In Search of the Galician Identity (via Éire)
Many of us – interested in Irish Studies – may have heard about the Lebor Gabála (translated as Book of Invasions or Book of the Taking of Ireland), an important Irish text (with different versions) composed during the Middle Ages that narrates the origins of the different Celtic tribes that peopled Ireland. If you already knew about it, you might have also heard about the last settlers, the Milesians, who came from the north-west of Spain.
[You’ll find plenty about the legend of the Milesians, or the ‘Sons of Mil’, doing a simple search online. But, if you want the real deal, click here to access the text edited and translated by Professor Robert Armstrong Stewart Macalister, which includes the different versions of the legend].
So, did the Irish come from Spain? You can find the answer to that in different articles but for a quick reading I recommend you John Carey’s article “Did the Irish come from Spain?”, published in History Ireland.
[For a more detailed understanding, you can read Manuel Alberro´s “Milesians and Alans in the Northwest of the Iberian Peninsula and the Mythical Invasion of Ireland”].
First, let me give you the mythical answer. Bregon, or Breogán (as we know him in Galicia), or Breoghan, was the Celtic chief of a town named Brigantia (belived to be the modern city of A Coruña), where he had a very high tower built: the Tower of Breogán (believed to be A Coruña’s Tower of Hercules). One day his son Íth got to the top of the tower and, looking northwards, he saw land in the distance. “Íth at once embarked for the mysterious island. There he met the country’s three kings, men of the Túatha Dé Dannan” (Carey 8). They killed him and Íth’s followers took his body back to Brigantia. “It was to avenge this deed that the Gaelic invasion took place: the expedition was led by Íth’s kinsmen, the sons of Míl Espáine (hence ‘Milesians’). Aided by the wisdom and magic of their master-poet Amairgen [or Amergin], the sons of Míl gained the support of Ireland’s three goddess-queens, and conquered the Túatha Dé Danann. Ireland was divided between Éremón, son of Míl, who ruled its northern half, and Éber Find, son of Míl, in the south (Carey 8)”.
Now, legends aside, what do academics think? Did the Irish come from Spain? or, to be more precise, from the Celtic region of Gallaecia? To put it simply, Carey argues that “the story of Ireland’s settlement from Spain can be shown to have been based not on native tradition but on scholarly speculation, drawing on Latin learning and especially on the writings of Orosius” (10), a Spanish cleric – himself a native of Galicia. The Roman ideas of geography are a key question; “If Spain was thought to be the part of Europe closest to Ireland, what would be more natural than to see it as the source of arrivals from overseas? Already in 1915 the Dutch scholar A.G. van Hamel had concluded that practically ‘the entire story’ of the sons of Míl can be accounted for on the basis of the geographical ideas of Orosius” (Carey 10-11). Finally, at “a time when scholars in Ireland felt themselves to be receiving so much from Spain, […] it is not at all surprising that Spain – ‘the mother of races’, as Isidore [of Seville] had called it – should figure prominently in their own historical speculations” (Carey 11). Thus, Carey concludes that the legend of the Milesians was “an old invention, the fruit of medieval imagination, rather than a dim recollection of the prehistoric past” (11). Manuel Alberro also states that its historical credibility “has been gradually deteriorating. Initially considered a legitimate chapter of Irish history, it is presently rejected as ‘pseudo-history’” (1).
However, when facts fail our purposes, we can still choose to believe. The original link between the Galician and the Irish people might be just a myth, but that is not the issue anymore; the Irish-Galician link goes far beyond that. Manuel Alberro talks about the contacts between Gallaecia and Ireland since the Neolitic, increased during the “Atlantic Era” of the Bronze Age, until the middle of the 1st c. AD; and about the “close resemblances between the folk-tales and legends of Galicia and those of Ireland” (3).
However false the legend of the Milesians might be, it has become part of the Galician cultural identity. Galicia took Ireland as a model for recuperating her Celtic identity during its cultural revival of the 19th century, particularly in the fields of literature and traditional music. Some similarities are easy to recognise and have helped in making Galicians see Éire as their Celtic sister: Catholicism, rainy weather, a beautiful green landscape, hill forts and a traditionally agricultural and fishing economy. The idea of Ireland as sister is particularly strong if we get into Galician nationalism and its politics, but that is another story. As Emily Lawless said, “I am not anti-Gaelic at all as long as it is only Gaelic enthuse and does not include politics”.
If you visit A Coruña, in front of the Tower of Hercules you will find the statue of Breogán guarding it and a summary of the legend written at his feet; a GAA club under the name of Fillos de Breogán (Breogán’s Sons); and the Amergin University Institute of Research in Irish Studies at the University of A Coruña. Also, in 2014, the most popular Galician folk band, Luar na Lubre, released their album Torre de Breoghán, which songs are inspired in the legend of the Sons of Mil.
These are but a few examples of how the connection to Ireland is very present in and has helped to shape Galician identity. To name all the influences present in music and literature would be the matter of a PhD, but one last example must be given as the most representative: the lyrics of the Galician anthem, taken from a poem by “the bard” Eduardo Pondal (1835-1917). Its chorus refers to Galicia as “fogar de Breogán“ (Breogáns hearth).
I would be lying if I said that I have not been influenced by this attraction of Galicia towards Irish studies. To thoroughly understand the Galician cultural identity, one must cross the bridge built between Galicia and Éire and explore Irishness. Whether I will come back from that journey to join and perpetuate the one-sided Celtic link or to break with it is something we cannot say just yet. Follow, wait and see.
If you want to know more about Galicia, you should know that there is an Irish Centre For Galician Studies in UCC.
Alberro, Manuel. ‘Milesians and Alans in the Northwest of the Iberian Peninsula and the Mythical Invasion of Ireland’. Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium 23 (2003): 1–20. Print.
Carey, John. ‘Did the Irish Come from Spain? The Legend of the Milesians’. History Ireland (2001): 8–11. Print.