The Leabhar Gabhála Éireann or “Book of the Taking of Ireland” is a Medieval collection of poems and prose narratives purporting to be a history of the Irish people and their island home from the creation of the world to the Middle Ages. Inspired by Christian pseudo-histories, it provided an epic chronicle for the Irish that could sit alongside the revered literary traditions of the Israelites, Romans and Greeks, reconciling aspects of native Gaelic lore with Judeo-Christian mythology. The earliest version was compiled by an anonymous monastic scribe in the 11th century, combining diverse stories that had developed over the previous three or four centuries. At its most basic, the Leabhar Gabhála Éireann (LGÉ) recounts the settlement of Ireland by a number of related races over the course of several thousand years.
Before the Biblical flood there was the Ceasaraigh or the followers of Ceasair, daughter of Bioth son of Naoi (“Noah”) and his wife Biorean, who perished in the deluge. Then there was the Parthalánaigh “People of Parthalán”, under their leader Parthalán son of Seara, a descendant of Naoi. They fought several great battles against overseas raiders, the quasi-demonic Fomhóriagh led by Ciochal Grigenchosach son of Goll, before perishing in a terrible plague. Following this the Clann Neimheidh “Family of Neimheadh” came to Ireland under the leadership of Neimheadh son of Aghnamhan, another descendant of Naoi. They were eventually subjugated by the Fomhóraigh under Morc son of Deala and Conann son of Feabhar, until they rose up against their oppressors in a great maritime battle at Túr Chonainn or “Conann’s Tower” from which only one boatload escaped. A third of these men, led by Iabhadh and his son Badh, went into the north of the world, while another third went to Dobhar and Iardhobhar in the northern part of the island of Britain. The final third, under Seameon son of Iardhan, fled southwards to An Ghréig (Greece) where their descendants flourished. It was from these groups of exiles that the next two waves of settlers sprang.
Those who went to An Ghréig became the ancestors of a people known as the Fir Bholg “Men (People) of Bolg” (a race which in fact also contained two other sub-groups known as the Gailíon “Spearmen (?)”and the Fir Dhomhnann “Men of Domhnainn”). Seameon’s descendants, numbering in the thousands, lived in slavery for many years under Greek servitude until eventually they rose up and migrated back to Ireland. Meanwhile, those who went into the northern regions of the earth became the Tuatha Dé Danann “Peoples of the Goddess Dana”. Not much is known of the Tuatha Dé prior to their invasion of Ireland other than that they came from four cities in the Insí Tuaisceartach or northern islands of the world where they acquired occult knowledge and magical abilities. The cities also contained four great talismans which they brought with them. From Fálias came the Lia Fáil “Stone of Fál” on which their kings were proclaimed. From Goirias came the Claíomh Solais “Sword of Light” wielded by their king Nuadha. From Muirias came the cauldron of the Daghdha, and from Fionnias came the Sleá Lúgh or “Spear of Lúgh” (also called the Sleá Bua “Spear of Victory”).
The earliest accounts state that the Tuatha Dé arrived in Ireland in dark clouds on a mountain in the west of the country, blocking out the sun for three days and three nights. Later redactions had them arriving in ships which they burned in order to prevent themselves from being tempted into retreating or returning home, while a third legend conflates both stories, the dark clouds coming from the burning of their vessels. They conquered the Fir Bolg after defeating them in the First Battle of Má Tuireadh, granting the survivors the westernmost province of Connacht and sundry islands to dwell in.
However, during the battle their king Nuadha (who reigned for seven years before they reached Ireland) lost his hand or arm, which was cleaved from his wrist or shoulder. Since he was no longer physically perfect, a requirement of sovereignty, he was replaced by Breas (or Eochaidh Breas) son of Éiri of the Tuatha Dé and Ealadha of the Fomhóraigh, who now make their reappearance living in a territory or islands to the north or north-east of Ireland (sometimes called Lochlainn and the same mythical region from which the Tuatha Dé came). However the reign of Breas was a tyrannical one and the Tuatha Dé were heavily oppressed by the Fomhóraigh, as were their Clann Neimheidh ancestors before them.
