It wasn’t long ago that most of our ancestors believed that Ireland was full of visible and invisible supernatural people, i.e., the Sí or ‘Good People’ or ‘People of the Hills’ as they are called in our folklore. And that some of the Gaeil were in contact with these supernatural people often. (Or daily in the case of my great-grandmother.) And that love came from time to time and even children from that contact, as we see in the old stories about Niamh, Oisín, Neara, Macha, Fionn and plenty more, and in new stories about families like the O’Connellys of Connacht. And from those children, it was believed that progeny half-human and half-supernatural came upon the earth.
But let’s start at the beginning.
I. The Western Indo-European Context
The Greeks believed that a good portion of their important kings descended from Heracles son of Zeus. For example, the Kings of Macedonia (including Alexander the Great) and the Kings of Sparta (including Leonidas). (1) (2)
The Romans believed that Romulus, Remus, and the Gens Julia (i.e., the House of the Julii, including Gaeius Julius Caesar) descended from Venus through her son Aeneas. (3)
The Scandinavians, Germans, and Anglo-Saxons believed that a good portion of their kings descended from Wodan (i.e., Odin). For example, that the Kings of Westphalia and Wessex descended from ‘Baeldaeg’ (i.e., Baldur) son of Wodan, (4) (5) and that the Kings of Bernicia (i.e., Northumbria) descended from ‘Wecta’ son of Wodan. (6)
Coming now to the Celts, Caesar reported:
"The Gauls claim to be all descended from Father Dis and say that this is a tradition which has been handed down to them by the Druids.” (7)
Perhaps ‘Donn’ or its like was the true name for this Celtic god whom Caesar called by the Roman name ‘Dis Pater’. At any rate, Professor Proinsias Mac Cana, one of the greatest experts on Celtic mythology, believes that ‘Dis Pater’ of ancient Gaul was very similar to the god Donn of ancient Ireland. (8)
II. Supernatural Ancestors of the Pre-Christian Celts of Ireland
As we will see below, it is apparent from a number of sources that our pre-Christian ancestors believed that many of them (or perhaps all of them, like the Celts of Gaul) descended from gods.
A. In the Geography by Ptolemy
In his Geographia, Ptolemy of Alexandria Alastair (ca. A.D. 90 – ca. A.D. 168) wrote a chapter on the geography of Ireland (9) (10) in which we find the names of these tribes:
Dairini – It’s apparent that these are the Dáirfhine, i.e., the Family of the god Dáire. In our Seanchas, the Ulaidh of Ulster and the Érainn of Munster descend from the Dáirfhine. (11) (12) (13)
Iverni. These are the Érainn. (14) Their name was written in old manuscripts as Íarna and Érna, i.e., the Collective Descendants of the god Íar or Ér. A number of tribes and families of Munster descend from them. (15)
Brigantes. These were named for their famous goddess Brigantia (i.e., High-Queen). In Ireland, their goddess is called ‘Brighid’ and they are called ‘Uí Bhairrche’. They settled in Leinster. (16) The placenames ‘Bargy’ (Bairrche) in Co. Wexford and ‘Slievemargy’ (Sliabh mBairrche) in Co. Laois come from them. (17) (18)
B. In the Names of Other Tribes
We can find names of gods in many early, pagan tribe-names which are not mentioned in the Geographia of Ptolemy. (19) For example:
Dál Riata or Dál Riada – It was said this this people (in Ulster and in Scotland) descended from Eochu Riada, i.e. Eochu the Rider. The meaning of ‘Eochu’ is ‘Steed-God’ or ‘Like a Steed’). (20) The horse was very sacred amongst the Celts, perhaps their most sacred animal as we see by the number of gods who had a special relationship with the horse: Epona, Rhiannon, Labhraidh Loingseach, Macha Mongfind, etc.
Boandraige – ‘Boann-People’. It is the goddess Boann who gave her name to the river ‘Boyne’ in Leinster. In The Book of the Takings of Ireland, she is the daughter of Dealbhaodh. (21) Dealbhaodh was called to the Kingship of the Tuatha Dé Danann directly after the reign of the Daghda. (22)
Luigne – ‘Collective-Descendants of Lugh’. Lugh was the most popular or common god amongst the Celts throughout Europe and Anatolia. (23)
Cianachta – ‘Descendants of Cian’ or ‘Cian-descendants’. In some of our mythological genealogies, Cian is the father of Lugh and the son of Dian Chéacht of the Tuatha Dé Danann. The Cianachta are scattered in various places in Ireland. Many families descend from them in Munster.
