Tuesday, February 15, 2011


The people of the goddess Danu were not the first divine inhabitants of Ireland. Others had been before them, dwellers in "the dark backward and abysm of time". In this the Celtic mythology resembles those of other nations, in almost all of which we find an old, dim realm of gods standing behind the reigning Pantheon. Such were Cronos and the Titans, dispossessed by the Zeus who seemed, even to Hesiod, something of a parvenu deity. Gaelic tradition recognizes two divine dynasties anterior to the Tuatha Dé Danann. The first of these was called "The Race of Partholon". Its head and leader came--as all gods and men came, according to Celtic ideas--from the Other World, and landed in Ireland with a retinue of twenty-four males and twenty-four females upon the first of May, the day called "Beltaine", sacred to Bilé, the god of death. At this remote time, Ireland consisted of only one treeless, grassless plain, watered by three lakes and nine rivers. But, as the race of Partholon increased, the land stretched, or widened, under them--some said miraculously, and others, by the labours of Partholon's people. At any rate, during the three hundred years they dwelt there, it grew from one

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plain to four, and acquired seven new lakes; which was fortunate, for the race of Partholon increased from forty-eight members to five thousand, in spite of battles with the Fomors.

These would seem to have been inevitable. Whatever gods ruled, they found themselves in eternal opposition to the not-gods--the powers of darkness, winter, evil, and death. The race of Partholon warred against them with success. At the Plain of Ith, Partholon defeated their leader, a gigantic demon called Cichol the Footless, and dispersed his deformed and monstrous host. After this there was quiet for three hundred years. Then--upon the same fatal first of May--there began a mysterious epidemic, which lasted a week, and destroyed them all. In premonition of their end, they foregathered upon the original, first-created plain--then called Sen Mag, or the "Old Plain",--so that those who survived might the more easily bury those that died. Their funeral-place is still marked by a mound near Dublin, called "Tallaght" in the maps, but formerly known as Tamlecht Muintre Partholain, the "Plague-grave of Partholon's People". This would seem to have been a development of the very oldest form of the legend--which knew nothing of a plague, but merely represented the people of Partholon as having returned, after their sojourn in Ireland, to the other world, whence they came--and is probably due to the gradual euhemerization of the ancient gods into ancient men.

Following the race of Partholon, came the race

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of Nemed, which carried on the work and traditions of its forerunner. During its time, Ireland again enlarged herself, to the extent of twelve new plains and four more lakes. Like the people of Partholon, the race of Nemed struggled with the Fomors, and defeated them in four consecutive battles. Then Nemed died, with two thousand of his people, from an epidemic, and the remnant, left without their leader, were terribly oppressed by the Fomors. Two Fomorian kings--Morc, son of Dela, and Conann, son of Febar--had built a tower of glass upon Tory Island, always their chief strong-hold, and where stories of them still linger, and from this vantage-point they dictated a tax which recalls that paid, in Greek story, to the Cretan Minotaur. Two-thirds of the children born to the race of Nemed during the year were to be delivered up on each day of Samhain. Goaded by this to a last desperate effort, the survivors of Nemed's people attacked the tower, and took it, Conann perishing in the struggle. But their triumph was short. Morc, the other king, collected his forces, and inflicted such a slaughter upon the people of Nemed that, out of the sixteen thousand who had assembled for the storming of the tower, only thirty survived. And these returned whence they came, or died--the two acts being, mythologically speaking, the same. 1

One cannot help seeing a good deal of similarity between the stories of these two mythical invasions of Ireland. Especially noticeable is the account of

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the epidemic which destroyed all Partholon's people and nearly all of Nemed's. Hence it has been held that the two legends are duplicates, and that there was at first only one, which has been adapted somewhat differently by two races, the Iberians and the Gaels. Professor Rhys considers 1 the account of Nemed to have been the original Celtic one, and the Partholon story, the version of it which the native races made to please themselves. The name "Partholon", with its initial p, is entirely foreign to the genius of Gaelic speech. Moreover, Partholon himself is given, by the early chroniclers, ancestors whose decidedly non-Aryan names reappear afterwards as the names of Fir Bolg chiefs. Nemed was later than Partholon in Ireland, as the Gaels, or "Milesians", were later than the Iberians, or "Fir Bolgs".

