The Tribes

The Tribal Peoples

The purpose of this chapter is to create an overview, no matter how superficial or incomplete, of the social history of South Munster from the Iron Age to the beginnings of Christianity there. The objective is to achieve a sense of who lived there and how they understood their landscape. Christianity had a major impact on that society as time progressed through periods of Early Christianity to Celtic Christianity to Roman Christianity to 12th Century Reforms to the Protestant Reformation; a journey through the history and origins of a tribal Gaelic society. But this chapter will concern itself with what came before, leaving the story of Christianity and its souterrains to subsequent chapters. 

The evidence for an association between the creation of underground spaces and Christianity is significant but there is also a significant relationship between such spaces and secular society e.g in Gaul and Germania during the Iron Age. Was underground space use part of the secular history before Christianity arrived in South Munster? Or was it something which originated from that religion? Was it something which took several forms, some of older secular origins, others derived from Christian traditions and practices, as that religion gradually blended into the social fabric of the society becoming a defining feature of its identity, its folk practices and its person-hoods? 

Was the use of underground man-made space something which ended when that society, and its native, Christian traditions became suppressed; the stories behind these underground spaces gradually becoming lost to memory, fragmentary pieces of information unintentionally surviving in the odd place-name or folklore story of saint or sinner? As consciousness of an older social world was fading away, along with all that its native language contained, it became the focus of a nascent scientific interest within the societal consciousness which replaced it, one bred out of the Age of Reason and a print based culture. It sought to enquire and to record, to name and classify, to make a rationale for understanding that older world from the vestiges of its past. From its beginnings in the 17th century one of the monument categories it came to record was that of man-made underground spaces; which in its literature came to be known as souterrains. Souterrains were seen as just one example of those surviving ethnographic elements which once were a part of the character and heritage of that older social world.

This chapter is about myth, ethnography and ethnogenesis. It is about myths created to bridge lacunae in time in an effort to define a unifying sense of identity.  It is about the difficulties inherent in creating a retrospective account of the past: to quote from Prof. David Lowenthal’s much quoted book ‘the past is a foreign country, we cannot live there’. It is also about colonial perceptions of native peoples as well as native perceptions of colonials. Leabhar Gabhála Éireann (The Book of Invasions or Conquests of Ireland) is an 11th century compilation, by an anonymous scholar, of myths which were for many centuries regarded as historical fact. It is about the weave of oral history and its methods and sources of transmission through time. It is about attempting to grasp a sense of what came from fragmentary remnants of clan and tribal memory: their genealogies, their gods, their heroic tales.

In Leabhair Gabhála Éireann waves of conquests are described i.e. that of Cessair, Partholón, Nemed, the Fir Bolg, the Tuatha Dé Danaan and the Milesians. The text is regarded as being influenced by Christian chronology and it includes rolls of the pagan and Christian kings of Ireland. Mallory (2016) discusses the origins of these invasions in the light of Irish Archaeology. In reading these early stories it is well to bear in mind that history is a selection which attempts to sequence the past in a particular way to create a particular understanding of how the past may have been. It may not distinguish what was regarded as fact, and potentially true, from what was just good quality storytelling influenced by sources at home and abroad during the time of writing. But those stories, merged from those of individual clans in their traditional topographies, rather than originating as common stories from across the island, may have kernels of fact which pose tempting questions for researchers at local level. The source stories can be a selection of what is known and remembered in local folk memories or a selection of what is important to whoever chooses to present the narrative in a particular way and from a broader community perspective. 

 It is important, I think, to see such a narrative, created from choices of folk stories, as just one vantage point on the past. How many other alternative choices to construct differing narratives there may have been we do not know, but perhaps when archaeological, historical and other research disciplines recover evidence of alternative stories and patterns of human experience upon the Irish landscape, the realisation sets in that the story of the past is a multifaceted one rather than a singular retrospective and that the further back in time one goes the more reductive and fragmentary the information in even one version of the story can be, as the weave of narrative begins to unravel into threads of myth and legend, spun from threads of localised experience half remembered, spun from the ethnic memories of distinct people groupings rather than being common to all of them.


What is colonisation? Is it a militarised, preplanned thing or is it the outcome of a critical mass of refugees, of clan groupings seeking a new homeland and clearing and settling areas of landscape not already used; without resistance either because those already in adjoining localities do not use, have no interest or do not desire ownership of such places, cannot or do not wish to oppose them?  Are the only points of conflict those which arise over boundaries?

 What is colonisation as distinct from native perceptions of invasion? On the one hand colonisation claims to improve and civilise to its own standards, on the other it seeks wealth and the superimposition, by extension, of its own cultural norms; norms assumed to be more civilised and thus more protective of its core values than those which might develop in other native cultures and traditions; norms which might impact on power architectures and security structures. It was Tacitus who said of the acceptance of Roman culture by native tribes that humanitas was a mark of servitude.

It is believed in Irish cultural tradition that Ireland was not subsumed into Roman Britain under such conditions;  even though strong connections in trading and family as well as tribal cultural traditions of association and extension may have existed. Indeed some incursions may have resulted such as that claimed for Túathal Techtmar, a young High King of Ireland in the 1st century AD, who was exiled to Roman Britain and years later, perhaps with the help of Agricola, returned to claim his throne in the company of a Roman or Romano-British army. Irish raiding in Roman Britain was a concern, perhaps among several others, when Agricola fortified the coastline facing Ireland and claimed that it could be taken with a single legion and auxiliaries.  But, ‘the past is a foreign country’ and we may never come to know the realities of all this, we may never come to know what it was that Agricola knew as recorded by Tacitus, or perhaps how loosely or well informed he was about the ethnic mix and cultural orientations of a multiplicity of societal groupings long occupying or more recently occupying Ireland; and more specifically South Munster as a major shoreline of interaction with Atlantic Europe and the West Mediterranean. 

Making Gaelic sense of a geography of Ireland written in Roman Alexandria

The information which survives after a long-tailed transmission through oral tradition and manuscript records concerning the origins and subsequent descendants of a Celtic invasion from mainland Europe and/or Britain, whether specific to South Munster or not, is a complex web of genealogies along with territorial associations. This information appears to refer to a period beginning either in the late 2nd century or early 3rd century AD. Factually, if this is true, then it refers to a period shortly after the creation of Ptolemy’s ‘map’ circa 140/150 AD. Place-naming and the naming of peoples expressed in Greek, Arabic and Latin is a reflection of how the Mediterranean World of the time referenced what was known to be in Ireland. It’s use of tribal names may reflect a knowledge of some tribes of European origin residing there at that time, their centres of assembly, it’s major rivers and ports. From an internal, and Gaelic, perspective it’s mythological history and early genealogies, if it’s chronology is someway accurate, overlaps the time frame of Ptolemy’s information. Were this so, European tribal names and Roman understanding of who resided in Ireland are just a superficial view of what is known of their origins by peoples occupying the island, a knowledge of their ethnicities, they communicate through their own oral traditions and languages. 

Ethnicities, Ethnogenesis in the demographics of Early Medieval Ireland

If late Iron Age/Early Medieval Ireland was, in terms of its demographics, a society of many peoples with Germanic, Gallic, Iberian origins as well as Eastern Mediterranean and North African origins in the melting pot, then what social influences, ongoing, as well as cultural norms would inculturate as a consequence of this, as the tribal/clan politics of this evolved? What further impact would tribal and clan related histories, – clan before tribe -, have on a melting pot becoming the Gaelic Ireland of subsequent centuries? Hubert Butler’s studies (2011) in this field are of considerable interest.

1750 AD (1893 ed, p.12) Charles Smith’s Ancient and Present State of the County and City of Cork makes the following statement

I make no doubt but the northern and eastern parts of Ireland were peopled from Britain, those parts lying opposite and contiguous to each other, the navigation being short and safe, even in open boats. Yet, if all the kingdom [Ireland] was originally inhabited this way, it would be hard to conceive how there should remain such a diversity of manners, customs, and dialects, between northern and southern parts; which diversity being common to all the other nations of Europe, can be owing to nothing else but to the different colonies they were first peopled with.

Does Smith therefore imply that Munster is distinctly different from the provinces of Leinster and Ulster? If so, then what of Connaught? Was Ireland split in terms of manners. customs and dialects between those of the South and those of the North? What was it that Smith – and those who informed him – saw as this diversity between North and South? Was it something also in the architectural landscape such as clocháns at Fahan (Dingle) and island laura hermitages such as at Skellig Michael? 

The souterrain distribution for Ireland as currently known shows heavy concentrations fanning out from Bantry Bay, from Galway Bay, with, apparently, a heavy concentration fanning inland from Ulster’s North East coastline also. Why? Why Bantry Bay rather than Cork Harbour which is said to be the second largest natural harbour in the world? Was it because the harbour did not exist before circa 822 AD until a great tsunami occurred ; which may also have redirected the flow of Munster’s great Blackwater River from entering the sea at Ardmore to it turning south by Cappoquin and joining the Bride River (Eastern) – which is now its tributary – then following a one time, original course of the Bride to the sea by Youghal? How different in their architectural forms are some of the souterrains found in the northern parts of Leinster and in Ulster from those in Munster? 

Do the architectural forms of Ulster some souterrains have an origin in the souterrain distributions of West Scotland and the Isles? Are some of the architectural forms of the souterrains in Louth and Meath associated with certain forms of Ulster souterrains? Are some of the souterrains of Munster of a different origin being directly introduced from southern Atlantic shorelines of Europe, such as Biscay Bay? Which architectural forms are earlier than Christianity and which ones are of the result of receiving Christianity in its monastic form? Did Christianity introduce all souterrain architectural forms to Ireland or just some of them? If some architectural forms could be proved to be older than Christian times then what colonies might have brought them here and from what origins? One wonders if the bronze axes found in an unrecorded, and not surveyed, souterrain at Paddock townland in Aghadown Civil Parish beside Skibbereen might have been contemporary with the axes and of the Bronze Age? If so what colony of people does that souterrain, described as a poul faoi talaimh, harken back to and what was the place of origin of these people, of their customs, manners and dialect? 

If the North and East of Ireland were inhabited from Britain, then who were in the South (Munster) and West (Connaught). Were older population groups resident in these places and remaining in control of them? Were older population groups from the North and East pushed West and South?

Did subsequent population groups arrive in the South and West after or before the 1st century AD? Did migrants from the Bay of Biscay arrive in the 2nd century AD on the South coast to mix with the existing population groups and with migrants from Britannia already settled? Did these new entrant groups over-run or conquer certain land areas, or did they settle as ‘rent tribes’ or  did they just ‘blend in’ with what was already present; in a variety of ways such as coastal traders, farmers, labourers, fishermen, druids, scholars, itinerant merchants, woodworkers or metalworkers etc.? 

As a topic of future research, it is interesting to consider questions relating to ethnogenesis in Late Iron Age / Early Medieval South Munster in the light of research by Klos (2017) relating to the subsequent time period from 800 to 1366 AD.  Were there similarities, or was the Early Medieval period in Ireland dominated by societal and political deconstruction / reconstruction, as well as rebirth, as in Europe and Britain in the wake of the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West? Alternatively, was it less affected having already long absorbed migrants from Europe, the Mediterranean shorelines and Britain before and during the period of the Empire’s emergence as a superstate? Was its liminality, through not having been under Roman governance, the springboard for its influence, especially its religious and scholarly influence, on the Europe which emerged subsequent to the Empire’s collapse? 


Klos, Dawn Adelaide Seymour ( 2017) WHEN WE WERE MONSTERS: ETHNOGENESIS IN MEDIEVAL IRELAND 800-1366. Master of Arts Thesis, University of Southern Mississippi. Online at 

Cahill, Thomas (1995) How the Irish Saved Civilisation. Sceptre/ Hodder and Stoughton, London.


The South Munster Tribes of Ptolemy’s ‘Map’

Looking backwards from the present day, attempting to understand South Munster as a research platform, necessitates a change of perspective; one which changes a paradigm platform of land areas, relationships and social identities different from those of today. Moving backwards in time the map of the current landscape disassembles and dissolves becoming a vague space within loosely defined coastal morphologies, with little in the way of tangible topographical detail, without the land surveyor and cartographer’s measurements drawing it ‘down’, making it a paper image.

Geography of the Desmond Tribes

In the shadow of what is now known of the Menapii tribe the tribes/people of South Munster may as yet come to be more clearly understood in the light of ongoing scholarship as to who they were, where they came from, why and when. How did the tribes as named in Greek, Latin and perhaps Arabic in Ptolemy’s ‘map’ become the tribes of mytho-historical South Munster. What were their origins and identities and what does the information in their myths say about them? Perhaps a tabulation by known geographical area might help to merge Ptolemy’s map of circa 150 AD with the Gaelic narrative of tribal geography in South Munster. Each tribe-land will have its Muintirs, Pobals and clans.

There is a major flaw with attempting to superimpose Ptolemy’s ‘map’ co-ordinates on the south coastline of Munster as we know it today and this is because it ignores the impact of tsunami like events e.g. the 822/830 AD event recorded in the Annals which appears to have impacted on Bantry Bay, the course of the Blackwater  River and to have created Cork Harbour as we known it today. How and why it happened is a geological/marine historical research project. How much has coastal erosion or similar major flood events further shaped the South coast since 822/830 AD? How much did coastal erosion and perhaps other flood events caused by volcanic activity (e.g. events off Lisbon) prior to 822/830 AD shape the South coastline? Therefore how much of the coastal land area and it’s topography is now lost and consequently how can one fix the information in Ptolemy’s ‘map’ to lost information from today’s landscape? Can underwater survey data now available provide some of the missing topography?

Imposing Ptolemy on Irish Mytho-History

Of the many questions which could be asked about imposing the South Munster data from Ptolemy’s Geography onto a mytho-historical tribe map one might ask the following.

Where, if one looks at Ptolemy’s ‘map’ was the annual Great Market at Carmun where Greek merchants visited with ‘gold and fine raiments’? Was Menapia in the area of Wexford Harbour? Was it a trading post or port? Where was Ivernis? Was it somewhere such as the Kenmare River Estuary between the Beara and Iveragh Peninsulas? Or was it in a place where Cork Harbour would later come to exist (Gógan, 1944), or was it the Old Head of Kinsale? The Annals of Innisfallen imply that Cork Harbour, as we know it, did not exist before circa 820/830 AD. If so, then did the Sabrann River (a branch of which survives as the Muskerry Bride, Curraheen and Maglin rivers) and the Veynus River by Rostellan exit to the sea by Cork Rock, now submerged between Roches Point and Poulnacalee with a deep channel at either side of it? Perhaps they drained a marshland area fronting Cobh Island, roughly where the main part of the inner harbour is today, creating a landscape similar to Cork City’s marshlands prior to the erection in later times of a Norman town there. Was the Iron Age artefact, known as the Cork Horns, and associated timbers, discovered near the maritime entrance to the marshlands, the remnants of a trading post or jetty (see Gógan, 1944)? 

