Culann and the Tuatha Dé Danann
Hugh A Murphy wonders what happened to one of the early peoples of Ireland
There has always been a certain mystique surrounding Culann. Folk memory seems to have allowed him to cross time barriers and he figures in legends set many centuries apart.
The key is to be found in the story concerning the early life of Cuchulainn, where it is said that, not only was Culann the most skilled blacksmith in Ulster at that time, but his skill was such that he had actually been in service with the famed Tuatha Dé Danann, the name given in legend to the people who occupied Ireland at the time of the arrival of the Celts.
These people, the Tuatha Dé Danann had a very strong influence on our Celtic ancestors. They are the originators of all things mystical, magical, and otherworldly in Irish folklore from those early times down to the present day. Their presence occupied the shadowlands of tales about fairies, ghosts, and the Banshee (Bean Sí – Fairy Woman) around the fireside at night in the Céilí Houses during my youth. It is they, more than any other, who lie at the heart of virtually all the stories associated with the Ring of Gullion area. Their name means The Followers of the Goddess Dana.
The name Dana is a later corruption by early scholars of the original Gaelic form Ana (or Anu), the mythological Goddess of abundance, the mother of the Earth. She was considered by tenth century scholars to be the originator of all the Gods of Irish Mythology.
These people were of the same race as the Firbolg, the tribe who preceded them in Ireland, both having their origins in Greece, but they were of a completely different character to their distant cousins. Whereas the Firbolg were a warlike race who exerted their influence by Treise Lámh (physical power), with very little social graces or cultural distinction associated with them, the Tuatha Dé Danann come across in early legends as people of outstanding cultural qualities, possessing a wide range of skills in artistry, many of which the Celts had never before seen.
They are always depicted as friends of the earth and of man, with highly accomplished skills in instrument making, music, ornamentation, lacework, and, especially, the working of gold. The Celts, although fighting against them, had an enormous respect for them, which later manifested itself in many forms in early legends.
They were raised to the level of the supernatural, which set them outside of time, just like Culann himself. Another legend here in the Ring of Gullion suggests, as we shall see in a moment, that Culann not only worked for them but was actually a member of their race, thus explaining his outstanding ability.
In some stories the Tuatha Dé Danann are seen assuming the status of giants, following the principle, I suppose, that the greater you make your defeated foe, the greater the distinction of your victory. One such example is seen in the case of the one-eyed giant whom we meet in the course of the tale 'The Pursuit of Diarmaid and Gráinne'.
He had been left by the Tuatha Dé Danann to guard the tree of youth, which had sprung from a seed they had dropped during their hasty retreat from Ireland, a tale that has an uncanny parallel in format and in plot to the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
This story has in it the seeds of other legends, which evolved in folklore concerning this ancient race, which show the early Celtic reverence for them. Not wishing to accept that they had disappeared entirely, two beliefs sprang up concerning them. The first was that they had only gone a short distance away, to some magic Isle just off the coast of Ireland.
Since the Celts wanted to remember them just as they were, this had to be a place where nothing ever changed, the Land of Eternal Youth – Tír Na nÓg. This theme was developed at some length and to great effect in the story concerning the son of the later legendary hero, Finn Mc Cool, the leader of the Fianna.
This is a story of rare escapist beauty, which weaves the tale of Niamh of the Golden Hair, the Queen of Tír Na nÓg, coming back to Ireland to carry off Finn’s son, Oisín, to this mystical land. This has found its way into modern literature in many haunting forms, not only in the poetry of Yeats, but even in the more popular medium of film, in the story 'Into The West'.
The second belief that sprang up is a logical development of the above – They have not left at all. They are still here. Well, if they are, how is it that we don’t see them? – They are very small. And where do they live? They live underground – The origin of the Slua Sí, the Fairies, which to this day are always referred to in Irish as Na Daoine Maithe, the good people.