Read CHAPTER IV - THE DE DANAANS of Ireland‚ Historic and Picturesque, free online book, by Charles Johnston, on

In the dim days of Fomorian and Firbolg, and for ages after, Erin was a land of forests, full of wild cattle and deer and wolves. The central plain was altogether hidden under green clouds of oak-woods, full of long, mysterious alleys, dimpled with sunny glades, echoing in spring and summer to the songs of innumerable birds. Everywhere through the wide and gloomy forests were the blue mirrors of lakes, starred with shaggy islands, the hanging hills descending verdant to the water’s edge. Silver rivers spread their network among the woods, and the lakes and the quiet reaches of the rivers teemed with trout and salmon. The hilly lands to the north and south showed purple under the sky from among their forests, oak mingling with pine; and the four seas beat around our island with their white fringe of hovering gulls. Over all, the arch of the blue, clearer and less clouded then than now. A pleasant land, full of gladness and mystery.

We can but obscurely image to ourselves the thoughts and deeds of the earliest dwellers in our island. We know that they were skilled in many arts of peace and inured to the shock of war. The sky spread above them as over us, and all around them was the green gloom of the forests, the whiteness of lakes and rivers, the rough purple of the heather. The great happenings of life, childhood and age and death, were for them what they are for us, yet their blood flowed warmer than ours. Browned by wind and sun, wet by the rain and the early dew of the morning, they delighted in the vigor of the prime. Their love for kindred, for their friends and lovers, was as ours; and when friends and kindred passed into the darkness, they still kept touch with their souls in the invisible Beyond.

The vision of our days is darkened by too much poring over earthly things; but the men of old, like many of our simpler races now, looked confidently and with intent faith across the threshold. For them the dead did not depart-hidden but from their eyes, while very near to their souls. Those in the beyond were still linked to those on earth; all together made one undivided life, neither in the visible world alone nor in the hidden world alone, but in both; each according to their destinies and duties. The men of old were immeasurably strong in this sense of immortality-a sense based not on faith but on knowledge; on a living touch with those who had gone before. They knew both over-world and under-world, because they held their souls open to the knowledge of both, and did not set their hearts on earthly things alone. A strong life close to the life of the natural world, a death that was no separation, the same human hearts as ours,-further we need not go in imagining that far-off time.

A third people was presently added to these two, at an epoch fixed by tradition some four thousand years ago. A vivid picture of their coming has been handed down to us, and this picture we shall reproduce, as many circumstances and particulars of our knowledge drawn from other sources concur to show that our old legend is near to the truth, both in time and happenings.

The name these newcomers bore was Tuata De Danaan, the De Danaan tribes; they were golden-haired and full of knowledge, and their coming was heavy with destiny for the dark races of Fomor and Firbolg. Even to-day, mysterious whispers of the De Danaans linger among the remote valleys and hillsides of our island, and truth is hidden in every legend of their deeds. They have borne a constant repute for magical knowledge, and the first tradition of their coming not only echoes that repute, but shows how first they came by it.

The De Danaans came from the north; from what land, we shall presently inquire. They landed somewhere on the northeast coast of our island, says the tradition; the coast of Antrim was doubtless the place of their arrival, and we have our choice between Larne and the estuary of the Foyle. All between, lofty cliffs face a dark and angry sea, where no one not familiar with the coast would willingly approach; their later course in the island makes it very probable that they came to the Foyle.

There, still within sight of the Caledonian isles and headlands hovering in blue shadows over the sea, they entered, where the sun rose over long silver sands and hills of chalk, with a grim headland on the west towering up into sombre mountains. Once within the strait, they had a wide expanse of quiet waters on all sides, running deep among the rugged hills, and receiving at its further end the river Foyle, tempting them further and further with their ships. Up the Foyle went the De Danaan fleet, among the oak-woods, the deer gazing wide-eyed at them from dark caverns of shadow, the wolves peering after them in the night. Then, when their ships would serve them no further, they landed, and, to set the seal on their coming, burned their boats, casting in their lot with the fate of their new home. Still following the streams of the Foyle, for rivers were the only pathways through the darkness of the woods, they came to the Lakes of Erne, then, as now, beautiful with innumerable islands, and draped with curtains of forest. Beyond Erne, they fixed their first settlement at Mag Rein, the Plain of the Headland, within the bounds of what afterwards was Leitrim; and at this camp their legend takes up the tale.

