Here we have the first part of a longer story, focusing on the tensions between the Tuatha Dé Danann and the oppressive Fomorians in the lead up to the First Battle of Mag Tured. This tale here shows them as foreigners – from Lochlann, which Joyce says are the Danes, from across the Baltic sea. It is a popular explanation of their origins, although sometimes they are seen as more supernatural entities, not potential invaders, but Otherworldly forces or giants – beautiful like Bres, or hideous and ‘demonic’ in appearance, with one leg and distorted features.
Mythologically the Fomorians are traditionally seen as the arch-enemy of the settlers of Ireland. They first appear when agriculture is introduced to Ireland, by Parthalon and his people (the second wave of invaders in Ireland, according to the Lebor Gabála Érenn – ‘The Book of Invasions’), and are subdued at last when Lugh manages to get a vital piece of information from Bres, the half-Fomorian former king of the Tuatha Dé Danann, at The Second Battle of Mag Tured. Here Bres tells Lugh when it is best to plough, sow, and reap, and with that Lugh spares his life and accepts peace between the two factions. The underlying symbolism seems to suggest that the Fomorians represent not the forces of demonic evil as they are sometimes interpreted as, but that they represent the chaotic, untamed forces of nature. Once the Tuatha Dé Danann finally establish how the people of Ireland – whoever they may be – should approach nature properly, the Fomorians never make trouble again; peace has been made.
Whatever the case, the Fomorians are never seen to triumph over Ireland and settle there themselves. At best, they live on the periphery, travelling from their native ‘Lochlann’, or setting up base on the Isle of Aran, where they inflict their havoc intermittently. To this day, Balor in particular is associated with many parts of Aran and County Donegal.
In this following tale, from P. W. Joyce’s Old Celtic Romances, I’ve chosen to change some of the spellings and epithets to more recognisable forms – where Joyce has Luga the Ildanach, I’ve rendered him as Lugh, the Samildanach (Many-Skilled), for instance. The notes I’ve given in the text are selectively referencing Joyce’s notes.
When the Tuatha Dé Danann held sway in Erin, a prosperous free-bom king ruled over them, whose name was Nuada of the Silver Hand.
In the time of this king, the Fomorians, from Lochlann, in the north, oppressed the Tuatha Dé, and forced them to pay heavy tributes; namely, a tax on kneading-troughs, a tax on querns, and a tax on baking flags; and besides all this, an oimce of gold for each man of the Tuatha Dé Danann. These tributes had to be paid every year at the Hill of Uisneach;1 and if any one refused or neglected to pay his part, his nose was cut off by the Fomorian tyrants.
At this time a great fair-meeting was held by the king of Ireland, Nuada of the Silver Hand, on the Hill of Uisneach. Not long had the people been assembled, when they saw a stately band of warriors, all mounted on white steeds, coming towards them from the east; and at their head, high in command over all, rode a young champion, tall and comely, with a countenance as bright and glorious as the setting sun.
This young warrior was Lugh of the Long Arms. He was accompanied by his foster brothers, namely, the sons of Manannán Mac Lir; and the troop he led was the Fairy Host from the Land of Promise.2
Now in this manner was he arrayed. He rode the steed of Manannán Mac Lir, namely, Enbarr of the Flowing Mane: no warrior was ever killed on the back of this steed, for she was as swift as the clear, cold wind of spring, and she travelled with equal ease on land and on sea. He wore Mannanan’s coat of mail: no one could be wounded through it, or above it, or below it. He had on his breast Manannán’s breast-plate, which no weapon could pierce. His helmet had two glittering precious stones set front, and one behind; and whenever he took it off, his face shone like the sun on a dry day in summer. Manannán’s sword, The Answerer, hung at his left side: no one ever recovered from its wound; and those who were opposed to it in the battle-field were so terrified by looking at it, that their strength left them till they became weaker than a woman in deadly sickness.
This troop came forward to where the king of Erin sat surrounded by the Tuatha Dé, and both parties exchanged friendly greetings.
