Lebor Gabála Érenn
The Book of the Takings of Ireland
The Book of Invasions

This text--found in both the Book of Leinster and the Book of Fermoy--is one of the core texts of the mythological cycle in Irish literature (the other being "The Second Battle of Magh Turedh:), as well as one of the earliest known histories written by the Irish. It tells of the successive invasions of Ireland by different tribes, from the creation of the world to the coming of the Milesians.

The Narrative
Several paragraphs are dedicated to the history of the world up through the flood, as well as explaining that Gadel Glas, ancestor of the Gaels, is the son of Scota, daughter of the Pharoah of Egypt. Gadel's descendent Eber Scot conquors Scythia, and Eber's descendant Agnomain leads the Gael to Spain, eventually becoming both the Nemedians and the Milesians.

The first invaders, the Cessarians, are destroyed by flood. The second, the Partholonians, are destroyed by plague. The third, the Nemedians, are driven out by the Fomoraig. The Nemedians then split into two groups: the Fir Bolg and the Tuatha De Danann. Each returns and attempts to subdue the Fomoraig (and then each other), before both being subdued by the Milesians, who are lead to Ireland by the bard Amergin after his brother Íth sees the land of Ireland from afar.

The first redaction (and thus the oldest version we have) is found in both the Book of Leinster and the Book of Fermoy; the differences between the two texts are small enough that they likely derive from the same written (and now lost) source, or possibly that the Book of Fermoy was copied from the Book of Leinster, with some emendations by the scribe. The Míniugud redaction is closely related to the first redaction.

The second redaction is found in seven manuscripts, including the Book of Lecan, which also preserves the third redaction. The third redaction is also found in the Book of Ballymote.

Biblical Influence
There are constant allusions to the happenings of the Israelites, which is unsurprising--many histories written in the Middle Ages attempted to synchronize with the Bible. Also, the wanderings of the Gaels and the attempts at settling the land and dealing with its current inhabitants are often reminiscent of the attempts of the Israelites to claim Canaan. Most explicit is how the opening lines echo Genesis:

In principio fecit Deus Cawlum et Terram, i.e., God made Heaven and Earth at the first, [and He Himself hath no beginning nor ending]. --Lebor Gabála

In principio creavit Deus caelum et terram. --Vulgate Bible

However, it's possible that there were other, pagan influences, specifically Ammianus Marcellinus, who quotes from the lost works of Timagenes of Alexandria. Timagenes (1st century CE) described how the Celts were driven eastward towards Gaul by a series of wars and floods--a theme which easily dovetailed with the Biblically-inspired narrative.

Other Versions
The earliest version of the narrative of the LGE is actually found in Nennius' Historia Brittonum (ca. 830 CE). Section 13 deals with the settlement of Ireland, begining with the Partholonians, who are wiped out by a plague. This is followed by the Nemedians (Nennius calls their leader Nimech, but it is Nemed), followed by three sons of a Spanish soldier. Nennius places this in the Forth Age, 1002 years after Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt. Nennius also recounts how the Irish were originally Scythian, an idea further explored by the LGE.

Giraldus Cambrensius must have read the Lebor Gabála Érenn, and even indicates that he read the annals of the Irish when writing his Topography and History of Ireland. He specifically sites the stories of Cessair, Partholon ("Bartholanus"), Nemed, the Fir Bolg (here called the sons of Dela) and the Milesians, but is silent on the Tuatha Dé Danann. He also mentions Nemed battling pirates, a clear allusion to the Formoraig. That he is silent about the Tuatha Dé Danann is probably not surprising, as they are obviously gods, and even spoken about as such in other texts; Giraldus likely saw such an idea as blasphemous. On the other hand, it is curious then that he would leave this bit of blasphemy out, since his work is largely a polemic agains the Irish, written in encouragement of the Norman invasion.

Also, there is the curious story of the "Black Irish"--that the existence of the short, dark-haired and occasionally olive-skinned people, usually found in the west of Ireland, are the result of the intermarriage of shipwrecked Armada sailors and local girls. Some say this is history; others say it is myth. Either way, it isn't hard to see a connection between the pre-historic Milesians--son of Mil of Spain--and the Spanish sailors of the 16th century.

Fact and Fiction
In truth, Ireland was settled by several groups of people: nomadic hunters and gatherers; pre-Celts; P-Celtic groups; Q-Celtic groups, first from Northern Europe, and the second possibly from Spain. This--a hypothesis--is reflected by the existence of the Milesians, who are said to be the sons of Mil of Spain.

However, more to the point is that these invasions were largely cultural, not physical--that is, the genetic stock of the Irish people is largely unchanged since the first hunter-gatherers came after the last major Ice Age. A study of the haplogroups represented in Ireland shows that the majority of Irish men carry the marker for haplogroup 1, which is thought to have once been found throughout Europe, but which has gradually been replaced by other groups, except for in Ireland, where 78.1% of people whose families can be traced to before the Viking invasions are found to have the haplo 1 gene; the greatest concentration is in the Gaeltacht in Connacht, where 98.3% of men carry this gene.

Thus, while Ireland has been invaded many times, it seems to be culture which took over, not actual "races"--not even a "Celtic" race (a highly disputed idea to being with, the Celts being more of a cultural and linguistic group than a genetic one).

Lebor Gabála Érenn: Book of the Taking of Ireland. Part 1-5. ed. and tr. by R. A. S. Macalister. Dublin: Irish Texts Society, 1941.

Giraldus Cambrensis. The History and Topography of Ireland. ed. and tr. John O'Meara. NY: Penguin, 1983.

Hill, Emmeline W.; Jobling, Mark A. "Y-chromosome variation and Irish origins." Nature. 3/23/2000, Vol. 404 Issue 6776, p351.

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Mary Jones © 2005