When Ireland Was Jewish


The royal mound cemetery at Taillten, modern Telltown in County Meath, houses the burials of numerous kings and nobles from early Ireland. These begin with Ollamh Fodhla, whose death occurred in 1277 B.C.E., and run to just before Conchobar Mac Ness, who died in A.D. 33 according to the Annals of Tighernach, written in Old Irish and Latin in the early Middle Ages. Pronounced “CON ah war,” Conchobar is the first of the name Connor or O’Connor in Irish annals. His mother was Queen Ness, and his nephew Cuchulain, the famous hero of the Ulster cycle of stories.

“Our oldest and most trustworthy authorities state that Taillten ceased to be used as a cemetery on the death of Conchobhor,” wrote Irish antiquarian (the term used before “archeologist”) William F. Wakeman in The Handbook of Irish Antiquities in 1891, drawing on field reports dating back to 1848 (London:  Studio, 1995). What made Conchobar’s burial unusual was that, unlike the previous kings of Ulster entombed at Taillten, he “wished that he should be carried to a place between Slea and the sea, with his face to the east, on account of the Faith which he had embraced” (p. 94).

It seems obvious that Conchobar converted from pagan druidism to a new religion, one that emphasized burial facing east. The new religion could not have been Christianity, although Irish myths claim, anachronistically, that Conchobar died upon being told by druids that Jesus had just been killed “by the Jews.” Christianity was not widespread until the fourth century of the Common Era. Jews, like Christians, are buried facing east.

According to Celtic tradition, Conchobar was one of the two men who believed in God in Ireland before the coming of the Faith, Morann being the other man. Such a statement can only mean that Conchobar and his advisor Morann were monotheists or Jews.

In Conchobar’s day, Judaism attracted millions of converts. Eventually between one-tenth and one-quarter of the inhabitants within the limit of the Roman Empire professed Judaism. Often it was a syncretistic form combined with other rites and beliefs.

The story of a king converting to Judaism with many of his subjects and descendants following him is a phenomenon documented from more than one historical time point associated with mass conversions. The Hellenized Hasmonean dynasty established under Judas Maccabeus ruled the Kingdom of Israel for over a hundred years, spreading Jewish religion to many others in the Middle East. Bulan was a Khazar king who led the conversion of the Khazars to Judaism. The Babylonian prince Machir, also known as Todros, Theodore, Theodorich, Dietrich, William and by other names, converted most of the inhabitants of the kingdom of Narbonne/Septimania in southern France.

It is likely the Irish high king Conchobar inspired many of his people to accept Judaism. The introduction and early spread of Christianity in Ireland could have been facilitated by the pre-existence of Jewish institutions in the country.

king ollamh fodhlas

King Ollamh Fodhla’s Throne at Taillten, covered with tifinagh (North African) inscriptions.Conwell, On the Cemetery of Taillten (1879).

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