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Volume 36, Number 6November/December 1985

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Ireland’s Cleopatra

Written and photographed by Arthur Clark

Does the blood of Egyptian pharaohs run through Irish veins today? Did an Irish Cleopatra lead a Gaelic army into battle in County Kerry? Is that her tomb over there across the stream? That hoary stone sunk into the ground amid the gorse in Foley's Glen?

To be candid, the answer is: probably not. First of all, the story is fantastic. It says that a woman named Scotia, "daughter of the Pharaoh," led an army into battle in Ireland some 3,600 years ago and was killed there while doing so. Secondly, modern experts -archeologists and historians - are skeptical. Very skeptical. One calls it an "entirely spurious legend... very much in the Bermuda Triangle vein of research." Another says it "has little or no historical basis."

Still, all the world loves a legend and since some scholars have left the door open - just a crack, to be sure - I decided to take a trip through Ireland a year or so ago to trace the threads of the story. My journey started in the bookshops in Dublin and ended in a vale in the mountains of Kerry called either "Gleann Scoithin" (Scotia's Glen) or, more prosaically, Foley's Glen. And though I found no proof, I can safely say the story has a certain Irish logic to it and that I came across a few grains of fascinating fact.

According to some sources, the story of Ireland's Egyptian princess dates back to 1700 B.C. when, says T.J. Barrington in Discovering Kerry, Gads - "with their iron spears" - invaded Ireland from Spain to avenge the death of a clansman who had gone over from Spain to explore Ireland and had been killed by the inhabitants.

Those who organized this expedition were from the family of Miles, or Milesius, depending on the source consulted. Miles - a word meaning "soldier" in Latin - was a member of a warlike, aristocratic Gaelic family in Spain, with roots in Scythia, an area northwest of the Black Sea, now in the U.S.S.R. One source says Miles was "supposedly descended from Scythian nobles who had been expelled from Egypt and settled in Iberia [Spain]." Another, The History of Ireland to the Coming of Henry II, by Arthur Ua Clerigh notes that when Miles grew up "he went on his wanderings (from Spain) first to Scythia... and afterwards to Egypt where he married Scota (Scotia ) the daughter of the Pharaoh Nectonibus."

Back in Spain, Scotia bore Miles six sons. But then Miles, on the eve of his invasion of Ireland to avenge his uncle's death, died and his mantle fell on the shoulders of his Egyptian princess. Like Cleopatra, another renowned Egyptian woman, Scotia did not shirk her responsibilities: with her six sons, and two other of Miles' sons from another union, she set out in a fleet of 30 ships some time about 1700 B.C.

Casualties, writes Barrington, were incurred almost immediately. "As they sailed westward, Erannan, the youngest of the sons, climbed the mast first to see Ireland, but fell and was drowned ...Ir, a third son, was rowing so hard that his oar snapped and he fell back into the boat and died..."

The fleet sailed on, however, and three days later landed at Kenmare Bay in County Kerry. The Gaels fought their way to Tara, their enemy's capital and, later, the place where the High Kings of Ireland were crowned.

There, they demanded surrender or battle - but got neither. Somehow, the enemy got the Gaels to withdraw in their fleet and while they were offshore a tempest sank many ships and drowned most of the surviving sons.

Enraged at their losses, the remaining Gaels beached their craft on the north shore of the beautiful Dingle Peninsula and the army began to march through the foothills of the Slieve Mish Mountains, hard by Ireland's Atlantic coast and not far from the present city of Tralee. It was there, in the most ferocious battle with the inhabitants, that the Gaelic invaders lost their Egyptian princess. "In yon cool glen, beside the mount, close by the wave," says one 17th-century poet, "fell Scotia while pursuing the enemy across the hills."Though Scotiad early in the fray, her forces went on to victory and it is she that is remembered. Says Thomas I. O'Sullivan in his 1931 Romantic Hidden Kerry, "Though she failed to stay the career of the foe, she died and gave her name to the land, for our island was Scotia long before it was known as Hibernia."

In tracing the threads of this story, it was much easier to read the poems and histories from Dublin bookshops, than to actually find Gleann Scoithin. Though Scotia may have "given her name to the land," most people were calling it Foley's Glen by the time I got there, and only a handful of people knew where it was. I found it, in fact, only because I had a little paperback called Irish Walk Guides - the Southwest by Scan O'Suilleabhan. Even then there were problems: a series of small disasters that got us thinking of the awful things that reportedly happened to all the people who participated in the opening of another famous Egyptian's tomb: King Tut's Tomb in 1922. (See Aramco World, November-December 1981). First, we simply could not find it, despite the book's directions. Then, when we thought we had found it, I slipped and fell and had to retreat. And when we tried again my wife came down with a sudden and inexplicable illness just as we discovered the Finglas that flows prettily into the glen.

Finally, though, on our last day in Kerry I worked my way across the Finglas Stream and saw, across the glen, a great stone 10.5 meters long (35 feet) that, legend says, is the tomb of Scotia.

And maybe it is. Propped up on pillars as they say it used to be, and before it was worn smooth by Ireland's endless rain, it might have once looked like a tomb. But now, I have to admit, it's open to debate. True, there was a script in ancient Ogham characters etched into the rock attesting that it was Leacht Scoithin, the "grave-mound of Scotia," and Ogham is the script of Old Irish. But these, it is all but fully proved, are modern forgeries. And were there no fantastic stories attached to the place, one would hardly find the giant stone unusual.

On the other hand, even modern scholars leave a bit of room for those of us with imagination. Michael Ryan, keeper of Irish antiquities at the National Museum in Dublin, says flatly that the Scotia tale is "spurious legend," but will concede that some parts may not be altogether fictitious.

It is certainly true, moreover, that the Gaels did come to Ireland by the Late Bronze Age, and that they did bring with them the skills of iron-mongering. And some of the dates and names in the legend do accord with some of the accepted history of both Ireland and Egypt.

Though Scotia's father, for instance, iscalled the "Pharaoh Nectonibus" by Ua Clerigh in his 1910 Irish history, a name not to be found among the lists of ancient Egyptian kings, his name bears a striking resemblance to those of two much later rulers: Nectanebo I and Nectanebo II, described by Martha Ross in Rulers and Governments of the World as "among the last Egyptian Pharaohs."

These rulers, moreover, "made attempts to gain Greek alliances" to stave off invaders from the East. It is not beyond the realm of possibility, therefore, to suggest that they could have also made alliances with the Scythians who, in the preceding centuries, had penetrated the Middle East as far as Palestine, and thus were on Egypt's border.

In A Folk Register, A History of Ireland in Verse, contemporary historian Patrick J. Twohig moves the legend to about 400 B.C. but still writes:

The day of poets and iron men

Had dawned, and with a clang...

Long had they coursed, the sons of Mil

From Scythia's Black Sea shore,

Goidels (Gaels) who journeyed to fulfill

Their destiny of yore...

What emerges from all this is the faint possibility that an Egyptian princess met a Scythian warrior, and became his bride, centuries after the date given in the ancient table. And, since Egypt did fall to invaders in the mid-fourth century B.C., it is possible some Egyptians did flee to Spain and - finally - got to Ireland at about that time.

Scotia's links with reality are, admittedly, quite tenuous. Yet down there in the glen, the legend somehow complements the history and the great stone seems stronger than the "facts" as the Finglas trips by bubbling - almost winking - in the sun.

Arthur Clark, a frequent contributor to Aramco World magazine, works out of Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. He once lived in Ireland.

This article appeared on pages 2-3 of the November/December 1985 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1985 images.