The convention among professional Irish historians is that ‘real’ Irish history began with the introduction of Christianity in the fifth century AD on the arrival of St Patrick. Copies of records from that date survive which provide evidence of some of the events which occurred in those times. These records were mostly maintained by early Celtic churchmen who had been converted to the Roman conventions of the first incoming missionaries, but the fact was that most of these men had to be recruited from the non-Christian population whom the earliest missionaries found before them. The most learned of this society were the various classes of druids, and the records show that some of the most prominent of these were among the earliest inductees into the new Christian priesthood. Following the urging of Pope Gregory, the missionaries sought to assimilate the pre-existing culture into the new, and one need not be surprised therefore to find historic evidence of the pre-Christian society and culture within the writings of the earliest scribes. After the new order became firmly established among the ruling aristocracy of the land in the late sixth, and early seventh centuries, Church influence on the native culture became dominant, and sought to consolidate its power by suppressing that learning of the preceding culture which compromised the Church’s power. However, there were scribes who retained a yearning for the older culture, and these found mechanisms for preserving it in a disguised form in a prolific popular literature which survives today. The reverence expressed in the records of later centuries for monuments commemorating the early society, and still existing, show that the undercurrent had remarkable success. As the Donegal poet Giolla Brighde MacConmidhe wrote 750 years ago when Rome’s opposition again became apparent;
It should be a reasonable exercise to match the knowledge so assiduously preserved by Giolla Brighde and his collegues in the old lays, with records of Ireland produced under Greco/Roman systems and cultures which fit into dating structures found more acceptable today, in order to validate or otherwise activities and processes which the lays describe. Indeed it is something which was first attempted in Ireland over a thousand years ago with what was called ‘Coïaimûeaþðaçt’, or ‘Synchronisation’, where annalists matched Irish regnal lists and events with Roman imperial and Papal lists. Recently Daniel McCarthy has undertaken a similar project by computer in his ‘Chronological Synchronisation of Irish Annals’ using computer techniques. The traditional Irish dating methods appear to have been astronomically based however, while the Roman system relied on the period of an emperor’s reign and a calendar introduced by Julius Caesar. The scribe re-editing the original account of the Battle of Mágh Rath which occurred in Co Down in 637 AD, recognised this difficulty and sought to reconcile it thus;
For this was the hour, time, age of the moon, and day of the week, on which the grandson of Ainmire, the monarch, was
inaugurated into the sovereignty of Erin, viz., in the beginning of the third quarter of the bright day, at the expiration of the
twelfth hour of the same day, in the middle of the month of May, and as to the day of the week, it was on Sunday, and
the great fifth was the auspicious age of the Moon.
Time is thus divided from an atom to an age, viz., from an atom to an ostent, from an ostent to a bratha, from a bratha
to a part, from a part to a minute, from a minute to a point, from a point to an hour, from an hour to a quarter, from a
quarter to a day, from a day to a week, from a week to a month, from a month to a season, from a season to a year,
from a year to a seculum, from a seculum to an age.
And thus are the different divisions of time proportioned to each other, viz., three hundred and seventy six atoms in an
ostent, one ostent and a half in a bratha, one bratha and two thirds in a part, one part and a half in a minute, two minutes
and a half in a point, four points in an hour, six hours in a quarter, four quarters in a day, seven days in a week, thirty or
thirty one days in a month, except February alone, which has only twenty eight.
Such is the proper division of time. Though long may be the moralising of every philosopher, and the digression of every
historian, in elucidating every kind of knowledge, and relating every history, they aim at the same definite, general,
As John O’Donovan, the 19th century translator of this tale, explained;
The Month of May having thirty-one days, ‘the middle of the Month’ will be the 15th day. ... And since this day, as our
author tells us, was a Sunday, and the 5th of the Moon, the Dominical letter of the year must have been B., and the new
moon must have fallen on the tenth of the month. Thesecriteria indicate AD 628, the date assigned by all our
chroniclers to the commencement of king Domhnall.
Now, the figure 376 atoms in an ostent when multiplied by the angle made by the disk of the moon at its minimum width happens to give an angle very close to the width of half the moon’s orbit, or 180.50. The intention here is to show that this is no mere coincidence, and this fact can be developed on ‘in elucidating every kind of knowledge, and relating every history’ as the Battle of Mágh Rath scribe urged so long ago, concentrating particularly on the astronomical knowledge, its practical use in navigation, and how it was passed on.
Before we get into the detail of the figures, many people will need to find comfort in supporting evidence that the numbers contained in the Irish texts do indeed have the significance that will be attached to them here. There are many classical references which tell us about life in Ireland and the type of knowledge prevalent in the culture, which coincide with descriptions carried down to us by the early Irish scribes. Most of these references use the word ‘magis’, brought into Latin and Greek from early Persian meaning ‘wise/learned men’, for the class of people the Celts called ‘druids’. Some of the quotations which follow have been the favoured selections of writers on ancient history for many years, and they are given here in chronological order.
