Corpus of Electronic Texts Edition
The History of Ireland (Author: Geoffrey Keating)

Section 4


Spenser, in his narrative, says that Egfrid, king of the Northumbrians, and Edgar, king of Britain, had authority over Ireland, as may be read in the thirty-third page of his history: yet this is not true for him, because the old records of Ireland are opposed to that, and, moreover, British authors themselves confess that the Saxons did not leave them any ancient texts, or monuments, by which they might know the condition of the time which preceded the Saxons. For Gildas, an ancient British author says, that the monuments, and consequently the history of the Britons, were destroyed by the Romans and by the Saxons. Samuel Daniel, in the first part of his chronicle, agrees with this author on the same matter, and Rider, in the Latin dictionary he wrote, where he treats of this word Britannia; moreover he says, that it is not from Brutus Britain is called Britannia, and, if it were, that it should be Brutia or Brutica it should be called; and it were likely, if it had been from Brutus it was named, that Julius Caesar, Cornelius Tacitus, Diodorus Siculus, or Bede, or some other ancient author would have stated whence is this word Britannia; and since they knew not whence is the name of their own country, it was no wonder they should be in ignorance of many of the ancient concerns of Britain, and, therefore, it is not strange that Spenser likewise should be ignorant of them.

It is a marvellous thing Spenser took in hand to trace up


antiquity concerning some of the nobles of Ireland, and to assert that they are foreigners in regard to their origin. Seven surnames, in especial, of the nobles of the Gael are mentioned by him, to wit, Mac Mahon, Mac Sweeny, Mac Sheehy, Macnamara, Cavanagh, Toole, and Byrne. He says that it is from Ursula (or Fitz Urse, a surname which is in England) Mac Mahon is derived, and that 'ursula' and 'bear' are equal, and that 'bear' and 'mahon' are alike (in meaning), and, accordingly, that it is from that house Mac Mahon of Ulster came. My answer to this reasoning is, that it is not more probable that Mac Mahon of Oriel should have come from that house, in such fashion, according to the derivation of the word, than Mac Mahon of Thomond, or O'Mahony of Carbry, and as neither of these is from the house of Fitz Urse, or Bear, in England, neither is Mac Mahon of Ulster: but truly he is of the posterity of Colla-dá-Chríoch, son of Eochaidh Doimhléan, son of Fiachadh Sraibhtheine, son of Cairbre Lifeachar of the race of Eireamhón. The second race, the Mac Sweenys, he says that it is from a house in England which is called 'Swyn', they have come; howbeit, 'Swyn' and 'Sweeny' are not equal, and, accordingly it is not from that house Mac Sweeny has sprung, but truly he is of the race of Niall: for it is from the posterity of Aodh Athlamh son of Flaithbheartach of the pilgrim-staff Mac Sweeny comes. He also says that the Mac Sheehys are of the foreigners; however, that is not true, for it is known that they are of the posterity of Colla Uais, and that they have sprung from Sitheach, son of Eachdunn, son of Alastar, son of Dómhnall, from whom are named the Mac Donnells of Ireland and Scotland. Again he says that the Macnamaras


are of the foreigners, and that they came from a family of the Normans called Mortimer; however, that is not true, for it is from a person named Cúmara they are called children of Cúmara: the proper surname for them is the race of Aodh, and it is from Caisin, son of Cas, son of Conall of the swift steeds, of the race of Eibhear, they are derived, as may be read in the genealogical account of the Dal Cas. He states, likewise, that it is from Great Britain came these three following surnames, Byrne, Toole, and Cavanagh; and the proof which he offers for this statement is unreliable, where he says that these three words are British words. First, he says that 'brin' and 'woody' are alike (in meaning); I allow that 'brin' and 'woody' are the same, yet it is not from this word 'brin' the Byrnes are called, but from the name of a young warrior called Brannút. Secondly, he says that 'tol' and 'hilly' are alike, and that it is from it the Tooles are named; I allow that 'tol' and 'hilly' are equal, yet 'tol' and 'Tuathal' are not like each other, for it is from the name of a warrior called Tuathal they are (called): wherefore the opinion of Spenser is false. Once again he says that 'caomhan' and 'strong' are alike, and that it is from it the Cavanaghs are named. My answer to him is, that 'caomhan' is the same as a 'mild' or pleasant person, and that the Cavanaghs were so named from Dómhnall Caomhanach, son of Diarmuid of the foreigners. The epithet adhered to Domhnall himself from his having been nurtured in Kilcavan, in the lower part of Leinster; and it is from the Kinsellachs they are by descent. Moreover, it is manifest, according to genuine record, that these three


peoples are of the Gael, and that these three surnames are of the posterity of Fiachadh Aiceadh, son of Cathaoir the Great, king of Leinster, as may be read in the genealogical account of Leinster. I am surprised how Spenser ventured to meddle in these matters, of which he was ignorant, unless that, on the score of being a poet, he allowed himself license of invention, as it was usual with him, and others like him, to frame and arrange many poetic romances with sweet-sounding words to deceive the reader.