These "Fir Bolgs" are found in myth as the next colonizers of Ireland. Varying traditions say that they came from Greece, or from "Spain"--which was a post-Christian euphemism for the Celtic Hades. 2 They consisted of three tribes, called the "Fir Domnann" or "Men of Domnu", the "Fir Gaillion" or "Men of Gaillion", and the "Fir Bolg" or "Men of Bolg"; but, in spite of the fact that the first-named tribe was the most important, they are usually called collectively after the last. Curious stories are told of their life in Greece, and how they came to Ireland; but these are somewhat factitious, and obviously do not belong to the earliest tradition.

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In the time of their domination they had, we are told, partitioned Ireland among them: the Fir Bolg held Ulster; the Fir Domnann, divided into three kingdoms, occupied North Munster, South Munster, and Connaught; while the Fir Gaillion owned Leinster. These five provinces met at a hill then called "Balor's Hill", but afterwards the "Hill of Uisnech". It is near Rathconrath, in the county of West Meath, and was believed, in early times, to mark the exact centre of Ireland. They held the country from the departure of the people of Nemed to the coming of the people of the goddess Danu, and during this period they had nine supreme kings. At the time of the arrival of the gods, their king's name was Eochaid 1 son of Erc, surnamed "The Proud".

We have practically no other details regarding their life in Ireland. It is obvious, however, that they were not really gods, but the pre-Aryan race which the Gaels, when they landed in Ireland, found already in occupation. There are many instances of peoples at a certain stage of culture regarding tribes in a somewhat lower one as semi-divine, or, rather, half-diabolical. 2 The suspicion and fear with which the early Celts must have regarded the savage aborigines made them seem "larger than human". They feared them for the weird magical rites which they practised in their inaccessible forts among the hills, amid storms and mountain mists. The Gaels, who held themselves to be the children of light, deemed these "dark Iberians" children of

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the dark. Their tribal names seem to have been, in several instances, founded upon this idea. There were the Corca-Oidce ("People of Darkness") and the Corca-Duibhne ("People of the Night"). The territory of the western tribe of the Hi Dorchaide ("Sons of Dark") was called the "Night Country". 1 The Celts, who held their own gods to have preceded them into Ireland, would not believe that even the Tuatha Dé Danann could have wrested the land from these magic-skilled Iberians without battle.

They seem also to have been considered as in some way connected with the Fomors. Just as the largest Iberian tribe was called the "Men of Domnu", so the Fomors were called the "Gods of Domnu", and Indech, one of their kings, is a "son of Domnu". Thus eternal battle between the gods, children of Danu, and the giants, children of Domnu, would reflect, in the supernatural world, the perpetual warfare between invading Celt and resisting Iberian. It is shadowed, too, in the later heroic cycle. The champions of Ulster, Aryans and Gaels par excellence, have no such bitter enemies as the Fir Domnann of Munster and the Fir Gaillion of Leinster. A few scholars would even see in the later death-struggle between the High King of Ireland and his rebellious Fenians the last historic or mythological adumbration of racial war. 2

The enemies alike of Fir Bolg and Fomor, the

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[paragraph continues] Tuatha Dé Danann, gods of the Gaels, were the next to arrive. What is probably the earliest account tells us that they came from the sky. Later versions, however, give them a habitation upon earth--some say in the north, others in the "southern isles of the world". They had dwelt in four mythical cities called Findias, Gorias, Murias, and Falias, where they had learned poetry and magic--to the primitive mind two not very dissimilar things--and whence they had brought to Ireland their four chief treasures. From Findias came Nuada's sword, from whose stroke no one ever escaped or recovered; from Gorias, Lugh's terrible lance; from Murias, the Dagda's cauldron; and from Falias, the Stone of Fál, better known as the "Stone of Destiny", which afterwards fell into the hands of the early kings of Ireland. According to legend, it had the magic property of uttering a human cry when touched by the rightful King of Erin. Some have recognized in this marvellous stone the same rude block which Edward I brought from Scone in the year 1300, and placed in Westminster Abbey, where it now forms part of the Coronation Chair. It is a curious fact that, while Scottish legend asserts this stone to have come to Scotland from Ireland, Irish legend should also declare that it was taken from Ireland to Scotland. This would sound like conclusive evidence, but it is none the less held by leading modern archæologists--including Dr. W. F. Skene, who has published a monograph on the subject 1--that the Stone of Scone and the Stone of

