The Story of Ireland

By Emily Lawless, 1896
The Story of Ireland


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"It seems to be certain," says the Abbé McGeoghehan, "that Ireland continued uninhabited from the Creation to the Deluge." With this assurance to help us on our onward way I may venture to supplement it by saying that little is known about the first, or even about the second, third, and fourth succession of settlers in Ireland. At what precise period what is known as the Scoto-Celtic branch of the great Aryan stock broke away from its parent tree, by what route its migrants travelled, in what degree of consanguinity it stood to the equally Celtic race or races of Britain, what sort of people inhabited Ireland previous to the first Aryan invasion--all this is in the last degree uncertain, though that it was inhabited by some race or races outside the limits of that greatest of human groups seems from ethnological evidence to be perfectly clear.

When first it dawns upon us through that thick  darkness which hangs about the birth of all countries--whatever their destiny--it was a densely wooded and scantily peopled island "lying a-loose," as old Campion, the Elizabethan historian, tells us, "upon the West Ocean," though his further assertion that "in shape it resembleth an egg, plain on the sides, and not reaching forth to the sea in nooks and elbows of Land as Brittaine doeth"--cannot be said to be quite geographically accurate--the last part of the description referring evidently to the east coast, the only one with which, like most of his countrymen, he was at that time familiar.

Geographically, then, and topographically it was no doubt in much the same state as the greater part of it remained up to the middle or end of the sixteenth century, a wild, tangled, roadless land, that is to say, shaggy with forests, abounding in streams, abounding, too, in lakes--far more, doubtless, than at present, drainage and other causes having greatly reduced their number--with rivers bearing the never-failing tribute of the skies to the sea, yet not so thoroughly as to hinder enormous districts from remaining in a swamped and saturated condition, given up to the bogs, which even at the present time are said to cover nearly one-sixth of its surface.

This superfluity of bogs seems always in earlier times to have been expeditiously set down by all historians and agriculturists as part of the general depravity of the Irish native, who had allowed his good lands,--doubtless for his own mischievous pleasure--to run to waste; bogs being then supposed to differ from other lands only so far as they were made  "waste and barren by superfluous moisture." About the middle of last century it began to be perceived that this view of the matter was somewhat inadequate; the theory then prevailing being that bogs owed their origin not to water alone, but to the destruction of woods, whose remains are found imbedded in them--a view which held good for another fifty or sixty years, until it was in its turn effectually disposed of by the report of the Bogs Commission in 1810, when it was proved once for all that it was to the growth of sphagnums and other peat-producing mosses they were in the main due--a view which has never since been called in question.

A great deal, however, had happened to Ireland before the bogs began to grow on it at all. It had--to speak only of some of its later vicissitudes--been twice at least united to England, and through it with what we now know as the continent of Europe, and twice severed from it again. It had been exposed to a cold so intense as to bleach off all life from its surface, utterly depriving it of vegetation, and grinding the mountains down to that scraped bun-like outline which so many of them still retain; had covered the whole country, highlands and lowlands alike, with a dense overtoppling cap of snow, towering often thousands of feet above the present height of the mountains, from which "central silence" the glaciers crept sleepily down the ravines and valleys, eating their way steadily seaward, and leaving behind them moraines to mark their passage, leaving also longitudinal scratches, cut, as a diamond cuts glass, upon the rocks, as may be seen by any one who takes  the trouble of looking for them; finally reaching the sea in a vast sloping plateau which pushed its course steadily onward until its further advance was overborne by the buoyancy of the salt water, the ends breaking off, as the Greenland glaciers do to-day, into huge floating icebergs, which butted against one another, jammed up all the smaller bays and fiords; were carried in again and again on the rising tide; rolled hither and thither like so many colossal ninepins; played, in short, all the old rough-and-tumble Arctic games through many a cold and dismal century, finally melting away as the milder weather began slowly to return, leaving Ireland a very lamentable-looking island indeed, not unlike one of those deplorable islands scattered along the shores of Greenland and upon the edges of Baffin's Bay--treeless, grassless, brown and scalded, wearing everywhere over its surface the marks of that great ice-plough which had lacerated its sides so long.

There seems to be good geological evidence that the land connection between Ireland and Scotland continued to a considerably later period than between it and England, to which, and as far as can be seen to no other possible cause is to be attributed two very striking characteristics of its fauna, namely, its excessive meagreness and its strikingly northern character. Not only does it come far short of the already meagre English fauna, but all the distinctively southern species are the ones missing, though there is nothing in the climate to account for the fact. The Irish hare, for instance, is not the ordinary brown hare of England, but the "blue" or Arctic hare of  Scotch mountains, the same which still further to the north becomes white in winter, a habit which, owing to the milder Irish winters, it has apparently shaken off.

