ROM OUR POINT OF VIEW one of the mysteries of the faerie retreat into their Otherworld is why? If they were so gifted, talented and skilled in the ways of magic, why did they lose their battles and have to concede the daylight world to humans?
The old manuscripts that chronicle this curious and supposedly historical event have little explanation to offer except that Mil and his people had druids whose magic could counter that of the Tuatha; also that they too were of divine descent, coming from the Otherworld. Beyond that it was simply accepted as a fact of history that the ancestors of the Gael defeated the gods and took over their land. Possibly there were reasons which seemed so self-evident at the time that there seemed no need to spell them out for the audience. Something like an explanation does come however in a much more recent body of myth by Tolkien in which one of the undercurrents of the main drama is that the age of Elves and magic is drawing to a close and the more prosaic age of Man is about to begin.
Much of Tolkien’s inspiration for creating his Elvish language (and thence the Lord of the Rings as a peg to hang it on) came from seeing, as a child in Birmingham, England, railway trucks bound to or from nearby Wales and marked up in the Welsh language. Fascination with this strange and (to him at the time) incomprehensible script led to his interest in old languages and from there, he said, to the ideas that underlay them, especially mythology. Only then, apparently, when looking for digestible stories in which to use his invented languages and mythology as a background, did he find that he was also a master storyteller; though this might have been guessed from the crowds that flocked to his lectures in Oxford when he gave readings of ancient Anglo-Saxon poetry.
Although Tolkien drew on Anglo-Saxon and other mythologies for his magnum opus it is Celtic faerie lore that pervades it – the solemn and beautiful sadness of the Elves leaving Middle Earth for their Otherworld across the sea to the West, and the love between humans and elves that often demands terribly final choices.
The origins of the Sons of Mil as given in the Book of Invasions is generally accepted as a highly fanciful attempt by Christian scholars to tie them in with biblical and classical history, with only the faintest foundation in fact. It says they originated in Scythia, north east of the Black Sea and from there they gradually migrated down into Egypt and then westwards across the Mediterranean to Spain. Even this final destination is disputed, with suggestions that the scribes simply substituted ‘Spain’ for the mythical Otherworld of the Celts: Tir na nOg, Avalon, or the Summer Isles.
However, ‘Spain’ is where the story begins. Here their leader Bregon built a great watchtower from which one clear winter evening his son Ith saw an island far out over the sea that he had never noticed before. Curious, he set sail with thirty warriors and landed in the mouth of what is now called the Kenmare River in County Kerry. The country seemed deserted to them so they marched north till finally at Aileach near Derry they met the three current kings of the Tuatha - Mac Cuill, Mac Cecht and Mac Greine - who were debating how to divide the country between them. They invited Ith to join their debate but were so alarmed by his enthusiastic praise of Ireland’s blessings, its gentle climate and its richness in fruit, honey, grain and fish, that they feared his intentions, set a trap and killed him.
The survivors of Ith’s company sailed back to Spain with his body and the grief and anger of his kindred was so great that Ith’s nephew Mil (or Mile) determined to get revenge. With his eight sons, led by the eldest, Donn, and thirty six other chiefs, each with their own shipload of warriors, they set sail and landed in Kerry on the first of May. The druid Amergin (Amairgen) was the first to set foot on Irish soil and burst into a prophetic chant very characteristic of the ancient Celts which was also a kind of charm for taking possession of the land:
‘I am the wind that blows upon the sea; I am the ocean wave; I am the roar of the tides; I am the bull of seven battles; I am an eagle on a cliff I am a ray of the sun; I am the fairest of flowers; I am a bold wild boar; I am a salmon in the pool; I am a lake upon a plain; I am a cunning word; I am a giant sword-wielding champion; I am a god with a fiery head; In what direction shall we go? Shall we hold our council in the valley or on the mountain top? Where shall we make our home? What land is better than this isle of the setting sun? Where shall we walk to and fro in peace and safety? Who can find you clear fountains as I can? Who can call fish from the depths of the sea as I can? Who can call them to the shore as I can? Who can change the shape of the hills and headlands as I can? I am a bard who is called on by sailors to prophesy. Javelins shall fly to avenge our wrongs. I prophesy victory. I close my song by prophesying all other good things.’
Continued in the published book . . .