tuatha De Dannan, a supernatural race who were masters of magical arts. Huh, magic was involved after all! The Fir Bolg were defeated by the children of goddess Dana at the Battle Moytura and were enslaved.

Next up, we have Fenius. Son of Japeth, son of Noah. He came from the Tower of Babel where he combined the best of every language and used them to create the Irish language. His descendent Goidil, which is pronounced Gaydel, named the people Gaela and their language Gaelic.

Goidil’s mother, Scotta, was a daughter of a pharaoh of Egypt who would later found Scotland, though the founder may have been another woman of the same name, and his grandson was Eber Scott, who conquered all of Spain. Scott’s son named Miledh ruled after him. One day, Mildeh looked out from his castle tower and saw Ireland floating on the horizon. He sent his three sons, Meremon, Heber, and Ir from Spain to conquer Tuatha De Danann, driving them to a place between two worlds. As the legend says, it is where they still remain today. The Milesian invasion was considered the event that colonized Ireland.

Though this story is less scientific, there is no evidence that it cannot be true. The history of Ireland will vary depending on who you ask - bias always influences the facts of history.

People in those early ages were too busy settling down to worry about their legacy, or maybe they didn’t care at all. While they wrote nothing, they did leave a story behind in megalithic structures that can be found all across the country.

The Battle of the Brothers

The Hill of Tara

The Hill of Tara is 646 feet tall and is located in County Meath, and the summit rises the Lia Fail, the stone of destiny where the High Kings of Ireland were initiated. After the Milesians took over the land from the Tuatha De Danann, the land was divided between two brothers - Eber and Eremon. Eremon took the north, and Eber took the south. All was fun and games till Eber’s wife, Tara, wanted a hill in Eremon’s territory, but his wife, Tea, refused.

The two women fought until their husbands went to war. Eber was killed and Eremon conquered the north. Tea also died and she named the hill she defended after herself. One interpretation of Tara is a corruption of Tea-Mur, Tea’s Tomb. The Hill of Tara was then highly regarded for this reason, as well as the belief that it contained the magic of the Tuatha De Danann, who had lived in the hollows of the hill.

This belief did not disappear after the Celts arrived nor when their kings were crowned at the Lia Fail in accordance with custom. The oldest monument at the Hill of Tara is the Mound of Hostages, another passage tomb. The more hostages one held, the more powerful the ruler.

The Megaliths

Megaliths are stone structures that give us clues about prehistoric people in Europe. Unfortunately, we are still at a loss as to what many of the structures were built for. A megalithic monument known as the Newgrange was built around 3200 BCE, along with passage tombs of Knowth and Dowth.

Each of these megaliths is older than even the Stonehenge or pyramid of Giza. They are evidence that the people who lived here had a deep belief in honoring their ancestors. However, we can’t be too sure because nothing was recorded. For all we know, the designs and engravings could just be decoration.

However, we know the Newgrange was built to achieve a very specific goal. Every December, leading up to the winter solstice, during sunrise, the Sun sends one beam directly through a portal located above the front passage. It illuminates the entire inner chamber, but focuses one particular area in the back wall.

Like many monuments in history, there are many theories about Newgrange’s construction and purpose, but none are absolute.

The Poulnabrone dolmen is another famous megalith. It has a massive slanting capstone, which seems to deliberately be put at an angle. It is possibly to ease the dead into their journey or to ward off visitors from another world.

Dr.Carleton James claims that it might’ve also acted as a prehistoric billboard - as a traveler entered Burren, they would know what territory they were in when they saw the Poulnaborne.

The Poulnabourne in Ireland

However, this theory may not apply to every dolmen. There are almost two hundred dolmens in Ireland, all with slanting capstones. Though all were used as tombs, not all may have been used as billboards.

County Donegal is home to the largest dolmen known as Kilclooney. It is about six feet high, with a capstone that is thirteen feet long and twenty feet wide.

When put into consideration that these dolmens were built without cement, cranes or metal tools, one can’t help but be impressed! They have held up and balanced for thousands of years through constant rainy weather and winter storms. Perhaps there is some real magic to these stones!

The Non-Mythological Origin of Gaelic Culture

Metalwork was already a practiced craft by 2000 BCE, however, it was long after the megaliths were built. Stone weapons and ornaments were replaced by bronze and copper, and technology began to advance. Not like the invention of phones, but like the invention of the wheel. Oh, and techniques for brewing alcohol.

Meanwhile, Ireland was hit by a wave of new immigrants that introduced flat-bottomed beakers and sophisticated pottery. These beakers were found all over Ireland in such a large quantity that the unknown immigrants are called “Beaker People” by archaeologists.

The Beaker People may have been the builders of the hill forts found all over Ireland.

For example, the Mooghaun Hill Fort in County Clare, where the largest hoard of gold anywhere outside of the Mediterranean was discovered. It became known as the “Great Clare Find”. It is often debated whether it was built by the Beaker People or the Celts, who are more widely credited.

Around 500-300 BCE, the Bronze Age faded into the Iron Age and the Celts arrived too. This time used to be regarded as ‘the Celtic invasion’ but it might have been that the Celts and natives of Ireland were already engaged in trade due to the cultural diffusion.

According to historian Helen Litton, the Celts came from central Europe. When the Celts arrived in Ireland, they brought their knowledge of iron with them. They also brought weapons when they came in their war wagons armed with swords. Rapidly, they conquered the inhabitants of the land to form the Gaelic culture with a combination of their own thoughts and inspirations and the pre-existing native tales.

