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The Milesians

Ancient Ireland (A.D 520)

Above : Ancient Ireland (A.D 520)

The traditions of the coming of the ” Milesians “—the last of the Celtic-speaking colonies which came to Ireland—are more definite than those of the earlier colonics. They convey a clearer impression of dealing with real people and real events. They are, however, full of impossible details, and abound in absurdities and inconsistencies. The details which are given of the prolonged travels of the Milesians from Stythia through Egypt and Spain are obviously improbable : while the list of unimportant kings—nearly every one of whom is alleged to have been killed by his successor—is also obviously fictitious. But the purely mythological nature of the earlier traditions is absent, and the stories, incredible as they are in many respects, appear to be based upon some truth in the important events. The accounts of the early ” Milesians ” may, therefore, be termed ” legendary ” history.

The ” Milesians,” the last and most famous in tradition of the early colonies, arrived, according to various accounts, between 1700 years B.C. and 1000 years B.C. The legends speak of their extensive journeyings during many centuries from their original habitation in Scythia through Thrace, Egypt, ” Gothland,” Britain and Spain. One of their leaders, named Gadelius, from whom the name of Gaedheal is said to be derived, is mentioned as a contemporaryof Moses. In Spain their leader was niile^t), or Milesius, who had married an Egyptian princess named Scota, and from the two they took the names of ” Milesians ” and ” Scots.” Through all their travels they had been animated by the prospect of an ” Island of Destiny ” in the West, which was to be occupied by their descendants. Accordingly, in the time of Mileadh they despatched an expedition under his uncle Ith to discover this sacred island. Ith landed in Ireland, but was mortally wounded in an encounter with the inhabitants, and his dead body was brought back to Spain.

Mileadh had died before the return of Ith’s expedition, but his eight sons, and the other chiefs, resolved to leave Spain with their followers for the island of which they were told. In thirty ships, with thirty soldiers and a number of followers in each, they set sail, and landed at three different spots—InoeafiSUMnge (Wexford Harbour), InoeAfiScStne (Kenmare River), and inoeAfi Colpa (the Boyne). Five sons of Mileadh were lost in the landing, including Donn, who was drowned in Kenmare River ; and Colpa, lost in the Boyne ; and Ir, who was shipwrecked on the western coast. The ” Milesians ” defeated the Tuatha De Danann in two battles ; the first at Slieve Mis (in Co. Kerry), in which the defending force was led by their Queen Eire, and in which Scota was slain ; the second at Taillte (” Telltown ” in Co. Meath) where the Tuatha De Danann were finally overcome, and their three Queens, Eire, Fodla and Banba, were slain.
The victorious ” Milesians ” now divided the country between their principal leaders. It is evident, however, that the original inhabitants were not exterminated. The new colonists, comparatively small in numbers, established themselves as a dominant class, but sections of the pre-Milesian people remained distinct but tributary tribes in many parts of the country—and, indeed, in some districts retained their independence. Heremon and Heber, two sons of Mileadh, divided the sovereignty of the country : to the followers of their brother Ir was given part of ” Ulster,” while the followers of their uncle Ith settled in a territory in the south-west called Corkalee (Copca tutge). Amcrgin, the other surviving brother, who appears to have been the ” soothsayer ” of the expedition, was not allotted any independent position. Heremon and Heber quarrelled very soon: Heber was slain, and Heremon became the sole ruler.

To the four princes of the ” Milesians “—Heremon, Heber, Ir, and Ith—all the ” free clans ” of Ireland in later times, professed to trace their lineage. From Heremon the ruling families of most of Ireland claimed their descent, from Heber those of Munster, from Ir those of Ulaidh (counties Down and Antrim) and from Ith certain tribes in the south-west. It is noteworthy that of these the descendants of Heremon and Heber, who were the only two who are said to have actually landed in Ireland with the invaders, became by far the most important.

Fabulous as these long lines of descent must be considered, they indicate roughly distinct groups of the Irish clans, and their historical influence was great. We shall find also that so far as regards at least two of those groups—the so-called ” Heremonian ” and ” Heberian “— they can be traced to real historical characters.

Of the many kings who are said to have succeeded Here­mon we are told little of importance and nothing reliable. The legends show them to have been chiefly engaged in battles with one another and with the Firbolgs, the Fomorians, and the Picts or Cruithnigh.* Of nearly every one we are told that he governed so many years, and was slain by his rival who succeeded him. The one name which stands out prominently is that of OIUmti pofjlA {Ollave Folci), who was of the line of Ir. He is said to have been a king of great wisdom and learning, and to have established the Feis of Tara, an assembly of the nobles and learned men, which met every three years to revise the laws and records. He is also said to have placed a chief over every district and a sub-chief in every townland, ” who were all to serve the King of Ireland.”

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