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The History of Ulster
The Early Irish

Prehistoric Ireland - Fiction and Fact - The Irish an Aryan Celtic Race - The Milesian Invasion - Kimbaoth, King I of Ulster - Thuathal, King I of the North - Finn McCumhal and the Fenians - Niall of the Nine Hostages - St. Patrick in Ulster - Converts Dichu, an Ulster Chief - Builds First Church at Saul, near Downpatrick - Benignus his Coadjutor in Archdiocese of Armagh - St. Patrick converts Laeghaire, King of Ulster and Ardri or Over-King of Ireland.

The student of Irish history must be prepared to dismiss a vast amount of matter as purely mythical or legendary. This, no doubt, is true of the early history of most countries, but in the case of Ireland it is particularly so, and the task which presents itself, to all save the most ardent of readers, of separating or endeavouring to separate fact from fiction is a vexatious one. Even so charming a writer as Miss Lawless, after devoting pages to accounts of the first inhabitants of the island, such as the Fomorians, Firbolgs, and Tuatha-da-Danaans, calls them u historic shams".

There is nothing to be gained by the repetition of such statements as that of the Abbe McGeoghegan, that "It seems to be certain that Ireland continued uninhabited from the Creation to the Deluge", or from the introduction of legends which tell us of immigrations of Nemedians, of a niece of Noah, and a near descendant of Japhet. Even when we arrive at a period of which history can take any cognizance, the evidence, save that of language, remains disconcertingly nebulous.

From the very slender evidence we possess, based chiefly on antiquarian research in connection with the etymology of local names, it appears that the earliest inhabitants of Ireland were of Turanian origin and known as Fomorians. How long they held possession it is impossible to discover, but they gave way before a Belgic race bearing the not very euphonious name of Firbolgs, who in their turn were conquered by a fresh tribe of invaders, the Tuatha-da-Danaans, said to have been of Pelasgic origin, but who are now believed to have been an Aryan Celtic race, a branch of that great stock which dominated Gaul and Spain and a large part of Southern Europe.

The Danaans are said to have held the country, which they completely conquered and occupied, for one hundred and ninety years. They are a shadowy race of whom even less is known than of their predecessors the Firbolgs, but their deeds are held to be less adumbrative than their names, for forts of earth and stone and sepulchral monuments on the River Boyne in Meath are said, with some show of truth, to be the work of their hands. But although they were strong men and great fighters the Danaans were themselves conquered by the Milesians or "Scoti", a race of warlike Celts from Spain, of which land they had been rulers for generations. This Milesian conquest seems to have been a real occurrence, notwithstanding the fact that the statements made by Keating with regard to it savour too much of romance and severely tax the credulity of his readers. For instance, we are told that the Milesians were Scythians, and that one of their leaders, Niall, married Scota, daughter of Pharaoh, and befriended Moses and the Israelites. This friendliness to a persecuted race led Pharaoh to banish Niall and his followers, and after many wanderings they landed in Spain.

The Goths, their neighbours, proving hostile, they determined to seek a new country, and setting sail in thirty ships they landed in Ireland, and having defeated the Danaans gave the country their own name of Scotia, by which name it was known down to the end of the twelfth century.

It will be seen by the most casual reader that we have not yet reached the solid ground of facts, but there may be some substratum of truth in the story of , the Milesian settlement, for many leading Irish chieftains claimed descent from the Milesians, and if lists of names are evidence we have it in the records of over a hundred kings of Ireland. The chroniclers of this period seem to have revelled in making collections of names and pedigrees, and if these contain but a modicum of truth, they at least bear testimony to the industry and zeal of the compilers, as well as to the wonderful wealth of materials from which they drew.

