Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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The ship that arrived into Bantry Bay carried three men and fifty women. The voyage had been long and monstrous; the two ships that sailed alongside them had both sank off the Irish coast, killing many of their friends and family. The solid Irish landscape was certainly welcome but the newcomers would not long enjoy it. The woman who led the group died soon after their arrival, as did two of the men. The other 49 women perished when the waters of the Atlantic Ocean suddenly rose to such a height that most of Ireland was immersed.

The sole surviving male subsequently hurled himself into the water and turned into a salmon. He was the husband of the woman who led the ill-fated emigrants. And she, as it happened, was Noah’s granddaughter.

This is a part of the story you won’t find in ‘Noah’, Russell Crowe’s biblical epic, but a thousand years ago the story of his granddaughter’s attempt to settle in Ireland at the time of the Great Flood was standard belief across much of the country.

The first written version of the story was ‘Lebor Gabála Érenn’, an 11th century collection of poetry and prose that is known in English as ‘The Book of Invasions’. Written in Middle Irish, an early form of Gaelic, the anonymous author of this work claimed to have collected the stories from an oral tradition that stretched back into the distant mists.

The Christian Church in medieval Ireland heartily approved of ‘The Book of Invasions’ and gave it canonical status, meaning it was declared ‘safe’ to use in both worship and theology. Billed as an authoritative history of Ireland, the book was designed to work hand-in-hand with the history of the Israelites as told in the Old Testament of the Holy Bible.

The upshot was a mash-up of Judeo-Christian theology and Celtic mythology that enabled the Christian Church to dazzle their illiterate flock with stories that linked them directly to the Holy Land. The Book was constantly updated over the ensuing centuries, with the last version compiled in 1631 at the Franciscan convent of Lisgool, near Enniskillen, by Mícheál Ó Cléirigh, one of the celebrated Four Masters.

In some parts of Ireland, ‘The Book of Invasions’ remained an incontestable source of Irish history through until the 19th century. When the Dublin-born archaeologist R. A. Stewart Macalister completed its first translation into English in 1942, he bemoaned that ‘there is not a single element of genuine historical detail, in the strict sense of the word, anywhere in the whole compilation.’

However, others maintain that, for all its faults, it is ultimately based on fact. Robert Graves, the acclaimed Great War poet and a keen student of mythology, argued that the stories could have been passed from generation to generation with a high degree of accuracy before the Christian church twisted the tales to their needs and created its own version.

Like the Bible, ‘The Book of Invasions’ is divided into ten books, or chapters, commencing with the aptly named Genesis, which basically mirrors what the Bible says about the creation of the world and the fall of man.

Noah makes his debut in the second book, which explains how all Europeans descend from his son Japheth. Among these was Fénius Farsaid, Japheth’s great-grandson, who took a leading role in building the Tower of Babel. His son Nél married Scota, a daughter of one of the Pharaohs of Egypt, and it was their son Goídel Glas who, inspired by the 72 languages of the builders of Babel, grabbed the best bits in order to invented both the Ogham alphabet and the Gaelic language which was initially called Goidelic.

Like the Israelites, Goídel’s descendants were compelled to wander the world in a nomadic manner. Four hundred years later, they fetched up in the Galician city of Brigantia in northern Spain. One of these descendants was a warrior called Íth who chanced to climb an exceedingly high tower near Brigantia on a day so clear that he espied the green, green grass of Ireland.

Cue Russell Crowe, or rather Noah and his family courtesy of the third chapter which focuses on Cessair. The story starts with Noah and his son Bith who, sadly, does not get a look-in in either the Holy Bible or the new movie. Noah calls Bith and Bith’s wife Birren to his side, forewarns them of the coming Great Flood and apologises that there’s no room on his Ark for them. ‘Rise,’ he proposes, ‘and go to the western edge of the world; perchance the Flood may not reach it’.

Bith’s wise-thinking daughter Cessair duly leads a convoy of three ships, two of which later sink in the swirling waters of Bantry Bay although some are still adamant that the bay into which they landed was, in fact, Ballinskelligs on Kerry’s Iveragh Peninsula.

The three surviving men were Bith, a seer called Fintan mac Bóchra and Ladra, the ship’s skipper. As well as Cessair, the fifty maidens ‘of the seed of Adam’ bore names such as Alba, Espa, German, Traige and Gothiam, thus linking them to the maternity of the British, Spanish, Germans, Thracians and Goths. The three men decide to share the women amongst themselves equally, with each taking a primary wife. Fintán secures Cessair, Bith takes Bairrfhind and Ladra opts for Alba.

Tragically Ladra and Bith are soon dead. Ladra is said to have been buried at Ardamine on the east coast of County Wexford, the first human ever buried in Ireland. Bith is said to have been buried in Carnmore, midway between Rosslea and Lisnaskea, all the way up in County Fermanagh. By some accounts, the Slieve Beagh mountains are named in his honour.

Fintán simply can’t cope with being the only man on a large green island with fifty women and runs away. His flight serves him well because when the Great Flood comes just forty days after their arrival in Ireland, he is on sufficiently high ground in the Arra Mountains of north Tipperary to avoid the rushing waters. It was at this point that he became a salmon although he later turned into an eagle and then a hawk, finally becoming a man again some 5,500 years after the flood. Not surprisingly after all that, he took up a career as a historian.

Abandoned by her husband, poor Cessair died of a broken heart just six days before the Great Flood struck. According to some traditions, she was buried under a massive cairn known as Carn Ceasra on the summit of Knockma Hill, six miles south-west of Tuam, County Galway. Others hold that her body lies in a cairn near Boyle in County Roscommon.

In any event, as The Book of Invasions explains, between all the women drowned and Fintán undecided whether he was a fish or a bird, it took precisely 312 years before any more humans came to Ireland. This time the invaders were led by Partholón, another descendant of Noah. They defeated the ugly Fomorians and introduced farming, cooking, brewing and the construction industry to the land. The population soared to 9000 by the time a dirty plague came along and killed the whole lot save for Partholón’s nephew Tuan who lived to tell the tale.

The third wave of humans were led by Nemed, yet another descendant of Noah, but were similarly hammered by plague before the Fomorians and a tidal wave drove them away again. The fourth wave were the Fir Bolg, who divided Ireland into five kingdoms. The fifth were the supernaturally-skilled Tuatha Dé Danann who enjoyed 150 years of continuous rule before … well, its full circle really because this is when Ith clambered up the tower in Galicia and saw Ireland from northern Spain.

Fast forward a few pages and Íth’s Gaels storm Ireland, give the Tuatha Dé the heave ho and establish Celtic civilization, as the Book of Invasion eagerly points out, everyone knows that the High Kings of Tara are the ancestors of Ireland’s Christian kings.

One chuckles but there are wisps of truth throughout. There is a very tall lighthouse known as the Tower of Hercules on the Galician coast near the city of A Coruña. The tower was built by the Romans at least 1800 years ago. Okay, you might not be able to see Ireland from it but it’s pointing the right way and it turns out that A Coruña used to be called Brigantia. It also seems increasingly plausible that there was once a major flood that reshaped much of Europe, connected with the rushing of huge volumes of waters from the Atlantic through the Straits of Gibraltar towards the Holy Land.