Nuadha eventually had his hand or arm replaced by a silver one gaining the sobriquet Lámhairgead “Silverhand/-arm” and took back the throne after the Tuatha Dé Danann rose up and exiled Breas for his seven-year tyranny. The latter fled to his father and the Tuatha Dé soon faced an invasion from their ancestral enemies, led by king Inneach along with Breas, Ealadha, Teathra and their champion Balar (who dwelt in a northern island fortress called Túr Bhalair or “Tower of Balar”). However just before the battle the leadership of the Tuatha Dé was granted to a youthful and somewhat mysterious champion called Lúgh Lámhfháda “Lúgh of the Long Arm”. He was the son of Eithne daughter of Balar and Cian (or Scál Bhalbh) the son of Dian Ceacht. He was also the foster-son of Tailte daughter of Má Mhór and wife of Eochaidh son of Earc of the Fir Bolg. In his character was united the Tuatha Dé Danann, Fomhóraigh and Fir Bolg. At the Second Battle of Má Tuireadh the Tuatha Dé lost Nuadha who was slain by Balar, however Lúgh slew his maternal grandfather with a stone from a sling – a common early Irish weapon – and his people gained victory. He then reigned as the king of the Tuatha Dé until followed in succession by the Daghdha (Eochaidh Ollathair son of Ealadha), Dealbhaodh, Fiacha and finally the joint-kingship of the Daghada’s three grandsons: Mac Cuill, Mac Gréine and Mac Ceacht the sons of Cearmaidh.
Finally, the last invasion of Ireland came with the arrival of the Clann Mhíle or “Family of Míl” commonly known in English by their anglicised name: the Mílesians. They were in effect the Irish people (hence the Irish are known variously as the Clann Mhíle, the Féine, the Gaeil and the Éireannaigh). They were the followers of Míl na Spáinne (“Míl of Spain”) who never made it to Ireland himself, instead dying in Iberia. Notably, they were unrelated to previous invaders. Míl’s brothers and sons led the Clann Mhíle into the country from their ancestral home in An Spáinn or Spain (encountering along the way a seemingly lifeless tower set in the middle of the sea) and defeated the Tuatha Dé Danann at the Battle of Tailte. After a short resistance from the latter both sides agreed a truce that led to the island of Ireland being divided between the two. The Clann Mhíle took the part above the ground while the Tuatha Dé were given the part under the ground; that is the Sí or the Otherworld and its many hidden territories. The Tuatha Dé Danann consequently became frequent background figures in Irish, Scottish and Manx mythological or folkloric tales, the Aos Sí or “People of the Otherworld” who interacted with the mortals in the “world above”.
As can be seen from the brief synopsis above, the LGÉ was an incredibly complex, multi-layered creation, the work of many hands over many centuries. While ostensibly Christian, and carefully framed within Church approved histories, it was filled with obvious pre-Christian stories and characters, many of whom were “pagan” deities. This epic “world building” by the monastic scholars of Ireland was far more ambitious than anything attempted by J.R.R. Tolkien or George R. R. Martin, since it was part syncretic chronicle, part proselytizing propaganda. It is little wonder that people have spent decades, and academics their entire careers, sifting through its complexities, teasing out the Hebraic, Classical and Celtic threads from its intricate patterns.
One of the more intriguing matters of debate is the origin and meaning of the “four cities” in the northern islands of the world where some of the survivors of the Clann Mhíle sojourned before their journey back to Ireland as the Tuatha Dé Danann. The implication of the various texts dealing with the story indicate that the cities existed before the emergence of the Tuatha Dé as a separate race. This is dealt with in several related manuscripts, the three earliest being:
- An anecdote in an early version of the LGÉ.
- The introduction to the Second Battle of Má Tuireadh.
- A much later, short story and poem in the Leabhar Buidhe Lecain or “Yellow Book of Lecan”. This is commonly translated by scholars under the modern title of the “Four Treasures (Jewels) of the Tuatha Dé Danann”.
I will detail the stories first, in chronological order, before offering a short analyses of the narrative components making up the names of the cities.
From the publication, “Lebor gabála Érenn: The book of the taking of Ireland”, edited and translated by R. A. Stewart Macalister, Vol. 1, Irish Texts Society, 1932. I have revised and updated some of the translated text, using modern Irish nomenclature where appropriate.
