Note, from 24/5/2013: This series has gone on far longer than I ever thought that it would and this is its humble beginnings. This begs a more proper introduction. This is my attempt at a gradual, to be completed, military history of Ireland. There are gaps I hope to fill and I long way to go, but I think that it is worth doing. It starts here.
As is typical of most areas, the written history of Ireland only becomes reliable at a point, with everything before, in Ireland’s case pretty much the entire first millennium, consisting of a mixture of truth, lies, myth and legend.
So, what was Ireland’s first war? Its first battle, its first conqueror?
You see a variety of sources on this, and just for fun, I’d like to focus on some of the more myth-like ones. The stuff I’m talking about comes from sources like the early Annals of the Four Masters, Geoffrey Keating, Lebor Gabala Erenn, that read as a simple recording on a chronological basis, some of them written down millennia after the events they describe. Aside from a healthy dose of Gods and other divine characters, many of these sources have simply added a layer of Christianization on top of older writings, mixing Catholic lessons with pagan myth. In the following summation, I’m going for just a general picture of what these stories say, and it should not be taken as an airtight description of Irish mythology. I am not a scholar of this specific subject after all, so sorry if some of this doesn’t sound quite right to the more experienced.
I’ll attempt to put the earliest writings in a chronological context. According to Keating and the Annals, the first settlers in Ireland, arriving a short time before the biblical flood, were led by a woman named Cessair. She was apparently a granddaughter of Noah himself, whose immediate family were denied a place on the Ark. Undeterred, they set out on their own boats, found Ireland, and settled for what little time they had. The flood and then plague killed them all off, leaving Ireland, again, a deserted island.
Next up were the Fomorians, who have many guises depending on who you read, variously described as God-like beings, spirits of chaos and nature, giants, more descendants of Noah, farmers, or just plain old pirates from Africa. They settled Ireland after the demise of Cessair and remained there until the arrival of even more descendants of Noah: the followers of Partholon, a man from Greece or the Middle-East depending on the sources. One wonders why he couldn’t find anywhere better to settle between here and there.
Three years after arriving in South Kerry (and after he had caused several lakes to spring up from the ground miraculously) Partholon and the Fomorians came to blows in the first recorded battle of Irish “history”. The Fomorians in Ireland were led by a fellow named Cichol Gricenchos – the second name meaning “footless”. The Fomorians were, apparently, a simple people who lived a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, while Partholon and his crowd were farmers, that is, more advanced.
The battle between the two took place at least two millennia before the birth of Christ. Numbers are not made clear, but Partholon had less than 10’000 followers total. Cichol had 800 at the battle. He might have been outnumbered. They fought at the Battle of Magh Ithe, a plain somewhere between Lough Swilly, Lough Foyle and the River Finn (so, Donegal or Tyrone really). Cichol and his Fomorions were defeated and wiped out to a man, but it was not the last time that race would pop up, Dalek-like, as Irish mythologies stock villain.
With the other contending occupiers gone, Partholon settled in for a more peaceful life, but did not plan for another batch of plague that wiped out him and all of his people at the same time, somewhere near Tallaght in modern day Dublin (“Tallaght” meaning “Plague burial place”). 30 years later, a relative of Partholon, Nemed, arrived in Ireland from the Caspian Sea. He wasn’t there long before more Fomorians, this time under Kings of the name of Gann and Segann began to harass and raid the island yet again, leading to Ireland’s first proper war.
Nemed was a leader of some renown and his people were fierce warriors. He defeated the Fomorians at Ros Fraechain where both of their Kings were killed, following that up with three more victories at Badbgna (somewhere in Connaught), Cnamros (somewhere in Leinster) and Dal Riada (in Ulster), going on to build the first forts. It would seem clear that the Fomorians just weren’t that great in battle, or were more used to simple raiding.
But things were soon looking up for them. The old enemy – plague – stuck the Nemedians hard nine years after their arrival, killing three thousand of them, including Nemed himself. The Fomorians had gained great leaders of their own, in the form of two brothers, Morc and Conand. They had established a mighty tower on Tory Island and from there, were able to oppress what remained of the Nemedians, extracting huge amounts of tribute in goods and slaves.
So things remained for over two centuries (people lived long lives back then) before the Nemedians, all 60’000 of them at this point, had enough and rose up in rebellion. Led by three great champions, Semul, Erglan and Fergus Red-Side, they attacked the Fomorians, reached Tory Island, and pulled down Conand’s tower, killing him and, conveniently, all his heirs too. Morc still remained, and the two sides fought a great sea battle nearby. Whatever it was, bad weather or divine intervention, the seas rose and both fleets were wrecked, only 30 or so Nemedians surviving out of both forces. Those survivors left Ireland, leaving the land desolate once again.
Next up were the Fir Bolg, who, depending again on who you read, were descendants of the surviving Nemedians, oppressed Greeks, or former settlers of Belgium fleeing persecution from the Gaels. They held Ireland (or “Eriu” as it was at the time) for 37 years, split into three different nations. But their famous arch-rivals, the Tuatha de Danann (“Peoples of the Goddess Danu”) then arrived to upset the apple cart. Other descendants of Nemed, they arrived in 300 ships off the west of Ireland, then immediately pulled a Cortez, burning them, signalling their intent to stay and fight for the island. The Tuatha de are heavily associated with magic and sorcery, the usual tale being that they were specialising in those things during their exile in “the islands of the north”.
