Book of Invasions, The

Book of Invasions, The
(Book of the Taking of Ireland, Leabhar Gabhála Éireann)
   The Leabhar Gabhála Éireann is a collection of narratives that are part of Ireland’s “mythological cycle.” They present a fairly systematic set of etiological myths concerning the origins of a number of Ireland’s features (the lakes and shaping of the land, for example) and for a number of mainly agricultural human practices (such as plowing or churning).More important, the book presents the Irish traditions concerning the settlement of their own land as a series off invasions by a succession of mythic or legendary peoples, including the Partholians, the Nemedians, the Fir Bolg, the divine Túatha Dé Danann, and ultimately the Gaelic Milesians. The text was begun perhaps in the eighth century, and as many as five different versions were produced, all from relatively late manuscripts (though the ancient origin of much of the material has been demonstrated), the most important being the Book of Leinster (ca. 1150).
   The Book of Invasions is made up of 10 sections. The first section deals with the Creation of the world, followed by an account of the first settlers of Ireland, identified as a son of Noah named Bith and his daughter Cessair with her husband and a number of others who, denied a place on Noah’s ark, built their own boat and sailed for seven years before landing in Munster. They are ultimately wiped out by rising flood waters. It seems clear that medieval Irish Christians, perhaps the monks who produced the earliest manuscript, edited the Celtic mythological material to make it conform to biblical history.
   Parts three through seven of the Book of Invasions, which have been shown to be the earliest parts of the book, detail several more waves of invasions. The first of these, the Partholians, come to Ireland from the eastern Mediterranean. They are said to have cleared four plains and created seven lakes. The story says that they also introduced cattle, milling, and the brewing of beer into Ireland. They are said to have fought with the Fomorians, a demonic race of underworld monsters. But the Partholians are wiped out by a plague. The Partholians are followed by the Nemhedhains, who find Ireland by chance while sailing from Scythia. They also fight the Fomorians, and are cruelly subjugated by the monsters, forced to pay a huge tribute to them—two-thirds of their goods—each Samhain (the Irish fall festival that is precursor to modern Halloween). Eventually the Nemhedhains leave Ireland. The fourth invasion of Ireland described in The Book of Invasions is by the people called the Fir Bolg. They are said to be descended from the Nemhedhains. The Fir Bolg are credited with dividing Ireland into its five traditional provinces, and established a monarchy connected with the goddess of the land, a “marriage” that insures the fertility of land and people.
   The most important invasion of the mythological cycle is that of the Túatha Dé Danann (the “People of the Goddess Danu”), who arrive, the text says, from an island in the north.Many scholars have seen these beings as rationalizations of older Celtic deities. At first they coexist peacefully with the Fir Bolg. But the Túatha Dé Danann wish to rule the island, and they have significant powers, including Druidical knowledge and four powerful treasures: The Stone of Destiny (that cried out in the presence of the rightful king), the Spear of Lugh (the Celtic god of light and one of the Túatha Dé Danann), the Sword of Nuadha (the first king of the Túatha Dé Danann), and the Cauldron of Dagda (a magic cauldron that was never empty— perhaps an early Celtic precursor of the HOLY GRAIL). The Túatha Dé Danann battle the Fir Bolg, kill their king Eochaidh, capture Tara (the seat of sovereignty), and rule all of Ireland. Later, however, the Túatha Dé Danann are subjugated by the monstrous Fomorians. Nuadha is killed by Balor of the Baleful Eye, a Fomorian whose single eye strikes his enemies dead. Lugh ultimately kills Balor with a slingshot that strikes his eye, and the Túatha Dé Danann eventually exile the Fomorians from Ireland.
   The eighth section of the Book of Invasions concerns the coming of the Milesians, the Celtic people who are the legendary (and perhaps even the historical) precursors of the Irish people. Their leaders, Ebor and Eremon, defeat the Túatha Dé Danann at the battle of Tailtu, and divide the land between them. The seven Milesian wives give names to various parts of the island, and the book ends as a Túatha Dé Danann woman,Macha, marries Crunniuc mac Agnoman, the prince of Ulster. Mach is scorned by the Ulstermen and gives birth to twins at Emhain Macha, after which she curses the Ulstermen.
   The last two sections of the Book of Invasions are simply rolls of kings. Although the book was considered authoritative by native Irish historians until the 17th century, just how much of the Book of Invasions can be considered actual history has been a matter of scholarly debate for over a century. It is probably unwise to claim that anything in the book is historical fact: Even those aspects of the book that might contain a kernel of historical truth are blurred with myth and legend.
   ■ Carey, John. A New Introduction to Lebor Gabála Érenn, the Book of the Taking of Ireland. London: Irish Texts Society, 1993.
   ■ MacAlister, Robert Alexander Stewart, ed. Lebor Gabála Érenn: The Book of the Taking of Ireland. 5 vols. Early Irish Text Society 34, 35, 39, 41, 44. Dublin: Published for the Irish Text Society by the Educational Company of Ireland, 1938–1956.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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