Batar iarum clanda Bethaig meic Iarboneōil Fathaig meic Nemid in insib tūascertachaib in domain, oc foglaim druidechta & fessa & fāstini & amainsechta, combtar fortaile for cerdaib sūithe gentliuchta.
Ceitri cahtrachhach i rabadar ie foglaim ḟis & eolas & diabalachdacht; it iad so a n-anmanna, .i. Falias & Goirias & Findias & Muirias. A Failias tucadh in Lia Fail fil i temrig, no gessidh fo cach rig no gebidh Erinn. A Goirias tucad in tlegh bi ic Lug; ni geibtha cath frisin ti a mbid laim. A Findias tucadh claidhim Nuada: ni thernadh nech uadha; o dobertha as a intig bodba, ni gebtha fris. A Muirias tucead coiri in Dagda: ni theigidh damh dimdhach uad. Ceitri fisidh is na eathrachaib sin : Morfesa bi a Failias, Esrus bai in Goirias, Usicias bi a Findias, Semhias bi a Muirias. Is iad sin na ceitri filidh, aear foglaimsed Tuatha De Danann fis & eolus.
Combtar ist Tuatha De Danand tancatar Herind.
[Tancatar an Erinn iarum Tuatha De Danann. & ni fes bunadas doibh, in do demnaib no do dainibh, acht a radh is do chlaind Beothagh meic Iarbonel Fathaigh doib.]
“Thereafter the family of Beothach son of Iarbhoneal Fathach son of Neimheadh were in the northern islands of the world, learning druidism and knowledge and prophecy and magic, until they were expert in the arts of pagan cunning.
Four cities in which they were acquiring knowledge and wisdom and devilry: these are their names, Fálias, Goirias, Fionnias, Muirias. From Fálias was brought the Lia Fáil which is in Teamhair, and which used to utter a cry under every king that took Ireland. From Goirias was brought the spear which Lúgh had; battle would never go against him who had it in hand. From Fionnias was brought the sword of Nuadha: no man would escape from it; when it was drawn from its battle-scabbard, there was no resisting it. From Muirias was brought the cauldron of the Daghdha; no company would go from it unsatisfied. There were four wisemen in those cities: Mórfheasa who was in Fálias, Easras in Goirias, Uiscias in Fionnias, Séimhias in Muirias. Those are the four poets, with whom the Tuatha Dé Danann acquired knowledge and wisdom.
Those were the Tuatha Dé Danann who came to Ireland.
[Thereafter to Ireland came the Tuatha Dé Danann. And their origin is uncertain, if they were of demons or of men, but it is said that they were of the line of Beothach son of Iarbhoneal Fathach.]”
From the publication, “Cath Maige Tuired: The Second Battle of Mag Tuired”, edited and translated by Elizabeth A. Gray, Irish Texts Society 52 (1982). I have revised and updated some of the translated text, using modern Irish nomenclature where appropriate.
Bátar Túathai Dé Danonn i n- indsib túascertachaib an domuin,
aig foglaim fesa & fithnasachta & druídechtai & amaidechtai &
amainsechta, combtar fortilde for súthib cerd ngenntlichtae.
Ceitri catrachai i rrabatar og fochlaim fhesai & éolais &
díabuldánachtai .i. Falias & Goirias, Murias & Findias.
A Falias tucad an Lía Fáil buí a Temraig. Nogésed fo cech ríg
A Gorias tucad ant sleg boí ac Lug. Ní gebtea cath fria nó frisintí
an bídh i lláimh.
A Findias tucad claidiub Núadot. Ní térnádh nech dei ó dobirthe
asa idntiuch boduha, & ní gebtai fris.
A Murias tucad coiri an Dagdai. Ní tégedh dám dimdach úadh.
Cetri druíd isna cetri cathrachaib-sin. Mórfesae baí a Falias;
Esras boí hi nGorias; Uiscias boí a Findias; Semias baí a Murias. It
íad-sin na cetri filid ocar’ foglaindsit Túata Dé fios & éolas.
Gnísit íarum Túadh Dé caratrad fri Fomorib & debert Balar úa
Néit a ingin .i. Ethne, de Cén mac Díen Cécht. Gonad í-side ruc a
ngen mbúadha .i. Lucc.
