Lebor Gabála Érenn, a title which we can best translate literally, “the Book of the Taking of Ireland,” is a compilation which professes to narrate the history of the successive colonists of that country.¹
The Lebor Gabála Érenn is the primary source of information I have used to research the Túatha Dé Danann. The translation of this beautiful Irish treasure was commissioned to renowned Irish archaeologist R.A.S. MacAlister (1870-1950) who began to study the work in 1937.
LGE was a created prose by an unknown scribe in the 11th century who aimed to piece together a history of Ireland, influenced by the Latin writing of Welsh monk Nennius’s Historia Britonum², ‘History of the Britons’, c.826 A.D. in which a brief ancestry of the Irish people is included, incorporated with a body of Irish ‘historical’ poetry mostly identified as being created by the poets;
Eochaid Ua Floinn (c.936-c.1004)
Flann Mainstrech mac Echthigrin (unknown-c.1056)
Gilla Cómain mac Gilla Samthainde (unknown –c.1072)
It was written in the language of Middle Irish spoken from 900-1200 A.D. The series of manuscripts that make up the book give us a story of the different groups of people who settled in Ireland after the Deluge; a flood myth found in many cultures and in the Book of Genesis narrative. The book gives an account of how each group lived and died, and provides a genealogy of Irish ‘kings’ down to the Norman Invasion. As Christianity was introduced to Ireland in the 5th century, the purpose of the LGE was perfectly summed up in the words of contemporary archaeologist, John Carey;
Firstly to unite the population by obliterating the memory of previous and different ethnic groups, secondly to weaken the influence of pre-Christian pagan religions by converting their gods into mere mortals, and thirdly to manufacture pedigrees into which the various dynastic groups could conveniently be fitted …³
In the century that followed, additional scribes updated and extended the prose which resulted in several redactions or edits. This simply means that stories from multiple source texts were combined, then edited and altered to create a new and coherent work.
MacAlister’s publications of the translation of the LGE, are broken down as follows:
Section I: FROM THE CREATION TO THE DISPERSAL OF THE NATIONS
Section II: THE EARLY HISTORY OF THE GAEDHIL
Section III: CESSAIR
Section IV: PARTHOLON
Section IV: PARTHOLON (continued)
Section V: NEMED
Section VI: FIR BOLG
Section VII: TUATHA DÉ DANANN
Section VIII: THE SONS OF MÍL
Section IX: THE ROLL OF THE KINGS
MacAlister denotes each redaction with a unique identifier, R¹, R², R³ etc. and identifies the source material used for each, using symbols as shorthand, which are (L, F) (V, E, P, R, D, ᴧ, A) (B, M, H) etc. respectively.
Each passage of prose and each poem is given a unique number by MacAlister in an attempt to group the order of the stories, due to the regional variances in the presentment of the narratives from different sources. This numbering begins from (1) and increases in number (2), (3) etc. throughout the LGE. No number is repeated so as to give one cohesive sequence from PART I to PART V.
A simple example from PART IV. Section VI: Fir Bolg illustrates the ‘editing’ of the scribes between redactions;
FIR BOLG: R1 (281) Yet the Tuatha De Danann suffered great loss in the battle, and they left the king on the field, with his arm cut from him; the leeches were seven years healing him.
FIR BOLG: R2 (290) Howbeit the Tuatha De Danann suffered great loss in that battle, and they left their king on that field, with his arm cut off from the shoulder down. Leeches were seven years working his cure, (and an arm of silver was put upon him).
The First Redaction (R¹) of LGE can be traced back to sections of the now preserved manuscripts called The Book of Leinster (c.1150) and The Book of Fermoy (c.1373).
Míniugud (Min) meaning “explanation” is closely similar to R¹ with some additions from a source no longer in existence but is older than the surviving manuscript of the Second Redaction.
Second Redaction (R²) of LGE can be traced back to at least nine separate preserved texts, the best example of which is The Great Book of Lecan (first text) (c.1418).
Third Redaction (R³) of LGE can be traced back to sections of the now preserved manuscripts called The Book of Ballymote (c.1391) and The Great Book of Lecan (second text) (c.1418).
O’Clery’s Redaction (K) was written by Mícheál Ó Cléirigh (c.1631), a Franciscan scribe and one of the Four Masters. His redaction was written in Early Modern Irish, the language of his time and was included in MacAlister’s study because the archaeologist found indications that the author wrote it from source material not used by the other compilers, which is now no longer in existence.