Rufus Festus Avienus was a Latin author who lived in the fourth century AD in North Africa, but who had available to him texts from a much earlier era. One of these texts was that of the Carthaginian admiral Himlico who wrote the ‘Periplus of the Northern
Sea’ at the end of the sixth century BC. The word ‘periplus’ in Latin has the same sense as ‘Immþáïa’ of the Irish texts - i.e. ‘circumnavigation’. Avienus writes;
..the gulf of Oestrymnicus yawns on its inhabitants.
In this arise the Islands, the Oestrymnides,
placed at their ease, rich in the mining of tin and lead.
A vigorous tribe lives here, proud spirited, energetic, skilful.
On all the ridges trade is carried on:
the sea froths far and wide with their famous ships,
and they cut through the swell of the beast-haunted ocean.
These people do not build their boats of pine and wood -
nor do they use any other kind of wood:
they make their ships out of skins joined together
and run the vast salt ocean on leather hides.
These accounts fit the description of Cornwall, and confirm methods of seafaring recounted in the Irish texts and tested by Tim Severin in the Brendan Voyage where he used a boat skinned with hides to cross the Atlantic. Avienus goes on to say that the Oestrymnides are two days sailing to
the SacredIsland - the ancient authorities call it this -
rich in its land it lies amid the waves,
and widely the race of Hiberni inhabit it.
On the other hand is situated the island of the Albions nearby.
At the mean speeds experienced by Tim Severin in his replica leather boat, it would take about two days to get from the old tin mines on the south coast of Cornwall to Ireland. Avienus confirms that his ancient texts’ name the island of the Irish as the Sacred Isle, and this will be called on later to support the significance of other classical references. Quoting Himlico, Avienus says that Carthaginian merchants traded with these islands and that the voyage took four months. No doubt he means that this was the time taken to complete the round trip from Cartage, together with the time taken for trading and provisioning along the way. Quoting Timagenes, Avienus says that the druids were ‘uplifted by searching’s into things secret and sublime' and ‘strive to explain the high mysteries of nature'.
Hecateus of Abdera located the nation of the Hyperboreans and their temple to Apollo in the islands off the north west of the European mainland. Ptolomey of Alexandria in his Geographia, probably working from data collected in 325 BC by Pytheas of Massalia, identified Donegal as Boreion akron (Borean
Peninsula) and the sea off that coast as the Hyperboreion (Hyperborean) Ocean.
Posidonius was a Syrian Greek from Apamaea (c. 135-c.50 BC) who travelled in Gaul and used Massaliot sources, and others available to him including Herodotus. His lost Histories are preserved in the quotations of others. He is quoted as saying that the Celts held that the souls of men are immortal, and that after a definite number of years 'they live a second life when the soul passes to another body'.
Diodorus Siculus wrote between 60 and 21 BC, that druids chanted both eulogies and satires and were ‘philosophers and theologians'. The sense that the word ‘philosopher’ had was akin to ‘scientist’ today. Quoting further from Book 5 of his Histories, on the Hyperboreans he says:
Among the writers who have occupied themselves with the mythology of the Ancients, Hecataeus and some others tell us
that over against 'the land of the Celts' there exists in the ocean an island not smaller than Sicily, and that this, situated
under the constellation of the Bear, is inhabited by the Hyperboreans, so called because they live beyond the point
from which the north wind blows ... and the island is both fertile and productive of every crop, and since it has an
unusually temperate climate, it produces two harvests each year. The following legend is told of it: Leto was born on this
island, and for this reason the inhabitants honour Apollo morethan any other deity. And the inhabitants are looked upon as
priests of Apollo, after a manner, since they daily praise this god continuously in song and honour him exceedingly. And
there is also on this island both a magnificent sacred precintof Apollo, and a notable temple which is adorned with many
votive offerings and is spherical in shape. There is a city there sacred to this god.
If his sources named the this island as the Sacred Island he doesn’t mention it as Avienus did, but it would certainly seem an appropriate name for the island for which he gave this description. The geographical and climatical detail given is also a close match for Ireland, and one is reminded of the semi-spherical monuments around Newgrange. He explains that the Moon appears near at hand when seen from the island, and that the god visits the island every 19 years when there is dancing and zither playing from the vernal equinox to the rising of Pleiades. He tells of a Hyperborean named Abaris who had brought a magic rod with him from his temple which he presented to Pythagoras. He is said to have taken this rod with him as an implement that would stand him in good stead in the difficulties that might befall him on so long a journey: 'for passing through inaccessible places, such as rivers, lakes, marshes, mountains, and the like, it carried him ... Pythagoras however accepted the rod without expressing any amazement at the thing.' There is a claim in an Irish text that some form of navigational instrument was made known to Europeans by Irish druids. It is made in what is now called ‘The Book of Glendalough’ which was composed between 550 and 1050 AD (MS Rawlinson B. 502, page 157 ),
‘Mugh-Ruth son of Fergus, from whom the men of Mágh Féin, it was he who went to learn magic from Simon the druid and
also invented the rowing wheel and brought it all over Europe before all; in the year before Simon met Paul and Peter.