It would be pleasant to linger here a little over this point of distribution--so fruitful of suggestion as to the early history of the planet we occupy. To speculate as to the curious contradictions, or apparent contradictions, to be found even within so narrow an area as that of Ireland. What, for instance, has brought a group of South European plants to the shores of Kerry and Connemara, which plants are not to be found in England, even in Cornwall, which one would have thought must surely have arrested them first? Why, when neither the common toad or frog are indigenous in Ireland (for the latter, though common enough now, was only introduced at the beginning of last century) a comparatively rare little toad, the Natterjack, should be found in one corner of Kerry to all appearances indigenously? All these questions, however, belong to quite another sort of book, and to a much larger survey of the field than there is time here to embark upon, so there is nothing for it but to turn one's back resolutely upon the tempting sin of discursiveness, or we shall find ourselves belated before our real journey is even begun.

The first people, then, of whose existence in Ireland we can be said to know anything are commonly asserted to have been of Turanian origin, and are known as "Formorians." As far as we can gather, they were a dark, low-browed, stunted race, although,  oddly enough, the word Formorian in early Irish legend is always used as synonymous with the word giant. They were, at any rate, a race of utterly savage hunters and fishermen, ignorant of metal, of pottery, possibly even of the use of fire; using the stone hammers or hatchets of which vast numbers remain in Ireland to this day, and specimens of which may be seen in every museum. How long they held possession no one can tell, although Irish philologists believe several local Irish names to date from this almost inconceivably remote epoch. Perhaps if we think of the Lapps of the present day, and picture them wandering about the country, catching the hares and rabbits in nooses, burrowing in the earth or amongst rocks, and being, not impossibly, looked down on with scorn by the great Irish elk which still stalked majestically over the hills; rearing ugly little altars to dim, formless gods; trembling at every sudden gust, and seeing demon faces in every bush and brake, it will give us a fairly good notion of what these very earliest inhabitants of Ireland were probably like.

Next followed a Belgic colony, known as the Firbolgs, who overran the country, and appear to have been of a somewhat higher ethnological grade, although, like the Formorians, short, dark, and swarthy. Doubtless the latter were not entirely exterminated to make way for the Firbolgs, any more than the Firbolgs to make way for the Danaans, Milesians, and other successive races; such wholesale exterminations being, in fact, very rare, especially in a country which like Ireland seems specially laid out  by kindly nature for the protection of a weaker race struggling in the grip of a stronger one.

After the Firbolgs, though I should be sorry to be obliged to say how long after, fresh and more important tribes of invaders began to appear. The first of these were the Tuatha-da-Danaans, who arrived under the leadership of their king Nuad, and took possession of the east of the country. These Tuatha-da-Danaans are believed to have been large, blue-eyed people of Scandinavian origin, kinsmen and possibly ancestors of those Norsemen or "Danes" who in years to come were destined to work such woe and havoc upon the island.

Many battles took place between these Danaans and the earlier Firbolgic settlers--the native owners as no doubt they felt themselves of the country. One of the best substantiated of these, not, indeed, by history or even tradition, but by a more solid testimony, that of the stone remains left on the spot, prove, at any rate, that some long-sustained battle was at some remote period fought on the spot.

This is the famous pre-historic battle of Moytura, rather the Southern Moytura, for there were two; the other, situated not far from the present town of Sligo, retaining "the largest collection of pre-historic remains," says Dr. Petrie, "in any region in the world with the exception of Carnac." This second battle of Moytura was fought upon the plain of Cong, which is washed by the waters of Lough Mask and Lough Corrib, close to where the long monotonous midland plain of Ireland becomes broken, changes into that region of high mountains and low-lying valleys, now  called Connemara, but which in earlier days was always known as Iar Connaught.

It is a wild scene even now, not very much less so than it must have been when this old and half-mythical Battle of the West was fought and won. A grey plain, "stone-roughened like the graveyard of dead hosts," broken into grassy ridges, and starred at intervals with pools, repeating the larger glitter of the lake hard by. Over the whole surface of this tumbled plain rise, at intervals, great masses of rock, some natural, but others artificially up-tilted cromlechs and dolmens, menhirs and cairns--whitened by lichen scrawls, giving them often in uncertain light the effect of so many undecipherable inscriptions, written in a long-forgotten tongue.

From the position of the battle-field it has been made out to their own satisfaction by those who have studied it on the spot, that the Firbolgs must have taken up a fortified position upon the hill called Ben-levi; a good strategic position unquestionably, having behind it the whole of the Mayo mountains into which to retreat in case of defeat. The Danaans, on the other hand, advancing from the plains of Meath, took up their station upon the hill known as Knockmaa, standing by itself about five miles from the present town of Tuam, on the top of which stands a great cairn, believed to have been in existence even then--a legacy of some yet earlier and more primitive race which inhabited the country, and, therefore, possibly the oldest record of humanity to-day extant in Ireland.