III. Supernatural Ancestors in the Christian Seanchas of the Gaeil
A. Labraid Moen
In our ancient Christian genealogies, all the Laighin descend from Labraid Moen. In ancient poems of the Laighin, we find stanzas like this:
Ór ós gréin/ gelmair/ gabais for doíne domnaib/ sceo dee/ dia oín/ as Móen mac Áine/ oínrí. (24)
Gold above the sun, bright, who takes lands of men and gods, the one god is Moen son of Áine, the one king.
In the story Cath Maige Mucrama, found in the Book of Leinster, Áine (i.e., the mother of Labraid Moen) came from the sí-palaces as we see here:
Dollotar asin tsíd & Eogabul mac Durgabuil rí in tsída ... & Áne ingen Eogabuil & timpán creda ina láim oca seinm dó ... (25)
Eogabul mac Durgabuil, rí na Sí, went out of the Sí-palace... and Áine the daughter of Eogabul and a bronze iompán in her hand playing it for him ...
The Corcu Loígde are named in honor of Lugaid Loígde (i.e., Lughaidh Laoidhe in Modern Irish). The meaning of ‘Corcu Loígde’ is ‘Seed of Lughaidh Laoidhe’. Here is their genealogy from the manuscript called ‘Rawlinson B.502’:
... Lugaid Loígde m. Dáiri Doimtig nó Sírchréchtaig m. Sidebuilg m. Fir Suilne m. Tecmanrach m. Loga m. Eithlenn m. Luigdech m. Bregaind ... (26)
... Lugaid Loígde son of Dáire Doimtig or Síorchréchtaig son of Sidebulg son of Fir Suilne son of Tecmanrach son of Lugh son of Eithliu son of Lughaidh son of Breogan ...
As we see in this genealogy, Lugaid Loígde descends from “Sidebulg”, a name which we can translate as ‘Sí-Lightning’, (27) and Sidebulg descends from the famous god Lugh.
The Mic Leóid were ‘galloglasses’ and Gall-Ghaeil. Here is a summary of their ancestry: (28)
of the: Clann Leóid .i. Mic Leóid
of the: Uí Néid
of the: Síol Sin-Íomhair
of the: Fionn-Ghaill
of the: Lochlannaigh
of the: Gall-Ghaeil
of the: Sean-Ghaill
of the: Gaill
They were so Gaelicized from their time in Ireland or before their time in Ireland that we can find this in the Book of Genealogies written by Dubhaltach Mac Fhirbhisigh ca. 1650:
Leód ó ttáid Clanna Leóid, m. Lára (agus as í táining a síoth-broghaibh i riocht lára ionnus go rug triar mac ar a ffuil sliocht) ... (29)
Leód from whom are the Clann Leóid son of Láir (and it is she who came from the Sí-palaces in the form of a mare so that she bore three sons from whom are progeny) ...
IV. To Conclude
The examples above are not comprehensive. I didn’t mention tribes or kinships who believed they descended from gods and goddesses like Áine, Óengus, Ciar, Macha, Mug Ruith, Nuadu, and many others. I didn’t mention examples from Scotland or the Isle of Mann, or the marriage of the Norman Earl Gearóid Fitzgerald to Áine. But as we see from the handful above, there were Gaeil (and even Gall-Ghaeil!) in every part of Ireland who believed that they descended from gods (in the pagan period) or from the Sí (in the Christian period).
Perhaps this is one of the reasons why our belief in the Sí continued so strongly and for so long. At the end of the day, it’s hard for us to deny our own ancestors, especially ancestors as wonderful as our old gods and the Sí.
BUN-FHOINSÍ / SOURCES
Best, R. I., Osborn Bergin, M. A. O'Brien and Anne O'Sullivan, editors. The Book of Leinster, formerly Lebar na Núachongbála. 6 volumes. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. Electronic text: http://www.ucc.ie/celt/published/G800011E/index.html
Caesar, Gaius Julius. The War Commentaries of Caesar. Translated by Rex Warner. New York: The New American Library. 1960.
Garmonsway, G.N., translator. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. London: J.M. Dent & Sons. 1972
Herodotus. The History. Translated by David Grene. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1987
Mac Cana, Proinsias. Celtic Mythology. New York: Hamlyn Publishing Group. 1970
Mac Fhirbhisigh, Dubhaltach. Nollaig Ó Muraíle, editor. Leabhar Mór na nGenealach / The Great Book of Irish Genealogies. 5 volumes. Dublin: De Búrca Books, 2003.