The LGE is an important document that synthesised Irish folklore that had been developing as an oral tradition in the foregoing centuries. This is shown where the scribes merely point to the opening lines of the poetry related to the prose in the margins of the manuscripts, believing that the verse texts were already known and committed to memory.
Late in the 11th century, a single anonymous scholar brought together the body of poetry, already identified by the poets above, partly of his own composition and of sources no longer in existence. This was probably as a result of increasing variances in the formula used in introducing the poems, which showed that relying on memory alone was untrustworthy. MacAlister felt that although the verse texts in their present form, were the foundation for the body of prose work, they added nothing new to them and so treated them separately.
Although the title of the book indicates one single ‘taking’ the written narratives tell us that Ireland was settled or taken six times by the people of Cessair⁵, Partholon⁶, Nemed⁷, the Fir Bolg⁸, the Túatha Dé Danann⁹ and the Milesians¹⁰. The TDD represent Ireland’s pagan gods who were overthrown by the final group, the Milesians, said to represent the bloodline of the Gaedhil from which the Irish are descended.
Believed to be an accurate historical document, LGE influenced the 17th century writings of Geoffrey Keating’s Foras Feasa ar Érinn¹¹ (The History of Ireland) and the chronicles of medieval Irish history in the Annals of the Four Masters¹² (Annála na gCeithre Máistrí).
While scholars such as MacAlister and Carey viewed the work as a tradition of historical fabrication or pseudo-history, suggestions that the book is loosely based on actual migration groups to Ireland were made by T.F. O’Rahilly¹³ in the 1940’s, based on his analysis of the LGE and the early Irish language.
Several translations followed; French in 1884 and the first complete English translation by MacAlister between 1937 and 1942. MacAlister, who specialised in Biblical archaeology, viewed the LGE as a compilation of two works, one modelled after the Old Testament story of the Israelites interjected with a scholarly Latin work entitled Liber Occupationis Hiberniae (The Book of the Occupation of Ireland) which he believed existed in the time of Nennius and influenced the original text of the LGE which he reasoned as to why the Middle Irish title only refers to one ‘taking’.
¹MACALISTER, R.A.S., (1938) Lebor Gabála Érenn, The Book of the Taking of Ireland, Irish Texts Society Dublin, p.ix.
²GILES, J.A. Ed., (1841) A History of the Britons by Nennius, J Bohn, London.
³CAREY, John, (1994) The Irish National Origin-Legend: Synthetic Pseudohistory, University of Cambridge, p.1–4
⁴MACALISTER, R.A.S. (1938) Lebor Gabála Érenn, The Book of the Taking of Ireland, Irish Texts Society Dublin, p.xi – xxv.
⁵MACALISTER, R.A.S. Ed., (1939) Lebor Gabála Érenn, The Book of the Taking of Ireland, PART II, Section III: CESSAIR, Irish Texts Society Dublin.
⁶MACALISTER, R.A.S. Ed., (1939) Lebor Gabála Érenn, The Book of the Taking of Ireland, PART II, Section IV: PARTHOLON, Irish Texts Society Dublin.
MACALISTER, R.A.S. Ed., (1940) Lebor Gabála Érenn, The Book of the Taking of Ireland, PART III, Section IV: PARTHOLON (cont), Irish Texts Society Dublin.
⁷MACALISTER, R.A.S. Ed., (1940) Lebor Gabála Érenn, The Book of the Taking of Ireland, PART III, Section V: NEMED, Irish Texts Society Dublin.
⁸MACALISTER, R.A.S., (1940) Lebor Gabála Érenn, The Book of the Taking of Ireland, PART IV, Section VI: FIR BOLG, Irish Texts Society Dublin.
⁹MACALISTER, R.A.S. Ed., (1941) Lebor Gabála Érenn, The Book of the Taking of Ireland, PART IV, Section VII: TUATHA DE DANANN, Irish Texts Society Dublin.
¹⁰MACALISTER, R.A.S. Ed., (1956) Lebor Gabála Érenn, The Book of the Taking of Ireland, PART V, Section VIII: THE SONS OF MÍL, Irish Texts Society Dublin.
¹¹COMYN, David, Ed., (1902) Foras Feasa ar Éirinn, The History of Ireland by Geoffrey Keating, Irish Texts Society, London.
¹²O’DONOVAN, John, Ed., (2002) Annals of the Four Masters, Corpus of Electronic Text, UCC, Cork.
¹³O’RAHILLY, T. F., (1946) Early Irish History and Mythology, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, Ireland.