The Celtic Warriors

The Brehon Laws

Among all the kings, the legendary was Corman MacArt, the lawgiver and writer of the Brehon laws. The name derives from Brehon, which means lawgiver, these laws were interpreted by Brithem or judges. Isn’t it crazy to think that even people who lived in the early 7th century had such advanced rules? In fact, these laws were considered some of the fairest laws ever written. According to historians, they covered every relationship, social and moral.

The laws were just to all and weren’t based on one’s social status. They even maintained the independence and dignity of women! Many laws today do not even achieve this. Historian Lloyd Duhaime claims that women always had equal status and were eligible for the highest professions. In marriage, women were considered partners of their husbands, not their property.

MacArt was considered one of the greatest kings of Ireland. He started projects as big as the halls and forts of Tara and as small as riverside mills. The Brehon Laws he wrote were later revised by St. Patrick who kept the humane aspect and upheld female rights.

The achievements of MacArt, much like Irish history, are blended with myth, and so is the history of MacArt’s descendants. The Ui Neill dynasty was the most prominent dynasty in Ireland for centuries. The Ui Neill descended from Niall Niogiallach a.k.a Niall of the Nine Hostages who was powerful enough to have held one hostage from each of the five provinces of Ireland, as his name suggests.

St.Patrick and the Rise Of Literacy

Something almost everyone knows about Ireland is that it was home to the famous St. Patrick. Did you know that St. Patrick wasn’t actually Irish? According to historians he was actually born in Scotland or England and was brought to Ireland as a slave. St. Patricks Day is celebrated on March 17th, the day of his death. The color green is also widely associated with St. Patrick, but his color was actually light blue. Green became the official color after four-leaf clovers became a symbol of the Irish.

A Stained-glass window dedicated to St.Patrick

The Celts formed their society into a hierarchy. Warriors and Druids were at the top. They built themselves great fortresses, wore golden brooches, and cloaks and told stories. Their tales which weren’t written down until almost a century later included The Cattleraid of Cooley, featuring the hero Cuchulainn and the great Queen Maeve, the Fenian Cycle, the story of kings like Corman MacArt, the knights of the Red Branch form the Ulster Cycle, and legends like The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Grainne

Christian missionaries brought literacy to Ireland in the 5th century CE. Together, they established Christian communities that placed a reward on literacy and became centers of learning, but they were not as successful as the former slave who returned from captivity to change the nation. The one, the only, ST. PATRICK!

Patrick was captured by Roman pirates and sold into slavery. After six years, he escaped following a vision he received from God. He returned to Britain and his family. Then, he was summoned in a dream to return to Ireland to preach the gospel. However, Patrick did more than just convert Ireland: he popularized the faith, blending it with Celtic mythology and Irish lore so that it was more easily absorbed.

St. Patrick announced the arrival of Christianity with a great bonfire just opposite the Hill of Tara, on the Hill of Slane around 432 CE. He challenged the declaration of the High King Laoghaire who banned any fires that night except the sacred flame on Hill Tara to celebrate the festival of Ostara.

St. Patrick was correct in declaring that he would change Ireland in many ways. In spreading the Christian message, he planted the seeds of Christian communities which became centers of knowledge.

The Irish were intellectual people and produced tons of masterpieces of sacred art such as the Book of Kells. Great monasteries such as Clonmacnoise and Glendalough were built just a century after St. Patrick’s arrival. The monasteries of Ireland did more than encourage literacy, they saved the heritage of western civilization.

Though it may seem like an exaggeration, Ireland basically taught us what we know about the western world. Since they were just learning to read and write at the time, they copied everything they could lay their hands on. It was the Irish Monks who single-handedly re-founded European civilization through the continent in the bay and valleys of their exile, the world without their notes, would be one without books. In other words, HORRIBLE.

The Irish preserved the past for the future!

Here comes the Vikings

An illustration of the Vikings at war

Like the brothers Eber (R.I.P) and Eremon, the Ui Neill divided the country between themselves. They defended the land against the increasing Viking raids along the coasts.

However, they were not very successful because the Viking Age in Ireland began in 795CE. It ended in 1014 CE with the Irish victory led by the High King of Ireland Brian Boru at the Battle of Clontarf.

Although Boru is most popularly known as the king who drove the Vikings away, he didn’t technically send them away. The Vikings established a number of colonies, the largest one in Dublin, and continued to influence Ireland’s history. With the Vikings power diminished, Irish monarchies grew in strength. The Ui Neill reigned until the Norman Invasion, in 1169, and King Henry’s II’s domination when all the noble’s power was taken away.

English rule in Ireland grew rapidly by the year. The Brehon Laws were taken away (no!) under the Statute of Kilkenny. The once-powerful clans and kings like the Ui Neill were largely removed through the policy known as the Plantation of Ulster.

Under this (cruel) policy, half a million acres of land were taken away from Gaelic Catholic chieftains and their families. The Plantation policy was trying to replace Irish Catholics with English Protestants, and it worked.

It wouldn’t be until 1921 CE that the people of Ireland would win back their freedom.

A Solid Legacy

In spite of the severity of English measures, the Irish continued to endure and thrive through the centuries. They found ways to preserve their language, law, and culture, which had been outlawed and driven underground, and they owed this success to the foundation laid centuries before by St. Patrick and the early Christian missionaries.

Today, Ireland is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. Home to luscious hills and gorgeous cliffs. If you ever get a chance to visit there and stroll through the countryside, you will likely notice carefully placed and piled stones. Now you know that these stones are thousands of years old and represent Irish tradition! They may even be an ancient burial site.

If you accidentally step into a bog, just wonder what ancient artifacts could be hiding underneath!

By Sarah Masih



Go to our new site