What do you see of tribal geographies, their lands, topographies, ports and settlements/market places if you superimpose a map of the mytho-historical tribes and their names onto Ptolemy’s ‘map’? Remember that tribe-lands are not geometrically measured landscapes, instead they are loosely defined ones using natural topographical features (rivers, mountain ranges, bogs/marshes etc.) to define them with focus on the ‘productive’ land within for agriculture and settlement.

Rome had occupied Britannia and it’s seas for close to a century when Ptolemy’s ‘map’ is produced. But was its information ‘fresh’ or long outdated when it resided in Alexandria’s library, or was it ‘fresh’ from veterans of the conquest of, and ongoing interaction with, Roman settlements in Britain?

The 2nd/early 3rd century AD seems critical if the story of Eoghán Mór’s conquest of the Munster area is to be believed. What dynamics on Western European shore-lands around this time would have forced them to move to South Munster?

When do the Menapii arrive and driven by what impetus? Rome is continuously expanding its borders reaching maximum extent in Germania by 6 AD, defeating resistance in Gaul by 52 BC and including Brittany by 57 BC, and conquest of the Iberian Peninsula was completed by 19 BC. But defeat in battle is just a beginning of a process of absorption which may take many years and have major implications including population movements.

If the 16th century historian William Camden is to be believed people from Celtic Britain were moving to Ireland since, and probably before, Rome had completed its conquest of Britain (Britannia) by circa 76 AD. The defeat of the Brigantes tribe in Northern England takes place circa 70 AD, so most resistance is then crushed on British soil. Do many retreat to Celtic Ireland. Finally, in the Galician legends Túr Brigantium at La Caruña is named for the place of origin of the Brigantes, one to Ireland and appearing on Ptolemy’s ‘map’ about 80 years after Rome defeated them, the other to the SE shores of Ireland and beside the Menapii there. So, was Roman conquest not just the impact of military defeat but a slow ongoing process of settlement and colonisation of peoples who were not inclined to technological or social innovation preferring a stable balance with the natural world rather than one of pressured and continual change? As such was their ongoing movement to Ireland’s southern shores occurring since Rome’s defeat of the Belgae confederation in 57 BC? Was it happening since Vercingetorix’s defeat at Alesia in circa 52 BC and continuing up to Rome’s defeat of the British tribes by circa 70 AD? Did Caesar regard some Germanic tribes as Gauls? Did he regard certain Northern Iberian tribes as Gauls?

Does Rome’s expansion across Europe and eastwards to the Levant and south to sub-Saharan Africa absorbing Carthage cause enormous upheaval of traditional societies casting them into melting pots of social integration and migration to new lands? Is it in this context that South Munster and its older peoples began to absorb migrants from such upheavals and fortify its coastlines for a ‘final stand’? But, as such peoples arrived not only did they vie for control over the earlier inhabitants, did they also compete for borders within which to settle their peoples until eventually an internal, hierarchy of control emerged and becomes hereditary, alliances are reached and border boundaries are set.

Were some of the Uí, Muintir and Pobal groups in South Munster originally smaller clans or the surviving remnants of those who came originally and in time had to subordinate themselves to the more battle hardened, economically more successful, more militaristic, clans who settled here? How did the formations on the Munster landscape of the great ‘tribal’ units, unifications of clan groups come into being? How many formed here, how many came already formed?

A Rationale

Might all of the above help to explain the differences in souterrain and ring-fort C14 dates between West Europe and Ireland? Tribal federations of tribal groups, each group composed of clans/extended families. If the names for places and peoples used on Ptolemy’s ‘map’ are Greek, Latin and Old Arabic in origin, what does this say? That the languages of those who collected their names were Greek, Latin and old Arabic, or that some of the peoples present in Ireland circa 150 AD spoke these languages at merchant ports or trading posts?

South Munster was a landscape geography of tribes, clan families, pobals (peoples), muintirs (communities), kingdoms and petty kingdoms (tuaths), farmed lands, uncultivated lands, route-ways, ecclesiastical demesnes and hermitages. Prior to the Norman Conquest it’s coastlines and great rivers absorbed Viking settlers. To an extent it absorbed the Norman Conquest and it’s settlers. It absorbed church reforms after the Synod of Whitby (7th century) and as well as those which came as a result of 12th century church reforms. Perhaps it also absorbed earlier church reforms and influences at the end of the Roman era in Britannia; perhaps subsequent to that event. Being the southern part of the island of Ireland, perhaps it also absorbed much from the traditions and history of early Christianity and its mobilities upon the Mediterranean Sea. Within the mists of earlier history did it also absorb much from that same place to create its initial communities? Likewise did it absorb much from the shore-lands of Western Europe and North Africa, or from the lands of great European rivers which debouche into the Atlantic Sea?

Ptolemy’s ‘map’ and the Classis Britannica

I suspect that much of the geography of Ptolemy’s South Munster coastline and it’s peoples will be better understood once we have a more detailed understanding of the activities of the Classis Britannica (the Roman Navy in Britain);  this in conjunction with more historical geographical and archaeological study of the density of promontory forts and dún named headlands along the South and Southwest coastlines as far as Dingle. Peoples who have found the only remaining territory beyond Roman rule of law, will strengthen their coastal defences especially if there is word of a possible invasion force being created nearby on the other island (Britannia). Who would monitor this threat – young warriors of Fionn MacCumhaill and his Fianna? But, that threat was ‘stood down’ by central administration in Rome.

Note what Tacitus said about merchant knowledge of ports and their approaches in Ireland. Is this not coastal pilot information? The may have Classis Britannica transfigured into various coastal merchant fleets as time progressed. So who took over garrisoned ports here and their tax ‘courts’ as Roman Britannia fell apart? What Roman merchants had settled? In our terms, what were their ‘nationalities’ of origin? Was the Old Head of Kinsale as known to Ptolemy’s informants a garrisoned merchant settlement like Drumanagh along the coast of Dublin? Was Court-a-Parteen on the Old Head a tax court for seizens and other taxes to be paid? Is this why a Medieval church which St Patrick is said to have ‘visited’ is located there? Was it his initial visit as the emissary of Rome? And did he leave behind him as he advanced into other Irish provinces – Munster being already Byzantine in its Christianity – a spiritual son of his at Liospatrick and at Dún MacPatrick later to become a domhnach church site?

Though recent scholarship’s interpretation  of Ptolemy’s co-ordinates would place tribes like the Menapii and Brigantes further north along Ireland’s eastern coastline earlier versions of the ‘map’ have placed these tribes in land areas opening onto the south coastline i.e. the Menapii in Wexford (across the Irish Sea from a Welsh Menapian settlement), the Brigantes in Waterford stretching from North to South Tipperary, the Vodii occupying East and Mid Cork, the Uterni in West Cork, the Velabri in the Iveragh Peninsula, and the Lucerni in the vicinity of the Dingle Peninsula. The Uterni were understood by 18th century antiquarian scholarship to be the Iverni. However, the Kenmare River Estuary is the most usual place identified for Ivernis, given its name as Inbhear Scéine and legends of Eoghán Mór, Beara and Amergin, the poet of the Milesians. In any imagining of such tribal peoples along the shoreline of South Munster one also needs to factor in natural changes to the coastline since the time of Ptolemy’s map (circa 140/150 AD) as well as inaccuracies in the information reported to him, a time, when among others, the Classis Britannica was active on the Irish Sea.

It is of considerable interest that British antiquarian writings from the 18th century would           see tribes such as the Vodii and Menapii as being of Germanic origin. Some also discuss an Iberian origin for certain peoples arriving in South Munster. Whatever its scholarly status may be the Miles Espaigne story which is prominent in Galician lore e.g. Breogán and the Túr Brigantium at La Caruña, is worthy of further consideration especially as it is suggested that Iberian, Germanic and Gallic tribes who fought with Vercingetorix at Alesia were subsequently scattered and/or subjugated by Rome’s expansion; land clearances of those hostile, absorption of those subdued.

If the Vodii were of Germanic origin and perhaps having had, economically and culturally, very stable societies since the Late Bronze Age, how might they have spread their material culture’s norms upon new landscapes in naturally bounded territories along river basins and headwater lands bordered by mountain ranges in Ireland’s South West? How might tribes of other origins have done the same as rent tribes and as the creators of petty kingdoms (tuathas)? Within their kingdom landscape what structures might they have made?

It would be interesting to know to what extent modern historical and archaeological scholarship – including souterrain studies, may now be in a position to say about Germanic tribes such as the Menapii and Vodii as well as the Venetii of Brittany and other Gallic tribes from France’s souterrain landscapes. It would be interesting to have an understanding of the names of those tribes which Tacitus refers to in his Germania; especially in regard to individuals owning their own land spaces with a space underground to live in winter.  Were one to translate his remarks about living in underground spaces into Gaelic, would not the Gaelic words tig faoi talaimh (house the ground or underhouse e.g. cellar) be appropriate.  It is also worth noting that the souterrain lands of Saxony, Bavaria and Austria appear to map onto a Roman perspective of Germania.

What possibility is there that some of these people were Vodii or Uterni? If Breton and Germania origins could explain some of the South Munster tribes on Ptolemy’s ‘map’ then have they arrived and settled before 150 AD? In a last effort to defend against Rome’s advance westward have they strengthened coastline defences from headland dún to headland dún, promontory fort to promontory fort; so densely indicated in place-names and structures, some now lost to the sea, from Wexford to the southern shoreline of the Dingle Peninsula; all southward facing. Was Menapia (see Mongan, 1995) the great market of Carmun where Greek foreigners were ‘with gold and fine raiments’ as noted in early Irish sources? Gold coins as early as the fourth century BC and of Greek origin were found on Ireland’s southern shores in the 19th century. 

Were the legends of Eoghán Mór, Míles Espaigne, the Milesians, Túr Brigantium, Scotia (Pharoah’s daughter) part of the story of Ivernis at Inbhear Scéine? Were places like Dún Cearmna (Kinsale’s Old Head promontory) – as on Ptolemy’s ‘map’, trading places? Were they port settlements for merchants and places of entry to lands beyond? Were they places of influence, places of garrisoned fortresses used by merchant shipping out of Roman Britain, potential bridgeheads for an invasion? Were they points of entry for migrants and refugees, places of export for materials for a building ‘boom’ of cities, towns and villas in Roman Britain; dove marble quarried perhaps from Carrig-a-Crump, wolf hounds to Rome?

If the Blackwater River flowed to the sea at Whiting Bay by Ardmore, if the Toureg was Youghal’s only river, if Cork Harbour did not exist, instead having an inland lake with the Sabrann and Veynus Rivers flowing to and from it, how different was the coastline of the South before a tSunami like event, perhaps originating off Lisbon, impacted upon it circa 820-830 AD as reported in the Irish Annals? How might it have changed the view mariners of the Classis Britannica had about 650 years earlier when Tacitus wrote that the harbours and approaches were well known to Roman merchants? From what would later become the Harbour, what may have led to a bag of Roman Coins at Cuskinny Bay (Day,1898, 49-51) and either a shipwreck or trading jetty on the River Lee (Sabrann, Dabrona?) by the Tivoli Ridge of Cork City (Gógan, 1944); where the Cork Horns were found in the riverine muds during dredging operations? A pre-harbour landscape where the Uí Liatháin traded with Britannia merchants, with merchants in Gascony (once part of the territory of the Acquitanians) in Gaul? A son of the Corcú Laoidhe noted in their genealogies travelled to Gascony in the Bay of Biscay to learn Viticulture while held as a hostage there in lieu of payment for cargo? What might the crowned, gold breast-plated and cloaked resident of the rock tomb by Castlemartyr, at Knockane, have had to say, if only from an ancient grave, about such times; 19th century women upon the Sheep’s Head Peninsula waving to the annual arrival of French lobster boats fishing close by. The slow, long range, continuance of time and moment repeated; a continuance of memory and event longer than its own knowing. 

The Gascony Wine Trade and South Munster

In the genealogies of the Corcú Laoidhe mention is made of a young man who was given as a hostage to Gaulish merchants in lieu of payment for wine. He spent many years learning viticulture there before returning home. He became known in the genealogies as the Gascon. According to French documentary sources mentioned by O’Brien (1994, 

3-6 ,and 1995, 31-80) Gascony was trading wine to Ireland since the 6th century AD and is evidenced from later Medieval times in the wine trade to Cork city. Given the Gascon story and continental amphorae shards from Garranes and Ballycatteen ringforts, in the general vicinity of the Bandon River, how likely is it that both of these tri-vallate ringforts interacted with Gascony traders, in proximity to the Old Head of Kinsale where the Bandon River meets the sea. 

Interestingly, Charles, Smith (1750) in his Cork survey – which shows awareness of the lost County of Desmond (S. Kerry/W. Cork) – sees, based on the scholarship of his time, the Udiae, another form of the name Vodii. In Mid Cork he places the Coriondi (Coritani?), Gaelic lore and tradition would infill such a space with the Martine (sea people i.e. Mar Daoine?)  


In Iveragh Ptolemy would seem to see the Velabri located (whom Smith saw as the Velabori) in what would become part of the lands of the Corcú Laoidhe where he places Ivernis to the south of Killarney’s lakes. In the Dingle Peninsula, if he lived beyond ages, Ptolemy would see the Luceni and Velabri i.e. Dingle, becoming the lands of the Corcú Duibhne people, with the Corcú Laoidhe in the Velabri lands of Iveragh, the Uternii (Iverni) in West Cork. It is interesting to look at these topographies from the perspective of tribal groups i.e. their migrants, selecting defensible terrains along river plains with the security of prominent mountain range boundaries and open access to the sea; river lands and coastal ‘pocket’ lands of arable and good quality pasture land as well as natural resources, for their settlements. To what extent can modern Archaeology begin to map the material cultures of Western European tribe-lands onto the South Munster? It was into the evolving stories, genealogies and landscapes of these tribes that early Christianity in Ireland introduced its message. Was it within its early dúns and fiteccs (under the house or under house) that the beginnings of it’s story in South Munster began that great narrative of Early Medieval Ireland.