Mac Niocaill, Gearóid. Ireland Before The Vikings. Gill History Of Ireland Series, Volume 1. Dublin: Gill and MacMillan, 1972
MacAlister, R.A. Stewart, editor. Lebor Gabála Érenn - The Book of the Taking of Ireland. 5 volumes. London: Cumann na Sgríbheann nGaedhilge / The Irish Texts Society, 1939.
MacLysaght, Edward. The Surnames of Ireland. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1969
Ó Buachalla, Liam, et. al. Irish Historical & Archaeological Researches: Collected works of Liam O'Buachalla. Carrigtwohill, Co. Cork: Clann na Gréine, Teo., 1988.
Ó Corráin, Donnchadh. Ireland before The Normans. Gill History of Ireland Series, Volume 2. Dublin: Gill and MacMillan, 1972
Ó Corráin, Donnchadh. "Creating the Past: The Early Irish Genealogical Tradition," Chronicon 1 (1997) 2: 1-32. Electronic text:
O'Brien, Michael A., editor. Corpus Genealogiarum Hiberniae. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1962.
O'Rahilly, T.F. Early Irish History and Mythology. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1946, 1971 reprint.
Plutarch. Lives of the Noble Greeks. A Selection edited by Edmund Fuller. New York: Dell Publishing Company, 1959
Ptolemy, Claudius. Louis Francis, translator. Ptolemy’s Geographia. 1994. Electronic file at http://www.reshistoriaeantiqua.co.uk/Ptolemy%20B.html
Seyffert, Oskar. Dictionary of Classical Antiquities. Edited by Henry Nettleship and J.E. Sandys. New York: Meridian Books. 1969
Sturluson, Snorri. The Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson. Tales from Norse Mythology selected and translated by Jean I. Young. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1966
Woulfe, Patrick. Sloinnte Gaedheal Is Gall. Kansas City: Irish Genealogical Foundation, 1992 reprint of 1923 edition
1 Herodotus, The History. 7.208, p. 543
2 Plutarch, Lives of the Noble Greeks, p. 269
3 Seyffert, Dictionary of Classical Antiquities, pps.10-11
4 Garmonsway, translator. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, p. 2
5 Sturluson, The Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson, p. 26
6 Garmonsway, translator. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, p. 13
7 aistrithe de "The Gauls claim to be all descended from Father Dis and say that this is a tradition which has been handed down to them by the Druids.” - War Commentaries of Caesar, translated by Rex Warner. p. 125
8 Mac Cana, pps 42-44
9 Ptolemy, Geographia, Book 2, Section 2 ag http://www.reshistoriaeantiqua.co.uk/Ptolemy%20B.html
10 O’Rahilly, Chapter 1
11 Woulfe, p. 355
12 MacLysaght, p. 93
13 Ó Buachalla, Liam, et. al. p. 159
14 O’Rahilly, p. 9
15 Ó Corráin, Ireland before the Normans, p. 171
16 Ó Corráin, Ireland before the Normans, p. 25
17 O'Rahilly, pps. 34-38
18 Woulfe, p. 381, 544
19 Mac Niocaill, pps. 3-4
20 O’Rahilly, p. 295
21 MacAlister, editor. Lebor Gabála Érenn, Volume IV, p. 130, par. (aa)
22 MacAlister, editor. Lebor Gabála Érenn, Volume IV, p. 124, par. 315
23 Woulfe, p. 535-536; 560-561
24 Ó Corráin, “Creating the Past: The Early Irish Genealogical Tradition” san iris leictreonach Chronicon, Imleabhar 1 (1997) 2: 1-32 ag http://www.ucc.ie/chronicon/ocorr.htm . Cuir i gcomparáid aistriúchán Uí Chorráin: “Gold more shining than the bright sun, there seized the lands of humans and of gods the one god who is Moín, son of Áine, the one king.”
25 Best, et. al., editors. Book of Leinster, formerly Lebar na Núacohngbála, section 39, p.1252 MS folio 288a15 at http://www.ucc.ie/celt/published/G800011E/index.html .
26 O'Brien, Corpus Genealogiarum Hiberniae. p. 156, par. 155.a.3
27 O'Rahilly, p. 52
28 Mac Firbhisigh, Leabhar Mór na nGenealach, Vol. III, p. 50, par. 776.2-776.3
29 Mac Firbhisigh, Leabhar Mór na nGenealach, Vol. III, p. 50, par. 776.2
Copyright © 2015 by Gerald A. John Kelly
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