Milesians in Ireland

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


THE earliest settlement or colonization of Ireland, of which there is tolerably precise and satisfactory information, was that by the sons of Miledh or Milesius, from whom the Irish are occasionally styled Milesians.

There are abundant evidences that at least two or three “waves” of colonization had long previously reached the island; but it is not very clear whence they came.

Those first settlers are severally known in history as the Partholanians, the Nemedians, the Firbolgs, and the Tuatha de Danaans. These latter, the Tuatha de Danaans, who immediately preceded the Milesians, possessed a civilization and a knowledge of “arts and sciences” which, limited as we may be sure it was, greatly amazed the earlier settlers (whom they had subjected) by the results it produced.

To the Firbolgs (the more early settlers) the wonderful things done by the conquering newcomers, and the wonderful knowledge they displayed, could only be the results of supernatural power. Accordingly they set down the Tuatha de Danaans as “magicians,” an idea which the Milesians, as we shall presently see, also adopted.

The Firbolgs seem to have been a pastoral race; the Tuatha de Danaans were more of a manufacturing and commercial people. The soldier Milesian came, and he ruled over all.

The Milesian colony reached Ireland from Spain,[1] but they were not Spaniards. They were an eastern people who had tarried in that country on their way westward, seeking, they said, an island promised to the posterity of their ancestor, Gadelius.

Moved by this mysterious purpose to fulfill their destiny, they had passed from land to land, from the shores of Asia across the wide expanse of southern Europe, bearing aloft through all their wanderings the Sacred Banner, which symbolized to them at once their origin and their mission, the blessing and the promise given to their race.

This celebrated standard, the “Sacred Banner of the Milesians,” was a flag on which was represented a dead serpent and the rod of Moses; a device to commemorate forever among the posterity of Gadelius the miracle by which his life had been saved.

The story of this event, treasured with singular pertinacity by the Milesians, is told as follows in their traditions, which so far I have been following:

While Gadelius, being yet a child, was sleeping one day, he was bitten by a poisonous serpent. His father—Niul, a younger son of the king of Scythia—carried the child to the camp of the Israelites, then close by, where the distracted parent with tears and prayers implored the aid of Moses.

The inspired leader was profoundly touched by the anguish of Niul. He laid the child down, and prayed over him; then he touched with his rod the wound, and the boy arose healed.

Then, say the Milesians, the man of God promised or prophesied for the posterity of the young prince, that they should inhabit a country in which no venomous reptile could live, an island which they should seek and find in the track of the setting sun.

It was not, however, until the third generation subsequently that the descendants and people of Gadelius are found setting forth on their prophesied wanderings; and of this migration itself—of the adventures and fortunes of the Gadelian colony in its journeyings—the history would make a volume.

At length we find them tarrying in Spain, where they built a city, Brigantia, and occupied and ruled a certain extent of territory.

It is said that Ith (pronounced “Eeh”), uncle of Milesius, an adventurous explorer, had, in his cruising northward of the Brigantian coast, sighted the Promised Isle, and landing to explore it, was attacked by the inhabitants (Tuatha de Danaans), and mortally wounded ere he could regain his ship.

He died at sea on the way homeward. His body was reverentially preserved and brought back to Spain by his son, Lui (spelled Lugaid),[2] who had accompanied him, and who now summoned the entire Milesian host to the last stage of their destined wanderings—to avenge the death of Ith, and occupy the Promised Isle.

The old patriarch himself, Miledh, had died before Lui arrived; but his sons all responded quickly to the summons; and the widowed queen, their mother, Scota, placed herself at the head of the expedition, which soon sailed in thirty galleys for “the isle they had seen in dreams.”

The names of the sons of Milesius who thus sailed for Ireland were, Heber the Fair, Amergin, Heber the Brown, Colpa, Ir, and Heremon; and the date of this event is generally supposed to have been about fourteen hundred years before the birth of our Lord.

At that time Ireland, known as Innis Ealga (the Noble Isle) was ruled over by three brothers, Tuatha de Danaan princes, after whose wives (who were three sisters) the island was alternately called, Eire, Banba (or Banva), and Fiola (spelled Fodhla), by which names Ireland is still frequently styled in national poems.

Whatever difficulties or obstacles besot the Milesians in landing they at once attributed to the “necromancy” of the Tuatha de Danaans, and the old traditions narrate amusing stories of the contest between the resources of magic and the power of valor.

When the Milesians could not discover land where they thought to sight it, they simply agreed that the Tuatha de Danaans had by their black arts rendered it invisible.

