Lebor Gabála Érenn (The Book of the Taking of Ireland) is the Middle Irish title of a loose collection of poems and prose narratives recounting the mythical origins and history of the Irish race from the creation of the world down to the Middle Ages. An important record of the folkloric history of Ireland, it was compiled and edited by an anonymous scholar in the 11th century, and might be described as a mélange of mythology, legend, history, folklore and Christian historiography. It is usually known in English as The Book of Invasions or The Book of Conquests, and in Modern Irish as Leabhar Gabhála Éireann or Leabhar Gabhála na hÉireann.
Purporting to be a literal and accurate account of the history of the Irish race, Lebor Gabála Érenn (hereinafter abbreviated as LGE) may be seen as an attempt to provide the Irish with a written history comparable to that which the Israelites provided for themselves in the Old Testament. Drawing upon the pagan myths of Celtic Ireland — both Gaelic and pre-Gaelic — but reinterpreting them in the light of Judaeo-Christian theology and historiography, it describes how the island was subjected to a succession of invasions, each one adding a new chapter to the nation's history. Biblical paradigms provided the mythologers with ready-made stories which could be adapted to their purpose. Thus we find the ancestors of the Irish enslaved in a foreign land, or fleeing into exile, or wandering in the wilderness, or sighting the "Promised Land" from afar.
Four Christian works in particular seem to have had a significant bearing on the formation of LGE:
The pre-Christian elements, however, were never entirely effaced. One of the poems in LGE, for instance, recounts how goddesses from among the Tuatha Dé Danann took Gaelic husbands when the Gael invaded and colonised Ireland. Furthermore, the pattern of successive invasions which LGE preserves is curiously reminiscent of Timagenes of Alexandria's account of the origins of another Celtic people, the Gauls of continental Europe. Cited by the fourth century historian Ammianus Marcellinus, Timagenes (first century BC) describes how the ancestors of the Gauls were driven from their native lands in eastern Europe by a succession of wars and floods.
Numerous fragments of Irish pseudohistory are scattered throughout the seventh and eighth centuries, but the earliest extant account is to be found in the Historia Brittonum or "History of the Britons," written by the Welsh priest Nennius in 829-830. Nennius gives two separate accounts of early Irish history. The first consists of a series of successive colonisations from Iberia (Hispania, modern Portugal and Spain) by the pre-Gaelic races of Ireland, all of which found their way into LGE. The second recounts the origins of the Gael themselves, and tells how they in turn came to be the masters of the country and the ancestors of all the Irish.
These two stories continued to be enriched and elaborated upon by Irish bards throughout the ninth century. In the tenth and eleventh centuries, several long historical poems were written that were later incorporated into the scheme of LGE. However, most of the poems on which the original version of LGE was based were written by the following four poets:
It was late in the eleventh century that a single anonymous scholar appears to have brought together these and numerous other poems and fitted them into an elaborate prose framework - partly of his own composition and partly drawn from older, no longer extant sources - which paraphrased and enlarged upon the verse. The result was the earliest version of LGE. It was written in Middle Irish, a form of Irish Gaelic used between 800 and 1200.
From the beginning, LGE proved to be an enormously popular and influential document, quickly acquiring canonical status. Older texts were altered to bring their narratives into closer accord with its version of history, and numerous new poems were written and inserted into it. Within a century of its compilation there existed a plethora of copies and revisions, with as many as 136 poems between them. Five recensions of LGE are now extant, surviving in more than a dozen medieval manuscripts:
The following table summarizes the extant manuscripts that contain versions of LGE. Most of the abbreviations used are taken from R. A. S. Macalister's critical edition of the work (see references for details):
|A||Stowe A.2.4||Royal Irish Academy||R²||A direct and poor copy of D|
|B||The Book of Ballymote||Royal Irish Academy||R³||B lost one folio after β, β¹ and β² were derived from it|
|β||H.2.4||Trinity College, Dublin||R³||A transcript of B made in 1728 by Richard Tipper|
|β¹||H.1.15||Trinity College, Dublin||R³||A copy, made around 1745 by Tadgh Ó Neachtáin, of a lost transcript of B|
|β²||Stowe D.3.2||Royal Irish Academy||R³||An anonymous copy of the same lost transcript of B|
|D||Stowe D.4.3||Royal Irish Academy||R²|
|E||E.3.5. no. 2||Trinity College, Dublin||R²|
|F¹||The Book of Fermoy||Royal Irish Academy||R¹||F¹ and F² are parts of one dismembered MS, F|
|F²||Stowe D.3.1||Royal Irish Academy||R¹|
|H||H.2.15. no. 1||Trinity College, Dublin||R³|
|L||The Book of Leinster||Trinity College, Dublin||R¹|
|Λ||The Book of Lecan||Royal Irish Academy||R², Min||First text of LGE in The Book of Lecan|
|M||The Book of Lecan||Royal Irish Academy||R³||Second text of LGE in The Book of Lecan|
|P||P.10266||National Library of Ireland||R²|
