On a cloudy afternoon last June, I sat in a Café in Bretagne reading Nietzsche’s book, Beyond Good and Evil. I had just read the first page from which the above quotation is taken, when my colleague who was reading a copy of Metro Eireann I had given him, asked ‘’ what does Eireann mean?’’ Éire is my motherland’’, I replied.’’ But descriptions of her vary and she has been much fought over.’’ As we gazed out at the vast Atlantic Ocean, I ventured yet another description of Éire.
It has been claimed that two major periods of immigration to Ireland brought Gaelic civilization. The first is usually dated around 500 BC, the other at the later date of about 300 BC. Most historical texts about Ireland refer to the Milesian invasion. The relative truth of this myth is the source of much scholarly debate. Milesius was, according to Irish mythology, a Spanish king. He had a wife named Scota.Scotia became the name used by Latin writers for Ireland ( whence the word ‘Scotland’ which was settled by the Irish in the 5th century AD).
It is said that when the sons of Milesius arrived in Ireland they met with a goddess who appeared to the ancient poet Amhairghin in three different guises under three different names. She first appeared high up on the Slieve Mis mountains. Greeting the invaders, she introduced herself as Banbha and asked the poet to call the island after her. Farther inland, on Cnoc Áine, she appeared again under the name of Fodhla and again asked the poet to call the island after her. Again Amhairghin did not refuse, but it was upon the Cnoc Uisneach or the Hill of Uisneach where the goddess appeared under the name of Éire that the island got its name. Éire was often referred to as Inis Fáil- the Isle of destiny, because Gaelic genealogists traced the origin of the Gaels back to an area near Asia Minor via Egypt, where it was foretold that the progeny of Milesius would inherit the Western Isle.
There have been many invasions and settlements of this island since the time of Milesius. Danish, Norman French, English and today’s diverse melange of immigrants from around the globe, to many of whom perhaps Éire is again, Inis Fáil, the Isle of Destiny. Irish poets since Amhairghin have imagined Éire as a woman, the goddess mother who nourishes and holds us in her verdant embrace. The notion of Éire as a woman who had been sullied and raped by British occupation was a cogent feature of Irish poetry in both Gaelic and English. Yeats, conjuring the nationalist spirit, memorably asks’
‘did some woman’s yellow hair madden every mother’s son?’
Éire, the blond-haired maiden, rouses her children to fight for her.
British imperialist thinkers often exploited Ireland’s mythological femininity to justify their ‘masculine’ Anglo-saxon rule. In the stultifying climate of early post-independence Ireland, the gallant role of women in the struggle for national self- determination exemplified by the militant Cumann na mBan,(association of women) was often played down. De Valera described Cumann na mBan as ‘unmanagable revolutionaries’.
The patriarchal Catholic Church was always less than sympathetic to the veneration of the daughters of Eve, other than in her de-sexualised form as the Virgin Mother. But the passive de-sexualised goddess contained in the oriental idea of the Virgin Mother is quite foreign to the conception of women and goddesses in Celtic mythology. The Irish Achilles, Cúchullainn, was himself trained by a female warrior called Scathách. Irish mythology abounds in stories of women warriors such as the intrepid Queen Maeve of Connaught who took on the men of Ulster, which is recounted in the epic saga ‘An Táin Bó Cuaillgne’ The Cattle Raid of Cooley.
Maybe some of the points I have made might explain why foreign women often refer to Irish ladies as ‘ tough’. It might just be a ‘celtic’ phenomenon. I like to think of the celtic woman as a proto-feminist, a feral, audacious freedom-fighter. And what then if we ask the question concerning truth? Who is Éire and how can we know her? If with Nietzsche, we contend that there are no historical truths, just descriptions, then we should say we will never know all of Éire, however skilled or seemly our methods are of winning her.