Pre-Christian Ireland: The Scholarly Views


By Jennifer Paxton, Ph.D., Catholic University of America

Pre-Christian Ireland is a mix of fairy tales and facts. Scholars always struggled to find the reality. The struggle got much harder when they found out the texts are not only influenced by fairy tales but also by the Bible and classical works. Later, archaeological evidence and DNA analyses came to assist them.

Illustration of a pre-Christian trial.
Despite the independence of development from the Romans, Ireland remained illiterate until converting to Christianity. (Image: Marzolino/Shutterstock)

Ireland was the only Celtic-speaking country not invaded by the Romans. Despite the independence of development from the Romans, Ireland remained illiterate until converting to Christianity. Hence, the Irish could not write down anything about their culture and events until the fourth century, and all books referring to that time were written from the eighth century onward. Among all the books written about pre-Christian Ireland and the origin of Irish people, The Book of Invasions is an important one. But the content of these books had to match the archaeological evidence and DNA analyses in our modern age.

This is a transcript from the video series The Celtic World. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The Book of Invasions, or the Lebor Gabála Érenn, tells the story of the six great invasions that ended in the inhabitation of Ireland. Writing down the book started in the eighth century but was finished it the 11th and 12th. In the 16th century, the magic, gods, giants, and miraculous survivals involved in the stories made English scholars doubt the amount of reality in the book. Thus, the era of modern scholarship began, and even ordinary people, including the Irish, doubted the content of The Book of Invasions. Some scholars, however, argued that the fairy tales were made around the real history. In the 19th century, clearer scholarly schools were shaped.

Learn more about pre-historic Ireland and the Celts.

The Nativist School

The scholars had to decide how to view the Irish sources about pre-Christian Ireland, written so long after conversion to Christianity. The first view to emerge was called the ‘nativist’ school, started by the great historian and linguist Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson. Jackson wrote in an article in 1964, that the early Irish texts actually opened a ‘window on the Iron Age’, representing much of the authentic Irish tradition. The nativists believed that the conservative Irish literature had strongly preserved its links to the pagan past, centuries ago. They also assumed that the pagan past links directly to a common Celtic culture and even to a common Indo-European culture.

Two main theories were the foundations of all the nativist arguments:

  1. At one point in history, there was a common Indo-European culture that spread all over Europe with the spread of Indo-European languages. Celtic was a major sub-group of these languages, and along with it, the Celtic culture spread. Later, the Irish language was derived from Celtic.
  2. Oral transmission can preserve a culture this strong for thousands of years.

The second theory needed to be explained and verified by scholars. Albert Lord and Denys Page in the late 1950s and early 1960s made a major move in this regard. They referred to their studies on the Iliad and other Greek texts to argue that oral tradition could preserve a record of archaic society and remain unchanged. Page and Lord believed that the Iliad was also originally a work dating back to long before being written down. So, the Iliad was also preserved through oral transmission.

This breakthrough permitted scholars like Jackson to use the post-conversion sources, assuming they had a significant amount of reality in them. Still, there was a vague point about the Christian writers of pre-Christianity history.

Christian Writers Preserving the Pagan Culture

The scholars could not perceive why a Christian would preserve the stories that have such bold elements of paganism: magic, giants, mermaids. All the time intervals and important numbers in the book are multiples of three: three ships, three groups, 30 men, 30 years, 300 years, etc.

Digital illustration of people against a huge dragon with destroyed town.
The scholars could not perceive why a Christian would preserve the stories that have such bold elements of paganism: magic, giants, mermaids. (Image: SimpleB/Shutterstock)

The nativists argued that the early Irish Christians were patriots who deeply loved and respected their heritage. Thus, they could overlook the values of Christianity to preserve their past. But there were some obvious Christian effects on The Book of Invasions and other texts. Apparently, the early Irish scholars were more concerned with Christian values than the nativists wanted them to be.

For example, the gods and goddesses in the book are not represented as gods, but human beings with special abilities. The Túatha de Danann was the nation with magical powers and sorcery, and even their name means ‘peoples of the goddess Danu’. But there is no god or goddess among the Túatha de Danann in The Book of Invasions. Still, nativists believed that these stories might represent real migrations to Ireland and real nations, leading Celts to Ireland.

Learn more about who the Celts are.

The Celts in Ireland: Where the Book of Invasions and Scholars Meet

Scholars in the 19th century believed that Celts originated in central Europe and arrived in Ireland and Britain as invaders. This concurs with the story in The Book of Invasions. The Celtic origin theory, developed by scholars, claims that Celts arrived from Central Europe, not Spain. But there is a region in northwest Spain called Galicia that has Celtic roots. The name is etymologically related to the word ‘Gaelic’. There is a story in The Book of Invasions about the Gaelic-speaking sons of a person called Mil, arriving in Ireland from Spain.

There were more instances of these concurrences, and the scholars were trying to match the book with their theories. The nativists were very optimistic in this regard, but in the 1990s, the view changed.

Sacred geometry art
The pre-Christian texts are combinations of native traditions, Christian, and classical influences. (Image: matrioshka/Shutterstock)

Scholars like Kim McCone analyzed the pre-historic texts much more strictly and found not only Christian elements but also Christian structures. The narratives have often been shaped to conform to Biblical models and match with the chronology of the Bible: Noah, Moses and Pharaoh, the Irish wandering around like a 13th tribe of Israel, etc. they also concluded that Bible was not the only book influencing The Book of Invasions. There are giants, mermaids, and siren calls in The Book of Invasions that are directly borrowed from the Odyssey. Thus, these pre-Christian texts are combinations of native traditions, Christian, and classical influences.

Learn more about Medieval Irish literature.

DNA Analysis and Modern Studies vs. Book of Invasions

The second theory that the nativist scholars built their works on was the credibility of oral transmission. But recent studies on some sub-Saharan African stories transmitting orally shows obvious influences of the modern age on these ancient stories. Hence, oral transmission is not as trustable as they wanted it to be. These findings took the texts about pre-Christian Irish past far away from reality, but studies took it even further.

Archeological evidence shows no trace of several invasions or large-scale migrations in Ireland, at the time the books claim. DNA analysis shows no strong correlations between the inhabitants of Ireland and the inhabitants of central Europe. However, it shows links between the Irish and the people of the whole European Atlantic seaboard, including Spain. But even if The Book of Invasions is right about the Spanish origins, it might be an accident.

Common questions about pre-Christian Ireland

Q: What was Ireland like before Christianity?

We know that pre-Christian Ireland had a pagan culture. But the traditions and details of that era are gravely mingled with fairytales, the Bible, and classical works like the Iliad.

Q: When did the Celts convert to Christianity?

Celts in pre-Christian Ireland were pagans and had gods and goddesses, but they converted to Christianity in the fourth century.

Q: Where did Celts originally come from?

The Celts are believed to come from Central Europe and the European Atlantic seaboard, including Spain. As pre-Christian Ireland has a very vague history, the real origin is still debatable.

Q: What was the first Irish religion?

Pre-Christian Ireland worshipped many gods and goddesses, such as goddess Danu of the Túatha de Danann. Their name means children of goddess Danu.

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Who Are the Celts? Unpacking a Tricky Identity
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