|R||Rawl.B.512||Bodleian Library||R², Min||Only the prose text is written out in full: the poems are truncated|
|V¹||Stowe D.5.1||Royal Irish Academy||R², Min||V¹, V² and V³ are parts of one dismembered MS, V|
|V²||Stowe D.4.1||Royal Irish Academy||R², Min|
|V³||Stowe D.1.3||Royal Irish Academy||R², Min|
|K¹||23 K 32||Royal Irish Academy||K||Fair copy of the author Michael O Clery's autograph|
For many centuries LGE was accepted without question as an accurate and reliable account of the history of Ireland. As late as the seventeenth century, Geoffrey Keating drew on it while writing his history of Ireland, Foras Feasa ar Éirinn, and it was also used extensively by the authors of the Annals of the Four Masters. Recently, however, the work has been subjected to greater critical scrutiny. One contemporary scholar has placed it in "the tradition of historical fabrication or pseudohistory"; another has written of its "generally spurious character" and has drawn attention to its many "fictions", while acknowledging that it "embodies some popular traditions. The Irish archaeologist R. A. Stewart Macalister, who translated the work into English, was particularly dismissive of it: "There is not a single element of genuine historical detail, in the strict sense of the word, anywhere in the whole compilation".
Today, Macalister's opinion is considered excessive. While scholars are still highly critical of the work, there is a general consensus that LGE does contain an account of the early history of Ireland, albeit a distorted one. The most contested claim in the work is the assertion that the Gaelic conquest took place in the remote past—around 1500 BCE—and that all the inhabitants of Christian Ireland were descendants of these early Gaelic invaders. O'Rahilly, however, believed that the Gaelic conquest - depicted in LGE as the Milesian settlement - was the latest of the Celtic occupations of Ireland, taking place probably after 150 BCE, and that many of Ireland's pre-Gaelic peoples continued to flourish for centuries after it.
The British poet and mythologist Robert Graves may be cited as one of the relatively few modern scholars who did not share the scepticism of Macalister and O'Rahilly. In his seminal work The White Goddess (1948), Graves argued that ancient knowledge was transmitted orally from generation to generation by the druids of pre-literate Ireland. Taking issue with Macalister, with whom he corresponded on this and other matters, he declared some of LGE's traditions "archaeologically plausible". The White Goddess itself has been the subject of critical and sceptical comment; nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that Graves did find some striking links between Celtic and Near Eastern mythology that are difficult to explain unless one is willing to accept that myths brought to Ireland centuries before the introduction of writing were preserved and transmitted accurately by word of mouth before being written down in the Christian Era.
LGE was translated into French in 1884. The first complete English translation was made by R. A. Stewart Macalister between 1937 and 1942. It was accompanied by an apparatus criticus, Macalister's own notes and an introduction, in which he made clear his own view that LGE was a conflation of two originally independent works: a History of the Gaedil, modelled after the history of the Israelites as set forth in the Old Testament, and an account of several pre-Gaelic settlements of Ireland (to the historicity of which Macalister gave very little credence). The latter was then inserted into the middle of the other work, interrupting it at a crucial point of the narrative. Macalister theorised that the quasi-Biblical text had been a scholarly Latin work entitled Liber Occupationis Hiberniae ("The Book of the Taking of Ireland"), thus explaining why the Middle Irish title of LGE refers to only one "taking", while the text recounts more than half a dozen.
There now follows a brief outline of the text of LGE. The work can be divided into ten "books":
A retelling of the familiar Judaeo-Christian story of the creation, the fall of Man and the early history of the world. In addition to Genesis, the author draws upon several recondite works for many of his details (e.g. the Syriac Cave of Treasures), as well as the four Christian works mentioned earlier (i.e. The City of God, etc).
A pseudo-Biblical account of the origin of the Gaels as the descendants of the Scythian prince Fénius Farsaid, one of seventy-two chieftains who built the Tower of Babel. His grandson Goídel Glas, whose mother is Scota, daughter of a Pharaoh of Egypt, creates the Irish language from the original seventy-two languages that arose at the time of the dispersal of the nations. His descendants, the Gaels, undergo a series of trials and tribulations that are clearly modelled on those with which the Israelites are tried in the Old Testament. They flourish in Egypt at the time of Moses and leave during the Exodus; they wander the world for four hundred and forty years before eventually settling in the Iberian peninsula. There, Goídel's descendant Breogán founds a city called Brigantia, and builds a tower from the top of which his son Íth glimpses Ireland. Brigantia can probably be identified with A Coruña, north-west Galicia, known as Brigantium in Roman times; A Roman lighthouse there known as the Tower of Hercules has been claimed to have been built on the site of Breogán's tower.
