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The History of Ireland - Introduction

The History of Ireland
Geoffrey Keating

Foras Feasa ar Éireann
Seathrún Céitinn



  Seathrún Céitinn (Geoffrey Keating) was a Catholic priest from Co. Tipperary who ministered to his flock in defiance of the English Penal Laws in the early 17th century. He is said to have written his history while hiding from the English in a cave in the Gen of Aherlow. His other works include the devotional works The Three Shafts of Death (Trí bior-ghaoithe an bháis ) and An explanatory defence of the mass (Eochair-sgiath an Aifrinn), and a number of poems, of which Farewell to Ireland (Slán le h-Éirinn) and O Woman Full of Wiles (A Bhean lán de Stuaim) are the best known.

 The History of Ireland was written in Irish about 1632 and was very popular and widely circulated in manuscript, printing of books in Irish being effectively prohibited by the English rulers. In it he gives a history of Ireland from earliest times until the Norman invasion of 1169 AD. His sources were mostly older Irish annals and histories, some of which are now lost, which he summarised in modern (i.e. 17th century) Irish in a fluent and readable style. Most previous and contemporary Irish historians wrote in a very archaic and stilted language, which needed special training to read, so Keating's history became the standard version. He was also popular because he provided evidence refuting the anti-Irish propaganda of English writers, who liked to portray the Irish as savages in order to justify their conquest and expropriation.

 The events in Book 1 of the work, dealing with the time before the coming of St. Patrick, are generally regarded as mythical by modern scholars. Be that as it may, they were undoubtedly believed to be true by Keating and his contemporaries, and his successors at least as far down as Sylvester O'Halloran in the late 18th century. Every nation needs a founding myth, and the successive invasions by Partholonians, Fir Bolg, Tuatha Dé Danaan and Milesians are Ireland's. Much Irish literature, art and music draws on them; they are to Ireland what Livy's early books were to Rome or Geoffrey de Monmouth's history was to Britain.

 Book 2, which deals with events from the coming of Saint Patrick to the Norman Invasion, is much more historically accurate. Apart from some incredible miracles attributed to saints, the events described almost certainly happened more or less as Céitinn described them. It is also much more readable than Book 1, with more action and fewer long king-lists and Genealogies.

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