The Tuatha de were led by a King named Nuada (who gives his name to modern day Maynooth) who faced off with the Fir Bolg at the Battle of Magh Tuireadh, near Cong, County Mayo. Before the battle, the Tuatha de demanded half the island or for the Fir Bolg to fight: fight they did and for four days too. The Tuatha de were victorious, though Nuada’s hand was lopped off. Subsequent negotiations with what was left of the Fir Bolg resulted in them getting Connacht to rule, leaving the rest for Nuada’s people. The Fir Bolg simply vanish from the myths after this. I’m guessing plague.
Things didn’t turn out so great for the victors though, as Nuada relinquished the Kingship because he was not “whole”, with a fellow named Bres taking his place. Bres happened to be half-Fomorian (yup, they popped up again) and before too long, the old raiders were back in force, holding the Tuatha de as subjects under Bres’ rule. The Tuatha de grew restless and rebelled: Bres fled to another Fomorian leader, “Balor of the Evil Eye” for assistance in regaining his Kingdom. In the meantime Nuada, with a new silver hand from the Gods, became King of the Tuatha de once more.
Balor, a giant with one eye in his forehead (that could spit fire or something) and another on his back, was a powerful guy, and had soon raised a massive army to face Nuada. The two sides met at the Second Battle of Magh Tuireadh, where Balor killed Nuada before being killed in turn by his own grandson Lugh, another half-Fomorian fighting on the Tuatha de side. Balor could apparently destroy people with the gaze of his front eye: he used it to kill Nuada, before Lugh tore it out and used it against the other Fomorians. Defeated, they fled, leaving Lugh as the new King of the Tuatha de Danaan.
Peace reigned for over a century, before the Tuatha de faced trouble from more invaders. The Milesians, held to perhaps be representative of the Celts, were a nominally Iberian race, who invaded the land to avenge the death of Ith, a Milesian wizard, at the hands of Tuatha de. The Milesian army landed in the south and fought their way to Tara, the traditional seat of power in Meath, to demand their claim over the island be recognised.
The Tuatha de struck a deal: the Milesians could be rulers of Ireland if, after three days of being anchored at sea, they could land on the island. The Milesians duly sailed out, only to be caught in a magical storm of the Tuatha de’s creation. Only a small number of the Milesians, led by the brothers Eber and Emiron, survived and these led the Milesians to final victory over the Tuatha de at the Battles of Tailtiu, Meath and Sleigh Mis, Antrim. The land was divided between the two, north to Erimon and the south to Eber.
One last battle of this mythic age was yet to be fought, as Eber grew unhappy with his lot and made war against his brother for the whole island. They fought the Battle of Airgetros, somewhere in Kilkenny, where Eber was defeated and killed. Thus, Erimon won control of the whole island, becoming the sole “High King”, still over a thousand years before the birth of Christ.
I’ll stop there.
Now, of course, I know this is all myth, and not very reliable for what happened in the pre-Christian history of Ireland. Indeed, much of what I have summarised above is only one interpretation: for example the Milesian anchoring at sea is also described as just a three day truce, and not a test of their ability to to come back to shore, after which the Milesians and Tuatha de divided Ireland and the underworld between them. When stories are this old, it’s only natural that the telling of them will produce different versions, in the course of which it becomes tempting to dismiss them as total fiction.
But even myths may have a grain of truth. Ireland’s history in these times may well have been one of different groups arriving one after the other, and groups who planted here may well have faced competition from outside sources who arrived later. The Nemedians and Fir Bolg, Tuatha de and Milesians may not have existed as the texts describe them, but they may have been inspired by real groups who arrived here and fought with others who came later. Also likely of course is that groups were simply absorbed into others over time (which may explain the vanishing of the Fir Bolg) before real, reliable history started.
What we know about Ireland’s pre-history and proto-history is based almost entirely off archaeological and geological survey. We know that people were here in the 11th millennium BC, albeit briefly, and that settlement was taking place circa 8000 BC, starting in the north-east and working downwards. It would not have been until much later, closer to 1000 BC, that anything resembling “warfare” was taking place, as the population grew and resources became more in demand. Warfare then was a case of elite’s fighting other elites: the best warriors were those few with swords, while others fought with spear and axe. Armour would have been limited, or non-existent. Warfare of the time would have been a simple, brutal affair, of small groups and limited contact. Raiding for cattle would have been the normal part of war, and actually set-piece battles, as described, would have been very rare, if they happened at all. Sieges were unheard of, and naval battles between fleets even more so. Little changed for the Irish way of war all the way up to the Norse attacks of the first millennium, the island immune from advances in Europe.
In the end, what I have described is literature, not war, but it still bears reading. We may not know for sure what the first battle or war fought on this island was, but at least we can tell a good story about it.
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