This book, according to Macalister's scheme, constitutes the first interpolation in the Liber Occupationis. Cessair is the granddaughter of the Biblical Noah, who advises her and her father, Bith, to flee to the western edge of the world on account of the impending Flood. They set out in three ships, but when they arrive in Ireland two of the ships are lost. The only survivors are Cessair, forty-nine other women, and three men (Cessair's husband Fintán mac Bóchra, her father Bith, and the pilot Ladra). The women are divided among the men, Fintán taking Cessair and sixteen women, Bith taking Cessair's companion Bairrfhind and sixteen women, and Ladra taking the remaining sixteen women. Ladra, however, soon dies (the first man to be buried on Irish soil). Forty days later the Flood ensues. Fintán alone survives by spending a year under the waters in a cave called "Fintán's Grave". Afterwards known as "The White Ancient", he lives for 5500 years after the Deluge and witnesses the later settlements of the island in the guises of a salmon, an eagle and a hawk.
Three hundred years after the Flood, Partholón, who, like the Gaels, is a descendant of Noah's son Japheth, settles in Ireland with his three sons and their people. After ten years of peace war breaks out with the Fomorians, a race of evil seafarers led by Cichol Gricenchos. The Partholonians are victorious, but their victory is short-lived. In a single week they are wiped out by a plague — five thousand men and four thousand women — and are buried on the Plain of Elta to the southwest of Dublin, in an area that is still called Tallaght, which means "plague grave". A single man survives the plague, Tuan mac Cairill, who (like Fintán mac Bóchra) survives for centuries and undergoes a succession of metamorphoses, so that he can act as a witness of later Irish history. This book also includes the story of Delgnat, Partholón's wife, who commits adultery with a henchman.
Thirty years after the extinction of the Partholonians, Ireland is settled by the people of Nemed, whose great-grandfather was a brother of Partholón's. During their occupation, the land is once again ravaged by the Fomorians and a lengthy war ensues. Nemed wins three great battles against the Fomorians, but after his death his people are subjugated by two Fomorian leaders, Morc and Conand. Eventually, however, they rise up and assault Conand's Tower on Tory Island. They are victorious, but an ensuing sea battle against Morc results in the destruction of both armies. A flood covers Ireland, wiping out most of the Nemedians. A handful of survivors are scattered to the four corners of the world.
One group of the seed of Nemed settled in Greece, where they were enslaved. Two hundred and thirty years after Nemed they flee and return to Ireland. There they separate into three nations: the Fir Bolg, Fir Domnann and the Fir Gálioin. They hold Ireland for just thirty-seven years before the invasion of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
The Tuatha Dé Danann are descendants of another group of the scattered seed of Nemed. They return to Ireland from the far north, where they have learned the arts of pagan magic and druidry, on or about May 1. They contest the ownership of Ireland with the Fir Bolg and their allies in the First Battle of Moytura (or Mag Tuired). The Tuatha Dé are victorious and drive the Fir Bolg into exile among the neighbouring islands. But Nuada, the king of the Tuatha Dé, loses his right arm in the battle and is forced to renounce his crown. For seven unhappy years the kingship is held by the half-Fomorian Bres before Nuada's physician Dian Cécht fashions for him a silver arm, and he is restored. War with the Fomorians breaks out and a decisive battle is fought: the Second Battle of Moytura. Nuada falls to Balor of the Evil Eye, but Balor's grandson, Lugh of the Long Arm, kills him and becomes king. The Tuatha Dé Danann enjoy one hundred and fifty years of unbroken rule.