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[paragraph continues] Tara were never the same. Dr. Petrie identifies the real Lia Fáil with a stone which has always remained in Ireland, and which was removed from its original position on Tara Hill, in 1798, to mark the tomb of the rebels buried close by under a mound now known as "the Croppies' grave". 1

Whether the Tuatha Dé Danann came from earth or heaven, they landed in a dense cloud upon the coast of Ireland on the mystic first of May without having been opposed, or even noticed by the people whom it will be convenient to follow the manuscript authorities in calling the "Fir Bolgs". 2 That those might still be ignorant of their coming, the Morrígú, helped by Badb and Macha, made use of the magic they had learned in Findias, Gorias, Murias, and Falias. They spread "druidically-formed showers and fog-sustaining shower-clouds" over the country, and caused the air to pour down fire and blood upon the Fir Bolgs, so that they were obliged to shelter themselves for three days and three nights. But the Fir Bolgs had druids of their own, and, in the end, they put a stop to these enchantments by counter-spells, and the air grew clear again.

The Tuatha Dé Danann, advancing westward, had reached a place called the "Plain of the Sea", in Leinster, when the two armies met. Each sent out a warrior to parley. The two adversaries approached

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each other cautiously, their eyes peeping over the tops of their shields. Then, coming gradually nearer, they spoke to one another, and the desire to examine each other's weapons made them almost friends.

The envoy of the Fir Bolgs looked with wonder at the "beautifully-shaped, thin, slender, long, sharp-pointed spears" of the warrior of the Tuatha Dé Danann, while the ambassador of the tribe of the goddess Danu was not less impressed by the lances of the Fir Bolgs, which were "heavy, thick, pointless, but sharply-rounded". They agreed to exchange weapons, so that each side might, by an examination of them, be able to come to some opinion as to its opponent's strength. Before parting, the envoy of the Tuatha Dé Danann offered the Fir Bolgs, through their representative, peace, with a division of the country into two equal halves.

The Fir Bolg envoy advised his people to accept this offer. But their king, Eochaid, son of Erc, would not. "If we once give these people half," he said, "they will soon have the whole."

The people of the goddess Danu were, on the other hand, very much impressed by the sight of the Fir Bolgs' weapons. They decided to secure a more advantageous position, and, retreating farther west into Connaught, to a plain then called Nia, but now Moytura, near the present village of Cong, they drew up their line at its extreme end, in front of the pass of Balgatan 1, which offered a retreat in case of defeat.

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The Fir Bolgs followed them, and encamped on the nearer side of the plain. Then Nuada, King of the Tuatha Dé Danann, sent an ambassador offering the same terms as before. Again the Fir Bolgs declined them.

"Then when", asked the envoy, "do you intend to give battle?"

"We must have a truce," they said, "for we want time to repair our armour, burnish our helmets, and sharpen our swords. Besides, we must have spears like yours made for us, and you must have spears like ours made for you."

The result of this chivalrous, but, to modern ideas, amazing, parley was that a truce of one hundred and five days was agreed upon.

It was on Midsummer Day that the opposing armies at last met. The people of the goddess Danu appeared in "a flaming line", wielding their "red-bordered, speckled, and firm shields". Opposite to them were ranged the Fir Bolgs, "sparkling, brilliant, and flaming, with their swords, spears, blades, and trowel-spears". The proceedings began with a kind of deadly hurley-match, in which thrice nine of the Tuatha Dé Danann played the same number of the Fir Bolgs, and were defeated and killed. Then followed another parley, to decide how the battle should be carried on, whether there should be fighting every day or only on every second day. Moreover, Nuada obtained from Eochaid an assurance that the battles should always be fought with equal numbers, although this was, we are told, "very disagreeable to the Fir Bolg

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king, because he had largely the advantage in the numbers of his army". Then warfare recommenced with a series of single combats, like those of the Greeks and Trojans in the "Iliad". At the end of each day the conquerors on both sides went back to their camps, and were refreshed by being bathed in healing baths of medicinal herbs.