It is not my purpose to become immersed in the deep waters of Early Irish History. 

Instead it is simply to note the claim that Oilill brought the ringforts to Ireland given that souterrains are such a common feature of ringforts, and that souterrains in Western Europe are of a much earlier date than those so far scientifically dated in Ireland. Is it possible that tradition is correct and that scientific dating of ringforts, specifically those in the lands close to the South Coast, has yet to reveal dates to contextualise a report of bronze spears from a souterrain near Hollyfort in Wexford (O Ríordáin, 1979,72),  a controversial bronze axehead from a ring-fort at Carrigillihy in Cork (O’Kelly, 1951, 69-86) and two bronze axeheads from a souterrain, a tig faoi talaimh, a short distance along the coast from Carrigillihy at Paddock Townland in Aghadown (Power, 1926, 57-8 and McCarthy, 1978, 71-72).

One is also reminded of Cornwall’s tin trade and West Cork’s copper mines in prehistoric times, of mariners as explorers and prospectors and traders such as Tartessians out of Southern Iberia, Greek ports on Atlantic shores, Himilco out of Carthage and Pytheas out of Marseilles, as one is also reminded of Baltic amber in the graves of the dead and Atlantic networks of maritime trade from the Baltic to the North West Coast of Africa.  

The peopling of South Munster, from prehistoric to post Medieval times, could be divided into seven ages i.e. Pre-Roman times, the time of Rome, a Saxon phase, that of a Celtic Church prior to the Synod of Whitby in 664 AD, a Viking phase, a Norman phase introducing settlers, conquest, new architectures, major church reforms and a 16th to 17th centuries AD phase introducing land confiscations and plantations, the end of monasteries, the Protestant Reformation in the church, the collapse of the Gaelic Order. In this chapter I will look at the Pre-Roman phase, the Roman phase and some literature from the 15th century which may provide a retrospective to those phases in time. The other phases fall within the timeframes of early and medieval Christianity in Ireland and these will be covered within later chapters.

A Pre-Roman Phase

When one looks at the figures quoted for the number on mine shafts at Mount Gabriel, the number of megalithic portal tombs and stone circles in it’s wide hinterlands – the tombs at Aghaglashlin and Altar, the stone circles at Drombeg and at Shrone-na-Binne, it is tempting to imagine those earliest peoples remembered in myth, place-name and storytelling who cross the liminal mists on a day of drizzling rain beside the fiery flames of a sheanacaí’s fireplace. It is said in story and legend that it was the people of Cessair who first came, one of several ships wrecked on a journey, She and her handmaidens the only one to have survived. They vanish upon the land, their places of landing unknown. From the west of Europe’s mainland or from the Aegean Sea who knew their origins, time spreads its silence.

Next, again time’s veil is lifted as the people of Partholón arrive onshore, somewhere forgotten, from where unknown. They face a sea people the Fomorian concerning whom some would say the Cruithin or Cruithne, a dark skinned people of terrifying ways and appearances. Are both Mediterranean peoples, Aegean, Cretian of gigantic temples? Some say the people of Partholón sailed to Ireland via Gothia, Anatolia, Greece, Sicily and Iberia. At Anatolia the great battle of Notium took place during the Bronze Age, a promontory with a settlement. To Ireland 1,000 of them arrived and multiplied to 4,000 bringing farming, cooking, brewing and buildings. Some would see them as settling in the provinces of Ulster, Leinster and Connaught during the 8th to 5th centuries BC rather then in Munster. They struggle with the Fomorians but are destroyed by the ravages of disease. Next come the people of Nemed, they also struggle with the Formorians and die of an epidemic though a few survive. Cork Harbour’s landscape is said to hold their remnants overlooked by Nemed’s tomb (Currabinny Hill and its cairn). Of the 3,000 who came, nine years later many have died of plague, Nemed is buried at Ard Nemed (the high place of Nemed). 

Of where they came from there are several versions, some saying from Iberia, some from Greece. Some see them (Muintir Nemed) as arriving about 30 years after the people of Partholón and see them as originating near the Caspian Sea. They embarked on their voyage to Ireland with 44 ships but only one survived the journey. In this version of the story Nemed wins his battle with the Fomorians and digs two royal forts, a time when four lakes burst from the ground. The Historia Brittonum says Iberia and that they returned there. After they are defeated by the Fomorians they pay tribute but rise up. They are wiped out by a tidal wave. In a telescoping of memory within storytelling it is interesting to reflect on the great wave which drowned 1,000 in Cork Harbour and caused it’s creation, in 822/830 AD. Some say the survivors of the Nemedian event partly left for Britain while others went to Iberia. Some say the Fomorians came from beneath the ground rather than from the sea, some suggest from North Africa; boa figures on an island.

Next come the Fir Bolgs from Spain or Greece. They intermarry with the Fomorians. They live underground and they hold the country until somewhere between the 5th and 3rd centuries BC the Erainn people in the form of the Tuatha Dé Danaan arrive either from Greece or Spain. Some would see the Erainn as arriving to the south coming from the north. Was such a north upon the island of Ireland or further northwards beyond it to Baltic lands and lands of amber traders? 

Of their four septs, three came south, the Muscraige, the Corcú Duibhne, the Corcú Baiscind while the Dál Riata remained north. Gaelic antiquaries informed Charles Smith that souterrains were used by the Fir Bolgs. 

The Tuatha Dé Danaan (tribe and tribe-land of the people of the God Danu or Anu) hold the country for about 197 years up to the arrival of the Goidels, i.e. the Eoghánacht from Northern Spain and/or Southern Gaul. Some would say that the Tuatha Dé  Danaan weae descendants of Nemed who returned to Ireland to defeat the Fir Bolg. Some say they were Grecian and skilled in medicine. Might they have been Persians/Syrians and worshipers of their god of bonfires Anu?

Some would see the Erainn as the Iverni of Ptolemy’s ‘map’ and see them referred to under various guises as the Menapii, to Bolgi, the Builg, Belgae and Fir Bolg. The Menapii were noted for their shipping fleets from Wales. The Erainn survive as a distinct tribe into historic times. The maritime trading people the Corcú Laoidhe and perhaps the Osraige may have descended from them.

The Eoghánacht or Feni or Gael or Milesians are said to have arrived from southern France or northern Spain. They invaded the lands of the Tuatha Dé Danaan and then divided Ireland into two halves after Eoghán’s battle with Conn. Did this mean that the South became a haven for many new peoples and tribes? The date of arrival is given as 2nd to 1st century BC, others would place them in the timespan 100-150 AD. Feni seems so similar to Fenni a tribe mentioned by Tacitus in speaking about the Veneti of the Vistula, Baltic area. He says that he does not know how to class them, with the Germans or the Sarmatians but that they have borrowed largely from Sarmatian ways, the Sarmatians became auxiliaries of Rome and served in Britain. They were similar to the Scythians and used mounted bowmen.

As I attempt to write something close to a consecutive account of this perhaps Neolithic to Bronze timespan from some millennia before 2,500 BC to somewhere close to 500 BC using an archaeological chronology of ages, I have beside me on my bookshelves Francis James Child’s The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, a five volume work, published between 1884 and 1898. This opus magnus is perhaps the greatest compendium of traditional folksongs and versions of them. It is startling to note that in the case of some songs anywhere up to 20 regional versions have been recorded. What does this say about oral memory and regional variations for what is passed down by word of mouth, by ear, rather than by means of the written word or by the preservation of authenticity? Likewise of the mythical  and legendary stories told for generations of sheanacaí to their own communities, transmitted by journeymen tradesmen, to others, to be written down, to be fabricated upon by, or entrusted to manuscript by Medieval scribes, what does this say, if tribal chieftains wish to establish their land rights by tracing their origins to Noah and the Great Flood, if mythical peoples can be grafted to Old Testament stories to establish continuities of Christian origin, what does it say about the flexibilities of oral memory and historical remembering? Does it say that all is fiction or that fiction may be created from fragmentary facts? 

Such entanglements of information, with data, with story, can be a teasing and tempting challenge for scholars and many have written at length in the course of the past 300 years in their efforts to reach through those veils of time in search of something solid. 

Archaeology is a discipline which provides a means of grasping the tangible remains of the past but attempting to graft what it learns and interprets onto the mythological and legendary is an uncertain path to walk; as it is for the historian of scientific scholarly method.  Still, some of the latter which has received long standing consensual support from scholarship provides a useful foundation for the chronological framing what was remembered as ‘historical’ in earlier times regardless of how fictional or slightly factual it may have been seen to have been. In this regard there is a model of Irish prehistory proposed by Prof. T.F. O’Rahilly circa 1946. In it he divides Irish pre-history into four phases these being that of the Cruithin or Pretani (c.700 to 500 BC) a time which archaeologists would see as the Hallstatt Iron Age and a time when the mariner Pytheas of Marseilles undertook his voyage to the Pretanic Isles. 

Greek kilts on Western Warriors?

Some Irish scholars of the 18th and 19th centuries attempted to claim that a Phoenician connection with prehistoric Ireland once existed; as in the writings of Henry O’Brien (Phoenician Ireland, 1837). Another wrote about a Scythian origin for some of its early inhabitants; as in the writings of Roger O’Connor (The Chronicles of Eri, 1822). The Phoenicians originated in the Eastern Mediterranean, their city of Carthage was a Phoenician colony in Tunisia. their god Baal or Balor. Carthage once dominated Mediterranean trade, east and west. Carthage was founded in 331 BC and destroyed by Rome in 146 BC.

A Carthaginian blockade of the Straits of Gibraltar held sway in the 4th century BC, but between 310 BC and 306 BC an opportunity may have arisen which allowed Pytheas’ ship to pass through to the Atlantic. In search of an alternative route from Cornwall he may have considered an overland route to Italy or Marseilles from the Atlantic coast of Gaul (see Casson 1991, p.125). Tin and lead sources were also available in Ireland as was copper should he have prospected for them. It was the Carthaginians who spoke of the Oestrymnides. Their great mariner of exploration of the Atlantic was Himilco, some would say colonists from Carthage came to Southern Ireland, others that their knowledge was gleaned from the trade networks of the Tartessians of southwest Hispania. Queen Dido and the oxhide strips echoed in the Shehy mountains perhaps.

They are followed C. 500 BC by the Builg or Erainn people. Next, around 300 BC the Laighin, Domnainn and Gálioin arrive to be followed finally by the Giodel or Gaels circa 100 BC. In parallel with the chronology of Irish Archaeology what he gives in this model is a historical record from mytho-history and legend of who was thought to have resided on the island from the Late Bronze Age to the Early Iron Age, from then to the later years of the Iron Age BC as the expansion of Roman civilisation began; the Copper Age, the Bronze, the Iron Age, the Age of Rome. The Bronze Age to the Hallstatt Iron Age to the La Tène Iron Age to the Age of Rome. It is in the La Tène period that the Erainn, Laighin and Gaels arrive. 

So, if there are grains of truth beneath all of the legendary storytelling it is memory which has preserved something of the ethnogenesis and experiences of those tribal peoples and their identity stories preserved within the genealogies of the tribes and clans no matter how embellished or faded. It is these tribes and clans, as historical time begins to reveal them across the Irish landscape, whose names begin to emerge in the second century AD in parallel with the external and limited geographical information available to Ptolemy in Alexandria. It is at this  point that one begins to work with the native historical sources in an attempt to understand the formation of clan and tribal Ireland which existed from the 2nd century AD to the time of the Whitby Synod in 664 AD when the Hibernian Church which grew within it withdrew in favour of that of Rome.

The work of the Finnish scholar Andreas Paabo (2007) is interesting as is a map associated with it. It is interesting to speculate on the relationship of the Vistula Veneti to Armorican Veneti, if any. In the course of my research I have not been able to learn anything about the antecedents  of the Hanseatic trading league, a maritime ‘company’ which traded far and wide in Medieval times and founded several ports. their ‘rammed earth’ council houses in the north of Europe were called Rath houses. If their maritime trading empire, on the Atlantic, spread from the Baltic to Armorica (Brittany) trading in furs and amber as well as cargoes collected along their sea routes then how old was this enterprise? If, in the Age of Roman Britannia, naval patrols, seizures of cargo and maritime taxes on Roman trading enterprises, posed a threat to such an enterprise, would they have avoided that coastline except for those localities already controlled in connection with the tin trade? If such sea routes exist prior to Viking times, and are long established, then what impact would they have had on the northern and western Isles of Scotland as well as on the coastlines around the island of Ireland?

Could such sea routes be the basis for migrations from the western shorelines of the European mainland, sporadically, as Roman expansion pushed ‘peoples’ westward continually from 100 BC to 100 AD? Would the use of fleets and sea routes already in existence for trade, and with local connections long established in Britain and Ireland, have provided the means for migrations; local contacts being the basis for acquiring new homelands to settle either by over-running them or by ‘renting’ them? In such fashion did Veneti from Armorica arrive, Veneti and associated tribal groups from the Rhine arrive? Do Iron Age tribal groups from southern Germania arrive bringing, as Tacitus describes, their traditions of underground houses and cellars with them: if one were to translate Tacitus’ description into Gaelic these underground lodgings would be called individually tig faoi talaimh (underground house). There is a story that Eoghán Mór was a Venetii trader who acquired land in Ireland, a story removed by scribes to legitimise a claim for kingship. 

In Germany the work Erdstall is used for souterrains, in Scotland Erdhous, in Cornwall ‘fo’ ‘gou’, if ‘gou‘ is equivalent to ‘hou’ (hous) and ‘fo’ is equivalent to foth (gaelic for under), then, said ‘tongue in cheek’, are all of these word forms in some way related, as they all refer to structures of which some Irish forms are called tig faoi talaimh? Is the distinction between such names simply a matter of varying pronunciations and linguistic forms? Similarly, as the common Irish place-name desert/dysart references the monasticism of the Egyptian desert, does the work rath reference something of earlier origins elsewhere? Did, at one time, the Gaelic work ‘fothrach’ mean a building, or something more precise?  In which case what was a Lios-na-Ratha? A large fenced enclosure space, a clash mór, a lios mór, of a land area which encircled a number of raths, a cleared space, a settlement place, a community farming place, a place of distinct family and clan groups occupying distinct parts of its landscape, naming the functionalities of such areas, the ancestries of such areas? Raths, as each petty chief or family leader’s focal point, tri- or bi- or single ramparted domain, multiple rath clustering, slave and multiple lower class hierarchy dwellings in their immediate periphery, networks of tracks and laneways of cattle driving? As Tacitus said of Germania,

‘Their villages are not laid out in Roman style with buildings adjacent or 

interlocked. Every may leaves an open space round his house, perhaps as a precaution against the risk of fire, perhaps because they are inexpert builders. 

