It is not unusual for a nation to have a story about their origin. The Jews have the story of the Exodus, the Romans have the story of Romulus, and the British have the story of Brutus. But many people do not know that the Irish have a foundation story that connects them with ancient Greece.
The Irish foundation legend and ancient Greece
The main source for the foundation legends of Ireland is a document called The Book of Invasions, written in the eleventh century. It describes six different groups of people invading Ireland at various points in history.
The third group was led by a person called Nemed. He settled in Ireland for a while, but then his group was almost completely slaughtered during the siege of a particular tower. The survivors were scattered. Some went to Britain, some went to ‘the north of the world,’ and some went to Greece.
The third group is said to have been enslaved by the Greeks for 230 years. During that time, they were forced to carry bags of soil and clay. Because of this, they came to be known as the Fir Bolg, meaning ‘men of the bags.’
Eventually, they were freed and left Greece in a great fleet. This is said to have occurred at the same time as the Israelite Exodus from Egypt. The fleet of Fir Bolg then arrived in Ireland and settled there.
So according to this legend, Ireland was populated by a group which spent over two centuries in Greece. But is this just a myth, or is there evidence that this account is based on real events?
A comparison with the earliest version
A comparison between this version from Irish records and the earliest version of the legend shows that some parts of it simply cannot be accurate. The earliest version comes from a document from Wales called the Historia Brittonum. In this version, there are only three migrations to Ireland rather than six.
The group led by Nemed is the second. From Spain, he traveled to Ireland and settled there for a while, but then he left for Spain once again. Shortly after that, settlers from Spain traveled to Ireland again, and they besieged a tower. Just like in the Irish version, most of this group was slaughtered during the siege.
In the Irish version, survivors from the siege traveled to Greece before then settling in Ireland over 230 years later. But in the earlier Historia Brittonum, there is no mention of any of the survivors going to Greece after this event.
It is heavily implied that Ireland was settled by some of the survivors immediately after the siege. However, there is some agreement with the Irish account in claiming that Britain was then settled by some of this group from Spain.
When did this happen?
Another key difference between the Irish record and the earlier Welsh record is in the issue of when these events took place. The Historia Brittonum refers to an event which occurred around 300 BCE. After this, it states that the events involving the settlement of Ireland occurred ‘long after this.’ Exactly how long, we do not know for sure.
Interestingly, however, archaeology supports the conclusion that some settlers arrived in Britain around 200 BCE. This ties in well with what the legend said about settlers arriving in Britain just after the slaughter at the siege.
Hence, let’s conclude that the siege occurred around 200 BCE. Counting forward 230 years (the supposed enslavement in Greece) would take us to the first century CE for the arrival of the Fir Bolg in Ireland.
Who were the Fir Bolg?
Several scholars have argued that the Fir Bolg of Irish legend can be identified with a historical Celtic tribe called the Belgae. They believe that the word ‘Bolg’ is actually a corruption of ‘Belgae’ and has nothing to do with the word ‘bag.’
One piece of evidence that supports this conclusion is that one of the tribes of Ireland had the same name as one of the Belgic tribes (the Menapii).
The Belgae were a group of tribes from modern-day Belgium. They had settled southeastern Britain from the second century BCE. Some scholars have suggested that some of the Belgae may have fled to Ireland during the Roman invasion of Britain.
Although there is no definitive evidence of this, it is a plausible scenario. Archaeology does show a wave of material culture from Britain, some of which is specifically Belgic, in the first century CE in Ireland.
Evidence for the Irish connection with Greece
What about the connection with Greece? Before this apparent arrival in Ireland in the first century CE, the Belgae were in Britain, and before that, those Belgic tribes had been in Belgium.
There is no solid evidence that they were ever enslaved in Greece, and this claim does not appear in the Historia Brittonum. Nonetheless, there is some evidence for a connection with Greece.
For example, several Irish tales have very strong similarities to Greek tales. One example is the story of King Labraid Loingsech. He was said to have had the ears of a horse. Because of being extremely embarrassed about this, he tried to keep it a secret.
He forced his barber to keep it a secret as well, but the barber could not keep it to himself forever, so he told it to a tree. Later, a musician repaired their harp with material from the tree. After that, whenever the instrument was played, it would say the secret.
This story is extremely similar to the legend of Midas. He was said to have been cursed with donkey ears. Like King Labraid, Midas tried to keep this a secret. He forced his barber not to tell anyone. The barber went out to a meadow, dug a hole in the ground, and whispered the secret there. Later, some reeds grew up from the hole and they began whispering the secret.
It is also significant that the peculiar way in which spears were thrown in ancient Greece and Italy (using a strap called an ‘amentum’) was likewise utilized in Ireland as well as among the Celts on the continent. Various other cultural elements of the Celts, including those of Ireland, can be connected with those found in Greece.
Abaris the Hyperborean
One possible explanation for at least some of these similarities is that they were brought to Ireland by Abaris. Abaris was a priest of Apollo who was said to have come from the land of Hyperborea. He was said to have left his homeland and spent some time in Greece. This occurred in the sixth century BCE. In at least one text, Hyperborea is said to have been an island in the sea beyond the land of the Celts. That could possibly be Ireland.
According to General Vallancey, a British military surveyor sent to Ireland in the eighteenth century, there is an Irish legend about a druid named Abhras. He, along with several other Irish druids, travelled to Greece. There is an obvious similarity between this Abhras and the Abaris from Hyperborea. This supports the conclusion that Abaris really was Irish. This would mean that he could have brought back to Ireland some stories from Greece.
However, the record about Abhras the druid is very late. There is no trace of him before the eighteenth century, so we should use this record with great caution. It is also known that ‘Hyperborea’ sometimes referred to Thrace, so Abaris might have come from there instead.
Greek and Etruscan trade with the Celts
The reason why there seems to be such a strong cultural connection between the Celts in general—not just the Irish—and Greece is more probably due to the Greek colony of Massalia that was founded in southern France around 600 BCE. With the establishment of this colony, the Greeks engaged in extensive trade with the Celts.
After this, the Etruscans started trading with the Celts. From about 500 BCE, a new material culture emerged among the Celts and eventually spread to most Celtic lands, including to the Belgic tribes.
This new material culture was heavily influenced by the Greeks and by the Etruscans. It is even possible that there was some movement of Etruscans into Celtic lands, given the Etruscan-style chariots that we find among the Celts after 500 BCE. The Etruscans themselves were heavily influenced by the Greeks.
It is very likely that the legend of the Irish originally coming from Greece can be largely explained by these Greek and Etruscan activities in the fifth and sixth centuries BCE.