The chief source of our knowledge of the doings of the Milesians is a compilation known as the Annals of the Four Masters, collected in the seventeenth century from original documents which have long since disappeared. The compiler, Michael O'Clery, a Franciscan monk, while he gives us in this labour of love the names of noble and great personages, and records the doings of kings and chiefs, with dates and other testimony to his trustworthiness, gives us, alas! evidence also of his simple-mindedness and credulity. But nevertheless the Annals are accepted as the most trustworthy records of a time of which we possess little or no knowledge, and even the historian Leland, writing in 1770, accepts O'Clery's work and quotes largely from it. He even commits himself to the statement that Ireland has "engendered one hundred and seventy-one monarchs, all of the same house and lineage; with sixty-eight kings, and two queens of Great Britain and Ireland, all sprung equally from her loins". Leland, indeed, appears to entertain no doubt of the general truth of the statements made in the Annals, and accordingly we learn from his pages that Heber and Heremon, sons of the famous Milesius, divided Ireland between them after their father's death, Heber taking the southern portion. We are told of how Ollamh Fodla, celebrated as a peacemaker and lover of learning, instituted a triennial assembly of chiefs, priests, and bards at Tara, in Meath; how Kimbaoth, King of Ulster, built a palace at Emania, near Armagh. The annalists praise Cimbalth, a lover and protector of learning and a man of peace, who was murdered, his death being attended by scenes of wholesale slaughter surely a sad end for a man of peace! It is also recorded how Cormac Ulphada founded an academy for the study of war no doubt also in the interests of peace. Of one Milesian prince, Thuathal, King of the North, we are told that he imposed a heavy tribute upon the south, which was paid for five hundred years.

This act was the result of an insult offered by the provincial King of Leinster, who "had married the daughter of Thuathal, but, conceiving a violent passion for her sister, pretended that his wife had died, and demanded and obtained her sister in marriage. The two ladies met in the royal house of Leinster. Astonishment and sorrow put an end to their lives!" The tribute known as the Boru tribute was imposed "as a perpetual memorial of the resentment of Thuathal and of the offence committed by the King of Leinster". This yearly payment consisted of 150 cows, 150 hogs, 150 pieces of cloth, 150 cauldrons, 150 couples of men and women in servitude, and 150 maidens, with the King of Leinster's daughter among them. This tribute caused an immense amount of sorrow and warfare to Ireland, as some of the Ardri demanded it, whilst others renounced it, and the redemand by their successors was so strongly resented that it kept the country in a continual state of turmoil. These internal dissensions were taken advantage of by Ireland's foes, and finally led to her overthrow and subjugation.

It is from the Annals also that we hear of Finn McCumhal, the great hero, known in Scotland as Fingal, or Fin, the Stranger. He has, not inappropriately, been called "the Irish King Arthur". Finn was, we are told, a son-in-law of King Cormac O'Conn, who reigned about the year 250. We are given an eloquent description of the king's famous militia, the Fenni or Fenians, of whom Finn was the general; the splendour of his Court, the bravery of his sons, and the beauty of his daughters. The deeds of Finn, it will be remembered, were celebrated by Ossian, a fact which gives credence to much of the matter recorded by the annalists.

We are now approaching the borderland of history, and turning our backs on the rich, dim, and debatable regions of romance. With Niall of the Nine Hostages, so called from pledges which he wrung from nine nations, Irish history may be said to commence. How truly delightful the ancient stories of Ireland when not read as sober facts can be made, is easily ascertained by a perusal of Joyce's Celtic Romances. The poetry and pathos of these tales is remarkable, and they prove the wit and power of imagination possessed by the people at a very early period in their history.

Niall, who ruled from A.D. 379 to 405, was the successor of Criffan the Great, whose reign from 366 to 379 is almost coincident with the command of the Roman general Theodosius in Great Britain. Niall followed up an invasion of Britain, made by Criffan, with a raid on the seaboard of Wales, and was with difficulty repelled by Stilicho, the valiant general who conquered Alaric and won the praise of the poet Claudian, who, in referring to this incident, and speaking in the person of Britannia, says: "By him was I protected when the Scot moved all Ireland against me, and the sea foamed beneath his hostile oars". It must be remembered that Ireland was still called Scotia, and therefore the "Scot" referred to by the poet was Niall. It is possible in connection with this raid to associate two great names, for no less an authority than Gibbon considers it not improbable that, in one of Niall's expeditions into Britain, St. Patrick may have been captured and led into captivity. In his "Confession" St. Patrick himself declares: "I was brought captive into Ireland, with so many thousand men, according as we had deserved". Niall was assassinated in France by one of his own chiefs, who killed him with an arrow on the banks of the Loire.