The story of the Gaels, which was interrupted at the end of Book 2, is now resumed. Íth, who has spied Ireland from the top of Breogán's Tower, journeys to Ireland to investigate his discovery. There he is welcomed by the rulers, but jealous nobles kill him and his men return to Iberia with his body. The Milesians, or sons of his uncle Míl Espáine, set out to avenge his death and conquer the island. When they arrive in Ireland, they advance to Tara, the royal seat, to demand the kingship. On the way they are greeted in turn by three women, Banba, Fodla and Ériu, who are the queens of the three co-regents of the land. Each woman welcomes the Milesians and tells them that her name is the name by which the land is known, and asks that it remain so if the Milesians are victorious in battle. One of the Milesians, the poet Amergin, promises that it shall be so. At Tara they are greeted by the three kings of the Tuatha Dé Danann, who defend their claim to the joint kingship of the land. It is decided that the Milesians must return to their ships and sail out to sea to a distance of nine waves from the shore, so that the Tuatha Dé Danann may have a chance to mobilise their forces. But when the Milesians are "beyond nine waves", the druids of the Tuatha Dé Danann conjure up a ferocious storm. The Milesian fleet is driven out to sea but Amergin dispels the wind with his poetry. Of the surviving ships those of Éber land at Inber Scéine (the Shannon estuary) in the west of the country, while those of Érimón land at Inber Colptha (the mouth of the Boyne). In two ensuing battles at Sliabh Mis and Tailtiu, the Tuatha Dé Danann are defeated. They are eventually driven out and the lordship of Ireland is divided between Éber and Éremón.
Modelled on the Biblical Books of Kings, this book recounts the deeds of various kings of Ireland, most of them legendary or semi-legendary, from the time of Éber and Érimón to the early fifth century of the Christian era.
A continuation of the previous book. This book is the most accurate part of LGE, being concerned with historical kings of Ireland whose deeds and dates are preserved in contemporary written records.
The manner in which Celtic-speaking peoples came to be in possession of the island of Ireland is still a matter of conjecture. However, four separate invasions or migrations were distinguished by the Celtic scholar T. F. O'Rahilly (see O'Rahilly's historical model; the dates given below are highly doubtful):
So how is this reconstruction of the history reflected in LGE? To begin with, if the Cruthin had an invasion myth, no trace of it remains in LGE, which supports the belief that their colonisation of the country was a lengthy process of gradual migration. And the first two "takings" of Ireland — those of Cessair and Partholón — seem to be wholly fanciful, with no direct historical value at all.
The next taking, however, that of the Nemedians, may well have been a mythologised version of the historical Bolgic invasion of the fifth or sixth century BC. This belief is supported by many details in the text of LGE, a discussion of which is beyond the scope of this article.
The next two takings would also seem to have a historical basis. We can identify the Fir Bolg and their allies with the Érainn again, invading the country for a second time because their ancestors the Nemedians were portrayed as having abandoned the country (which the historical Érainn probably never did). The Tuatha Dé Danann might be a wholly mythical people who have been substituted for the historical Lagin, Domnainn and Gálioin. It has been suggested that this confused state of affairs arose because the Laginian invasion was not a true taking, since the Laginians only conquered about half the country. Nevertheless, the First Battle of Moytura probably does reflect an historical victory of the Lagin over the Érainn in County Sligo (the location of two townlands known as West and East Moytirra), by virtue of which the Lagin conquered the western province. The Second Battle of Moytura, however, would then have been entirely fictional, as most likely were the Fomorians.
The Milesian invasion is clearly a semi-legendary version of the historical Goidelic invasion. Éber and Éremón (whose names mean simply "Irishman" and "Ireland", respectively) have replaced the historical leaders of the Eoganachta and Connachta respectively. In the case of Éber, the allusion may be to the Iberian peninsula, whence doubtless warriors of Celtiberian stock came and later emigrated to Ireland. The name of their father Míl Espáne is similarly derived from the Latin Miles Hispaniae, "a soldier of Spain." O'Rahilly, however, believed that the Goidelic invaders of Ireland came from south-western Gaul and not Iberia. See O'Rahilly (1946) for further discussion.
The Roll of the Kings before the Introduction of Christianity contains much that is of interest to historians, but a lot of it is confused and bowdlerised. For example, the story of Tuathal Techtmar, who is depicted as a High King of Ireland in the early second century of the Christian era, is thought to be another version of the Goidelic invasion, Tuathal Techtmar being in reality the historical antecedent of Éremón. Éber's real antecedent, Mug Nuadat, would then be similarly displaced. There are also doublets of the Bolgic and Laginian invasions in the stories of two other kings, Lugaid mac Dáire and Labraid Loingsech. These bowdlerisations may have been politically motivated: by providing the pre-Gaelic peoples of the island with pedigrees going back to Míl, the Gaels hoped to deny them any prior claim to the country, and so justify the Gaelic conquest.
As mentioned earlier, The Roll of the Kings after the Introduction of Christianity is the most accurate part of LGE. For the most part, these kings are familiar to us from other sources. It should also be pointed out that whereas the first eight books of LGE are usually regarded as part of the Early Mythological Cycle, the last two books are properly assigned to the Historical Cycle.
The title translates into "The Book of the Taking of Ireland"
Lebor Gabála Érenn
Lebor Gabála Érenn