Tángatar Túad Dé i morloinges mór d’indsaigid Érionn dia gabáil
ar écin for Feraib Bolc. Roloiscset a mbaraca fo cétóir íar
torrachtain críce Corcu Belgatan (.i. Conmaicne mara andíu éat-sen),
cona pedh a n-aire for teiched cucu. Gu rrolíon an déi & an céu tánic
denaib loggaib an ferodn & an áer robo comfocus dóib. Conid as sin
rogabad a tíchtain a nélaip cíach.
“The Túatha Dé Danann were in the northern islands of the world, studying occult knowledge and sorcery, druidism and witchcraft and magical skill, until they surpassed the sages of the pagan arts.
Four cities in which they studied occult lore and secret knowledge and devilry: Fálias and Goirias, Muirias and Fionnias.
From Fálias was brought the Lia Fáil located in Teamhair. It used to cry out beneath every king that would take Ireland.
From Goirias was brought the spear had by Lug. No battle was sustained against it or against the man who held it in his hand.
From Fionnias was brought the sword of Nuadha. No one ever escaped from it once it was drawn from its deadly sheath, & no one could resist it.
From Muirias was brought the cauldron of the Daghdha. No company went away from it unsatisfied.
Four druids in those four cities. Mórfheasa was in Fálias; Easras was in Goirias; Uiscias was in Fionnias; Séimhias was in Muirias. Those are the four poets from whom the Tuatha Dé learned wisdom and knowledge.
Then the Tuatha Dé made an alliance with the Fomhóraigh & Balar grandson of Néad gave his daughter, Eithne, to Cian son of Dian Céacht. She bore the victorious child, Lúgh.
The Tuatha Dé came with a great fleet to Ireland to take it by force from the Fir Bolg. At once they burned their boats upon reaching the territory of Corca Bealghadhan (which is Conmhaicne Mhara today), so that they would not think of fleeing to them. The smoke & the mist which came from the ships filled the land & the air which was near them. For that reason it has been thought that they arrived in clouds of mist.”
From the publication, “The four jewels of the Tuatha Dé Danann”, edited and translated by Vernam Hull, Zeitschrift für Celtische Philologie, Vol. 18 (1930). I have revised and updated some of the translated text, using modern Irish nomenclature where appropriate.
Ceithri cathracha i r-robadar Tuatha De Danand ic foglaim fheasa ocus druidechta, uair is fis ocus druidecht ocus diabaldanacht ro fhogain doib. it e-seo anmanna na cathrach .i. Failias, ocus Findias, ocus Goirias, ocus Murias. Ocus is a Failias tucad in Lia Fail, fil i Temraig, no gesed fo cech rig no gebead h-Erind. A Gorias tucad in claidheb bai ic Nuadaid. A Findias tucad sleg Loga. A Murias tucad coire in Dagda.
Ceithri fiseda badar isna cathrachaib sin .i. Fessus bai h-i Failias, Esrus bai ic Gorias, Uscias bai a Findias, Semias bai a Murias. Is aco sin rofoglaimsed Tuatha De Danand fis ocus eolus. Sleg Loga, ni gebthea cath fria na fris inti a m-bid laim. Claidheb Nuadad, ni thernad neach ara n-dergad…
. O da berthea asa thindtig bodba, ni gebti fris inti a m-bid laim. Coiri in Dagda, ni teigead dam dimdach uad . An Lia Fail, fil i Temraig, ni labrad acht fa rig Erenn.
Ad-beraid, imorro, aroile do seanchaidib conid a n-dluim ciach tistais Tuatha De Danann i n-Erind. Ocus ni h-ead on, acht a longaib na morloinges tangadar, ocus ro loiscsed a longa uili iar tuidecht i n-Erind. Ocus is don dluim ciach bai dib side, at-dubradar aroile conid a n-dluim chiach tangadar. Ocus ni h-ead iar fir. Ar is iad so da fhochaind ara r’ loiscsead a longa na r’ fhagbaidis fine Fomra iad do fodail forro, ocus na ro thisad Lug do cosnum rigi fri Nuagaid. Conid doib do chan inseanchaid:
Tuath De Danand na set soim.
Cait a fuaradar fogloim?
Do rangadar suigecht slan
A n-druigecht , a n-diabaldan.
