Lugh is the central character in Cath Maige Tuired recorded in the Annals of medieval times, telling of a major battle that took place between two of Ireland’s ancient races, the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Fomorians. According to the scribes, this battle was fought in the north Connaught region. In the coastal communities of northwest Donegal, the tradition of Lugh is most widespread, and told through various narratives. The influence of extra terrestrial forces and environmental disasters greatly influenced the creation and development of such myths.
One of the foremost tales told of Lugh’s exploits is the story of the slaying of Balor na súile nimhe or Balor of the evil eye. The story of this event differs in each geographical area along the northwest Donegal coastline and its islands. The vast majority of these come from the oral tradition, which kept the mythology alive in the communities in the days of widespread enforced illiteracy. In the winter months when it was inhospitable to work on their farms, the people would listen to the seanchaí or the senior storyteller who would reel out of the stories of Lugh and Balor and other mythological heroes.
The heart of the story about the death of Balor is the same whenever told in northwest, but the variations are sometimes localised. The first written version of this story in modern times was recorded from Seán Ó Dúgáin of Tory Island by John O’Donovan who visited the island while surveying the county for the Ordnance Survey. This version was recorded by O’Donovan in a letter from the nearest town of Crossroads now Falcarragh in 1835(1) and was edited and added to when it appeared in his printed edition of the Annals of the Four Masters in 1856. The version tells of the death of the Formorian Balor Bhéiminm at the hands of his grandson, but Seán Ó Dúgáin doesn’t name the grandson. There was also a notable absence in the naming of Balor’s daughter who was later named as Ethnea by O’Donavan in the Annals of the Four Masters(3). It is interesting to note that she is identified as Eithinn in most other publications since.
Many place names in this district have a close association with this myth. In Tory Island the supposed home of Balor(4), there are many geographical features named from this affair. One of these Port na Deilg or the harbour of the pin gets its name when Balor was on his way to drown his grandsons and the Deilg or pin broke. One of the children fell out of the blanket and survived. The survivor was Lugh who would come back to kill him. On the mainland across from Tory is the town land of Droim na Tíne or the Ridge of the Fire where Lugh made the spear that he used to kill Balor. Both Tory and Droim na Tíne are in the Parish of Cloughaneely or Cloch Cheann Fhaola which means the stone of Ceann Fhaola. It was on this rock that Mac Ceann Fhaola, father of Lugh was beheaded and his blood ran into it. The resident landlord Wybrants Olphert got this marble stone with red veins erected on a sixteen foot high pillar at his estate in Ballyconnell, Cloughaneely in 1774(5).
In the neighbouring parish of Gweedore, there is a picturesque glen in the Derryveigh Mountains close to the village of Dunlewey. The glen is known as the Gleann Nimhe or the Poison Glen. It was here according to local authors including Seán ‘ac Fhionnlaoich(6) that the poison ran out of Balor’s eye while he drew his last breath. When Lugh took the head of Balor, not trusting it to be safe, he placed it on a rock beside him. The poison that ran from Balor’s evil eye made smithereens of the rock and dug a deep glen in the earth.
To the right of the Gleann Nimhe is Dún Luiche or the Fort of Lugh. Dún is Irish for fort or castle and Luiche is the genitive case of Lugh, the sun-god of Celtic mythology. It must have been a very important place in prehistory. Its walls were reconstructed into a monastic site by Saint Torán(8) who was reputed to be one of the seven sons of Aonghas, a mythical chieftain of the Tuatha Dé Danann(9). The walls of the monastic site were later used in the construction of Dunlewey Estate and Manor, now the holiday residence of the Guinness family of brewing fame.
Dún Luiche is in the same alignment as various other forts in Donegal and indeed worldwide. It sits on the 55.1 degree line of latitude. To the east of it is Doon Rock, the inaugural seat of the O’Donnell Clan, and the revered Doon Well, next is Ballykerran Standing Stone, Ballyarr Standing Stone, Killydonnell Fort which was later a monastic site connected to the O’Donnell’s, Burt Castle seat of the O’Doherty’s, the megalithic tomb on Carn Hill and last but not least the impressive Grianán of Aileach. To the west of Dún Luiche is Áth na Geortha or the fort of the cattle, and out on the west side of Arranmore Island is a archaeological site now occupied by the lighthouse service.