It would seem that the Fomorians were then gathered further to the west, as well as in the northern isles. The Firbolgs had their central stronghold at Douin Cain, the Beautiful Eminence, which, tradition tells us, later bore the name of Tara. The chief among their chiefs was Eocaid, son of Ere, remembered as the last ruler of the Firbolgs. Every man of them was a hunter, used to spear and shield, and the skins of deer and the shaggy hides of wolves were their garments; their dwellings were built of well-fitted oak. To the chief, Eocaid, Erc’s son, came rumor of the strangers near the Lakes of Erne; their ships, burned at their debarking, were not there to tell of the manner of their coming, and the De Danaans themselves bruited it abroad that they had come hither by magic, borne upon the wings of the wind. The chiefs of Tara gathered together, within their fort of earth crowned with a stockade, and took counsel how to meet this new adventure. After long consultation they chose one from among them, Sreng by name, a man of uncommon strength, a warrior tried and proven, who should go westward to find out more of the De Danaans.

Doubtless taking certain chosen companions with him, Sreng, the man of valor from among the Firbolgs, set forth on his quest. As in all forest-covered countries, the only pathways lay along the river-banks, or, in times of drought, through the sand or pebbles of their beds. Where the woods pressed closest upon the streams, the path wound from one bank to the other, crossing by fords or stepping-stones, or by a bridge of tree-trunks. So went Sreng, careful and keen-eyed, up the stream of the Blackwater, and thence to the Erne, and so drew near to the Plain of the Headland, where was the De Danaan camp. They, too, had word of his coming from their scouts and hunters, and sent forth Breas, one among their bravest, to meet the envoy.

They sighted each other and halted, each setting his shield in the earth, peering at his adversary above its rim. Then, reassured, they came together, and Breas first spoke to Sreng. After the first words they fell, warrior-like, to examining each other’s weapons; Sreng saw that the two spears of Breas the De Danaan were thin, slender and long, and sharp-pointed, while his own were heavy, thick and point-less, but sharply rounded.

Here we have a note of reality, for spears of these two types are well known to us; those of Sreng were chisel-shaped, round-edged, socketed celts; the De Danaan lances were long and slender, like our spears. There are two materials also-a beautiful golden bronze, shining and gleaming in the sunlight, and a darker, ruddier metal, dull and heavy; and these darker spears have sockets for greatly thicker hafts. Both also carried swords, made, very likely, the one of golden, the other of dull, copper-colored bronze.

Then, putting these pleasant things aside, they turned to weightier matters, and Breas made a proposal for the De Danaan men. The island was large, the forests wide and full of game, the waters sweet and well-stocked with fish. Might they not share it between them, and join hands to keep out all future comers? Sreng could give no final answer; he could only put the matter before the Firbolg chiefs; so, exchanging spears in sign of friendship and for a token between them, they returned each to his own camp.

Sreng of the Firbolgs retraced his path some four-score miles among the central forests, and came to the Beautiful Eminence, where the Firbolgs had their settlement. Eocaid, Erc’s son, their chieftain, called the lesser chiefs around him, and Sreng made full report of what he had seen and heard. The Firbolgs, pressed on by their fate, decided to refuse all terms with the De Danaans, but to give them battle, and drive them from the island. So they made ready, each man seeing to the straps of his shield, the burnishing of his thick sword and heavy spear. Eyes gleamed out beneath lowering brows all about the dwellings of Tara, and hot words were muttered of the coming fight. The dark faces of the Firbolgs were full of wrath.

Breas, returning to the camp of the Tuata De Danaan, gave such account of the fierceness and strength of Sreng, and the weight and sturdiness of his weapons, that the hearts of the golden-haired newcomers misgave them, and they drew away westward to the strip of land that lies between the lakes of Corrib and Mask. There, tradition tells us, they made an encampment upon the hill of Belgadan, near the stream that flows through caverns beneath the rocks from the northern to the southern lake. From their hill-top they had clear view of the plain stretching eastward, across which the Firbolg warriors must come; to the right hand and to the left were spread the great white waters of the lakes, stretching far away to the northern and southern verge of the sky. Islands dotted the lakes, and trees mirrored themselves in the waters. Behind them, to the westward, rose a square-topped mountain, crowned by a clear tarn; and, behind that, tier upon tier of hills, stretching dark and sombre along Lough Mask to the north, and spreading westward to the twelve crystal hills of Connemara.

Across the plain to the east, then called the Plain of Nia, but thereafter Mag Tuiread or Moytura, the Plain of the Pillars, lay the forests, and thence issued forth the hosts of the Firbolgs, encamping on the eastern verge of the open space. Nuada, the De Danaan king, once more sought a peaceful issue to their meeting, but Erc’s son Eocaid refused all terms, and it was plain to all that they must fight.