Iardanel find, faith co feib,
Mac Nemid, mac Agnomain ,
D’ar mac baeth Beothach bertach,
Ba loech leothach, lanfhertach.
Clanna Beothaich, — beoda a m-blad —
Rangadar sluag niath nertmar,
Iar snim is iar toirrsi truim,
Lin a loingsi co Lochluinn.
Ceithri cathracha,— clu cert —
Gabsad a rem co ronert.
Do curdis comlann co cas
Is d’foglaim a fireolas.
Failias ocus Goirias glan,
Findias, Murias na morgal,
O maitea madmann amach,
Anmanna na n-ardchathrach.
Morfis ocus Erus ard,
Uscias is Semiath sirgarg,
Re n-garmand, — luag a leasa —
Anmann suad a s-sarfeasa .
Morfis fili a Failias fen,
Esrus a Gorias, germen,
Semiath a Murias, dind dias,
Uscias fili find Findias.
Ceithri h-aisceda leo anall,
D’uaislib Tuaithi De Danand:
Claideb, cloch, coiri cumal,
Sleag ri h-aidid ardcurad.
Lia Fail a Failias anall,
Gesed fo rigaib Erend.
Claideb lama Loga luidh
A Goirias, — roga rocruid.
A Findias tar fairrgi i fad
Tucad sleg nemneach Nuadat.
A Murias, main adbol oll,
Coiri in Dagda na n-ardglond.
Ri Nime, Ri na fer fand,
Ro-m-aince, Rig na rigrand,
Fear ca fuil fulang na fuath,
Ocus cumang na caemtuath.
“Four cities in which the Tuatha Dé Danann learned wisdom and druidism, for wisdom and druidism and devilry were of service to them. These are the names of the cities: Fálias, and Fionnias, and Goirias, and Muirias. And from Fáilias was brought the Lia Fáil, which is at Teamhair, and which used to cry out under each king who took Ireland. From Goirias was brought the sword which belonged to Nuadha. From Fionnias was brought the spear of Lúgh. From Muirias was brought the cauldron of the Daghdha.
Four wise-men were in these cities: Fiosa was in Fálias, Easras was in Goirias, Uiscias was in Fionnias, Séimhias was in Muirias. From them the Tuatha Dé Danann learned wisdom and knowledge. Spear of Lúgh, no battle was maintained against it or him who had it in his hand. Sword of Nuadha, no-one escaped who had been wounded by it, and when it was drawn from its warlike scabbard, no-one could resist against him who had it in his hand. Cauldron of the Daghdha, no assembly of guests went away unsatisfied. The Lia Fáil, which is at Teamhair, never spoke except under a king of Ireland.
Some of the historians, indeed, say that the Tuatha Dé Danann came to Ireland in a cloud of mist. And this is not so, they came in a great fleet of ships, and arriving in Ireland they burned all of their ships. And from the cloud of mist that arose from them, some said that they came in a cloud of mist. And this is not true. The two reasons why they burned their boats were that the race of the Fomhóraigh might not find them in order to prey upon them, and that Lúgh might not come in order to contest against Nuadha for the kingship. Concerning them was this poem composed by the historians:
“The Tuatha Dé Danann of the precious jewels,
Where did they find learning?
They came upon perfect wisdom
In druidism, in devilry.
Fair Iarbhoneal, prophet of excellence,
Son of Neimheadh, son of Aghnamhan,
Had as a foolish offspring the active Beothach,
Who was a hero of cleaving, full of wonders.
Clann Bheothach, —-long-lived their fame-—
The host of valiant heroes came,
After sorrow and after great sadness,
All their slips to Lochlainn.
Four cities,-—just their renown-—
They held with great strength.
On this account they passionately made competition
For learning their true wisdom.
Fálias and bright Goirias,
Fionnias, Muirias of great prowess,
From which battles were won outside,
The names of the chief cities.
Mórfheasa and noble Easras,
Uiscias and Séimhias ever-fierce,
To name them,—-a discourse of need–
The names of the sages of noble wisdom.
Mórfheasa the poet of Fálias itself,
Easras in Goirias, of keen desires,
Séimhias in Muirias, fortress of pinnacles,
Uiscias the fair poet of Fionnias.
