Ireland, known to Caesar as Brittanis (Little Britain), charming island to the west of the Roman conquest, grew stronger and forged far toward civilization while the Romans fought Brythons (Britons) and Caledonians.
The Romans knew that there were people and treasures on the island now known as Ireland, and it was believed that conquest would be light work for Roman soldiers and superior munitions of war (Tacitus, Vita Agricolae, Ch. 24). But during all of the more than three hundred years of Roman occupation of Britain no effort was made to invade Ireland. Agricola, standing on the west coast of Scotland, saw the Irish shores, says Maxwell (The Early Chronicles, Ch. 4), but he found no opportunity for invasion. Therefore, from no Roman writer do we get any important information concerning that island or its people.
As we saw in the previous chapter, perhaps the earliest known reference to the people of Ireland calls them gens Hibernorum, or people of Hibernia; and the Roman documents of Caesar’s day mention Ireland as inhabited gentibus Scotorum. Skene, Macbain and others point out that “these Scots are to be distinguished from the more ancient Hiberni;” and Skene calls attention to the lives of St. Patrick from which we get “the most ancient notices perhaps which we have of the state of that island,” as we are told in The Highlanders of Scotland (Macbain’s edition). The more ancient name Hibernia was in the Celtic language Eire, or Erin, or in the Welch Ywerdon, as Skene has explained.
Ethnologists have discovered that the people who were living in Ireland during the Roman stay in Britain, which period is generally regarded as the dawn of the history of the British Isles, were in common with the Brythons, the Caledonians, and all the tribes found by the Romans, descendants of the great Celtic stream of the human family. We now know that as into other parts of what is now Great Britain so into Ireland widely separated waves of human migration, perhaps thousands of years before the Roman era, rolled out from what appears to be, as near as can be now known, the common home of the races of earth, each to disappear before the next. Digging amid the ages-buried ruins and prowling among the burial places left by the pre-historic peoples, archaeologists and ethnologists, by cranial measurements and other means, have traced the successive waves of humanity which broke upon the shores of Ireland out through what is now Spain, Portugal and France; thence, it is believed across the Bay of Biscay and upon the Atlantic to the Irish shores.
Just when the first historic people reached what is now Ireland is not certainly known. It is believed by some that the people found in Ireland by the Romans reached there before the Picts and other tribes met by the Romans reached Alba and Caledonia. Nennius, writing perhaps before 800 A. D., believed that the Picts reached Britain 800 years after the Britons, and that “long after this the Scots arrived in Ireland from Spain,” and that they settled Dalrieta in Northern Ireland. However, that the early Irish forefathers reached Ireland at least four or five hundred years before Christ is now generally admitted. Their immediate predecessors, a tall, dark, swarthy people, who were almost entirely absorbed by their conquerors, are now generally classed as Iberians. So crude was civilization in those early days that even the traditions of the Iberians have been lost: but we have an immense volume of Irish traditions and legends purporting to give the origin and some account of that race to which most Irish trace their parentage.
Professor O’Growney tells us that there are today enough old Irish manuscripts in Dublin to fill one thousand printed volumes. From the oldest manuscripts and the earliest Irish traditions of which we have any knowledge, we learn that what we now know as Ireland and as Scotland are represented as having been intimately connected and inhabited by a common people. At a very distant day, the same sources insist, there swept into Ireland a race of people known as Firbolgs, beings resembling classic Cyclopeans; years passed and these were followed by the Dannans; and then after many years come those generally known as Picts. The first are represented as the builders of the gigantic and well-placed stone forts found along the west coast of Ireland; the next brought from what we now know as Scotland learning and religion and the mystic coronation stone which the Irish, in the main, contend is yet in the Hall of Tara, and which the Scots say was carried to Scone, Scotland, and from there to Westminster, England, where the Scots insist, it is today. Antiquarians are yet quarreling as to who were those Picts of the early Irish literature, as they are as to the Picts of Scotland. Fitzgerald, in his Ireland and Her People, says that the early Irish chronicles peopled the country in the fourth century after the Deluge by the Partholanians; then in successive waves, as he reports the old stories, came the Nemedians, the Formorians, the Firbolgs and then the Dannans, all of whom perished before the coming, or were swept away by, the sons of Milesius.
