Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race

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This wild tale, with its atmosphere of grey antiquity and of childlike wonder, reminds us of the transformations of the Welsh Taliessin, who also became an eagle, [pg 101] and points to that doctrine of the transmigration of the soul which, as we have seen, haunted the imagination of the Celt.

We have now to add some details to the sketch of the successive colonisations of Ireland outlined by Tuan mac Carell.

The Nemedians

The Nemedians, as we have seen, were akin to the Partholanians. Both of them came from the mysterious regions of the dead, though later Irish accounts, which endeavoured to reconcile this mythical matter with Christianity, invented for them a descent from Scriptural patriarchs and an origin in earthly lands such as Spain or Scythia. Both of them had to do constant battle with the Fomorians, whom the later legends make out to be pirates from oversea, but who are doubtless divinities representing the powers of darkness and evil. There is no legend of the Fomorians coming into Ireland, nor were they regarded as at any time a regular portion of the population. They were coeval with the world itself. Nemed fought victoriously against them in four great battles, but shortly afterwards died of a plague which carried off 2000 of his people with him. The Fomorians were then enabled to establish their tyranny over Ireland. They had at this period two kings, Morc and Conann. The stronghold of the Formorian power was on Tory Island, which uplifts its wild cliffs and precipices in the Atlantic off the coast of Donegal—a fit home for this race of mystery and horror. They extracted a crushing tribute from the people of Ireland, two-thirds of all the milk and two-thirds of the children of the land. At last the Nemedians rise in revolt. Led by three chiefs, they land on Tory Island, capture Conann's Tower, and Conann himself falls by the [pg 102] hand of the Nemedian chief, Fergus. But Morc at this moment comes into the battle with a fresh host, and utterly routs the Nemedians, who are all slain but thirty:

“The men of Erin were all at the battle,
After the Fomorians came;
All of them the sea engulphed,
Save only three times ten.”
Poem by Eochy O'Flann, circ. A.D. 960.

The thirty survivors leave Ireland in despair. According to the most ancient belief they perished utterly, leaving no descendants, but later accounts, which endeavour to make sober history out of all these myths, represent one family, that of the chief Britan, as settling in Great Britain and giving their name to that country, while two others returned to Ireland, after many wanderings, as the Firbolgs and People of Dana.

The Coming of the Firbolgs

Who were the Firbolgs, and what did they represent in Irish legend? The name appears to mean “Men of the Bags,” and a legend was in later times invented to account for it. It was said that after settling in Greece they were oppressed by the people of that country, who set them to carry earth from the fertile valleys up to the rocky hills, so as to make arable ground of the latter. They did their task by means of leathern bags; but at last, growing weary of the oppression, they made boats or coracles out of their bags, and set sail in them for Ireland. Nennius, however, says they came from Spain, for according to him all the various races that inhabited Ireland came originally from Spain; and “Spain” with him is a rationalistic rendering of the Celtic words designating the Land of the Dead.77 They came in three [pg 103] groups, the Fir-Bolg, the Fir-Domnan, and the Galioin, who are all generally designated as Firbolgs. They play no great part in Irish mythical history, and a certain character of servility and inferiority appears to attach to them throughout.