They do not make any use of little stone blocks or tiles; what serves their 

everyday purpose is ugly timber, both unimpressive and unattractive. They 

smear over some parts of their houses with an earth that is so pure and brilliant 

that it looks like painting or coloured mosaics.’

Wattle and daub construction, white washed/lime washed cottage walls of rammed earth, cob built, thatch-roofed, vernacular and traditional architecture of rural Ireland in a John Hinde photograph, shining lime washed walls in a landscape.

The issues of tribal origins, or refugee communities, of survivors of displacement and massacres, of sea routes and fleets of Atlantic merchant ships for transport, is an interesting one to speculate upon. Eoghán Mór, some, say, was a Venetii merchant, from which one might infer that he commanded a ship or fleet. Eoghán is said in Irish historical records to have conquered the southern half of Ireland in 123 AD. Eoghán, some would say, acquired land of his people? The Venetii? But, with the potential to populate the whole of the southern half of Ireland after 123 AD was he more than just a king, leader and ancestor of his tribe? Did he move to populate his half of the island with other displaced tribes and clans from Britain and the European mainland, thereby governing and receiving ‘rents’ and tributes from them and in return paying annual tributes to local leaders in return for services: such as would later be recorded in the Book of Rights at Cashel among whom in later centuries the Prince of the Déise would receive ships of the Waterford coast, the lands of the Brigantes before the Déise people? 

Ptolemy’s ‘map’ is dated circa either 140 AC or 150 AD. Is his information contemporary with him or earlier? It is interesting to note how close it is to the historical date postulated for Eoghán’s great battle with the northern Conn of the Hundred Battles in 123 AD. Was the information about peoples and settlements used by Ptolemy based on relatively recent reporting or the manuscript records of earlier times?

One also wonders what the etymologies of the words Breogán and Eoghán were. Do the word elements ‘Br’ and ‘Eogan’ relate to Eoghán (Mór i.e. big, great, large Eoghán) of the Eoghánacht people? Was Breogán the father of the Míl Espaigne? Was Bile the miles Espaigne (Spanish soldier) of legend? Was Bile Breoghán’s son and what do the words ‘Spanish soldier’ refer to? Someone once enlisted in the Roman army or a soldier of a tribal army? What level of military skill and influence would it have taken to organise the Ivernian (Iberian?) and Galician (Ithian?) tribes to engage in a conquest of the Southern part of the Ireland under his leadership and thereby live on into legend and folklore. At La Corúna in northern Spain there is a large statue commemorating Breogán, in Munster no statue commemorates Eoghán Mór.

How old in early Irish Literature is the word Dún versus the words Rath or Lios? How old are the words Dangan (secure place) and Clash (fenced place) versus the words Caher (dry stone enclosure, Castellum, Qasr); a Cahergal (bright caher) or a grianáin (sunny place, solar)? How similar or dissimilar are these words from those anciently used in ancient times for enclosed or designated places in the Iron Age of Germania or Celtic Britain of Gaul? 

Tribal Economies


Topography and agriculture in South Munster

If one were to split South Munster into two halves using a north to south line from Charleville in North Cork to the Old Head, how different are the natural topographies East compared to West, and their economic potentials from each other? How might one describe the economic and settlement potential of one compared with the other? The following sketch map is an attempt to do this. If there is observational usefulness in it, what it shows is a distinction between the best agricultural, cattle economy lands in the east with its low mountain ranges, fertile to their peaks, and the major rivers of South Munster within the eastern half, the higher more rugged mountainous and less fertile lands of the west. Both areas have maritime trade and copper producing mineral resources. The east has tribes indicating a western European origin, the west suggesting older peoples perhaps with an Aegean origin or Carthaginian. The west has individual territories occupying pockets of land within mountain ranges, the east less geo-morphologically defined with a predominance of great rivers and their tributary systems. 

So, as dictated by its natural topography the west offers more distinctively defined territorial boundaries for tribal groups compared to the east. The best soils and most fertile lands lie in the east, and it is of interest that it is the east which received experienced the Norman conquest resulting in a displacement of some Gaelic tribes being pushed westward from the late 12th century onwards as the Norman Conquest in South Munster took hold.  Going back in time before that date how might the hereditary tribes have distinguished themselves from each other both socially and economically? This is an interesting topic if one is to attempt to tease apart the identities, origins and histories of the peoples who occupied these landscapes in earlier times; a topic for an independent research project. If this hypothesis has some truth in it then the Vodi (Venetii), Brigantes and Menapii are in the lands of the eastern half, while the Erainn (Iverni) occupy the western half where the Corcú Laoidhe would rise rose to power in the early centuries AD. How far removed from what Ptolemy’s map has to say is this scenario?

Perhaps the growing knowledge base and research skills of modern anthropological scholarship – including History, Sociology, Ethnography and Archaeology – can as time progresses, begin to elucidate the material and genealogical cultures which may link the tribes of Ireland to British and European tribes as known at the time of Rome’s expansion; be what is known, the outcome of interaction, observation, report of or ‘in despatches concerning’.

Coin Evidence for Pre-Roman contact with the Mediterranean World

The principle difficulty with this evidence is that it is antiquarian in origin, the coins are now missing and the precise provenances of their discoveries not recorded. Though, as was the case with the Castlefreke Anglo-Saxon coins (McCarthy and Dolley, 1977), historical numismatics research might shed further light on the matter.

To quote the Cork antiquarian and historical numismatist John Lindsay, 

A parcel of Greek coins of the kings of Macedon and Syria were found a few 

years since, on the south west coast of Ireland, but further particulars I was not 

able to ascertain’. 

It would appear that Lindsay’s revision in 1839, published by Bolster of Cork, is the primary source for an account of these coins, not Simon’s account of 1749. It is noteworthy that Lindsay states that it was by the South West coast that these coins were found. Therefore does this information, if they were deposited in pre-historic times, indicate a Greek presence – or interaction of some kind, in that coastal locality of Ireland where the ancient copper mines of Mount Gabriel (Cnoc Osta) existed? Might it have been a Greek presence or a Phoenician one?  The coins date to a period which was the early Iron Age in Ireland. Do they represent a continuance of something much older? One wonders about a reference in Medieval Irish Literature (Metrical Dindshenchas, poem 1) to ‘Greek foreigners with gold and fine raiments’ visiting the annual great fair at Carmun which some scholars have suggested was in the vicinity of Wexford. But is it Carmun or Carmen, or is it a corruption of Cearmna i.e. the Old Head of Kinsale? Does trade with Greek foreigners continue as Roman Britannia came into being?


Menapia and Carmun

In the various cartographic representations of Ptolemy’s Geography since Medieval Times a settlement known as Menapia has been positioned in South East Leinster. Some cartographers have placed it in the area of what is now the town of Wexford. Because of mathematical difficulties with fixing Ptolemy’s co-ordinates to a modern scaled plan the positioning of tribes he mentions in this locality has fluctuated across various versions of his ‘map’. The Menapii, for example, may be positioned anywhere from Dublin County to Wexford, while the Brigantes may be sited from Waterford to Wexford.

If one takes the viewpoint that Ibar of Begerin Isalnd, in Wexford Harbour was a preacher rather than a solitary ascetic hermit then what likelihood would there have been that he settled in this locality because of the existence of a significant settlement nearby; a place of coastal trade and markets opposite the coastline of Wales? Ibar was trained, according to legend, in a druidic school and subsequently converted to Christianity. Some would hold that he was the uncle of St. Abbán and St. Gobnait. Some would also hold that Abbán was another name for St. Ailbe. Ailbe like St. Carthach was bishop of the ruling settlement of South Munster, of the Eoghánacht, at Cashel of the Kings, County Tipperary.

Were the Menapii once settled along the Rhine River and did their trading once take them eastwards to the Danube River; and beyond to the Greek world? Did they trade with the Venetii of Brittany (Mongan 1995,48)? Did their trade networks trade not only in the West like the Venetii (Paabo,2007) but also following the amber routes from the Baltic to Byzantium (Kalnins,2014)?

The Greek Coins Again

‘The earliest coinage to affect NW Europe was the Macedonian coinage of

Philip II and Alexander III (the Great), intended for large purchases outside

of  Macedonia’ (

Philip’s first issue of coins was in the period 355-347 BC. If the Macedonian coins (philippeioi) mentioned by John Lindsay are of this date, and not later Gallic imitations, then does this mean that Greeks were visiting our SW coast where significant Bronze Age

mining activity was occurring at this time? It was Philip II (382-336 BC), who rebuilt the Macedonian army and who was the father of Alexander the Great. Did he require copper from South West Ireland and from Cornish mines to equip his new army with bronze weapons? The period of Philip II lies within the period of the La Tène Iron Age in Western Europe. How long did it take for Iron Age technology to remove the need for Bronze Age technology at local level within the South Munster landscape? How long a transition period was it? Did the technology of iron arrive in tandem with a colonisation or was it already present? Answers to such questions may throw light upon the question of dating the deposition date of certain bronze artefacts in monuments such as ringforts and souterrains. Though currently souterrains and ringfort are thought to be of a much later period in time, some Bronze Age objects possess discovery provenances associated with monuments of these types i.e. a souterrain in Wexford, a controversial discovery at a ringfort in West Cork, and from a ledge in a ‘tig faoi talamh’ souterrain, also in West Cork.

In the context of suggestions that Carmun was near present day Wexford town, the following entry from the Simon and Snelling coin catalogue (Lindsay version) is interesting given O Ríordáin’s mention of a souterrain in Wexford containing bronze spearheads ( O Ríordáin, 1979, 72).

‘In No. 133, of the Dublin Penny Journal, mention is made of a coin in the

collection of Mr. Anthony, of Piltown, County Waterford, there ascribed to

Alexander the Great, but which, from the description, seems to belong to the

Isle of Thasus, which coin, the writer says, was with several others found under

the foundation of the northern gateway of the Abbey of Ferns, County Wexford.’

To what extent does the Greek and Roman coinage above reference the world of a Greek traveller to Navan, County Meath or that of Pytheas the Greek explorer from Massalia (Cunliffe, 2002)? To what extent do Greek names such as Iverni in South West Ireland i.e. the South West coast of South Munster, reference Greek settlers at Marseilles or the maritime knowledge of Tartessians out of Atlantic Iberia, or the maritime knowledge of Venetii upon the Northern seas?

The Dawn of the Desmond Tribes

Orientation sketch showing the locations of tribal peoples in South Munster.

Therefore as the historical annals begin for the period 100-150 AD, four tribes appear to have established themselves in the southern lands of Ireland, in so far as records allow us to know; These tribes were the Eoghánacht, Erainn, Brigantes and Menapii. To what extent, if at all, any of the other tribes/peoples which make an appearance in the records during the years from 150-400 AD were present in the period 100-150 AD or earlier is not clear. Who might have been pre-existing tribes which died out or expanded, integrated with or co-habited land areas with new, incoming peoples present as a result of invasion and conquest (or as rent tribes) or as welcomed migrants, is unclear. Who might be branches, descendants of septs of other tribes under new

names and leaders resulting from intermarriage between tribes, clans either within Ireland or abroad is also unclear. All that appears to be knowable (known) is that they occupied loosely defined geographical areas and that there is some scant information about origins, events affecting them and about some of their prominent people.

There appears to be little, if anything, by which they might be distinguished from each other on the grounds of material culture. Was this the case? Were they indistinguishable in terms of genetic appearance and material culture; dress, rituals, ceramics, ironwork and woodwork, economy, vernacular architecture, language, contacts beyond their tribe-land boundaries, place-naming etc, or were they different, at least in the initial centuries of their presence on the South Munster landscape? To what extent targeted archaeological investigation of such a question would be productive or not is an interesting topic for speculation. What seems to be happening in the Iron Age and Roman Period, using both T. F. O’Rahilly’s chronology and the early historical record prior to 400 AD is that a formation or re-formation, evolution and absorption for some set of reasons is underway in the period circa 700 BC to 400 AD. This period of time is known in archaeological chronology in Europe as the Hallstatt and the La Tène phases of the Iron Age.

However, these are technology and artefact defined phases of that Age, and do not imply automatic changes in culture and tribal identities across every landscape area of Europe of changes in metal technology by peoples for whom bronze technology was long established practice. While some embraced the new metallurgy of iron working and its benefits for the manufacture of tools and weapons others may not have done so either because of no incentive to change, a lack of skills, an absence of ore resources in their lands, lack of the wealth to acquire from others, or no perceived need.

Therefore in one tribe-land of a territory much change and innovation may be present due to wealth, trading connections and a desire for progress and expansion while in a neighbouring tribe-land the opposite may be the case. In such circumstances the archaeological record for one tribe-land may produce material which is in keeping with European trends while another may, contemporaneously, continue with older customs and traditions; such a statement could as easily be understood in modern times as it could be in relation to earlier historic and pre-historic times. Under such circumstances when is a ‘tipping point’ researched across a territory whereby the older Bronze Age technology has become abandoned, its furnace sites lost, its mining adits abandoned and forgotten?

Is it in the context of a tribe or clan which continues to use, preserve and value bronze artefacts in parallel with Iron Age technology that the Bronze axe heads from Paddock Townland, Aghadown, West Cork, in the lands of the Corcú Laoidhe, found their way onto a ledge in a tig faoi talaimh (souterrain)? Was it in similar circumstances that bronze spearheads came to be deposited in a County Wexford souterrain?

Tig ar Talaimh or Tig Faoi Talaimh

How does one project one’s thinking backwards in time on the basic human need of having a place of shelter or occupation either seasonal or permanent, either mobile or fixed? What expectations and conditions existed for differing class and sub-cultures of South Munster peoples in the Early Medieval Period? If this period of Irish social history, Irish (Gaelic) society is understood to have been very structured, very hierarchical and subject to Brehon Law to frame it’s order. It was a society of herders, shepherds, farmers, metalworkers, of travellers, of wanderers, of labourers and professionals, of lords, of the poor, of the enslaved, of artisans, of monks, holy men, nuns, priests, bishops, prophets, traditional musicians and seanachaí, of families and solitaries. It is not clear how many of these headings represent independent individuals or groups be they secular or religious. How and in what conditions, where, did all of these groups reside through the centuries of the Medieval Millennium in South Munster? Within each class group what residential expectations, entitlements, allocations or undefined places to reside, were available hierarchically from lord to slave within a clan group? What ways of living dictated a traveller lifestyle, a variable seasonal lifestyle, a fixed place lifestyle?

