An aside: Gamanrad and Fir Bolg at the boundaries between myth and history

Just as an aside, I wanted to write something about why I named this site Gamanrad. Firstly, of course, it’s a word that rolls around the mouth. I’ve always liked a hard G and the repetition of two same-sounding ‘a’s is satisfying, somehow. OK, whimsy apart, here is the slightly embellished account of the Gamanrad and their place in Irish, and, in particular, in Erris history (and, for reasons only a very few might understand, I include reference to the Fir Bolg, now the name of a beer obtainable in Cork):

The Fir Bolg were the Men (people, one hopes) of the Bags, Spears of Boats, a prehistoric, semi-mythical tribe who came to Ireland perhaps as long ago as 5000-4000BC (these dates are wild guesses). What did they carry in those bags? Perhaps the indication is that they were travelling people, and they carried what they had with them, from place to place. Perhaps their name is an indication of their bravery. I imagine the name being a reference to how lightly they lived on the land. They were overcome by those who came with more, whose energy use, though still miniscule by our bloated standards, was more demanding. From hunter-gatherers, then, to pastoralists, perhaps.

The Fir Bolg were overcome by the Tuatha de Danann (spelling varies, usually translated as ‘the people of Devon’), who landed in southwest England, among other places, but probably came from central Europe, perhaps the Iberian peninsula, or perhaps originated from much further East than that. The stories about them suggest they were tenacious, tough, and as unforgiving as the conditions they had endured to get to the islands of Ireland and Britain. The group divided into three, one of which stayed in Devon and founded a cultural hub there, possibly incorporating the culture that created Stonehenge. The second landed in south-west Scotland, in the region of Galloway. a distinctly beautiful and rugged area (my own ancestors come from here!) where they erected stone circles.

The third came here, to Erris, in north-west Mayo where they came to be known as the Gamanrad, and although they were as able to defend themselves as any crusaders, they came, primarily, as pastoralists, to herd, and they brought the calves (the name Gamanrad means the people of the calves), which, along with the native deer, they walked from pasture to pasture. They lived very well in Erris for at least a millennia, and they developed a rich cultural heritage here of tombs, songs, stories, but of these only the ragged threads remain, rewoven, subsequently, into myths and these simplified and in many cases prettified for children’s stories.

Meanwhile, the remnants of the Fir Bolg took to their boats and sailed east. They got as far as Greece but there, they were enslaved. It may be that their name came from their time there: they were forced labourers, and carried bags of mortar or rocks for building work. The really interesting thing is that the same group of people returned to Ireland after a couple of generations in slavery (how many? I have no idea: enough to have only stories, but not enough to have lost the maps and directions to make the difficult journey). They returned to Ireland, where they found very few people (the Gamanrad had maintained themselves so sustainably that they had not thought to extend their range), and so the Fir Bolg are credited with having created the five provinces of Ireland.

Personally, however, I’m inclined to think that the Gamanrad were more influential than is given credit for: it is their myths that shaped the narratives of how people understood themselves in relation to one another and the land. Many of their myths cross the threshold between animism and polytheism. They understood the interconnectedness of all things (as early peoples had to do, perforce) and they developed a way of seeing from the perspectives of other animals, states of being (like waves, or rocks) and the courses of the stars. There is much to be learned from this light-stepping people whose mark on the land is limited to underground tombs, and the circles of stones that directed their ritual appreciation of the sun and seasons.

Notes, acknowledgements and references
I can’t recall now where I first heard the name Gamanrad/ Gamhanradh but my husband, Joseph, is very interested in local, particularly oral, history, and he first told me the story of the myth of Flidias, and of the great battle that took place on the coast near Belderra, where there was a ‘lake of blood’. I run along the headland very close to the mound which is said to be entirely composed of the skulls that are all that remain of the hacked off heads of those who were slaughtered in that battle.
Flidias, with beautiful hair, had a white cow. I had just returned from oral testimony collection among the Dinka among whom cattle are reverentially respected, in Turkana, and I had bought a gift of a painting of a Turkana woman milking a white cow that hangs over our bed. I liked the links. I contacted
Padraig Ó Macháin, Professor and Head of Modern Irish at UCC. He sent me a link to a paper by
Margaret Dobbs, ‘Who were the Gamanrad?’, in the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland vol. 83 (1953)
I also read extracts from
A. H. Leary, ‘The Heroic Legends of Ireland’
James McKillop, ‘Dictionary of Celtic Mythology’
Prof Ruairí Ó hUiginn has just published a paper entitled, ‘The Gamhanradh’ which I have not yet managed to get a hold of, but hope to read soon


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