This section is from the book "Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, And Superstitions Of Ireland", by Jane Francesca Wilde. Also available from Amazon: Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, And Superstitions Of Ireland.
The Boromean, or cattle tribute, which the King of Tara demanded from the Leinstermen, was perhaps the cause of the greatest intestinal feud which ever convulsed so small a space of European ground for so great a length of time. This triennial cattle tax, besides 5,000 ounces of silver, 5,000 cloaks, and 5,000 brazen vessels, consisted of 15,000 head of cattle of different descriptions, the value of which, at the present price of stock, would amount to about £130,000. The cattle tribute also paid to the Prince or petty King of Cashel upwards of a thousand years ago was 6,500 cows, 4,500 oxen, 4,500 swine,and 1,200 sheep; in all, 16,700, or, at the present value of stock, between ,£80,000 and ,£100,000. In addition to which we read of horses and valuables of various descriptions.
Brian O'Kennedy, who drove the Norsemen from the shores of Clontarf, derived his cognomen of Borróme from his reimposition of this cattle tax. And in the Leabliar-na-Garth, or ancient Book of Rights and Privileges of the Kings of Erin, the cattle statistics, as they are there set forth show that the Irish were solely a pastoral people ; and the whole text and tenor of the Irish annals and histories, and the notices of the wars of the Desmonds and of O'Neil, confirm this view.
The great raths of Ireland, where the people enclosed their cattle by night, have been erroneously termed " Danish Forts," but when the shannaghees are pressed for further information as to the date of their erection they say, " They were made by them ould Danes that came over with Julius Cessar." If, however, inquiry be made of the old illiterate Irish-speaking population, they will tell you that they were made by "the good people," and are inhabited by the fairies. Hence the veneration that has in a great measure tended to their preservation ; and I have no doubt that the ancient indigenous and venerated thorns that still decorate their slopes or summits are the veritable descendants of the quickset hedges that helped to form the breastworks, or staked defences, on their summits.
These forts are almost invariably to be found in the fattest pastures ; so that if any of my friends were in the present day to ask me where they could best invest in land, I would fearlessly answer, "Wherever you find most ancient raths remaining ; " and I know that many of our cattle prizes have been carried off by sheep and oxen fed upon the grass lands cleared and fertilized by the early Celts more than a thousand years ago, and a sod of which has not been turned for centuries. They were not originally the gentle slopes that now diversify the surface, but consisted in steep ramparts or earthworks, with an external ditch, on which a stout paling was erected against man or beast, a form of structure still seen in the kraal of the New Zealander. The Irish rath-maker was an artificer of skill, and held in high esteem, and occupied a dignified position at the great feasts of Tara -second only to the ollamh and the physician. That the soil of which they were constructed had been not only originally rich, but had been subjected to man's industry, is proved by the fact, that it is now frequently turned out upon the neighbouring sward as one of the best of manures. Within these raths, some of which had double, and even treble entrenchments, were erected the dwellings of the people and their chiefs, the latter of whom were often interred within the mounds, or beneath the cromlechs that still exist in their interior, as, for example, in the " Giant's Ring," near Belfast. In some instances they also contained in their sides and centres stone caves, that were probably used as store-houses, granaries, or places of security.
The earliest historic race of Ireland was a pastoral people called Firbolgs, said to be of Greek or Eastern origin; probably a branch of that great Celtic race which, having passed through Europe and round its shores, found a resting-place at last in Ireland. Of the Fomorians, Neme-dians, and other minor invaders, we need not speak, as they have left nothing by which to track their footsteps. The old annalists bring them direct from the Ark, and in a straight line from Japhet. The coming of Pharaoh's daughter from Egypt with her ships may be also considered apocryphal. But the Firbolgs begin our authentic history. They had laws and social institutions, and established a monarchical government at the far-famed Hill of Tara, about which our early centres of civilization sprung, and where we have now most of those great pasture-lands- those plains of Meath that' can beat the world for their fattening qualities, and which supply neighbouring countries with their most admired meats.
I cannot say that the Firbolg was a cultivated man, but I think he was a shepherd and an agriculturist. I doubt if he knew anything, certainly not much, of metallurgy ; but it does not follow that he was a mere savage, no more than the Maories of New Zealand were when we first came in contact with them.
The Firbolgs were a small, straight-haired, swarthy race, who have left a portion of their descendants with us to this very day. A genealogist (their own countryman resident in Galway about two hundred years ago) described them as dark-haired, talkative, guileful, strolling, unsteady, "disturbers of every Council and Assembly," and " promoters of discord." I believe they, together with the next two races about to be described, formed the bulk of our so-called Celtic population-combative, nomadic on opportunity, enduring, litigious, but feudal and faithful to their chiefs ; hard-working for a spurt (as in their annual English emigration) ; not thrifty, but, when their immediate wants are supplied, lazy, especially during the winter.
To these physical and mental characters described by MacFirbis let me add those of the unusual combination of blue or blue-grey eyes and dark eyelashes with a swarthy complexion. This peculiarity I have only remarked elsewhere in Greece ; the mouth and upper gum is not good, but the nose is usually straight. In many of this and the next following race there was a peculiarity that has not been alluded to by writers-the larynx, or, as it used to be called, the pomum Adami, was remarkably prominent, and became more apparent from the uncovered state of the neck. The sediment of this early people still exists in Ireland, along with the fair-complexioned Dananns, and forms the bulk of the farm-labourers, called in popular phraseology Spalpeens, that yearly emigrate to England. In Connaught they now chiefly occupy a circle which includes the junction of the counties of Mayo, Galway, Roscommon, and Sligo. They, with their fair-faced brothers (at present the most numerous), are also to be found in Kerry and Donegal; and they nearly all speak Irish.