The earliest references to Ireland by foreign writers are, as might be expected, of a contradictory character. Plutarch affirms that Calypso was “an island five days’ sail to the west of Britain,” which, at least, indicates his knowledge of the existence of Erinn. Orpheus is the first writer who definitely names Ireland. In the imaginary route which he prescribes for Jason and the Argonauts, he names Ireland (Iernis), and describes its woody surface and its misty atmosphere. All authorities are agreed that this poem was written five hundred years before Christ; and all doubt as to whether Iernis meant the present island of Ireland must be removed, at least to an unprejudiced inquirer, by a careful examination of the route which is described, and the position of the island in that route.
The early history of a country which has been so long and so cruelly oppressed, both civilly and morally, has naturally fallen into disrepute. We do not like to display the qualifications of one whom we have deeply injured. It is, at least, less disgraceful to have forbidden a literature to a people who had none, than to have banned and barred the use of a most ancient language,—to have destroyed the annals of a most ancient people. In self-defence, the conqueror who knows not how to triumph nobly will triumph basely, and the victims may, in time, almost forget what it has been the policy of centuries to conceal from them. But ours is, in many respects, an age of historical justice, and truth will triumph in the end. It is no longer necessary to England’s present greatness to deny the facts of history; and it is one of its most patent facts that Albion was unknown, or, at least, that her existence was unrecorded, at a time when Ireland is mentioned with respect as the Sacred Isle, and the Ogygia of the Greeks.
As might be expected, descriptions of the social state of ancient Erinn are of the most contradictory character; but there is a remarkable coincidence in all accounts of the physical geography of the island. The moist climate, the fertile soil, the richly-wooded plains, the navigable rivers, and the abundance of its fish, are each and all mentioned by the early geographers. The description given by Diodorus Siculus of a “certain large island a considerable distance out at sea, and in the direction of the west, many days’ sail from Lybia,” if it applies to Ireland, would make us suppose that the Erinn of pagan times was incomparably more prosperous than Erinn under Christian rule. He also specially mentions the fish, and adds: “The Phoenicians, from the very remotest times, made repeated voyages thither for purposes of commerce."