At length they descried the island, its tall blue hills touched by the last beams of the setting sun, and from the galleys there arose a shout of joy; Innisfail, the Isle of Destiny, was found![3]

But lo, next morning the land was submerged, until only a low ridge appeared above the ocean. A device of the magicians, say the Milesians.

Nevertheless they reached the shore and made good their landing. The “magician” inhabitants, however, stated that this was not a fair conquest by the rules of war; that they had no standing army to oppose the Milesians; but if the newcomers would again take to their galleys, they should, if able once more to effect a landing, be recognized as masters of the isle by the laws of war.

The Milesians did not quite like the proposition. They feared much the “necromancy” of the Tuatha de Danaans. It had cost them trouble enough already to get their feet upon the soil, and they did not greatly relish the idea of having to begin it all over again. They debated the point, and it was resolved to submit the case to the decision of Amergin, who was the Ollav (the Learned Man, Lawgiver, or Seer) of the expedition.

Amergin, strange to say, decided on the merits against his own brothers and kinsmen, and in favor of the Tuatha de Danaans.

Accordingly, with scrupulous obedience to his decision, the Milesians relinquished all they had so far won. They re-embarked in their galleys, and, as demanded, withdrew “nine waves off from the shore.”

Immediately a hurricane, raised, say their versions, by the spells of the magicians on shore, burst over the fleet, dispersing it in all directions.

Several of the princes and chiefs and their wives and retainers were drowned.

The Milesians paid dearly for their chivalrous acquiescence in the rather singular proposition of the inhabitants indorsed by the decision of Amergin.

When they did land next time, it was not in one combined force, but in detachments widely separated; some at the mouth of the Boyne; others on the Kerry coast.

A short but fiercely contested campaign decided the fate of the kingdom.

In the first great pitched battle, which was fought in a glen a few miles south of Tralee,[4] the Milesians were victorious. But they lost the aged Queen-Mother, Scota, who fell amidst the slain, and was buried beneath a royal cairn in Glen Scohene, close by.

Indeed the queens of ancient Ireland figure very prominently in our history, as we shall learn as we proceed.

In the final engagement, which was fought at Tailtan in Meath, between the sons of Milesius and the three Tuatha de Danaan kings, the latter were utterly and finally defeated, and were themselves slain.

And with their husbands, the three brothers, there fell upon that dreadful day, when crown and country, home and husband, all were lost to them, the three sisters, Queens Eire, Banva, and Fiola!


[1] The settled Irish account; but this is also disputed by theorists who contend that all the waves of colonization reached Ireland from the continent across Britain.

[2] Here let me at the outset state, once for all, that I have decided, after mature consideration, to spell most of the Irish names occurring in our annals according to their correct pronunciation or sound, and not according to their strictly correct orthography in the Irish language and typography. I am aware of all that may fairly be said against this course, yet consider the weight of advantage to be on its side. Some of our Irish names are irretrievably Anglicized in the worst form—uncouth and absurd. Choosing therefore between difficulties and objections, I have decided to rescue the correct pronunciation in this manner; giving, besides, with sufficient frequency, the correct orthography.

[3] In Moore's “Melodies” the event here related is made the subject of the following verses:

“They came from a land beyond the sea,

And now o'er the western main

Set sail, in their good ships, gallantly,

From the sunny land of Spain.

'Oh, where's the Isle we've seen in dreams,

Our destin'd home or grave?'

Thus sung they as, by the morning's beams,

They swept the Atlantic wave.

“And, lo, where afar o'er ocean shines

A sparkle of radiant green,

As though in that deep lay emerald mines,

Whose light through the wave was seen.

‘ ’Tis Innisfail—‘tis Innisfail!’

Rings o'er the echoing sea;

While, bending to heav'n, the warriors hail

That home of the brave and free.

“Then turn'd they unto the Eastern wave,

Where now their Day-God's eye

A look of such sunny omen gave

As lighted up sea and sky.

Nor frown was seen through sky or sea,

Nor tear o'er leaf or sod,

When first on their Isle of Destiny

Our great forefathers trod.”

[4] All that I have been here relating is a condensation of traditions, very old, and until recently little valued or credited by historical theorists. Yet singular corroborations have been turning up daily, establishing the truth of the main facts thus handed down. Accidental excavations a few years since in the glen which tradition has handed down as the scene of this battle more than three thousand years ago, brought to light full corroboration of this fact, at least, that a battle of great slaughter was ought upon the exact spot some thousands of years ago.