The Firbolgs and Danaans

Patrick Kennedy
1891 (2nd Edition)

The practice of magic being resorted to for the acquisition of supernatural power, its form and nature must depend on the religion, true or false, which is supposed to influence the practitioner. And here we must take occasion to remark in what a satisfactory state our knowledge is with regard to the Teutonic, and how comparatively trifling and conjectural is our acquaintance with the Celtic, forms of belief before the light of Christianity dawned on the people. Soon after the Scandinavians became Christians, their Pantheon was epitomized in verse by Saemund, a priest; and about a hundred years later, the prose Edda, furnishing the adventures of the gods, the heroes, and the giants, was compiled by the turbulent and talented Snorro Sturlason.

Now, the great change among the Celtic peoples had taken place by the fifth century, and it happened that no Saemund or Sturlason was vouchsafed to them; or if vouchsafed, the writings left by him were early lost in the confusion attending the determined struggles between themselves and their dogged, troublesome neighbours of the Teuton stock.

Owing to this unfavourable state of things, our knowledge of the nature of religious usages among our ancestors is necessarily limited. It had been obtained from casual allusions in early Christian writers on serious subjects, and, to a greater extent, from ancient poems and romances, and the relics of their festivals—still celebrated, but changed in object, and devoted to honour events in the life of our Lord, or the memory of saints. We have already gone over this ground. The Sun and Moon; Mananan Lir, the sea deity, and peculiar patron of the Isle of Man; Dagdae, the Danaan chief; Morrigu, his spouse, the Celtic Bellona; Crom; and the spirits of the hills, streams, and forests, received worship from the heathen Scots. Their Elysiums were delightful islands in the Atlantic—alas! no longer visible—meadows of asphodel, sun-enlightened, below its waves, and the placid lakes of Erinn; and grottoes under the sepulchral mounds of old Danaan kings and sages. When cruelty, inhospitality, and treachery developed themselves to a monstrous extent in any individual, his thin, shivering ghost [1] suffered in the winds, and rains, and cold rigours of upper air, after its separation from the body. Besides the worship given to the divinities mentioned, it is conjectured by some ardent Celtic scholars that a fetich reverence was paid to some traditional bulls, cows, bears, and cats; even Dallans were not without reverence of some kind.

Everything of a magical character connected with the history or social state of the early inhabitants of Ireland, is traceable to the people called the Danaans, of whom we subjoin a brief sketch, claiming the same belief for its certainty as we could for the exploits of Romulus or Theseus.


Nemedius (a wanderer from the East) and his thousand men reached Erinn from Thule (Jutland, or the Belgian Peninsula), in thirty skin-covered corrachs. He employed four Phoenician or African architects to raise four palaces for him in different parts of the island; and to prevent their doing as much for any other chief or prince, and thus detracting from his own greatness, he had each skilful artist pitched from the battlements as soon as his work was achieved. But there was such a principle as poetical justice extant in Erinn, even so early as the days of Abraham. The Fomorians from Africa—all cousins-german to Rog, Robog, Rodin, and Rooney, the murdered men—assailed Nemidh from the bleak northern Isle of Torry, deprived the four castles of their master, by sending him to Tir-na-n-oge, and scattered his people to east, south, and north. Some under the leader Jarvan sailed to the Danish Isles, and the south of Sweden; and their descendants established themselves in four cities—Falias, Gorias, Finias, and Murias—and taught the simple Scandinavians magic rites, and the other branches of the polite literature of the day. After a few hundred years, their descendants took the resolution of seeking out the pleasant isle of their forefathers, and set sail, bringing from city No. 1 a magic glaive, from No. 2 a magic spear, from No. 3 an enchanted caldron, and from No. 4 the Lia Fail, or "Stone of Destiny," at present resting in the lower part of St. Edward's Chair, in Westminster Abbey.[2]

At the time of their approach to the island, it was held by a kindred race, the Firbolgs lately returned from Greece, to which country they had fled when routed by the Fomorians. The new-comers, landing somewhere in the north-west, enwrapped themselves in a druidical (magical) fog, and were never seen by mortal till they had attained the plain of southern Moy-tuir (plain of the tower), near Cong. The Firbolg king, Achy (Eochaidh, Chevalier), sent a herald to demand their business. They said they merely wanted possession of the country, and would allow their cousins in the tenth degree—the Firbolgs—to retire to the islands of Arran, Inisbofine, &c.; moreover, that it was useless to brandish sword, or fling spear at them, as their Druids, on the morn after a battle, would pass through the slain, and by their spells of power recall every dead warrior to his pristine life and strength. "We defy your Druids," said the Firbolg spokesman. "Every one of our curai (companions) shall be attended by a kern bearing twenty sharpened stakes of the rowan-tree; and as every Danaan warrior falls in fight his body shall be pinned to the sod by one of these charmed staves."

The threat had its effect; and the succeeding battles were fought without the aid of draoideacht on either side. The Firbolgs being defeated, were allowed to people the islands off the western coast; and it is supposed that Dun Ængus in Arran, and other stupendous caisiols (stone forts), are the architectural remains of this brave but unsuccessful people. The ancient martial games and marriage-fairs held at Tailtean, now Teltown, in Meath, were instituted in honour of Tailte, wife of the brave Firbolg king slain at Moy-tuir.

End of this Story


[1] James M'Pherson was only imperfectly acquainted with even the oral literature of the Highland Gael. The ghosts of his good characters look complacently from their bright clouds of rest on the actions of their former friends or their own brave descendants.

[2] Dr. Petrie insists that the Stone of Destiny is the Dallan still to be seen on Tara Hill. He may be right; but we are determined not to believe him while treating the present subject. This was written when we had the amiable archaeologist still amongst us.