What little direct knowledge we possess of St. Patrick is derived from a famous Irish manuscript known as The Book of Armagh, which contains amongst other things the Confession already quoted, and an Epistle, which some authorities believe was originally penned by St. Patrick himself and transcribed by some monkish scribe in the ninth century. The Book of Armagh also contains a life of St. Patrick, which is the principal source from which later biographers have drawn.

Authorities differ as to the time and place of St. Patrick's birth, some stating that he was born about A.D. 400 at Boulogne, of which town his father was a burgess of substance; but this cannot be correct if we are to believe that Niall died in A.D. 405, for in that case the saint would have been only an infant when captured. The dates and facts as given in Professor Bury's book on the subject are nearer the mark, and are now generally accepted. According to this biographer St. Patrick was born in 390 and died in 461. He was a native, not of Boulogne, but of Dumbarton, on the Clyde, from which he was carried a captive to Ireland, and became the slave of an inferior chieftain named Milcho, whose sheep he tended on the Slemish mountains in Antrim. After six years' captivity he escaped, and succeeded in getting to Britain, and thence to Gaul and Italy.

Ireland was at this time almost wholly pagan. True, Christianity had not been absolutely unheard of, for Palladius, a missionary, had attempted to conduct a mission with signal unsuccess, and, being disheartened and in feeble health, he returned to Britain to die, "leaving to St. Patrick both the labour and the glory of converting the Irish ".

The most interesting and comprehensive short account of the life of St. Patrick is that to be found in the chapter devoted to the subject in the Rev. Dr. D'Alton's History of Ireland. From this we learn that St. Patrick returned to Ireland in '432, and that his first endeavour was to convert his former master, Milcho, in which he was unsuccessful; but that with Dichu, an Ulster chief, he was more successful. "He and his household were baptized, and he also gave St. Patrick a site for his first church at Saul, near Downpatrick, where long afterwards the Apostle died." It is also interesting to note that not alone was his first convert an Ulster chief, but that in Benignus, a youth he met at Dundalk, St. Patrick found one "who became his most attached follower as well as coadjutor in the Archdiocese of Armagh". After excursions fruitful of good, into Meath and Connaught, St. Patrick returned to Ulster, visiting Antrim and Armagh, the latter of which became not alone the "Metropolitan City of the whole island", but also its "principal spiritual centre".

This was a period of extraordinary intellectual development in Ireland. St. Patrick's labours were manifold. He is said to have built 365 churches, consecrated an equal number of bishops, and ordained 3000 priests. Ireland became a guide in spiritual matters to the rest of the civilized world. We are assured, on the authority of the Venerable Bede, that thousands of students repaired to Ireland and "the Scots willingly received them all, and took care to supply them with food, as also to furnish them with books to read, and their teaching, all gratis". It is not strange that, referring to this period in her history, Goldwin Smith declared that "Ireland played a really great part in European history", and John Richard Green, in his Short History of the English People, says: "The new religious houses looked for their ecclesiastical traditions, not to Rome, but to Ireland, and quoted for their guidance the instructions not of Gregory, but of Columba. . . . For a time it seemed as if the course of the world's history was to be changed, as if that older Celtic race which the Roman and German had swept before them, had turned to the moral conquest of their conquerors, as if Celtic and not Latin Christianity was to mould the destinies of the Church of the West."

Whatever of myth and legend may have been woven at a later period round the life of St. Patrick, there is no doubt of this awakening of a people to the life spiritual. Whole clans were baptized at a time. Bards and chiefs alike embraced the Christian faith, and among those who declared their adherence to the new creed was Laeghaire (son of Niall of the Nine Hostages), King of Ulster and Ardri or Over-King of Ireland.

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