So the fight went on for four days, with terrible slaughter upon each side. A Fir Bolg champion called Sreng fought in single combat with Nuada, the King of the Gods, and shore off his hand and half his shield with one terrific blow. Eochaid, the King of the Fir Bolgs, was even less fortunate than Nuada; for he lost his life. Suffering terribly from thirst, he went, with a hundred of his men, to look for water, and was followed, and pursued as far as the strand of Ballysadare, in Sligo. Here he turned to bay, but was killed, his grave being still marked by a tumulus. The Fir Bolgs, reduced at last to three hundred men, demanded single combat until all upon one side were slain. But, sooner than consent to this, the Tuatha Dé Danann offered them a fifth part of Ireland, whichever province they might choose. They agreed, and chose Connaught, ever afterwards their especial home, and where, until the middle of the seventeenth century, men were still found tracing their descent from Sreng.

The whole story has a singularly historical, curiously unmythological air about it, which contrasts strangely with the account of the other battle of the same name which the Tuatha Dé Danann waged

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afterwards with the Fomors. The neighbourhood of Cong still preserves both relics and traditions of the fight. Upon the plain of "Southern Moytura" (as it is called, to distinguish it from the "Northern Moytura" of the second battle) are many circles and tumuli. These circles are especially numerous near the village itself; and it is said that there were formerly others, which have been used for making walls and dykes. Large cairns of stones, too, are scattered over what was certainly once the scene of a great battle. 1 These various prehistoric monuments each have their still-told story; and Sir William Wilde, as he relates in his Lough Corrib, 2 was so impressed by the unexpected agreement between the details of the legendary battle, as he read them in the ancient manuscript, and the traditions still attaching to the mounds, circles, and cairns, that he tells us he could not help coming to the conclusion that the account was absolutely historical. Certainly the coincidences are curious. His opinion was that the "Fir Bolgs" were a colony of Belgæ, and that the "Tuatha Dé Danann" were Danes. But the people of the goddess Danu are too obviously mythical to make it worth while to seek any standing-ground for them in the world of reality. In their superhuman attributes, they are quite different from the Fir Bolgs. In the epical cycle it is made as clear that the Tuatha Dé Danann are divine beings as it is that the Fir Bolg, the Fir Domnann, and the Fir Gaillion stand on exactly

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the same footing as the men of Ulster. Later history records by what Milesian kings and on what terms of rack-rent the three tribes were allowed settlements in other parts of Ireland than their native Connaught. They appear in ancient, mediæval, and almost modern chronicles as the old race of the land. The truth seems to be that the whole story of the war between the gods and the Fir Bolgs is an invention of comparatively late times. In the earliest documents there is only one battle of Moytura, fought between the people of the goddess Danu and the Fomors. The idea of doubling it seems to date from after the eleventh century; 1 and its inventor may very well have used the legends concerning this battle-field, where two unknown armies had fought in days gone by, in compiling his story. It never belonged to the same genuine mythological stratum as the legend of the original battle fought by the Tuatha Dé Danann, the gods of the Gaels, against the Fomors, the gods of the Iberians.


67:1 De Jubainville: Cycle Mythologique, chap. V.

68:1 Rhys: "The Mythographical Treatment of Celtic Ethnology", Scottish Review, Oct. 1890.

68:2 De Jubainville: Cycle Mythologique, chap. v. Rhys: Hibbert Lectures, pp. 90, 91.

69:1 Pronounced Ecca or Eohee.

69:2 Gomme: Ethnology in Folklore, chap. III--"The Mythic Influence of a Conquered Race"

70:1 Elton: Origins of English History, note to p. 136.

70:2 It has been contended that the Fenians were originally the gods or heroes of an aboriginal people in Ireland, the myths about them representing the pre-Celtic and pre-Aryan ideal, as the sagas of the Red Branch of Ulster embodied that of the Celtic Aryans. The question, however, is as yet far from being satisfactorily solved.

71:1 The Coronation Stone, by William Forbes Skene.

72:1 See History and Antiquities of Tara Hill.

72:2 Our authorities for the details of this war between the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Fir Bolgs are the opening verses of the Harleian MS. 5280, as translated by Stokes and De Jubainville, and Eugene O’Curry's translations, in his MS. Materials of Ancient Irish History and his Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish, from a manuscript preserved at Trinity College, Dublin.

73:1 Now called Benlevi.

76:1 See Dr. James Fergusson: Rude Stone Monuments, pp. 177-180.

76:2 Lough Corrib, Its Shores and Islands, by Sir William R. Wilde, chap. VIII.

77:1 De Jubainville: Cycle Mythologique Irlandais, p. 156.