There appears to be very little information, at a surface scholarship level, to answer these questions. What craft or agricultural or political activities dictated a fixed place of residence? What conditions and circumstances dictated transitory, impermanent residency as random inter clan wars, conquests, newly imposed social orders, land clearances, famines and plagues impacted on the Gaelic social order? How were surface habitations impacted and how did they reflect cultures of origin and lifestyles introduced by migrant and conquerer? Lucas (1971-73,185)  in his paper about the literary evidence for Irish souterrains quotes a Medieval Irish text which speaks of valuables being hidden in a ringfort under attack with the ‘the lowest grade of men and women’ occupying its souterrain and being fearful of being separated by the attackers: a raid in search of slaves and booty? Who were the souterrain occupants? Were they slaves, migratory poor, thieves, people socially marginalised for a wide variety of reasons? Perhaps, a scholarly investigation of this uncharted history, and it’s archaeology, within the South Munster landscape, could provide a basis for understanding the concept of having a tig faoi talaimh. Lucas’s paper (as above), entitled Souterrains the Literary Evidence, quotes many instances from Medieval Irish literature which describe souterrains. Such references show them in the contexts of being refuges, dwellings, places of storage, places of concealment for valuables, places associated with ringforts and with churches/oratories, places connected with early Irish saints, places of penance. But what the literature does not describe is what particular souterrain forms were associated with these activities. It is clear from the archaeological record that in South Munster several different architectural forms of souterrain were built. Reading beneath the lines, the quotes given by Lucas suggest that some souterrains had a religious association while others had a secular context.

Therefore, given the range of functions noted in the Medieval literature, how likely was it that the construction of different structural forms occurred to suit various needs? I am slow to use the phrase ‘form follows need’ given that refuge or concealment may simply be the result of using any suitable place available in times of crisis. A storage souterrain (cellar) or a tig faoi talaimh could become a convenient and relatively safe refuge (or place of concealment for food or objects) in times of immediate danger or when a possibility of theft was a consideration. A religious penitential cell, or prayer cell, or an underground dwelling for hermits or novices, might also fulfil the need for a place to hide. It was not unusual in medieval times for wealthy persons to deposit valuables, including coin, for safe-keeping with anchorites and hermits in their cells; something which, along with other behaviours, would over time result in revised rules for those following an anchorite lifestyle.


A Roman Phase

In the 1830s the Cork historical numismatist John Lindsay published  a new edition of Simon’s Essay on Irish Coins, and of the Currency of Foreign Moneys in Ireland, which originally appeared in 1749 published by S. Powell, Dublin.  Cork discoveries of Roman coins listed by Lindsay were:

In the moat of a rath in the parish of Castlelyons Co. Cork was found in 1837 a Roman large brass coin of Gordian III now in the possession of the author’ (John Lindsay, Cork).

Roman Emperor Gordian III dates from 225-244 AD. If deposition at the rath is

contemporary, therefore, does this indicate that the Castlelyons rath was in existence at this time? Whichever rath in the locality it was, was it either contemporary with or earlier than the mid 2nd century AD?  it is interesting that Castlelyons was the capital of the Uí Liatháin people, a people with maritime connection abroad.

Several Roman consular and imperial coins, a few years since, said to have been dug up at Buttevant, Co. Cork.’ If these are not of antiquarian origin, what would bring Roman consular and imperial coins to the landscape of Buttevant? The spoils of raiding in Brittania or further afield in Europe, settlers or native traders returning?

‘A small Roman brass coin was about the year 1805 said to have been dug up in a bog in Ballyphehane (Ballyphehane) bog near Cork.’

To this list must be added the 19th century find of Roman coins at Cuskinny, Cobh Island in Cork Harbour, reported by Cork antiquarian Robert Day. The details of these coins is as follows.

Roman coins at Cuskinny Bay found in the 19th century (1890s hoard): coins of Claudius Gothicus of 270 AD, coins of Constantine the Younger 337 AD, Constantine Chlorus and Constantine the Great 306 AD -337 AD. So the time range for the minting of these coins is 270 AD-337 AD i.e. 67 years in total. These dates overlap to some extent with the suggested timeframe for Eoghán Mór.

Taken all together these coins finds are indicative of the inland reach of Rome or Roman Britannia either in the form of trade and visitors or natives, travelling or trading abroad, within the Empire.

Why so many Roman coins from inland locations such as Buttevant, Ballyphehane, Castlelyons? Does it indicate inland trade and travel from the coast and abroad and if so why? Did a garrisoned Roman trading station exist at Kinsale? Were these artefacts the outcome of native trading with Roman merchants, of travellers returning home from Gaul or Britannia? Did Roman merchants follow a ‘Veynus’ river channel to Cuskinny to trade, centuries before the 820/830 AD inundation? Did Romanised Britons or immigrants from other Romanised countries come to settle? Was this before, during or after Christianity’s arrival? Earlier again, did ancient Greek mariners visit our shores and is there any evidence, no matter how slim or speculative, for such?

Charles Smith MD and his narrative

My purpose in writing this chapter is to look at the possibility that some tribal peoples, coming from Western Europe may have used underground space as custom and practice while others may not have done so; not bringing any such traditions with them from their homelands. If some of the structural forms and architectural designs found in the souterrain record for South Munster are the result of distinct migrations of tribal peoples from the Rhine, Gaul and Northern Spain and the Bay of Biscay, than what arguments can be put forward in favour of this hypothesis? If there is a kernel of truth beneath such a hypothesis then how does this address the chronological gap between the Iron Age radio-carbon dates for Brittany – and elsewhere in Gaul, along with Scotland and Cornwall – compared with those few for Ireland which point to the end of the Iron Age in the Early Medieval time period? Is the gap best explained as absence of evidence rather than evidence of absence?

So, for the year 1750, based on the nature of his informants the South Munster antiquarian Charles Smith was able to say with confidence, drawing on the earlier writings of William Camden (1551-1623), that

It is certain that many of the ancient British people retired into Ireland upon the 

            invasion of the Romans, in the reign of Emperor Vespasian about the year 76 

            during the government of Petilius Cerealis in Britain’.

Agricola served under Emperor Vespasian.

Camden also stated

‘that they fled hither: some for the sake of ease and quietness; others to keep their 

            eyes untainted with the Roman insolence; and others, again, to preserve their 


One is curious to know if his statements were derived from reliable source documents or simply opinions.

Ethnogenesis of the Tribes and their Clans

So, who were these peoples and what was their ethnogenesis? Where did they originate from before coming to Ireland and Britain? Who was here before them and how did these earlier communities fare after their arrival? What caused them to migrate and how isolated from their origins did they become as time progressed? Was there still an unwitting whisper of much earlier times, when in the 19th century, lobster fishing boats from France paid annual visits to the waters beside the Sheep’s Head Peninsula in West Cork?

Using Smith’s information, based on Camden, the western expansion of Rome was a pivotal point in time during which many of the tribal peoples who appear in Ptolemy’s Geography could have arrived in South Munster; from whom some of those who begin to appear subsequently in the native Irish historical record may have descended in the space of a reasonably short period of generational and ancestral time. Earlier in time the inhabitants of South Munster, their origins and deeds, are blended with the imaginations of storytellers, the imaginaria, the mind palaces of oral memory, while at the same time, places and names still speak of them among the mountain peaks of the landscape, memories half-forgotten, still speaking of their presence, cattle lowing on the foothills, a burial cairn on an eminence.

Before and after the Rise of Rome

Here I will summarise what is known of these inhabitants be it myth or fact prior to the expansion of Rome westward. I will then summarise what in known of the Iron Age tribes in Western Europe, Britain and Ireland as Rome expanded and held sway until its fall in the 5th century AD. It is during this time that the native record as reflected in South Munster began to emerge. The history of South Munster’s tribal peoples develops from that point until the demise of whatever they had gradually become, through both internal and outside influences, in the 17th century AD.

In the years 58 BC-50 BC Julius Caesar invaded and conquered the lands of the tribal peoples of Gaul and recorded his campaign along with details of the ethnography of his adversaries in his memoir De Bello Gallico written in 58 BC-49 BC. By 45 BC he had become Rome’s first dictator and was assassinated in 44 BC. His was just one of several other campaigns against tribal peoples to the west and north of Rome as well as to the east, since the Empire first began to expand its boundaries. The South Eastern region of Hispania began to come under Roman rule in 220 BC and the conquest had spread, diagonally, to the north western region i.e. Galicia, Castille and Aragon, by 19 BC.

The country known as Germania, according to Tacitus in 98 AD, was separated from that of the Gauls by the river Rhine which flows north and then westwards to the North Sea. It’s source in the Black Forest region of South West Germany and North West Switzerland near the Vosges Mountains. At Lake Neuchatel in Switzerland archaeological discoveries in the 19th century revealed evidence for an Iron Age culture which has come to be known as La Tène, an archaeological ‘culture’ defined by its metallurgy and artistic styles. Archaeologically, this ‘culture’ is dated 500 BC-100 BC and it is understood as a defining aspect of Iron age ‘culture’ in Western Europe stretching to the shores of the island of Ireland. Tacitus, his view from a Roman perspective, also says that Germania is separated from the provinces of Rhaetia and Pannonia by the Danube River which rises in the region of the Black Forest and flows eastwards to the Black Sea, Germania is separated from Sarmatia and Dacia ‘by the barrier of mutual fear or mountain ranges’ an interesting statement about the nature of mountain ranges and ethnic boundaries.The Danube flows eastwards from the Black Forest beginning at the Brigach and Breg Rivers flows through Bavaria. To the north east of Bavaria lies Saxony and on the eastern side of both regions lie Austria and the Czech Republic. It was in Austria during the 19th century that evidence for another major archaeological ‘culture’ was discovered, one which had come to define the earlier part of the western European Iron Age known as the Hallstatt ‘culture’.

This stylistic and metallurgical ‘culture’  is understood to have preceded the La Tène ‘culture’. It is dated approximately to the period 800 BC-500 BC. Within the Irish archaeological record it is scantily represented compared with the La Tène ‘culture’. Whatever these archaeological ‘cultures’ may mean in ethnographic and ethnogenesis terms the tribal peoples, their histories, interactions and developments form the theatrical backdrop to the Germania Tacitus wrote about. Saxony, Bavaria, Austria and Gaul are all souterrain bearing landscapes. The landscape area of northern Hispania (Spain and Portugal) also has ‘souterrains’ though as best I can discover currently they are architecturally different and later than pre-historic souterrains elsewhere in Europe and also souterrains in Scotland and Ireland. It is worth noting that much had happened since Tacitus wrote and that boundaries of tribal territories can be very fluid, expanding and retracting, vanishing, newer upon newer identities and geographical shapes superimposed on them by the complexities of subsequent historical time phases.

So with all of these time phases in mind one returns to Caesar’s campaign in Gaul and a ‘tipping point’ in time when a chieftain of the Gallic tribe, the Arverni, by name Vercingetorix, called together a great tribal confederation, an alliance, to meet Caesar and his troops in open battle at Alesia in central Gaul in the year 52 BC. It is said that many neighbouring Celtic tribes joined in the battle against Rome including tribesmen from the Venetii of Southern Armorica (Brittany), the Menapii a people of northern Gaul, Germanic, Iberian, those of Acquitane and Britons including civilians, hundreds of thousands of whom were killed during the event and subsequent to it.

As well as tribesmen from other Germanic tribes, what others joined him from Iberian (Hispanic) tribes, from the tribes of Acquitane in South Gaul a land also with an Atlantic coastline on the Bay of Biscay, and from the island of the Britons?  Did Britons mean the Celtic peoples of Britain and Ireland, the Pretanic Isles of Pytheas’ voyage.

In Ireland at this time, along the coastline of South Munster, who were its peoples? Some allied by trade and/or family alliances to Britain and Gaul? Some, extensions of British tribes, some of older native tribes and of older geographical origins?

Some older than the Hallstatt Iron Age, some older than the La Tène Iron Age?

Alesia, like so many battles during Rome’s many centuries of Germanic wars was a tipping point after which Rome’s external boundaries expanded, great movements of tribal peoples seeking new homelands, and ethnic cleansing. In 58 BC the Germanic tribe the Suebi crossed the Rhine seeking a home in Gaul. What is set in train by Rome’s expansion? Two centuries of great migrations, of refugees, initiating a domino effect rippling across the tribal lands of Western Europe, a time of  population dynamics under pressure, the push of an Empire’s economic and social growth both north and west, pushing east and south to the lands of North Africa, followed by a time of maximum territorial limits, a time of peace, a time of subdued restlessness, a time of quiet desperations, until the Empire’s split into East and West and the eventual fall of the Western Empire in the 5th century AD.

As a consequence of all of this political, geographical and social turmoil and its impact on the ethnographies of tribal societies in Western Europe prior to Rome’s expansion what logical impact should be expected on Irish shores, particularly those closest to the theatres of conquest wars and consequent tribal migrations on the European mainland, initially and then subsequently to the establishment of Roman Britannia from an initial invasion of the south east in 5 AD to the arrival of Emperor Claudius in 43 AD, to the completion of the conquest of the south in 47 AD, that of the north by 75-77AD and then to 79 AD as General Agricola moved to occupy the southern lands of Scotland?

What impact, logically, should all of this have had on the landscape and peoples of South Munster, if Ireland was to become the repository of the vestiges of all this turmoil; Ireland being the end point of the known world westwards, the ‘last inch of liberty’, a final refuge beyond where Roman arms were carried, a place to burn ships and make a last stand? In such a scenario how might the collective memory of the settlers have viewed their position in relation to Roman Britannia? How defensive a state of mind might have existed considering the hundreds of thousands, it is said, of tribal peoples who were killed during the Germanic, Gallic and Hispanic wars in resistance to Rome’s expansion?

Tacitus tells us that Agricola, his father-in-law, considered Ireland an easy target, that he entertained an Irish chieftain in exile, that he said it could be conquered by one legion and auxiliaries, that he considered it strategically advantageous to do so at one  stage. We hear of the Gaelic chieftain Túathal Techtmar as such an exile and his return to Ireland with Roman support to conquer Tara of the Kings in County Meath. We hear of the archaeological evidence from County Dublin of a Roman garrison on a sea promontory at Drumanagh. We hear of a build up of Roman troops, supplies and ships on the North West coastline of Britannia during the 1st century AD. We hear of a Roman naval presence at the mouth of the English Channel between the Severn River and the south east tip of Wexford, to the north east the Welsh island of Mona (Anglesey) being shown by cartographers in later times as existing, based on Ptolemy’s co-ordinates, between Carnsore Point, County Wexford, and Northern Wales. It was at Mona in the 1st century AD that Seutonius Paulinus massacred the druid priests of Celtic Britain. We hear of Ibar of Begerin Island in Wexford Harbour trained as a druid but then travelling to Gaul to ‘learn the new teaching’, of Christ. We see a large scale spread of promontory forts and Dún headlands along the coastline of South Munster from Waterford to Dingle.