It was midsummer. The air was warm about them, the lake-shores and the plain clothed in green of many gently blended shades. The sun shone down upon them, and the lakes mirrored the clear blue above. From their hill of encampment descended the De Danaans, with their long slender spears gleaming like bright gold, their swords of golden bronze firmly grasped, their left hands griping the thong of their shields. Golden-haired, with flowing tresses, they descended to the fight; what stately battle-song they chanted, what Powers they called on for a blessing, we cannot tell; nor in what terms the dark-browed Firbolgs answered them as they approached across the plain. All that day did the hosts surge together, spear launched against spear, and bronze sword clashing against shield; all that day and for three days more, and then the fate of the Firbolgs was decided. Great and dire was the slaughter of them, so that Erc’s son Eocaid saw that all was lost. Withdrawing with a hundred of his own men about him, Eocaid was seeking water to quench his thirst, for the heat of the battle was upon him, when he was pursued by a greater band of the De Danaans, under the three sons of Nemed, one of their chieftains.

Eocaid and his bodyguard fled before Nemed’s sons, making their way northeastward along the Moy river, under the shadow of the Mountains of Storms, now wrongly named Ox Mountains. They came at last to the great strand called Traig Eotaile, but now Ballysadare, the Cataract of the Oaks,-where the descending river is cloven into white terraces by the rocks, and the sea, retreating at low tide, leaves a world of wet sand glinting under the moonlight. At the very sea’s margin a great battle was fought between the last king of the Firbolgs with his men, and the De Danaans under Nemed’s sons; so relentless was the fight along the tideways that few remained to tell of it, for Erc’s son Eocaid fell, but Nemed’s three sons fell likewise, The three De Danaan brothers were buried at the western end of the strand, and the place was called The Gravestones of the Sons of Nemed, in their memory. The son of Erc was buried on the strand, where the waves lap along the shore, and his cairn of Traig Eotaile still stands by the water-side, last resting-place of the last ruler of the Firbolgs.

Meanwhile the fighting had gone on at Mag Tuiread by the lakes, till but three hundred of the Firbolgs were left, with Sreng, the fierce fighter, at their head. Sreng had gained enduring fame by meeting Nuada, the De Danaan king, in combat, and smiting him so that he clove the shield-rim and cut down deep into Nuada’s shoulder, disabling him utterly from the battle. Seeing themselves quite outnumbered, therefore, the survivors of the Firbolgs with Sreng demanded single combat with De Danaan champions, but the victors offered them worthy terms of peace. The Firbolgs were to hold in lordship and freedom whichever they might choose of the five provinces; the conquerors were to have the rest.

Sreng looked around among his band of survivors,-a little band, though of great valor,-and he remembered the hosts of his people that had entered the battle three days before, but now lay strewn upon the plain; and thinking that they had done enough for valor he accepted the offered terms, choosing the Western Province for his men. In memory of him it was called Cuigead Sreing for generations, until Conn of the Five-Score Battles changed the name for his own, calling the province Connacht, as it is to this day.

It fared less well with the victors, and with their victory were sown seeds of future discord. For Nuada, the king, being grievously wounded, was in no state to rule, so that the chief power was given to Breas, first envoy of the De Danaans. Now Breas was only half De Danaan, half Fomor, and would not recognize the De Danaan rites or laws of hospitality, but was a very tyrannous and overbearing ruler, so that much evil came of his government. Yet for seven years he was endured, even though meat nor ale was dispensed at his banquets, according to De Danaan law.

Mutterings against Breas were rife among the chiefs and their followers when the bard Cairbre, whose mother Etan was also a maker of verses, came to the assembly of Breas. But the bard was shown little honor and given a mean lodging,-a room without fire or bed, with three dry loaves for his fare. The bard was full of resentment and set himself to make songs against Breas, so that all men repeated his verses, and the name of Breas fell into contempt. All men’s minds were enkindled by the bard, and they drove Breas forth from the chieftainship. Breas fled to his Fomor kindred in the isles, with his heart full of anger and revenge against the De Danaans.

He sought help of his kindred, and their design was told to the Fomorian chieftains-to Balor of the Evil Eye, and to Indec, son of De Domnand, chiefs of the Isles. These two leaders gathered ships from all the harbors and settlements of the Fomorians, from the Hebrides, the Shetlands, and far-distant Norway, so that their fleet was thick as gulls above a shoal of fish along the north shores of Erin.

