The first person to come to Ireland was called Cesaire. Her story begins back in the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East, where her grandfather, Noah, was building an ark, convinced that his god, Yaweh, had ordered him to do so because the world was soon to end in a flood.
Though Noah’s people worshipped Yaweh, they often worshipped other gods alongside him, borrowing from neighbouring civilizations like the Babylonians. Yaweh was different from these other gods, who ruled over nature and human passions; he was above nature and distinct from it. Yaweh stood outside the world and could intervene in it, and unlike many other gods, he did not need to be sustained by cyclical rituals. Where pagans saw the world as something to be revered and understood, the followers of Yaweh saw the world as a corrupt place that needed to be transformed by human action. The stories of this tribe were not of Yaweh’s deeds and actions, but of his tribe’s struggles in relating to him, obeying him, and sometimes, moving away from him.
Noah allowed three of his sons onto the Ark, but refused to give space to his son, Bith, because he thought Bith was a thief. Bith didn’t know what he was going to do, but his daughter was Cesaire, and she had a plan. Cesaire had built three arks for herself, and had taken an idol for a god. She said that she’d take Bith with her, if he agreed to forsake the god of Noah, and follow her as leader. She crewed each of her arks with fifty skilled women, but the only men she took, aside from her father, were her brother, Ladra the pilot, and her husband, Fintan Mac Bochra.
Cesaire had been told to go to Ireland. It was a new land, where no sin had been committed, so it was thought that Noah’s god might spare Ireland from the great flood when he sent it. They sailed for seven years, crossing all over the known world.
In the lands around the Nile, they heard the stories of the Egyptians, whose life and society was based on the idea of keeping divine order, called maat, through ritual, to prevent chaos from overrunning the world. They worshipped and told stories of deities with animal heads; the sun god, Ra; Osiris, his wife Isis, and his treacherous brother, Set. They believed their Pharaoh was part-god himself, and was able to be a bridge between the human and the divine.
From the Nile, they made their way to Asia Minor and the Caspian Sea, where the people were Babylonian and Assyrian, and worshipped Ea, who taught them how to build houses and canals and cultivate crops. Ea also taught the people that the gods needed their worship to survive. They worshipped the goddesses Ishtar and Ereshkigal, who between them ruled over love, sex and death. They told stories of their greatest hero, Gilgamesh, whose great quest to find the secret of immortality led him to meet a wise old man called Utnapishtim, who had saved his family from a terrible flood, sent by the god Ea to cleanse the world of evil-doers.
Cesaire and her followers next sailed the Mediterranean. The people who lived there, in Greece and in Rome, worshipped gods who ruled over natural phenomena and psychological states, and had a huge pantheon of gods, goddesses, heroes and supernatural beings. There were stories behind every flower, every echo, every stream. The gods of the Mediterranean peoples were very human in their behaviour, fighting and bickering amongst themselves, with humankind helpless in the face of their whims.
Cesaire led her people north into the Alps, where they lost two of their three ships along the way. The people of these lands worshipped many different gods, with little in common between different groups in belief and practice. They told stories of local gods and goddesses, nature spirits, and great heroes. Their stories placed great emphasis on honour, birth right, and the proximity of the Otherworld, where gods, spirits, and monsters could reach out to meddle in human affairs.
From Central Europe, Cesaire and her people came to Northern Spain, and were made guests there. The Basque people of that country told tales of strange and wonderful beasts, the wild men and women of the forest, called Basajuan and Basandere; the mischievous Iratxoak, the dragon Herensuge, the evil spirit Erge who takes men’s lives, and the bird-footed Lamiak. Their main goddess, Mari, lived on a cave in a high mountainside, and met every Friday with her consort, the giant serpent Sugaar, to conceive storms that brought fertility and destruction. She was served by a court of witches, and fed on falsehoods.
It was here that Cesaire at last saw the coast of Ireland in the distance, and knew that her journey was nearly at an end. They landed in Ireland, in the harbour of Corca Dhuibhne in Kerry. Cesaire jumped onto the land first, because she was the leader, and so she became the first person ever to set foot on Ireland. Fintan Mac Bochra was the first man. All the others landed safely, except Ladra the pilot who took a wound from an oar to his thigh.
Now that they’d arrived they realized that they were going to have to populate the island, but they only had three men among fifty women! So they decided to divide into three groups, with one man to each group. Noah’s son Bith got 16 women because he was getting on in years and wasn’t as virile as he used to be, and the other two men got 17 women each.
They lived happily together for a while, but unfortunately Bith son of Noah was unable to cope with the task he’d been given and he died – the first death in Ireland – so his 16 women were divided between the other two men. Now Ladra had never quite recovered from the wound he’d taken when they landed, and he quickly succumbed. Now all the women looked to Fintan to populate Ireland.
Poor Fintan, being just one man among fifty women, was completely overwhelmed by this task and ran away and hid in the mountains. Cesaire, deeply in love with him, died of a broken heart. Fintan hid himself away in a cave, and not long after that the flood came. All the women perished but for one, called Banba, a great warrior woman who ran into the hills to survive.
Now Fintan was deep in a cave where he’d hid, and with the floodwaters rising, you might not expect things to go so well for him. But Fintan fell asleep, and had a dream that he was a salmon. And when he woke up, he had changed into a salmon. He lived for as a salmon 300 years, swimming all the waterways of Ireland, until the floodwaters receded. Then he dreamed he was a hawk, and when he woke up he was a hawk. He travelled all over Ireland, looking down on it from above and seeing everything that was going on and learning all its secrets.
In this way, Fintan Mac Bochra became a great sage. He lived for over five thousand years and saw all the changes that came to Ireland through that time. He lived, by turns, as all the different animals of Ireland, and was a councillor to many of the men.