We read of Caesar’s account in his Gallic Wars of the Venetii seamen of Southern Armorica. Caesar’s description of the Venetii in De Bello Gallico says that they were a seafaring people who lived along the Gulf of Morbihan, built their strongholds on coastal eminences which became islands when the tide came in and peninsulas when the tide was out, built their ships of oak with iron nails and leather sails, were closely connected with and often sailed to Britain, controlled the trade of Cornwall and Devon, receiving military assistance from Britain in the war against Caesar. He also says of them that their choice of strongholds was very effective frustrating land attacks with the incoming tide, naval attacks left trapped on the rocks when the tide ebbed; once threatened in one stronghold they used their ships to evacuate to another place leaving Roman engineers, and their attempts at causeways and siege-works, to be continuously replaced.

In a scenario where they have migrated from the European mainland and either established or already had an earlier presence needing re-enforcement, how likely would it have been for them to replicate their strategies on the Southern and South Western coasts of South Munster, part of the ‘last inch of liberty’ from Rome, in anticipation of Agricola’s words that Hibernia, lying between Britain and Spain and placed strategically in the Gallic Sea, would unite the most robust parts of the Empire to the great advantage of both if conquered. In a final decisive naval battle Caesar’s ships destroyed the Gaulish fleet at Quiberon Bay in 56 BC. By 51 BC Rome’s territory in the west extended as far as the English Channel and north to the River Rhine. The end of the Venetii came after the naval battle, their strongholds stormed, nobles slaughtered and the rest sold into slavery.

They were made to submit to Caesar along with others living on the Gaulish coast by 57 BC and hostages were taken.  Though souterrains are not a frequently discovered feature of Irish promontory forts examples are present in the archaeological record. Souterrains, some with surviving enclosures, are frequently found in Brittany. What connection if any existed between promontory forts, ‘cliff castles’ and the souterrain heritage of Brittany? Were they part of its Venetii heritage?

We also read from Tacitus regarding the Germanic tribes,

‘It is a well-known fact that the peoples of Germany never live in cities, and will

not even have their houses set close together. They live apart, dotted here and there, where spring, plain or grove has taken their fancy. Their villages are not

laid out in Roman style, with buildings adjacent or interlocked. Every man

leaves an open space round his house, perhaps as a precaution against the

risk of fire, perhaps because they are such inexpert builders. They do not even make any use of little stone blocks or tiles; what serves their every purpose is

ugly timber, both unimpressive and unattractive. They smear over some parts

of their houses with an earth that is so pure and brilliant that it looks like painting

or coloured mosaics. They have also the habit of hollowing out caves

underground and heaping asses of refuse on the top. In these they can escape

the winter’s cold and store their produce. In such shelters they take the edge off the bitter frosts; and, should an invader come, he ravages the open country, but the secret and buried stores may pass altogether unnoticed or escape detection, simply because they have to be looked for’.

How familiar these words are when one reads about the attempted conquest of Connaught by the Norman army of Milo DeCogan in 1177 AD and the response of the native communities as described by Giradus Cambrensis.

In the ethnographic descriptions of tribal peoples recorded by Roman authors there appears to be four tribes with the Venetii name i.e. the Venetii of Armorica, of north eastern Italy, of the Vistula (Baltic) and of the northern coast of Turkey. Remarks from authors such as Strabo, Tacitus, Herodotus speak of them, as well as Polybius, who speaks of such peoples, other than those of Armorica, as ‘Celticised’ and different only in language from the Celts, of the Italian Venetii. Their archaeology speaks of landowners buried with amber jewellery, and horsemen. Tacitus speaks of the Baltic Venetii borrowing from Sarmatian ways and their plundering of wooded and mountainous country between the Peucini and the Fenni peoples, reminiscent in name of another people who in Ireland were known as the Fenni or Feni, and he speaks of a people east of the Vistula, the Aestii who have the customs and fashions of the Suebi but speak a language more like the Britons.

Archaeologically known as part of a West Baltic Barrow culture they seem to be associated with Proto-Balts ‘who kept this area for almost two thousand years, avoiding adoption of new ideas from their neighour’. They lived as herders in small settlements or in little dwellings built on artificial islands made of several layers of wooden logs attached by stakes. Their metals were imported, and their dead were cremated and put in urns covered by small mounds. [Wikipaedia as seen 13/08/2017].

How easy it is to see this replicated as an Irish crannóg as in a lake at Lough Gur, County Limerick.There is a theory that all of these Venetii were from the Baltic originally and followed something called the amber path, that they were a pre-Celtic, pre-Latin, pre-Germanic population of Europe. It has been suggested that the Vodiae (Vodii) of the Cork Harbour region may have, as suggested by Ptolemy’s co-ordinates, also been speakers of a Venetic language. Paabo’s work (2007) suggests a trading ‘empire’ in amber and furs from the Baltic to Ireland’s western and southern coastlines and beyond to the Atlantic Coast of Europe: an amber necklace on a skeleton from Knockane near Cloyne/Castlemartyr in East Cork.

The impact of Rome’s great economic, and political and social expansion was, for clan and tribal societies, one of massacres, slaughters, enslavement, colonisation and overlords, dispossession and displacement, new class structures, subordination and subservience, conscription and ‘puppetisation’, peoples being stripped of identity, heredity and homeland, either accepting or rejecting what it offered; from civilised and subservient or to banished and defeated. Westward beyond its final boundaries lay new lands, negotiated settlement or conquest, cultural trade-offs with a little of the old blended with the new. Off Europe’s western shores first, Britain and finally Ireland would become a ‘last inch of liberty’ as would northern Scotland and the northern lands of Germania and Scandinavia. How similar it was in its practicalities of formation to the events of World War II or present day migrations is an interesting question, as is one regarding the impact on the lands and peoples to whom they came: a timber wharf, or sunken ship, in the marshlands of Corcúch, three decorated bronze horns from a horse’s harness or a chieftain’s head-dress.

The Roman poet Juvenal wrote that Rome had taken arms beyond the shores of Ireland ‘we have advanced arms beyond the shores of Iuverna’ i.e. to its interiors. What might this imply, garrisons in support of rebels, in support of exploratory incursions along rivers, in support of trading stations, a breach-head at a promontory fort, displaced Venetii scattered to the west? With one legion and a moderate number of auxiliaries the island could be taken said Agricola. In 81 AD Agricola considers an invasion of Ireland. If the harbours and inlets of the South coast are well known and if the Classis Britannica was familiar with this coastline, then what expectations in terms of an increase in number and strengthening of existing coastal defences at headlands and promontories would those living on the island have at such a time; be they recent migrants from Gaul and Britain or older residents on the island?

Tacitus writes that most of the harbours and approaches were known to merchants but that the interior lands were less well known. This sounds almost like an entry from a periplus or ‘coasting pilot’ manual on board a mariner’s ship. It is a statement made in 98 AD and either 42 or 52 years later (140 or 150 AD) the geographer Ptolemy at Alexandria writes his co-ordinates for the island of Ireland with a mixture of Greek, Latin and Arabic names for it’s peoples, it’s coastal places, it’s rivers, nothing definitive, nothing directly observed, nothing comprehensive, just sketchy fragments of information derived from what? Did it come from scraps of verbal commentary in the nearby dockland, from scraps of recorded comments in Alexandria’s Library, from mariners who have ‘heard tell’ from other mariners along the Mediterranean coastlines, from visitors from the lands of the Britons? What little he knows is an external understanding of who occupied the island of Ireland either extracted from Greek, Latin and early Arabic speaking sources during his lifetime or from records made by others at other points in time. Alternatively, does his information imply a use and knowledge of these languages along the coastline of Ireland, in particular South Munster?

Older Languages and the Re-Gaelicisation of Placenames

It is usually the case that when Irish place-names are re-translated from English to Gaelic, it is presumed that the Gaelic language was a distinct, linguistic entity prior to the adoption of the English language as an official administrative and spoken language of the country. The overlay of English was a process of superimposition through which the Gaelic language gradually became marginalised, from the 17th century onwards. But how linguistically pure was it and did remnants of other languages from earlier times exist as borrowings within Gaelic? What traces of Norman French, Scandinavian, Latin Hebrew, Arabic and languages of many other peoples from within the Roman superstate, through settlers from Britannia and its legions, as well as the languages of mariners and settled merchants, exist within it? Rather than being linguistically pure and of Gaelic origin was the language of Ireland, a creole of several vocabularies  spoken in parallel with Gaelic, by older social groups or class groups existing upon the Irish landscape as the Iron Age emerged into the Medieval period? The Irish Archaeologist R.A. Stewart Macalister a towering figure of early 20th century Irish antiquarian scholarship – and one time excavator at Maresha in Palestine, considered the question of Ireland’s other (secret) languages in a book published in 1937. Macalister is perhaps best remembered for his monumental study of Irish Ogham inscriptions  entitled Corpus Inscriptionum Insularum Celticarum published in 1945. His book on Ireland’s Secret Languages is one which seems to require greater consideration in the context of re-translating place-names and their meanings: from Ogham, to Hisperic and Christianity, to Bog-Latin, to Shelta, the language of the Irish Traveller community, to the Béarlagair na Sáer and its survival among masons.

To what extent such languages, or scraps of their vocabularies, survived among certain class groups or artisan nomads of the Irish landscape, is an interesting question. It is also an interesting question to ask if such languages or words were spoken by persons residing in poverty, in clay or rock hewn caves, or in masonry constructed cells. As languages of the marginalised, upon the margins of a marginalised Gaelic society, what might their vocabularies have told us about Ireland’s subterranean human landscape and its stories.

The time period of 100 AD-150 AD is the time period that notices of the first Irish kings, as placed on record in later centuries in the Irish Annals, appear. It is in this time period, that the beginnings of an internal, native, perspective of Ireland’s peoples and places begins to emerge as hereditary memory. So, who might one meet among the peoples of South Munster in the time period of Tacitus and Ptolemy of Alexandria? Who are the peoples the earliest Irish records and folklore tell of? Who was contemporary with them? Who were they subsequent to?


Origins of the Clans and Tribes of the Lost Kingdoms

In the later years of the La Tène Iron Age, and in the early years of a completed conquest in Britain, the State of Britannia began to come into existence. Over a millennium later, the Iverni are placed, at a locality of peninsulas jutting out into the Atlantic at the South Western corner of the island of Ireland, by cartographer’s using Ptolemy’s co-ordinates. We know today that there are actually five peninsulas in this corner of Ireland i.e. the Mizen, Sheep’s Head, Beara, Iveragh and Dingle. So how simplistic and how generalised are the co-ordinates for this area? Are they nothing more than a ‘way-point’ observation, part of a coastal journey with no exploration of the coastline itself? Is this because it is an approximation based on a mariner’s or scholar’s determination made at Alexandria? So, what is to be known of the Iverni or of the peoples who occupied these lands according to the earliest Irish traditions?

The archaeological record for these lands speaks of ancient copper workings at Mount Gabriel on the Mizen Peninsula, of a density of megalithic tombs, stone circles pointing to Bronze Age settlement and the working of mineral resources. Mythologically, it speaks of Scotia, the daughter of an Egyptian pharaoh, of Gaytholos, a mercenary in Dacia and  Scythia, in the Nile Delta winning Scotia’s hand, returning with her to Spain to settle conflicts, his druid seeing Ireland in the distance from a great tower and a decision to go and conquer it. But there is confusion in the memory of this legend. It has also been blended with the legend of the Milesian people. Was Scotia’s story telescoped into the story of these Milesian people?

In the Scotia story the invading force lands near Castlemaine Harbour, south of the Dingle Peninsula. It then engages in battle with a native people called the Tuatha Dé Danaan (a people of the kingdom of the god Danu or Anu), a people whose earlier conquest of the land had defeated a people called the Fir Bolg (often loosely translated as men of bags, the Builg or Belgae). During the battle by Sliabh Mish, Scotia dies thrown from her horse. She is buried in Scotia’s Glen beside Tralee near Castlemaine.

The Fir Bolg are said to have arrived on the west coast of Ireland in earlier times beside a place called Sliabh an Iarainn (the mountain of Iron, a metallurgical association with their arrival, perhaps). The Tuatha Dé Danaan were a ‘magical’ people possessed of superior knowledge. Does ‘magic’ signify new metal technology? Were they Greek, Egyptian, Cartaginian or Phoenician in origin.

In another version of the Milesian story a people from Spain, who decided to invade after seeing Ireland from a great tower, were the people of the Spanish Soldier. These people are understood to have been the Gael (or Giodelic ) people who bring a European ‘Gaelic’ culture and language to Ireland. If there is a kernel of truth in this then where in Spain did they come from? The tower in question is said to have been the Farum Brigantium located in Galicia in North Western Spain and on the southern shores of the Bay of Biscay. Originally built under Emperor Trajan’s rule 98 AD-117 AD. This is the time of Tacitus when merchants, he says, have a good knowledge of the harbours and approaches of Ireland.

The Farum Brigantium was said to have been Pheonician in style and similar to that at Alexandria; it was intended to be a tower for looking towards Britannia, according to the Roman author Paulus Orosius. In the 11th century an Irish text known at the Leabhar Gabhála Eireann, it is said that Breogán king of the Galician Brigantes people constructed the tower. To some it was Breogán who was the ancestor of the Gaels. He is seen as Breogán Mac Brath whose son Mile Espáine went to Ireland. The ancient geographical centre of Munster was said to have been a place known as Medon near Emly in County Tipperary. It was associated with a people called the Mairtine (Mar daoine i.e. sea people?). In later times it was the site of the chief church of the Eoghánacht people i.e. those descended from the race of Eoghán Mór.

The Mairtine are said to have descended from Breogán Mac Brath of Galicia. If there is truth in this, then, were they one of the tribes who came with the the Milesians? Eoghán’s grandfather was Olill Olum and it is said of him that he began the Eoghánacht dynasty. Was Breogán Oillil Olum? It is not clear if he became king of Munster having united both the Eberian and Ithian tribes or after.  But when did he do this? After arriving in South Munster or beforehand in Spain?