So that finally out of the mists of these far-distant days in what is now both Ireland and Scotland emerge a people known as Gaelic. By some writers they are regarded as “the second invaders, a Celtic race who came into Britain and Ireland from Northwest Germany and the Netherlands… They were a highly civilized people as compared with other races of that time.”
In attempting to tell us when his people came, the Gaelic poet Mael-Mura, in the ninth century, sang:
Canam bunadhas na n-Gaedhal.
“Let me sing the origin of the Gael,” as Gaelic scholars translate this. Then the poet tells us that the early traditions of his people taught that the first historic people of Ireland were descendants of a mighty race whose legendary leaders was Milesius. The Milesians lived in a country before they came to Ireland where Queen Scota ruled. Gaedhal Glas was her son. From these names came Scoti or Scots, and Scotia, the names by which Ireland and the Irish first were known to others than the Romans, and particularly to the early inhabitants themselves and to the people of pre-Scotland.
“For ten centuries Ireland was the true Scotia,” therefore, as Professor O’Growney, of Manooth College, Ireland, and others, have shown us. (2 Trans. of the Gaelic Soc. of Glasgow, pg. 239.) Hence the Celts of Ireland and their descendants are also known as Gaels, as well as Scots. They were the people who were in Ireland when the Romans reached Britain, and at the dawn of history they were permanently settled in Northern Ireland, called Dalrieta by Nennius, and which came to be known as Dalriada.
The prehistoric and also early Scots (of that early day of what is now Ireland) were a most enterprising people. At one time or another they had trade routes into the commercial centers of Europe and even into Asia. From Asia Minor, very probably directly from the patriarchs of the church founded at Antioch by the greatest of Apostolic Missionaries, St. Paul, they carried the Christian religion to Ireland, or Scotia, about four hundred years after Christ.
The Romans withdrew from Britain before Christianity had softened the Irish, or Scots; and for about one hundred and fifty years after that withdrawal, about all we know about either Ireland or Britain is that North Ireland, at the time of our first historical account of it, was territory of a Scots kingdom known as Dalriada. It had schools, churches, industries and a highly intellectual people.
Fergus, Lorne and Angus, sturdy Scot leaders, leaving old Dalriada in North Ireland, founded, in 501 A.D., a colony on the southwest shore of old Caledonia, known to the Scots as Alba. This colony rapidly grew into an independent kingdom, and also came to be known as Dalriada. The boundaries of this Scots Albanian kingdom, swinging in an oblong circle, reached north to about the island Skye, and covered practically the same territory as is now within Argyllshire. From the shore of what is now County Antrim, Ulster, Ireland, across to the Mull of Kintyre, is only fourteen miles, says Woodburn in The Ulster Scot. These immigrants from Ireland were of the same Celtic stock as were the people of the Argyll Isles and mainland; but many causes came in time to leave between the people of these two countries differences.
During all this time Scotia (now Ireland) was enjoying the blessings of peace and the fruits of Christianity. Her universities were frequented by students from many lands, and her Christian missionaries carried the Gospel to the Saxons (who did not accept it until they had conquered much of Britain); and then crossing the channel, missionaries went down into what is now sunny France. Those missionaries preached even under the blue Italian skies, and penetrated other sections of the pagan world.
One of the most famous of those great preachers of the Irish or Celtic church was Columba. Of royal descent, Columba was a representative Celt, tall, having red hair and light blue eyes. Some, however, say the hair of the representative Celt was brown and his eyes gray. He was a man of great zeal; fervent piety and enjoying executive ability. At the age of 42, and in the year 563 A. D., St. Columba led a band of co-workers from Scotia into Dalriada, of which little is known prior to his coming. He was given the Island of Iona, which lies off the west coast, and there he built the monastery which became world-famous. It is well, however, to remember that the monastic life of the Celtic church differed materially in practice and discipline from the seclusiveness and asceticism later characteristic of the Roman Catholic monastic life.
This settlement of Scots upon the western shore of what came to be Scotland was the foundation upon which the descendants of those Scots built a kingdom which, from their name, came to be Scotia in the reign of Malcolm the Second, who reigned from 1004 to 1034. What is known as the Saxon Chronicle, in 937, applied to Ireland the name of Yraland. From that time, old Scotia became Ireland.
Page last updated 13 October 2008.