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Oracle Ireland.com


CHAPTER I. EARLY LEGENDS OF THE RACE.

Reprinted from Pagan Ireland by Eleanor Hull

Authorities: Keating's History of Ireland (Foras Feasa ar Eirinn), Part 1 edited by D. Comyn for the Irish Texts Society, 1902. Another edition, by Dr. P. W. Joyce, 1881. Le Cycle Mythologique Irlandais, by M. D'Arbois De Jubainville. (There is a recent translation published by R. I. Best). Fergusson, "Ruie Stone Monuments." Dr. Whitley Stokes' edition of "The Battle of Moytura," Rev. Celt. xii. Prof. J. Rhys' " Celtic Britain," etc. Celt and Gael.

Without going too deeply into the question of the origin of the Gaelic race, which question has been a puzzle to many learned men, and is not yet fully cleared up, we may at the outset of our enquiries ask ourselves what is meant by the words Celt and Gael? We hear a great deal in Roman times about the Celts who lived on the continent of Europe. Caesar and other Roman writers, who ob- served the habits and manners of the nations amongst whom their wars brought them, tell us about the Celtae or Celts of Gaul or Gallia, a region including both the France and Switzerland of the present day, and much territory besides.

They were sometimes also called Galli, which is believed to mean “brave men," and from this their country was called Gaul. From time to time, parts of this Celtic race crossed over the Channel which divided them from Britain, and made settlements in the country we now call England. Of the races at that time inhabiting Britain, we know little with certainty, but probably the Picts, who were the inhabitants of Northern Scotland, and of whom there were settlements also on the north-east coast of Ireland, where they were called Cruithne, were a part of the original inhabitants.

On this point there is, however, much uncertainty. Of the foreigners who came to Britain, two great divisions may be traced, who are called respectively the Gaels (Gaedhils or Goidels) and the Britons or Brythons. Of these two, the first comers were the Gaels. They are at this day found in parts of Ireland, in the northern and western Highlands and in the Isle of Man; but there is proof that in early times they also inhabited parts of Wales and Cornwall, for the language of the earliest stone inscriptions found in these countries corresponds far more closely to Gaelic than to present-day Welsh or Cornish.

Looking at the position of these districts, on the northern and western coasts of these islands, it is natural to suppose that the Gaelic race, originally, perhaps, occupying large portions of Britain, were driven West and North by the arrival on the South and East of other tribes. At all events, we find that they were followed by another division of the Celtic race, whose language had similarities to their own, and who seem to have dispossessed them from the centre and south and east of England, and settled there in their stead.

These were the Brythons, the inhabitants of Britain in Roman times, and the present inhabitants of Wales and Cornwall. They, in their turn, were dispossessed over a large part of the country, by the invasions of the Angles and Saxons, who gradually drove them west and shut them up behind the safe borderland of the Welsh and Cumbrian mountains. Some of them passed over to Armorica, to which they gave their own name, Brittany, where a form of their own language, called Breton, which is closely allied to Welsh, is spoken to the present day.

One of the most interesting facts which the early literature and history bring out i the close friendship that appears to have been kept up in very early times between the Gaels of Devon and Cornwall and the Gaels of Ireland, or, as they styled themselves, " the Gaedhils of the East of the Sea and the Gaedhils of the West," and much intercourse was held between them.

We may, then, look on the Britons, or Welsh and Cornishmen, the Gaels of Ireland and Scotland and of the Isle of Man, and the continental Gauls, as first cousins; and many of the customs noticed by the Roman writers in Gaul are like those of ancient Ireland, and help at times to explain them.

Only we must beware of thinking that if a thing is mentioned by a Roman writer as being the custom in Gaul or Britain, it was therefore of necessity just the same in Ireland. Forgetfulness of this has made the study of Irish antiquity often confusion worse confounded, and has introduced ideas that are quite erroneous when applied to Ireland about such matters, for example, as to the early beliefs, or the position and occupations of the druids.

The Gaels of Ireland probably retained some older customs and older forms of belief which had become changed in Gaul before or during the Roman occupation; both in their customs and ideas there seem to have been differences. Moreover, the Romans, who conquered Gaul and Britain, never conquered or effected settlements in Ireland; hence they did not impose on Ireland their system ot life and ways of thought, as they did elsewhere.

We have, therefore, in Ireland an absolutely virgin soil so far as beliefs and customs are concerned, and it is well to study it without any preconceived ideas derived from what we know of other nations. It is the differences in a race and not the likenesses that are of the greatest interest to us, those things wherein the Gael thought his own thoughts, and constructed his own world, those things in which he differed from the rest of humanity.

It is because his ideas come down to us less overlaid than those of other lands by the ideas of other nations that they are especially interesting and instructive to study.


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