Olill is said to have had four sons but he willed the kingship of Munster to his two eldest i.e. Eoghán Mór (MacCarthy descent) and Cormac Cas (O’Brien descent). In a 12th century text, known as the Book of Rights, a register of rents and taxes paid to the King of Munster at Cashel, it is stated that the earthen forts of Ireland (ringforts) were introduced by Olill. It is notable in this regard that Eoghán Mór was credited with the wise use of fiteccs (underhouses) in ringforts (dúns) on the advice of prophets who foresaw a famine: but more of this later.

So, did Eoghán take, by the sword, the lands his father’s tribes had sought to settle or did he unite those already settled? Eoghán is believed to have been buried at the megalithic tomb at Duntryleague beside the Glen of Aherlow, an eminence with a sweeping view of Munster. Eoghán’s wife is said to have been a princess named Beara from Castille, the region of Spain neighbouring Galicia on its eastern side. For her he named the Beara Peninsula of West Cork and on the western side of that peninsula is Inbhear Scéine (Kenmare Estuary) where the Milesian fleet is believed to have landed. Scéine was the wife of Amergin their scholar poet. It is also in this estuary that some scholars in the past have attempted to place Ptolemy’s settlement of Ivernis, the coastal settlement of the Iverni people. If so, is there a likelihood that these Ivernian people were those united with the Ithians by Olill Olum.

Some would see the Iverni become the Erainn people who occupied the same landscape area during the period subsequent to 150 AD. Were they related to a major tribal group in Northern England as Rome completed its conquest? Why are they not in the lands of the Ivernii at this time if Oilill’s ‘invasion’ took place at Kenmare? Might it have been the case that having negotiated an agreement with the Ivernii, lands further east along the coast were acquired by some of Oilill’s people e.g. Waterford, as well as lands further inland going to the lands of the Mairtine? If so did they follow the Suir River inland from Waterford Harbour moving towards Cashel? If the Brigantes of the Waterford/Wexford area arrived from Northern Spain, did another wave of them migrate to Northern England and subsequently, after a final battle with Rome, migrate to Ireland?

If there is truth in any of this, what scale of population movement is implied and why are they doing so? Armorica lies on the northern shores of the Bay of Biscay while Galicia lies on its southern shores. What would destabilise a large volume of people in Northern Spain and Gaul causing them to migrate? If Rome’s conquest of Northern Spain is completed by 19 BC how long does it take to effectively colonise this area and what are the ramifications by circa 100 AD? It is about 50 years after Caesar’s defeat of Vercingetorix at Alesia. It is about 25 years since the conquest of Britain was completed. Is the Irish dating for Olill (Ailill) Olum and Eoghán Mór too late in time? Did they live in a slightly earlier time? As circumstances changed within the lands of the Empire between 50 AD and 250 AD did the causes for these migrations come into being?

Before looking at what is known for another tribe on Ptolemy’s ‘map’ i.e the Menapii it is worthwhile noting that two other tribes which, though known from later sources, appear to have existed at this point in time. These are the Uí Eachach (people of the horse) upon the maige (plains), and the Luceni (if the name has anything to do with Luceni of Aragon neighbouring Castille). According to the writings of a Medieval Benedictine historian Richard of Cirenchester the Luceni were located near Dingle Bay. Of the Uí Eachach, they were a tribe occupying what would be in later times become the principality of Muskerry in mid Cork. Once of major influence they appear to have been absorbed into the Eoghánacht dynasty.The chief seat at Rath Raitlinn of the Uí Eachach as Erainn (some say Garranes ringfort north of the Bandon River) becoming an Eoghánacht prize. By the 6th century AD the tribe is said to have split into two groups, one going towards Cork Harbour and the barony area of Kinalmeaky (Crosshaven), the other in the direction of Bantry. Some suggest that the Diocese of Cork as defined in the 12th century outlined the extent of the original territory of the Uí Eachach before absorption by the Eoghánacht dynasty.

The Menapii were a Belgic tribe who occupied Northern Gaul with territory stretching as far as the Rhine River thereby including Belgium and south Netherlands as we know them today. The landscapes of these two countries do not have souterrains but perhaps the understanding that some parts of tribal groups migrating may not carry the material culture or aspects of it from their originating homeland may have some relevance in this regard. They resisted Caesar’s conquest and were part of Vercingetorix’s confederation in 52 BC. They refused to settle with Caesar, retiring into swamps and forests, as a consequence of which Caesar seized their settlements, cattle and lands. Their presence by 150 AD in Ireland’s South East, offered them both swamps and forests as well as good land to work and settle. On the tip of the South East coast near Carnsore Point Ptolemy indicates a settlement known as Menapia above the Sacred Promontory . Depending on which cartographic configuration of Ptolemy’s co-ordinates one uses the location of the tribal people known to him can be difficult to pin down geographically.

If the Menapii are present in Wales and also in the district of the Lower Rhine/Southern Netherlands and if Menapia was close to Wexford Harbour where Ibar made his cell at Begerin Island, then was Ibar associated with the Menapii or the Coriondi north of them.

Some suggest that Ibar went to Martin’s of Tours ‘monastery’ at Marmoutier in Gaul to study the ‘new teaching’. It is also said of Ibar that he had been trained in a druidic school originally. To the immediate east of Wexford Harbour lies the island of Mona (Anglesey). There are very few souterrains in Wexford and Wicklow. Belgium and the Netherlands do not have souterrains and neither does Mona. However Gaul has many.

A modern decoding of Ptolemy’s map of Ireland was published by Darcy and Flynn in 2008. In this version of the ‘map’ they place the Menapii tribe(s) north of the Sacred Promontory and associated with a large indentation in the coastline, signified by lines connecting co-ordinates rather than actual coastal information. Might this indentation be Wexford Harbour? Southwards from there they place the Coriondi tribe(s). Some would understand the name element Corio to be a name in British and Gaulish personal and tribal names which means a people’s army or troop of warriors. In Northern England a tribe, perhaps a sub-tribe of the Brigantes, called the Corionototae once lived.

It is interesting that the Brigantes are then shown as occupying the coastal landscape from south Wexford to Waterford, as far as a river known as the Birgus. What is the largest and most significant inland highway in this locality? It is the river Blackwater which entered the sea by Ardmore at one time, the large harbour beyond it being that at Pilmore where the Womanagh River enters the sea west of Youghal. From this area the lands of the Usdiae people occupy a landscape stretching westward to the Dabrona River and what appears as a maximum land projection southwards. If this river is the Bandon and the projection the Old Head of Kinsale (Dún Cearmna) then the missing major natural feature of the coastline here is Cork Harbour. However, if the flooding of the Cork Harbour landscape area did not take place until 822/830 AD as explained elsewhere then there was no basis for Ptolemy to record it.

Beyond the Dabrona (the Sabrann?) the coastline stretches to the Southern Promontory, Ireland’s most southerly point i.e. Brow Head on the Mizen Peninsula or Notium Promontarium as it was once known. This territory was later the heartland of the Corcú Laoidhe people where clay and rock tunnelled souterrains abound and are distinctive of this territory. It is here that the Hiberni (Iverni) people are placed, whom some would see as predecessors of the Corcú Laoidhe. Today, this is the territory of Iveragh and West Cork’s peninsulas. Stretching northwards from it Ptolemy has a people known as the Vellabori and north of them the Gangani. Darcy and Flynn place the chief settlement of the Hiberni at a site designated Hibernia somewhat directly north of the Dabrona (Lee or Bandon River?). Might it have been the Medon of the Mairtine people, the Teamhair Erainn (Tara of the Erainn) at Slieve Reagh or Cashel?

Similar to Tacitus’ statement that the inland areas of Ireland are less well known than the harbours and approaches, the knowledge evident in Ptolemy’s ‘map’ is similarly sparse. What is known of these Gangani, Hiberni (Iverni), Erainn, Usdiae, Brigantes peoples either from native sources or abroad?

I have already described the Brigantes of Galicia but what of those of the same name in Northern England. They are said to have been a pre-Roman tribe in the Yorkshire area, some of whom became disaffected as the Roman conquest progressed in Britain and was finally ended by 77 AD. Under Caratacus some rebelled and continued a war of resistance. Where did those defeated and unwilling to accept Roman rule go? What had happened to them 70 years or so later? Is it this event which Camden, above, refers to?With the establishment of Roman Britain, Celtic Britain of the Britons, fades from the historical map. Did the actions of Eoghán Mór in winning the southern half of Ireland, in, as some accounts state, 123 AD, provide an invitation for displaced British and Western European tribes seeking freedom from Rome to join him and settle the land under his control? Hadrian’s Wall in Northern Britain was erected in 122 AD.

The Erainn have been described as a Belgic tribe living in Ireland when the Eoghánacht arrived, though this seems to confuse the dating of Eoghán’s battle against Conn of the Hundred Battles.  Eoghán is sometimes described as analogous to or actually Mug Nuadat, a druid,  a mythical figure of shadows with connections to Egypt and with wildly varying attributions in date and place, including his lands at Fermoy.

In such manifestations to what extent was Eoghán being mythologised as an ancestor god and thus assigned attributes and legends from other, earlier, mythological heroes?  A major branch of the Eoghánacht (i.e. Glendamnach of Glanworth) occupied the lands of what was once a major part of the Fermoy kingdom.

One wonders, in trying to make sense of the narratives here, how much is a conflation, a distilling of ethnic memories in South Munster? How selective was this grouping of memories once of separate origin, cherished by different local peoples (clans and tribes) remembering changing hierarchical relationships and social contracts in the mists of their ancestral stories? In the monastic scriptoria of medieval times did scholars attempt to place order upon and unify these folk memories? Did they attempt to create a synthesis, a unified retrospective, a single narrative for oral and written memory to offset, as time progressed and as the generational forgetfulness of time’s progress weighed heavily upon the original facts of identity and origin, the loss of local histories?  Some would be the histories of those who had come to dominate, others the histories of  ‘the last of their kind’.

When many historical perspectives are combined, when their narrative threads are tweaked, inter-fibered by bloodlines and politics, what was the outcome? When their timelines, myths and legends, became adjusted to produce a desired pattern, what was the outcome in bringing order to what was otherwise a less intelligible, chaotic, myriad of viewpoints and jostling memories?

The chief settlement of the Erainn is said to have been at Slieve Reagh on the Limerick side of which lies Cush, an excavated Bronze Age burial site and early Christian settlement. A viewpoint on the tribes of that part of Eoghán Mór’s territory which came to be known as Deas Mumhan (Desmond or South Munster) sees the following as present by 150 AD and after i.e. the Erainn, the Corcú Duibhne, the Corcú Laoidhe, Uí Fidgente, Obraige (Ossraige), Ciarraige Luachra (of the kingdom of Luachar by Slieve Luachra in north west Cork), the Ciarriage Corcú (Kerrycurrihy) beside the lands of the Corcú Bascoin and the septs of the Eoghánacht; a view which sees MacCarthaigh territory in Desmond as early as this time. The Carriage predominate in North Kerry, from whom the county is known. Who were the Martine (Mar Daoine?, Sea People?) claiming ancient dominance of lands north of what would become Cork Harbour where the Corcú Bascoin reside and Uí Liathán – traders with Britannia – in proximity to them northwards. Why would the Ciarriage be present in Corcú lands at Kerrycurrihy? Why would they be present in the kingdom of Luachar?

The Déise people occupy the lands of Ptolemy’s Brigantes and they are said to have been native Gaelic who were driven from Tara (Meath’s Tara or one of the other Taras?) coming south and occupying the lands between the Rivers Blackwater and Suir. By 300 AD this view sees them settled by Dungarvan Harbour. The Corcú Duibhne and the Corcú Laoighe are descendants of a personage known as Corc and are said to have been pre-Milesian, each of their tuathas (petty kingdoms) ruled by a taoiseach beneath whom were hereditary leaders. As early as, and perhaps before, the 6th century AD, the Corcú Duibhne were a kin-group, the Corcú being a longer established group along with the Eoghánacht, and the Muscraige of the mid Cork principality.

As to how the Gangani, the Vellabori (Vellabri) and the Eoghánacht septs can be mapped onto tribes of Ptolemy’s southwest Ireland is unclear: the Ciarraige of North Kerry and Slieve Luachra to the Gangani perhaps, the Vellabori and the Iverni to the Corcú Duibhne of the Dingle Peninsula, the Corcú Laoidhe of the Iveragh Peninsula, to Beara, to the Mizen Peninsula and on to the Old Head of Kinsale. Did they merge with incoming tribes from the north of the country? Did they merge with or become subservient to incoming tribes from abroad fleeing Rome’s expansion until Roman Britannia fell in the late 4th century and the Western Empire collapsed in the subsequent century. Generationally it is a very short time span between the date of Ptolemy’s ‘map’ and the dating assigned to the earliest tribal peoples of South Munster known in the Gaelic records.

The Laighin people were, some say, originally an Armorican people who are also said to have had a presence in Britain. From them the Irish province of Leinster in named. Armorica is a place noted for its souterains but South East Leinster is one of the places in Ireland which has the lowest number of souterrains on record. Also, the tunnelled souterrain form does not appear to have a presence there. There is however a vague mid 19th century reference to a Wexford souterrain with bronze spearheads in it

The Iverni are said to evolve into the Corcú Laoidhe as they become a dominant force in alliance with the Muscraige. In subsequent centuries, with a changing of alliance by the Muscraige, the Eoghánacht come to dominate, as the territory of the Corcú Laoidhe retracts to the lands of Carbery in West Cork. In the period circa 200 AD-400 AD Cashel, a ‘castellum’ of the Eoghánacht emerges on the Rock of which Rev. Gleeson (1927) says 

Cashel of the Kings’ overlooks ‘from the Slieve Felim (mountains) in the north

to the Galty mountains in the south, the most fertile plain in Ireland, a far

reaching plain, well-wooded and well watered’.

He speaks, in the vein of a traditional historian, of raths (ringforts) which he names, and of underground cellars in the locality (Gleeson 1927, 2-12).

In this time period the names of two other peoples emerge into the record i.e. the Uí  Liatháin and the Fotharta. It is within this period that Pre-Patrician (before St Patrick) Christianity is thought to have begun in Ireland and some would suggest that it began in Munster and that because of that Patrick’s mission to Ireland in 432 AD concentrated on the other provinces. But, one might ask, did he arrive on the South Coast initially and start there e.g. Dún Cearmna, before then advancing northwards?