Four presents brought with them,
By the nobles of the Tuatha Dé Danann:
A sword, a stone, a cauldron of worth,
A spear for the death of noble champions.
Lia Fáil brought from Fálias,
Which shouted under the kings of Ireland.
Sword in the hand of the nimble Lúgh
From Goirias, -— a choice of vast riches.
From Fionnias far over the sea
Was brought the deadly spear of Nuadha.
From Muirias, a huge mighty treasure,
Cauldron of the Daghdha of noble deeds.
King of Heaven, King of feeble men,
May he protect me, King of royal regions,
The man in whom is the endurance of spectres,
And the strength of the gentle race.”
[Tuatha Dé Danann]
We are clearly dealing with deep mythological matters here, though how much of it is authentic or native (if one can phrase the question in that manner) and how much is the imaginative invention of several Medieval scribes is open to question. A start can be made with the names of the cities and their principal attributes. It may be stated that the ending, -ias, is likely a fabricated linguistic anachronism on the part of the monks, perhaps echoing ancient but then still extant Irish words, and is of no particular meaning. Such conceits were not unknown from early Irish literature.
The north of the world, and its islands, seem to be a place of primordial origin, or perhaps a reflection of the parallel Otherworld (in Irish literature Lochlainn is an ill-defined region to the north or north-east of the Celtic Isles later equated with Scandinavia). Both the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Fomhóraigh are associated with it, and in truth the two peoples are at times so closely related as to be identical. There is a strong presumption that the dual supernatural races represent a common Celtic pantheon in “de-paganised” literary form, their occasional antagonisms reflecting some original pre-Christian division whose significance is lost to us.
The cities and their treasures can be listed as below, though it is not clear if they are situated on one or more islands (note the repeated, powerful imagery of the tower in the sea in the LGÉ stories, which echoes throughout Irish mythology and folklore, including Teach Duinn, the island home of an important if elusive character called Donn).
Fálias: The Lia Fáil or ritual “Stone of Fál” has stood – or lain – since time immemorial at Teamhair (the Hill of Tara in County Meath), and the city’s name clearly reflects its status as the origin of that sacred object. The likeliest etymology is to be found in the Irish word fál “fence, hedge, enclosure; wall”, though alternative, secondary forms exist connecting it to kingship, abundance and science or knowledge. Lia Fál in this sense can be understood to refer to the coronation stone of the royal enclosures at Teamhair, and by extension to the island of Ireland as a whole (since it is enclosed by the sea).
Goirias: The name is probably related to the adjective gor “pious, dutiful, filial” rather than to a similar word connected with “heat, warmth” (specifically of an inflammation). Though it should be noted that the later literature refers to Nuadha’s weapon as the Claíomh Solais “Sword of Light” which would not be inappropriate in the sense of pulsating heat. Depending on the text, this place is the home of the great spear or sword of the Tuatha Dé, though even its owner is uncertain (traditionally Lúgh carries the spear, Nuadha the sword).
Fionnias: Fionn is usually translated as “white, fair, pale; fair-haired”, and the name may be a distant alternative one for Lúgh. Fionnias is also associated with the supernatural weapons of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the sword and spear, and their alternative owners. In such confusions you are seeing different authors at work in the surviving manuscripts.
Muirias: In the earliest form the city’s name appears appears as Muirias, which relates to the word muir “sea, ocean”. However it is later spelled as Murias, which suggests múr “wall, rampart”, bringing to mind the description of the city as a dinn dias “fortress of pinnacles”. This gives no special association with the Daghdha’s cauldron which has no separate title.
While the origin of the divine community in some supernatural or early cosmogenic setting likely pre-dates the Christian era, along with the named talismans of stone, spear, sword and cauldron, the rest of the story, the cities and their notable inhabitants, are a Medieval fabrication. The LGÉ is filled with repetitive themes, the original rather spartan narrative(s) mixing native and foreign influences growing enormously over the centuries. Exotic locales and cities, derived from Biblical and Classical models, were part of that mythologising process. It need hardly be said that “cities” were entirely foreign to the Irish and the Celtic peoples as a whole, where the largest population centres were royal residences, followed in the Middle Ages by monastic-towns and Scandinavian-Irish seaports.