A Retrospective Glance at Pagan Ireland

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


WE have now, my dear young friends, arrived at a memorable point in Irish history; we are about to pass from pagan Ireland to Christian Ireland. Before doing so, it may be well that I should tell you something about matters which require a few words apart from the brief narrative of events which I have been relating for you. Let us pause, and take a glance at the country and the people, at the manners and customs, laws and institutions, of our pagan ancestors.

The geographical subdivisions of the country varied in successive centuries. The chief subdivision, the designations of which are most frequently used by the ancient chroniclers, was effected by a line drawn from the hill or ridge on the south bank of the Liffey, on the eastern end of which the castle of Dublin is built, running due west to the peninsula of Marey, at the head of Galway Bay. The portion of Ireland south of this line was called Leah Moha ("Moh Nua's half"); the portion to the north of it Leah Cuinn ("Conn's half."). As these names suggest, this division of the island was first made between two princes, Conn of the Hundred Battles, and Moh Nua, or Eoghan Mor, otherwise Eugene the Great, the former being the head or chief representative of the Milesian families descended from Ir, the latter the head of those descended from Heber. Though the primary object of this partition was achieved but for a short time, the names thus given to the two territories are found in use to designate the northern and southern halves of Ireland for a thousand years subsequently.

Within these there were smaller subdivisions. The ancient names of the four provinces into which Ireland is still divided were Mononia (Munster), Dalariada, or Ulidia (Ulster), Lagenia (Leinster), and Conacia, or Conact Connaught. Again, Mononia was subdivided into Thomond and Desmond, i.e., north and south Munster. Beside these names, the territory or district possessed by every sept or clan had a designation of its own.

The chief palaces of the Irish kings, whose splendors are celebrated in Irish history, were: the palace of Emania, in Ulster, founded or built by Macha, queen of Cinbaeth the First (pronounced Kimbahe), about the year B.C. 700; Tara, in Meath; Cruachan, in Conact, built by Queen Maeve, the beautiful, albeit Amazonian, Queen of the West, about the year B.C. 100; Aileach, in Donegal, built on the site of an ancient Sun-temple, or Tuatha de Danaan fort-palace.

Kincora had not at this period an existence, nor had it for some centuries subsequently. It was never more than the local residence, a palatial castle, of Brian Boruma. It stood on the spot where now stands the town of Killaloe.

Emania, next to Tara the most celebrated of all the royal palaces of Ancient Erinn, stood on the spot now marked by a large rath called the Navan Fort, two miles to the west of Armagh. It was the residence of the Ulster kings for a period of 855 years.

The mound or Grianan of Aileach, upon which even for hundreds of years after the destruction of the palace, the O'Donnells were elected, installed, or "inaugurated," is still an object of wonder and curiosity. It stands on the crown of a low hill by the shores of Lough Swilly, about five miles from Londonderry.

Royal Tara has been crowned with an imperishable fame in song and story. The entire crest and slopes of Tara Hill were covered with buildings at one time; for it was not alone a royal palace, the residence of the Ard-Ri (or High King) of Erinn, but, moreover, the legislative chambers, the military buildings, the law courts, and royal universities that stood thereupon. Of all these, naught now remains but the moated mounds or raths that mark where stood the halls within which bard and warrior, ruler and lawgiver, once assembled in glorious pageant.

Of the orders of knighthood, or companionships of valor and chivalry, mentioned in pagan Irish history, the two principal were: the Knights of the (Craev Rua, or) Red Branch of Emania, and the Clanna Morna, or Damnonian Knights of Iorras. The former were a Dalariadan, the latter a Conacian body; and, test the records how we may, it is incontrovertible that no chivalric institutions of modern times eclipsed in knightly valor and romantic daring those warrior companionships of ancient Erinn.

Besides these orders of knighthood, several military legions figure familiarly and prominently in Irish history; but the most celebrated of them all, the Dalcassians—one of the most brave and "glory-crowned" bodies of which there is record in ancient or modern times—did not figure in Irish history until long after the commencement of the Christian era.

The Fianna Eirion or National Militia of Erinn, I have already mentioned. This celebrated enrollment had the advantage of claiming within its own ranks a warrior-poet, Ossian (son of the commander Fin), whose poems, taking for their theme invariably the achievements and adventures of the Fenian host, or of its chiefs, have given to it a lasting fame. According to Ossian, there never existed upon the earth another such force of heroes as the Fianna Eirion; and the feats he attributes to them were of course unparalleled. He would have us believe there were no taller, straighter, stronger, braver, bolder, men in all Erinn than his Fenian comrades; and with the recital of their deeds he mixes up the wildest romance and fable. What is strictly true of them is, that at one period undoubtedly they were a splendid national force; but ultimately they became a danger rather than a protection to the kingdom, and had to be put down by the regular army in the reign of King Carbry the Second, who encountered and destroyed them finally on the bloody battlefield of Gavra, about the year A.D. 280.

Ben Eder, now called the Hill of Howth, near Dublin, was the camp or exercise ground of the Fianna Eirion when called out annually for training.

The laws of pagan Ireland, which were collected and codified in the reign of Cormac the First, and which prevailed throughout the kingdom as long subsequently as a vestige of native Irish regal authority remained—a space of nearly fifteen hundred years—are, even in this present age, exciting considerable attention among legislators and savants. A royal commission—the "Brehon Laws Commission"—appointed by the British government in the year 1856 (chiefly owing to the energetic exertions of Rev. Dr. Graves and Rev. Dr. Todd, of Trinity College, Dublin), has been laboring at their translation, parliament voting an annual sum to defray the expenses. Of course only portions of the original manuscripts are now in existence, but even these portions attest the marvelous wisdom and the profound justness of the ancient Milesian Code, and give us a high opinion of Irish jurisprudence two thousand years ago!

The Brehon Laws Commission published their first volume, the "Seanchus Mor," in 1865, and a most interesting publication it is. Immediately on the establishment of Christianity in Ireland a royal commission of that day was appointed to revise the statute laws of Erinn, so that they might be purged of everything applicable only to a pagan nation and inconsistent with the pure doctrines of Christianity. On this commission, we are told, there were appointed by the Irish monarch three chief Brehons or judges, three Christian bishops, and three territorial chiefs or viceroys. The result of their labors was presented to the Irish parliament of Tara, and being duly confirmed, the code thenceforth became known as the Seanchus Mor.

From the earliest age the Irish appear to have been extremely fond of games, athletic sports, and displays of prowess or agility. Among the royal and noble families chess was the chief domestic game. There are indubitable proofs that it was played among the princes of Erinn two thousand years ago; and the oldest bardic chants and verse-histories mention the gold and jewel inlaid chessboards of the kings.

Of the passionate attachment of the Irish to music little need be said, as this is one of the national characteristics which has been at all times the most strongly marked, and is now most widely appreciated; the harp being universally emblazoned as a national emblem of Ireland. Even in the pre-Christian period we are here reviewing, music was an "institution" and a power in Erinn.