The Setantii The Sea People

On 7th August 2010, at the invitation of Gerry Adams MP, I attended a hurling competition named after the Irish Unionist Leader Edward Carson, which formed part of an event at Stormont of this year’s Féile an Phobail, the West Belfast Festival. The winner’s trophy was named after Carson who played hurling at Trinity College in Dublin before going on to lead Irish Unionists in their opposition to Home Rule for Ireland. Gerry Adams explained that while Carson was playing for the hurling club at Trinity he got an honourable mention in the Irish Sportsman as having distinguished himself on the field, so he thought that it would be a great idea to have an Edward Carson trophy.

The statue of the barrister and political leader at Stormont thus over-looked the competitors as they tried to re-enact the actions of Sétanta, who, according to old Irish legend, could hit a sliotar ahead of him as he travelled and would be able to catch it before it hit the ground. The well-known Poc Fada Competition in Sétanta’s country, the Cooley Mountains in Louth, was started in 1960 to celebrate this legend and to test the skills of hurlers. .

Edward Carson’s mother belonged to a historic family of the Middle Nation as the Anglo-Irish are sometimes called. She was Isabella Lambert of Castle Ellen in Co Galway. Carson paid many visits to his uncle, the owner of the castle. He was therefore brought in touch with the old traditions of Anglo-Irish Protestant culture and thus became embued with that peculiar pride and loyalty for Great Britain which never wavered until he died. He was interested in the ancient British or “Pictish” origins of the Irish People.

His mother was a true Lambert with blue eyes, dark hair and clear complexion, characteristic of the ”old inhabitants of the island” rather than the Anglo-Irish. Among his contemporaries, he made lasting friendships with such men as William Ridgeway, afterwards the celebrated Cambridge Professor of Archaeology, who obtained his well-earned knighthood in 1918 through Carson’s influence. His colleague James Craig, on the other hand, was an Ulster Scot, who traced his heritage back to the ancient kingdom of Dalriada.

Carson in his early days was a radical and was remembered as such by Oscar Wilde many years later, although even then he was a great defender of the Union. He spoke in favour of the abolition of capital punishment. He used his voice in favour of the disestablishment of the Church and in approval of the French Revolution and Women’s Suffrage. He defended the legislative powers of the Hereditary Chamber and the talent that it then contained. His abhorrence of slavery is apparent in the famous Cadbury trial of 1908 and his love of Irish antiquities in the famous Broighter Gold Hoard case of 1903. Whatever its origins this Hoard lay concealed for two thousand years near the ancient shore at the entrance to Lough Foyle, Co Londonderry, an area traditionally associated with the Sea God Manannán Mac Lir, to whom the Hoard was probably a votive offering.

Sétanta was the birth name of Cúchulainn, the ‘Hound of Culann’, who was small and dark and of probable pre-Celtic stock. The Setantii or Sea People were an ancient British tribe who lived in the north west littoral of what is now modern day Lancashire, where my father was born. They are usually described as a sept or clan of the Brigantes, who were among the last of the Belgae and are thought to have come to Lambay Island, Co Dublin in the early 70’s AD. The Setantii possessed the only pre-Roman port in the western coast of Britain at Portus Setantiorum. This may have been situated at present day Fleetwood, the mouth of the River Wyre, the northernmost boundary of the Setantii being in southern Cumbria, where their Old British tongue survived until the twelve century. The southernmost boundary was the Seteia, which we now know as the Mersey River.

The Setantii have links to ancient British or Welsh epic and Arthurian legend. In the Welsh epic of Culhwch and Olwen, Seithennin is grandfather to Gwenwynwyn, generally identified as Gawain, Arthur’s Champion, whose exploits may indicate a folk memory of resistance to the English invaders. Gawain’s strength waxes and waves with the sun and in the most common form of this motif his might triples by Noon and fades at Sunset, just like Cuchulainn’s. It may well be that Gawain was a Setantii hero with a reputation on both sides of the Irish sea and whose memory was kept alive under the name of Gawain by the medieval descendants of the Setantii in England around their stronghold in Heysham.

My own opinion is that the legend is a remnant of the aboriginal ancient British or Cruthin people who indeed dwelled on both sides of the Irish Sea. The Setantii live on in the Old Irish Epic Táin Bó Cúailnge, the ‘Cattle Raid of Cooley’, first written in the Cruthin monastery of Bangor and in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, that most brilliant example of Middle English Literature and one of the finest compilations in the whole of English Literature. Above all, like CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, they were Northern.

Code: Picts

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Sétanta, Friday, January 12. 2007

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