These locations would be of extreme importance to the prehistoric tribes because of how the spring and autumn equinoxes can be aligned. Those tribes would not know that the earth was round nor could they envisage lines of latitude on a global surface. The sun was their Godhead for worship and it is reasonable to expect that they paid proper homage to it. Twice a year, on the 22nd of March and the 22nd of September, the spring and autumn equinoxes, the sun rises due east and sets due west. These are the two days when day and night are of equal length. Those two events would be important to sun worshippers in the respect of their God. The setting sun on these two days looking west from Aileach would and does mark a straight line through all the above locations. It would be logical to honour your God in his position on these days. It must also have been of much importance to them as they laboured hard to build these structures.
It was not only the solar that patterns prehistoric man observed, they also would study the night sky and the seemingly magical displays from the cosmos. A series of these displays could explain the advent of our localised mythological sagas and when seen from various vantage points throughout Ireland, the experience would be unique, thus making the narrative of the myth somewhat different. Often a meteor shower is seen to be localised, with the fireball seemly falling close to the witness, but we now know that it most likely would have landed in the ocean. One can imagine the excitement of the observers and their inability to logically explain that experience. They would create a story to explain what was to them out of their realm. Another phenomenon is the Aurora Borealis or Polar Aurorae, more commonly known as the Northern Lights. In a time without present day light pollution, this must have been a magical show. The recent display on the eighteenth of March 2015 was witnessed in different parts of Ireland, with endless celestial or ghostly forms seen in contrasting colours and guises.
In figures 4 and 5, the spear like rays can be seen almost attacking Tory Island in a colourful manifestation. Could this have been similar to the skyward entry of mac Ceann Fhaola into Balor’s tower on Tory Island. In addition to the Aurora and the meteor showers, they would experience lunar eclipses, the appearance of stars and planets, and the occasional comet. The later must have been another unexplainable anomaly, some that would baffle even the more senior members of society. Resembling giant creatures travelling at high speed(10)across the night sky, there are many elements in the chronicle of Lugh that resemble comets(11). The Glas Ghaibhleann, the mythical cow reputed to give enough milk to quench the thirst of a nation, may well have been the comet’s milky white trail. With the advances in Dendrochronology, Mike Baillie a professor in that field studied the entries of the word Lugh in the Annals of Ireland by the Four Masters and concluded that major environmental disasters had occurred in the corresponding years.
This argument is built on the idea that there are many phases in the myth of Lugh and Balor used as metaphors for unexplainable happenings in the sky and their environment. It would seem logical that early Celts would create a story to describe such events in a way their contemporaries would understand.
1M. Herrity, Ordance Survey Letters, Donegal (2000), pp 39-44.
2 Annals of the Four Masters, i, p.21.
3Brian Lacey, Lug’s forgotten Donegal kingdom, Dublin (2012), p.72.
4Henry Morris, Where is Tor Inis (1927), p.57.
5Gerry McLaughlin, Cloughaneely:Myth & Fact (2002), pp 2-4.
6Seán ‘ac Fhionnlaoich, Scéal Ghaoth Dobhair, Baile Átha Cliath (1983), p.20.
7Seosamh Ó Ceallaigh, Aspects of Our Rich Inheritance, Falcarragh (2000), p.41.
8Seán ‘ac Fhionnlaoich, Scéal Ghaoth Dobhair, Baile Átha Cliath (1983), p.22.
9Dáithí Ó hÓgáin, The Lore of Ireland, Dublin (2006), pp 20-23.
10Patrick McCafferty and Mike Bailie, The Celtic Gods, Stroud (2005), p.24.
12Ibid, pp 60-65.
1 Kim Sharkey, (2015) Balor.
2Andy McInroy, The Poison Glen, n.d, Available at http://www.andymcinroy.com/ir489.htm.
3Personal Collection and Ordnance Survey.
4Jennifer Sayers, (2015), Available at https://www.facebook.com/jennifer.sayers.33/media_set?set=a.10150373664967128.376378.547367127&type=3
5Godscountry Hornhead, (2015), Available at https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=601861403241317&set=t.547367127&type=3&theater.
6Amédee Guillemin, Les Cométes, Paris (1875,220).
Written by Jimmy Duffy November 2015