LTHOUGH LATER LOOKED BACK ON a golden age, the reign of the Tuatha in Ireland was not without incident and drama because often they behaved very like the Gaels who succeeded them. A good example is the tale of how the Daghda was tricked out of his palace. Some say this happened after the Tuatha retreated into the faerie mounds of Ireland, but other chronologies place the incident within the period of their undisputed rule over the land. That is how it’s presented here but purely for convenience, there is no way of telling for sure which chronology is correct.
When the Daghda followed Lugh as High King of the Tuatha, he built his palace or rath at Brugh na Boyne, now better known as Newgrange. There he kept his famous harp and the cauldron that was one of the four chief treasures of the Tuatha, and from which no man ever left hungry. Also his battle club which was so huge it needed to be carried around on a cart; the two pigs of which one was always roasted and ready to eat and the other running round the yard, and they miraculously changed places each day; and the ale vat that never ran dry.
The Daghda had a beloved son called Angus Og, the Ever Young, who could sing and play the harp so beautifully that he could make his audience laugh, weep, fall in love or asleep as he chose; and his kisses turned into birds which flew around his head.
Angus had been conceived through an illicit affair between the Daghda and Boann (or Boinn) after whom the River Boyne is named. She was married at the time to Elcmar, a close neighbour of the Daghda’s by the Boyne and when the Daghda took a fancy to her, she returned his feelings but was afraid of her husband’s jealousy. Being High King at the time, the Daghda sent Elcmar off on an errand and then made the sun stand still for nine months, so Angus was conceived and born ‘in a single day’, and when Elcmar returned he was none the wiser about it.
Angus was called ‘the Young’ because his mother remarked at his birth that ‘young is the son who was begotten at the beginning of a day and born before evening.’ He was sent to be fostered by Midir, as was a common Celtic practice in later days. Most sons of the nobility were fostered by other parents, to forge bonds of alliance and also prevent too great a protectiveness towards sons who would almost certainly have to be warriors when they grew up.
Angus however was kept in ignorance of his true parents and believed he was Midir’s son till one day in a quarrel during a hurling match (at which he was a great champion) a rival told him this was not so. Angus went and demanded the truth of Midir, who revealed who his true parents were and took him to the assembly at Uisneach to be presented to his father. The Daghda greeted and acknowledged him joyfully and explained the diplomatic reasons why Angus had not been told sooner.
Angus accepted all this happily enough but for one thing – he was the son of the Tuatha High King but had no palace of his own. The Daghda said he would willingly assign him one except that there were none free at the moment. So Angus decided he would have to win one for himself. His friend Manannan mac Lir suggested a ruse by which he might do so and, duly primed, Angus went to his father and asked the loan of his palace at Brugh na Boyne for a night and day. The Daghda agreed willingly enough, but when the time came to ask for the brugh back, Angus gleefully told him that he had unwittingly surrendered it for all time, because all time is made up of night and day.
The logic of this trick gets rather lost in translation because in the ancient Irish tongue there is no verbal distinction between ‘a night’ and ‘night’, the phrasing can mean either, depending on the context, so by lending his palace for ‘night and day’ the Daghda had given it to Angus for all time. Also forgotten is the delight the ancient Celts took in making someone promise more than they realised through such verbal trickery, and how binding such a promise was nevertheless.
The Daghda however realised immediately that he had been caught out, and gave way gracefully enough. Some old chronicles say that Manannan helped things along with a spell of compliance but it is equally likely that the Daghda, with his famous sense of humour, simply admired his son’s trick enough to let him have the palace as a reward. Either way, he and his immediate retinue moved out, some say to Tara or Uisneach and others to a modest new rath nearer the Boyne that ever since has been called ‘The Tomb of the Daghda’.
One night Angus Og dreamed that the most beautiful maid in Erin appeared at his bedside, but when he reached out to her she disappeared. The next night she appeared again, playing a harp so sweetly that she lulled him back to sleep. After that she came regularly and he fell ever more deeply in both love and despair, because he could only see her in his dreams. During the day he gave up eating and was listless and pining. This went on for a year and Angus wasted away, to the worry and wonder of his family because he told no-one the cause of his malaise.
The finest doctors among the Tuatha were called in but none could help until one guessed the cause, and that it could be fatal if no cure was found. Angus’s mother Boann was sent for and finally he opened his heart to her. Boann then sent out messengers seeking the girl of Angus’s dreams but after a year they returned with no news. Then Boann turned to the Daghda for help. He sent a message to his eldest son Bodb the Red at Sidhe Femaine (or Femuin) who undertook the search for the next year, at the end of which he had good news to report. A maiden answering Angus’s description had been found in Connaught. She was Caer, daughter of Ethal Anbuail and was to be found at Dragon’s Mouth Lake in Tipperary.
Angus was sent for and then he and Bodb and all their followers visited the lake where Angus recognised his dream-maiden immediately, with her silver necklace and gold chain, even though she was surrounded by thrice fifty other maidens or nymphs. Through the right channels of protocol Bodb then asked for the girl’s hand in marriage to Angus, but her father Ethal bluntly refused. Bodb, the Daghda and their champions then stormed Ethal’s rath (fortress) and put the request to him again at the point of a sword.
Ethal said that even now he could not consent to his daughter’s marriage because the consent was not his to give. His daughter, he revealed, was a swan maiden. From one Samaine to the next she had the form of a maid, then for the following year she took the form of a swan, she and her thrice fifty maidens. Well, peace was made between them on hearing this and the Daghda sent words of advice to Angus Og on how to proceed.
Continued in the published book . . .