Eugene O'Curry on Druids and Druidism

(Extract from "Manners and Customs of Ancient Erinn.")

From The Cabinet of Irish Literature, Volume 2, edited by Charles A. Read

All that I have set down here is taken directly from our most ancient manuscripts, or those compiled from them; and they show clearly as the historical tradition of the country that each of the older colonies in Ireland was accompanied by its Druids; so that the suggestion of modern British writers that Druidism came first from Britain, or from Anglesey, into Erinn, is totally unfounded. I now proceed to select from the long list of Druidic references found in our old books, such as may serve to characterize the profession, so far, at least, as the limits of these lectures will allow. Very many other references there are, no doubt, which ought all to be gathered, all to be arranged and compared, if the subject of Irish Druidism, or indeed, of Druidism at all, is to be completely investigated. ... I only propose to myself to give a few specimens of what was called Druidism by way of example: and I shall commence by citing from the earliest authority. The ancient tract called Dinnseanchas (on the Etymology of the names of several remarkable places in Erinn), gives the following singular legendary account of the origin of the names of Midhe (now Meath), and of Uisnech, in Meath.

Midhe, the son of Brath, son of Detha (says this legend), was the first that lighted a fire for the sous of the Milesians in Erinn, on the hill of Uisnech in Westmeath; and it continued to burn for seven years; and it was from this fire that every chief fire in Erinn used to be lighted. And his successor was entitled to a sack of corn and a pig from every house in Erinn, every year. The Druids of Erinn, however, said that it was an insult to them to have this fire ignited in the country; and all the Druids of Erinn came into one house to take counsel; but Midhe had all their tongues cut out, and he buried the tongues in the earth of Uisnech, and then sat over them; upon which his mother exclaimed: "It is Uaisnech (i.e. proudly) you sit up there this night;"—and hence the name of Uisnech, and of Midhe (or Meath).

This, I believe, is the first reference to a Druidical fire to be found in our old books.

The next remarkable allusion to this subject that is to be found is the account of King Eochaidh Airemh.

It was a century before the incarnation that Eochaidh Airemh was monarch of Erinn; and his queen was the celebrated Edain, a lady remarkable not only for her beauty, but for her learning and accomplishments. One day that Eochaidh was in his palace at Teamair, according to this ancient story, a stranger of remarkable appearance presented himself before him. "Who is this man who is not known to us, and what is his business?" said the king. "He is not a man of any distinction, but he has come to play a game at chess with you," said the stranger. "Are you a good chess-player?" said the king. "A trial will tell," said the stranger. "Our chess-board is in the queen's apartment, and we cannot disturb her at present," said the king. "It matters not, for I have a chess-board of no inferior kind here with me," said the stranger. "What do we play for?" said the king. "Whatever the winner demands," said the stranger. (They played then a game, which was won by the stranger.) "What is your demand now?" said the king. "Edain, your queen," said the stranger, "but I will not demand her till the end of a year." The king was astonished and confounded; and the stranger without more words speedily disappeared.

On that night twelve months, the story goes on to tell us, the king held a great feast at Teamair, surrounding himself and his queen with the great nobles and choicest warriors of his realm, and placing around his palace on the outside a line of experienced and vigilant guards, with strict orders to let no stranger pass them in. And thus secured, as he thought, he awaited with anxiety the coming night, while revelry reigned all round. As the middle of the night advanced, however, the king was horrified to see the former stranger standing in the middle of the floor, apparently unperceived by any one else. Soon he advanced to the queen, and addressed her by the name of Bé Finn, (fair woman), in a poem of seven stanzas. ... At the conclusion of this poem, the stranger put his arm around the queen's body, raised her from her royal chair, and walked out with her, unobserved by any one but the king, who felt so overcome by some supernatural influence, that he was unable to offer any opposition, or even to apprise the company of what was going on. When the monarch recovered himself, he knew at once that it was some of the invisible beings who inhabited the hills and lakes of Erinn that played one of their accustomed tricks upon him. When daylight came accordingly, he ordered his chief Druid, Dallan, to his presence, and he commanded him to go forth immediately, and never to return until he had discovered the fate of the queen.

The Druid set out, and traversed the country for a whole year, without any success, notwithstanding that he had drawn upon all the ordinary resources of his art. Vexed and disappointed at the close of the year he reached the mountain (on the borders of the present counties of Meath and Longford) subsequently named after him Sliabh Dallain. Here he cut four wands of yew, and wrote or cut an Ogam;[1] and it was revealed to him "through his keys of science and his ogam," that the queen Edain was concealed in the palace of the fairy chief, Midir, in the hill of Bri Leith, (a hill lying to the west of Ardagh, in the present county of Longford). The Druid joyfully returned to Tara with the intelligence; and the monarch Eochaidh mustered a large force, marched to the fairy mansion of Bri Leith, and had the hill dug up until the diggers approached the sacred precincts of the subterranean dwelling; whereupon the wily fairy sent out to the hill side fifty beautiful women, all of the same age, same size, same appearance in form, face, and dress, and all of them so closely resembling the abducted lady Edain, that the monarch Eochaidh himself, her husband, failed to identify her among them, until at length she made herself known to him by unmistakable tokens,—upon which he returned with her to Tara.

This tale exhibits two curious and characteristic features of Irish Druidism; the first, that the Irish Druid's wand of divination was formed from the yew, and not from the oak, as in other countries; the second, that the Irish Druid called in the aid of actual characters, letters, or symbols,—those, namely, the forms of which have come down to our own times cut in the imperishable monuments of stone, so well known as Ogam stones, (many of which may be seen in the National Museum of the Royal Irish Academy).

The antiquity of this story of Eochaidh Airemh is unquestionable. There is a fragment of it in Leabhar na-h-Uidhré, in the Royal Irish Academy, a manuscript which was actually written before the year 1106; and it is there quoted from the book of Dromsnechta, which was undoubtedly written before or about the year 430.


[1] Druidical inscription.