A short time after this they saw another company approaching, quite imlike the first, for they were grim and fierce and surly looking ; namely, the tax-gatherers of the Fomorians, to the number of nine nines, who were coming to demand their yearly tribute from the men of Erin. When they reached the place where the king sat, the entire assembly — the king himself among the rest — rose up before them. For the whole Tuatha Dé Danann race stood in great dread of these Fomorian tax-collectors; so much so that no man dared even to chastise his own son without first seeking their consent.
Then Lugh of the Long Arms spoke to the king and said, “Why have ye stood up before this hateful-looking company, when ye did not stand up for us?”
“We durst not do otherwise,” replied the king; “for if even an infant of a month old remained seated before them, they would deem it cause enough for killing us all.”
When Lugh heard this he brooded in silence for a little while, and then he said, ” Of a truth, I feel a great desire to kill all these men!”
Then he mused again, and after a time, said, “I am strongly urged to kill these men!”
“That deed would doubtless bring great evil on us,” said the king, “for then the Fomorians would be sure to send an army to destroy us all.”
But Lugh, after another pause, started up, exclaiming, “Long have ye been oppressed in this manner!” and so saying, he attacked the Fomorians, dealing red slaughter among them. Neither did he hold his hand till he had slain them all except nine. These he spared, because they ran with all speed and sat nigh the king, that he might protect them from Lugh’s wrath.
Then Lugh put his sword back into its scabbard, and said, ‘I would slay you also, only that I wish you to go and tell your king, and the foreigners in general, what you have seen.”
These nine men accordingly returned to their own country, and they told their tale to the Fomorian people from beginning to end — how the strange, noble-faced youth had slain all the tax-collectors except nine, whom he spared that they might bring home the story.
When they had ended speaking, the king, Balor of the Mighty Blows and of the Evil Eye, asked the chiefs, “Do ye know who this youth is?”
And when they answered, “No,” Kethlenda, Balor’s queen, said —
“I know well who the youth is: he is the Samildanach, Lugh of the Long Arms, the son of your daughter and mine; and it has been long foretold that when he should appear in Erin, our sway over the Tuatha Dé should come to an end.”
Then the chief people of the Fomorians held council; namely, Balor of the Mighty Blows, and his twelve sons, and his queen Kethlenda of the Crooked Teeth; Ebb and Sencab, the grandsons of Neid; Sotal of the Large Heels; Luath the Long-bodied; Luath the Story-teller; Tinna the Mighty, of Triscadal; Loskenn of the Bare Knees; Lobas, the druid; besides the nine prophetic poets and philosophers of the Fomorians.
After they had debated the matter for some time, Bres, the son of Balor, arose and said, “I will go to Erin with seven great battalions of the Fomorian army, and I will give battle to the Samildanach, and I will bring his head to you to our palace of Berva.”
The Fomorian chiefs thought well of this proposal, and it was agreed to.
So the ships were got ready for Bres; abundant food and drink and war stores were put into them, their seams were calked with pitch, and they were filled with sweet-smelling frankincense. Meantime the two Luaths, that is to say, Luath the Story-teller and Luath of the Long Body, were sent all over Lochlann to summon the army. And when all the fighting men were gathered together, they arrayed themselves in their battle-dresses, prepared their arms, and set out for Erin.
Balor went with them to the harbour where they were to embark, and when they were about to go on board, he said to them —
“Give battle to the Samildanach, and cut off his head. And after ye have overcome him and his people, put your cables roimd this island of Erin, which gives us so much trouble, and tie it at the stems of your ships: then sail home, bringing the island with you, and place it on the north side of Lochlann, whither none of the Tuatha Dé will ever follow it.”
Then, having hoisted their many-coloured sails and loosed their moorings, they sailed forth from the harbour into the great sea, and never slackened speed or turned aside from their course till they reached the harbour of Eas-Dara.3 And as soon as they landed, they sent forth an army through West Connaught, which wasted and spoiled the whole province.
Joyce, Old Celtic Romances Translated from the Gaelic, 1879, pp37-42.
1 The Hill of Uisneach, in the parish of Conry, in Westmeath, one of the royal residences of Ireland. It is sometimes referred to as ‘the navel of Ireland’; the omphalos, or spiritual centre of Ireland. This is represented by a special stone, the Aill na Mireann, or ‘Stone of Divisions,’ with each division representing one of Ireland’s provinces.