Coming down from the northern isles, they sighted the coast of Erin, the peaks of the northwestern mountains rising purple towards the clouds, with white seas foaming around them. Past towering headlands they sailed; then, drawing in towards the shore, they crept under the great cliffs of Slieve League, that rose like a many-colored wall from the sea to the sky-so high that the great eagles on their summits were but specks seen from beneath, so high that the ships below seemed like sea-shells to those who watched them from above. With the wall of the cliffs on their left hand, and the lesser headlands and hills of Sligo on their right, they came to that same strand of Ballysadare, the Cataract of the Oaks, where the last of the Firbolgs fell. Drawing their long ships up on the beach, with furled sail and oars drawn in, they debarked their army on the shore. It was a landing of ill-omen for the Fomorians, that landing beside the cairn of Eocaid; a landing of ill-omen for Indec, son of De Domnand, and for Balor of the Evil Eye.

It was the fall of the leaf when they came; the winds ran crying through the forests, tearing the leaves and branches from the oaks, and mourning among the pines of the uplands. The sea was gray as a gull’s back, with dark shadows under the cliffs and white tresses of foam along the headlands. At evening a cold wind brought the rain beating in from the ocean. Thus the Fomorians landed at the Cataract of the Oaks, and marched inland to the plain now called Tirerril in Sligo. The murky sky spread over the black and withered waste of the plain, hemmed in with gloomy hills, wild rocks and ravines, and with all the northern horizon broken by distant mountains. Here Indec and Balor, and Breas the cause of their coming, fixed their camp. They sent a message of defiance to the De Danaans, challenging them to fight or surrender. The De Danaans heard the challenge and made ready to fight.

Nuada, now called the chieftain of the Silver Arm, because the mischief wrought by Sreng’s blow on his shoulder had been hidden by a silver casing, was once more ruler since Breas had been driven out. Besides Nuada, these were De Danaan chieftains: Dagda, the Mighty; Lug, son of Cian, son of Diancect, surnamed Lamfada, the Long Armed; Ogma, of the Sunlike Face; and Angus, the Young. They summoned the workers in bronze and the armorers, and bid them prepare sword and spear for battle, charging the makers of spear-haft and shield to perfect their work. The heralds also were ready to proclaim the rank of the warriors, and those skilled in healing herbs stood prepared to succor the wounded. The bards were there also to arouse valor and ardor with their songs.

Then marching westward to the plain of the battle among the hills, they set their camp and advanced upon the Fomorians. Each man had two spears bound with a thong to draw them back after the cast, with a shield to ward off blows, and a broad-bladed sword of bronze for close combat. With war-chants and invocations the two hosts met. The spears, well poised and leveled, clove the air, hissing between them, and under the weight of the spear-heads and their sharp points many in both hosts fell. There were cries of the wounded now, mingled with battle-songs, and hoarse shouting for vengeance among those whose sons and brothers and sworn friends fell. Another cast of the spears, seaming the air between as the hosts closed in, and they fell on each other with their swords, shields upraised and gold-bronze sword-points darting beneath like the tongues of serpents. They cut and thrust, each with his eyes fixed on the fierce eyes of his foe.

They fought on the day of the Spirits, now the Eve of All Saints; the Fomorians were routed, and their chieftains slain. But of the De Danaans, Nuada, once wounded by Sreng of the Firbolgs, now fell by the hand of Balor; yet Balor also fell, slain by Lug, his own daughter’s son.

Thus was the might of the Fomorians broken, and the De Danaans ruled unopposed, their power and the works of their hands spreading throughout the length and breadth of the land.

Many monuments are accredited to them by tradition, but greatest and most wonderful are the pyramids of stone at Brugh on the Boyne. Some nine miles from the sandy seashore, where the Boyne loses itself in the waves, there is a broad tongue of meadowland, shut in on three sides southward by the Boyne, and to the northeast cut off by a lesser stream that joins it. This remote and quiet headland, very famous in the annals, was in old days so surrounded by woods that it was like a quiet glade in the forest rimmed by the clear waters of the Boyne. The Mourne Mountains to the north and the lesser summits on the southern sky-line were hidden by the trees. The forest wall encircled the green meadowland, and the river fringed with blue forget-me-nots.

In this quiet spot was the sacred place of the De Danaans, and three great pyramids of stone, a mile apart along the river, mark their three chief sanctuaries. The central is the greatest; two hundred thousand tons of stone heaped up, within a circular wall of stone, itself surrounded by a great outer circle of standing stones, thirty in number, like gray sentinels guarding the shrine. In the very heart of the pyramid, hushed in perpetual stillness and peace, is the inmost sanctuary, a chamber formed like a cross, domed with a lofty roof, and adorned with mysterious tracings on the rocks. Shrines like this are found in many lands, whether within the heart of the pyramids of Egypt or in the recesses of India’s hills; and in all lands they have the same purpose. They are secret and holy sanctuaries, guarded well from all outward influence, where, in the mystic solitude, the valiant and great among the living may commune with the spirits of the mighty dead. The dead, though hidden, are not passed away; their souls are in perpetual nearness to ours. If we enter deep within ourselves, to the remote shrine of the heart, as they entered that secluded shrine, we may find the mysterious threshold where their world and our world meet.