And it was as he was compassing over Europe to the good students of each nation that he wished to meet Peter.’
Strabo (c. 63 BC to 21 AD) said of the druids that they were ‘the most righteous' of men, and of those who were ‘held in special honour' were bards who interpret sacrifices and study natural phenomena. ‘Men's souls and the universe are indestructible, although at times fire and water may prevail'.
Clement of Alexandria in the 1st century AD claimed that Pythagorean and Greek philosophy was acquired from the Gauls.
Philemon Holand's 1601 translation of Pliny says of the Hyperboreans:
Their country is open upon the sun, of a blissful and pleasant temperature, void of all noisome wind and hurtful aires. Their
habitations are in woods and groves, where they worship the gods both of themselves, and in companies and
congregations: no discord know they, no sicknesse are they acquainted with.
Julius Caesar's De Bello Gallico (52 - 51 BC) that a large body of traditional lore in verse form was deliberately learnt by pupils from their masters, who were in fact druids. ‘A large number of young men flock to them for training' and that the studies could last twenty years and were orally transmitted; ‘it is said they commit to memory large amounts of poetry'. ‘It is thought that the system of training was invented in Britain and taken over from there to Gaul, and at the present time diligent students of the matter mostly travel there to study it.' They had much knowledge of ‘the stars and their motion, of the size of the world and the earth, of natural philosophy'. ‘In reckoning birthdays and the new moon and the new year their unit of reckoning is night followed by day'. ‘They think it sinful to write down what they know', he wrote; they may have done so because ‘in public and private writing they used the Greek alphabet.' Some of this knowledge, he says, elaborated their religious belief into ‘the powers and spheres of action of the immortal gods.' A chief point of doctrine was ‘that souls do not suffer death, but after death pass from one to the other.' He tells of human sacrifice where a large wickerwork figure is filled with living men and set on fire, which brings to mind the legend of Dinn Righ in the Book of Leinster.
Pomponius Mela wrote in the 1st century AD, that the druids were ‘professors of wisdom' who ‘teach many things to the nobles of Gaul in the course of instruction lasting as long as twenty years'. He says they knew ‘the size and shape of the world, the movements of the heavens and of the stars'. ‘They profess to know the will of the gods.' Their best known dogma was ‘that the souls are eternal and there is another life in the infernal regions.'
Cicero says of the druid Diviciacus who addressed the Roman Senate that he ‘claimed to have that knowledge of nature that the Greeks call physiologia'.
The elder Pliny who died in the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD mentions druidic magic, simples and folk medicine. ‘It is by the moon that they measure their months and years and also their ‘ages' of thirty years'.
Lucan wrote of the druids, ‘to you alone is given knowledge of the gods and heavenly powers - either this, or you only have not this knowledge.'
But you assure us no ghosts
seek the silent kingdom of Erebus, nor the pallid
depths of Dis' realm. but with a new body the spirit
reigns in another world - if we understand your hymns
death's halfway through a long life.
Pseudo-Scymnus's sailing manual of c. 100 AD attributes the Celts with poets and singers.
Hyppolytus of Alexandria in the 3rd century says that they were ‘prophets and prognosticators' because ‘they can foretell certain events by the Pythagorean reckoning and calculations'.. He thought that they had 'profoundly examined the Pythagorean faith'.
Some of these references were known to Irish writers at least from the 6th century as their surviving manuscripts quote other matters from these authors. Druidic references seem to have been avoided, and it was not until the 17th century that a need was seen to justify the authenticity of the earliest pre-Christian history that arguments for the veracity of druidic records were made. This necessity arose out of the catastrophic defeat of Gaelic society at the opening of that century, and a movement took hold to preserve remaining archives by way of transcription and collation. The undoubted leaders in this effort was the Franciscans who included the O’Cleary brothers working out of the newly founded IrishCollege in Louvain and their convent in Donegal. As the wars and plantations of that century progressed many of the original manuscripts were lost or came into the hands of collectors who had no understanding of the language in which they were written, such as the English churchmen James Ussher and James Ware. Some of these men sought the assistance of Irish scribes to decipher what was before them, and wrote on this basis. An example is contained in a manuscript called Rawlinson D 352 in Oxford from the early 18th century where an unidentified author has written addenda for a text in English on the authority of Irish historians. On folio 21r he says that the druids were a venerated body by whom the ancient records were transmitted immediately to the first Christian bishops. It is known that James Ware revised works he had published in the late 17th century on the basis of advice from the pre-eminent Irish antiquarian and scribe Dubhaltaigh MacFirbhisigh. The English collector Richard Rawlinson acquired much of Ware’s material and this manuscript forms part of his bequest to the Bodleian Library in Oxford.