Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race

Page: 40

The Firbolgs now sent out one of their warriors, named Sreng, to interview the mysterious new-comers; and the People of Dana, on their side, sent a warrior named Bres to represent them. The two ambassadors examined each other's weapons with great interest. The spears of the Danaans, we are told, were light and sharp-pointed; those of the Firbolgs were heavy and blunt. To contrast the power of science with that of brute force is here the evident intention of the legend, and we are reminded of the Greek myth of the struggle of the Olympian deities with the Titans.

Bres proposed to the Firbolg that the two races should divide Ireland equally between them, and join to defend it against all comers for the future. They then exchanged weapons and returned each to his own camp.

The First Battle of Moytura

The Firbolgs, however, were not impressed with the superiority of the Danaans, and decided to refuse their offer. The battle was joined on the Plain of Moytura,81 [pg 107] in the south of Co. Mayo, near the spot now called Cong. The Firbolgs were led by their king, mac Erc, and the Danaans by Nuada of the Silver Hand, who got his name from an incident in this battle. His hand, it is said, was cut off in the fight, and one of the skilful artificers who abounded in the ranks of the Danaans made him a new one of silver. By their magical and healing arts the Danaans gained the victory, and the Firbolg king was slain. But a reasonable agreement followed: the Firbolgs were allotted the province of Connacht for their territory, while the Danaans took the rest of Ireland. So late as the seventeenth century the annalist Mac Firbis discovered that many of the inhabitants of Connacht traced their descent to these same Firbolgs. Probably they were a veritable historic race, and the conflict between them and the People of Dana may be a piece of actual history invested with some of the features of a myth.

The Expulsion of King Bres

Nuada of the Silver Hand should now have been ruler of the Danaans, but his mutilation forbade it, for no blemished man might be a king in Ireland. The Danaans therefore chose Bres, who was the son of a Danaan woman named Eri, but whose father was unknown, to reign over them instead. This was another Bres, not the envoy who had treated with the Firbolgs and who was slain in the battle of Moytura. Now Bres, although strong and beautiful to look on, had no gift of kingship, for he not only allowed the enemy of Ireland, the Fomorians, to renew their oppression and taxation in the land, but he himself taxed his subjects heavily too; and was so niggardly that he gave no hospitality to chiefs and nobles and harpers. Lack of generosity and hospitality was always reckoned the worst of vices [pg 108] in an Irish prince. One day it is said that there came to his court the poet Corpry, who found himself housed in a small, dark chamber without fire or furniture, where, after long delay, he was served with three dry cakes and no ale. In revenge he composed a satirical quatrain on his churlish host:

“Without food quickly served,
Without a cow's milk, whereon a calf can grow,
Without a dwelling fit for a man under the gloomy night,
Without means to entertain a bardic company,—
Let such be the condition of Bres.”

Poetic satire in Ireland was supposed to have a kind of magical power. Kings dreaded it; even rats could be exterminated by it.82 This quatrain of Corpry's was repeated with delight among the people, and Bres had to lay down his sovranty. This was said to be the first satire ever made in Ireland. Meantime, because Nuada had got his silver hand through the art of his physician Diancecht, or because, as some versions of the legend say, a still greater healer, the son of Diancecht, had made the veritable hand grow again to the stump, he was chosen to be king in place of Bres.