In the gloom and silence of those pyramid-chambers, the De Danaans thus sought the souls of their mighty ones-the Dagda, surnamed the Mighty, and Lug the Long-Armed, and Ogma of the Sunlike Face, and Angus the Young. From these luminous guardians they sought the inbreathing of wisdom, drawing into themselves the might of these mightier ones, and rising toward the power of their immortal world. And to these sacred recesses they brought the ashes of their mighty dead, as a token that they, too, had passed through the secret gateway to the Land of the Ever Young.

Some thirty miles to the west of Brugh, on the Boyne, a low range of hills rises from the central plain, now bearing the name of Slieve na Calliagh, the Witch’s Hill. In the days of the great forest this was the first large open space to the west coming from Brugh, and, like it, a quiet and remote refuge among the woods. On the hillsides of Slieve na Calliagh are other pyramids of stone, in all things like those of Brugh, and with the same chambered sanctuaries, but of lesser size; belonging, perhaps, to a later age, when the De Danaans were no longer supreme in the land, but took their place beside newcome invaders. These lesser shrines were also sacred places, doorways to the hidden world, entrance-gates to the Land of the Ever Young. There also was beheld the vision of the radiant departed; there also were fonts of baptism, basins wrought of granite brought hither from the distant hills of Mourne or Wicklow. As in all lands, these fonts were used in the consecration of the new birth, from which man rises conscious of his immortality.

In harmony with this faith of theirs, our present tradition sees in the De Danaans a still haunting impalpable presence, a race invisible yet real, dwelling even now among our hills and valleys. When the life of the visible world is hushed, they say, there is another life in the hidden, where the Dagda Mor and Ogma and Lug and Angus still guard the De Danaan hosts. The radiance of their nearness is all through the land, like the radiance of the sun hidden behind storm-clouds, glimmering through the veil.

In the chambers of those pyramid-shrines are still traces of the material presence of the De Danaans; not only their baptismal fonts, but more earthly things-ornaments, beads of glass and amber, and combs with which they combed their golden locks. These amber beads, like so many things in the De Danaan history, call us to far northern lands by the Baltic, whence in all likelihood the De Danaans came; for in those Baltic lands we find just such pyramid shrines as those at Brugh and on the hillsides of Slieve na Calliagh, and their ornaments are the same, and the fashion of their spear-heads and shields. The plan of the Danish pyramid of Uby is like the pyramids of Newgrange and Nowth and Dowth by the Boyne, and the carvings on King Gorm’s stone by the Baltic are like the carvings of stones in our own island. On the Baltic shores, too, of most ancient date and belonging to forgotten times, are still found fragments and even perfect hulls of just such long ships as were needed for the Danaans’ coming, like the ships they burnt along the reaches of the Foyle.

By the Baltic, too, and nowhere else, were there races with hair yellow as their own amber, or, as our island bards say, “so bright that the new-molten gold was not brighter; yellow as the yellow flag-lilies along the verges of the rivers.” Therefore, in character of race, in face and feature, in color and complexion, in the form and make of sword and spear and shield, in their knowledge of ships and the paths of the sea, as in their ornaments and decorative art, and in those majestic pyramids and shrines where they sought mystic wisdom, and whither they carried the ashes of their dead, as to a place of sacred rest-in all these the life of the De Danaans speaks of the Baltic shores and the ancient race of golden-haired heroes who dwelt there. The honoring of bards, the heraldic keeping of traditions and the names of ancestors, also speak of the same home; and with a college of heraldic bards, well-ordered and holding due rank and honor, we can well see how the stories of their past have come down even to our days, lingering among our hills and valleys, as the De Danaan themselves linger, hidden yet not departed.

The traditional time of their coming, too, agrees well with all we know. Without bronze tools they could not have carved the beautifully adorned stones that are built into the pyramids by the Boyne; yet there is a certain early ruggedness about these stones that falls far short of the perfection of later times. Early in the bronze age, therefore, they must be placed; and the early bronze age, wherever its remoteness can be measured, as in the Swiss lakes or the peat-mosses of Denmark, cannot be less than four thousand years ago, thus well agreeing with our De Danaan tradition. We are, therefore, led to believe that the tale told by these traditions is in the main a true one; that the races recorded by them came in the recorded order; that their places of landing are faithfully remembered; that all traditions pointing to their earlier homes are worthy of belief, and in full accord with all our other knowledge.