Is it within the 380 AD – 400 AD timeframe, as the Roman legions of Britain are withdrawn, Emperor Maximus rebels in Britain and makes his bid for power in Rome, that Gaelic pirates are upon the seas and slave taking occurs, that Patrick’s story with Ireland begins? When does the legendary Niall of the Nine Hostages comes to power in Ireland? It is the time period of the arrivals of the Angles and Saxons in Britain as Rome’s forces leave, a time of new kingdoms and dynasties being founded in Ireland. It is a time when the Déise travel to South Wales, the Uí Liatháin from the Cork Harbour area to Devon and Cornwall.

Moving into the period from 400 AD-600 AD the Ciarraige people of North Kerry and Northwest Cork emerge into the historical record as do the Corcú Duibhne, both genealogically, it would seem stretching back further in time for their ethnogenesis.

To what extent various versions of these stories are ill-informed, or loosely informed, or simply convenient distillations to construct a logical narrative for storytelling, or political comprehension, is a matter best left to historians and historiographers.

If Eoghán Mór was also known as Eoghán of the Fiteccs (under-houses) situated within dúns acting as enclosures to contain these fiteccs (Meyer, 1905) are similar monuments known in Castille and Galicia? As best I can currently determine, they area not. But they are known from Gaul.

Baile And Uí

Frequently, in their anglicised form, Irish place-names will contain the element Bally which is Baile in Gaelic. Baile is a very loosely defined word meaning home-place, sa bhaile meaning at home. The meaning intended can be either a locality or a specific residence within. It may be a settlement, a village, a hamlet, a town or several other form of places of belonging. It is often the case that a baile name will have a family or clan or person name as a suffix to it e.g. Ballinrostig or the baile owned by Roche, Ballyanly the baile of Uí Aínle or Ballycroneen the baile of Uí Croinín. Uí can signify a tribe or a family (extended) or a clan group, implying, one suspects the place of occupancy and associated agricultural lands, or a branch of that clan or family group, its attendants and, in early Ireland, its slaves. When one encounters a lios or rath (i.e. ringfort) in a townland name which consists of both a baile and an family name and within the townland there was a rath or lios named for someone called Dermot (Diarmuid) then who was this person? Are such ringfort names older than names such as Lisnacunna (lios of the hounds), Lisnagcat (lios of the cats), Raheenamaddra (rath of the dogs)?  Do such names at times almost from a Medieval bestiary book, refer to ringforts abandoned and subsequently used for other purposes?

In the case of Rathdermot or Rathcormac were Dermot or Cormac local persons of standing i.e. clan or family leaders? Or were they persons of religion, of designated skills, of the law or medicine, persons such as teachers? What relevance might such information have when it comes to deciding the purpose for which a ringfort souterrain(s) was created? What relevance would such information have when it comes to determining the purpose of a particular architectural form of souterrain located within or close to a ringfort?

When one looks across the townland names for South Munster’s Civil Parishes, be the parish either big or small, one frequently finds baile names as well as agricultural unit names listed. At times several contiguous parishes will each have bailes, in other cases none may be present. What does this imply i.e. either that some land areas which became civil parishes never had bailes or that such names did not survive to become townland names? If the use of Civil Parish and townland name units are set to one side, how do baile names relate to each other, how do they cluster and do land-use names such as garraí (farm garden), garrane (plough-lands), gorts (orchards and areas of other special crops) relate to them? What geographies can emerge from such a perspective and how do cill, cluain and other early ecclesiastical site types, as well as lioses, raths, dúns and dangans relate to the souterrain distributions in such geographies? To what extent would associations of this nature allow for modelling of land-use configurations and associated family clan or ecclesiastic relationships prior to the 12th century AD? To what extent might such models allow for a better understanding of souterrain distributions and more specifically of the architectural forms covered by the word souterrain?

Pobal versus Muintir

I’m inclined to think that Pobal ( the people) may have originally referred to a community living on a land area, but not specifically linked by blood, whereas Muintir referred to an extended family or household group e.g. ‘mo mhuintir,’ (my family). Pobal as defined by Fr. Dineen’s Dictionary can refer to a people, tribe or congregation. Munitir according to Dineen can refer to a household, family, religious order, residents, tenants. It can also refer to a people but perhaps with closer bonds or ties. Perhaps it also applied to a group of people resulting from a combination of lineages.

In late Medieval times an anonymous author produced a topographical tract on the ancient Kingdom of Fermoy, known as Crichad an Chaoilli. The original of the tract as old, some suggest, as the 12th century, names the tuatha lands (clan-lands) of that kingdom, it’s families and churches. Another author, Giolla na Naomh O Huidhrin (O’Heerin), was a bard and historian who died in 1420 AD. He wrote a topographical poem describing the tribes and districts of Munster (and Leinster) as a sequel to an earlier, 14th century, poem by John Mór O Dubhagain describing the other provinces. To some extent it has a retrospective element to it.

In attempting to get a sense of who was who, from which ethnic groups in myth and legend they claimed to descend, what word pictures of themselves might have pleased particular peoples, and who lived where in South Munster, it is a useful overview. Perhaps there is something of a fragmentary memory of the organic dynamics of descent as tribal clan families intermarried, inheritances took place, generational landholdings gave way to the destinies of individuals, lands were lost, identities lost within the progress of time since the arrival of these peoples upon the landscape. The poem also helps, to a small extent, in trying to align some races, tribes and peoples, noted in mytho-history and legend, with particular areas of the South Munster landscape. Perhaps it also holds a little of a subtext about the initial areas of settlement and directions of expansion of certain tribal lands and their alliances, as well as something about lands occupied by groups originally from elsewhere in Ireland or of a much more ancient presence upon the land. References to group identities connected with the sea and the coastlines are intriguing, as are those which reference landscape characteristics, of O Huidhrin’s time, inland. One might imagine a great festive hall with many clan and tribal leaders gathered, and the voice of the bard O Huidhrin reverberating through the rafters; a customary declaration of the great and the good, the performance of a tradition, a protocol of acknowledgement. These are some extracts from it:

‘Heroes of Munster, from the fortress on the Shannon, Are the race of Eògan,

the son of Olild, Mac Carthaigh, the maintainer of its tributes, Is like an

incessant stormy wave.

To the race of Lugaidh by the shore, It is not meet to pass the tribe, I must

record the warriors’ fame.

O’Driscoll, head chief of the land, Of Corcú luighe [Corcú Laoidhe] I now treat

of, He seized upon the coasts of Clèri [Clear Island], A headland meet for

princely lord.

Chief of Fermoy of well fenced forts Is O’Dugann of Dunmanann.

O’Keeffe of the brown and handsome brows.

Ivahagh [Iveragh], most western part of Banba [Ireland], Is the great estate of O’Mahony, A well watered land of fair fortresses, Extensive are its brown nut 

producing plains.

Of Kinnalmeaky, of pleasant fields All round Bandon, of fair woods.

The warlike chief, in victory supreme Is O’Mahony of the coast of white foam.

Over Kinnalea of the fertile lands, Rules O’Callaghan of the plain of Beara.

A land of blue waters and bright sunshine, Is that country of the most expanded


Lord of Ui Liathain, a warrior of fame, Is the hardy leader of the battalions of Munster.

Of Ui Anmcadha he is rightful chief, the host of keen arms, of high nobility.

Of the race of Conari of the great forces, Let us speak of the chiefs of Muscraide,

A host whom the bright sun salutes, On the land of the Martineans [Martine] of Munster.

An estate of the plain of Corc belongs, It is Aes Ella of the fine level land.

To the stately scion of Banba of the ringleted hair. He is O’Tedgamna of Dun


The great Muskery of the Three Plains, It belongs to the host of polished steel,

A district of charming sunny lands.

Tuath Saxon of the fair pleasant plain, To O’Hinmanen I proclaim,

A country of harbors abounding in affluence, Belonging to the hardy sept of Clan Conari.

Muscraide of Trethirni, mighty men. Rightfully belongs to the race of Corc.

O’Maelbleoghain is powerful over the land, He possesses the country of smooth plains.

A valiant clan, warlike in pursuit, Ruled Imokilly [Uí Meic Caille] of the hospitable banquets. Two tribes possessed the smooth plains, O’Bregan and the fair O’Glasin.

Kerricurrihy of the fair coast.That country belongs to Clan Torna,

O’Curry obtained the fertile land, In its green aspect it is like the plains of Meath.

Lord of the county of Triocha Meóna [by Kinsale], Is O’Cowhig of the white-

stoned shore. The land of Clidna [Cliona] is the plain of O’Cowhig, In the sea fights they are valiant foes.

Muintir Bari [Muintir Bhaire, Sheeps Head] of the fair fortress

[of the Ithian or Lugadian race of 3rd century AD], They are of the race of

Fathaidh Airgthech

O’Bari rules over the land of waves, Which is not surpassed by the smooth

plains of Mana.

Ui Laoghaire [Iveleary] of the Lugadian or Ithian race, [of Rosscarbery and

environs and of Muskerry by Macroom and Inchigeelagh]

Pobble [pobal] O’Hea in Carbery.

Pobble O’Healy of Muskerry.

O’BECI rules over Bantry of delightful bloom, Heroes, whose noble actions I

certify. They are of the race of Fergus of Ulster.

O’HERLIHYS of Muskerry, hereditary wardens of the church of St. Gobnait of Ballyvoorny,

O’NUNANS of Tullaleis [Tullylease] hereditary wardens of St. Brendan’s church.

The king of Kiarraide [Ciarraige, North Kerry] over the clans of Kiar,

O’Conor rules the land by right, Chief of the plain of fertile fields,

From the sea shore to the Shannon of clear streams.

Clan Selbaide of the limpid streams, Belongs to O’Domnaill of the powerful hand,

Who took possession of the brown nut plain.

After the battalions of Clar Broni, Let us treat of the clans of Conari,

Fair Fenian heroes from TuIach-an-Trir, Rulers in Munster of the smooth streams.

Three chiefs who possessed the lands, Of Corcú Dubni [Duibhne] of the fine


O’Falvey the warrior, and O’Shea, The strengthening bond of the eastern parts.

O’Connell of sharp swords, Rules over the shady fortress of Magonihy,

Like a stately tree in hazel woods. Is the Munster leader of the cavalry forces.

The men of Alltraighe maintain,Two chiefs of the plain of Kerry,

A clan of the most active in pitch of battle. Their chiefs are O’Nedi and Clan


The plain of Luachra [Slieve Luachra district] a productive country, Belongs to

the liberal O’Dunady,

A tribe of hard fighting battles, A district of fair well-watered lands.

Aes Asdi of the plain of flocks Which the chief of O’Moriarty obtained, A fair

country of blooming aspect…

O’Mahony of the race of Ibh Eachach [horse tribe].

O’Donoghoes also of the race of Ibh Eachach.

This race of people i.e Uí Eachach, settled a large tract of land [Iveleary] extending from Enniskeane to Bantry and from Ballyvourney to Macroom. Iveleary was part of the lands of Carberry and also occupied a considerable portion of Muskerry.

If clans under Eoghán’s control remained in West Cork after the ‘invasion’ do any claim descent from him? The O’Sullivan clan, seafarers, of West Cork, claimed descent from Eoghán and it is notable that place-names such as Beara in their territory are associated with Eoghán. Of those clans who claimed descent from subsequent kingdoms in West Cork, the O’Driscoll clan, seafarers, claimed descent from the Corcú Laoidhe for which there is some interesting genealogical research ( For Eoghánacht genealogy see (

The race of Lugaid may refer to the Celtic god Lugh and the people groups who worshipped him. In Gaelic his manifestation as a sun god is in the words Lughaid Lámh Fhada i.e. Lughaid of the Long Arms (the sun’s rays). Corc was said to have been the earliest, or one of the earliest, kings of Munster.

Each people, or people group will have it’s own god of gods and a terrain area; those who worship Lugh as much as those who worship Anu (Dé Anu). It is said that the Milesians took the land of Ireland (the south lands?) from the Tuatha (tribal land and people) Dé Danaan (Anu). One is reminded in reading such a story, of the Paps of Anu in the district of Slieve Luachra (North West Cork), of the ancient kingdom of Luachar and its ‘Tara’.


This brings to an end my introduction to the tribal peoples within whose world and timeframes the practice of tunnelling underground spaces, or constructing them in masonry, began and developed, leaving a dense legacy of such activity beneath the landscape of South Munster. This world came to an end in the 17th century AD. Whether or not the construction of ringforts arrived prior to Christianity is still an open question. Whether or not souterrains, either those in ringforts or not, were present, prior to the arrival of Christianity is still an open question for debate. If they were present, were they present in the form of Tig faoi Talaimh (underground house) and also in the form of cellars i.e. fiteccs (under the house structures) built beneath dúns to protect them and their contents? Does the story of Eoghán Mór reveal something about the latter? Does Tacitus’ description of the Germanii describe something of the former, replicated in South Munster due to tribal migrations?

The next chapter seeks to understand something of the use of underground space in the cradle lands of early Christianity and also the spread of the early church into Western Europe. It is followed by a chapter which seeks to understand the arrival and growth of Christianity as it spread across South Munster. It is a prelude to chapters which examine the architectural and engineering aspects of the monuments themselves. It is my current view that ringforts, underground house souterrains and cellar souterrains were elements of the vernacular architecture of early Irish tribal society absorbed by early Christianity.

It is also my view, at present, that other souterrain forms were introduced by the new religion i.e. masonry built cells for use as places for solitary prayer and spiritual reflection. One can imagine hermit (or monk or anchorite) occupied cells, as places of consultation and group prayer led by an abba i.e. members of a small hermitage (such a group being described as a ‘cell’) perhaps prior to or contemporary with the building of oratories. One can also imagine penitential cells for daily (or longer term) periods of practicing  ‘austerities’, as well as shrines, all greatly influenced by Byzantine and Egyptian monasticism.

As a place of habitation, a cell can be a natural (or modified) cave as in the eremitic traditions of Egypt and nearby lands, a concept which can become replicated as a tunnelled structure or as an underground masonry built structure as needs require and as available resources and skills dictate. It is said of the Desert Father, Saint Anthony the Great, that he recommended building extra cells at his nascent monastery in the Egyptian desert, on a basis of ‘build them and they will come’, as many became attracted to his way of life.

This concludes the ‘setting of the stage’ and a description of ‘the players’ prior to the arrival of Christianity. Current scholarship now understands the eremitic, semi-cenobitic and cenobitic way of life as being much older than that of Anthony, and to have had antecedents stretching back in time prior to the emergence of the religion of Christ.