Irish Pagan Gods

Hugh A Murphy discusses Daghda and his deity offspring

The shadowy presence of the Tuatha Dé Danann has woven its way not only into the stories of the Ring of Gullion, but also into the mindset and traditions of the area. It is only when we understand this that a lot of the legends here begin to make sense, including those concerning Cuchulainn.

Of the two traditions relating to the Tuatha Dé Danann it is clearly the second one that was the most prevalent in this area from the earliest times, namely, that they are still here in the invisible, magical form of the Sí.

Many of our legends, place names, traditions, and even physical structures are part of an ancient pagan homage to them, lodged now in the subconscious. The name of my own area, Lislea, has a direct linkage to them.

Lios is one of the earliest words in Irish for a dwelling place. When the Celts first came to Ireland they continued the nomadic traditions which they had followed in Europe. The only time during the year that they settled down was in winter, when they built a circular fortified camp, inside which all the animals were taken. The name for this winter camp was Lios.

The highlight of the year was, Bealtaine, May Day, when all the animals were released and they continued on their nomadic trail. Many rituals were performed on this day, including the carrying of lit torches around the camp, the reciting of ritual incantations, and the lighting of two fires in close proximity, between which the animals were driven to be purified by the smoke – Idir dhá thine Bhealtaine, between two May fires.

It was believed that the Tuatha Dé Danann in their Sí form visited each Lios during these rituals and performed their own unseen, but equally important, magic rites to impart good fortune and fertility for the coming year. They represented the spirit of the land, the Good People. Their association with the Lios has caused the meaning of this word to change to the present day 'Fairy Fort'.

There were many God-leaders associated with the Tuatha Dé Danann – Lear, the God of the sea, Aonghus the God of love, Brighit the Goddess of the countryside, Lugh the God of fertility and genius. Virtually all the male figures in the long list are said to have been fathered by the Daghda, the supreme God of all the Tuatha Dé Danann, a distant figure who hovers in the background of many legends.

If you look closely at his name you can see, perhaps, the origin of the folk concept concerning the Tuatha Dé Danann. His name is a compound word, the first part of which, 'dagh', is a very old prefix in Irish. In my youth the spelling had changed to 'deagh', and it has now been shortened to 'dea'. It means 'good'. The second part, -da, is the old spelling of the modern word dia, meaning 'God'. So, the name means the 'Good God', hence the term the 'Good People', and the great respect shown to them by the ordinary people.

In addition to this, the greatest of all the Daghda’s sons was Lugh. Whereas others were Gods of individual parts of the earth, sea, rivers, mountains etc, Lugh was God of everything, the sea, the land, the sky, and, indeed, life itself – a unified deity. It is thought today that this is the reason for St. Patrick’s success in spreading Christianity so quickly in Ireland. The concept had already been laid in pagan belief. It was simply a matter of superimposing the new Christian concept on the original pagan one.

Evidence of this strange betrothal can still be seen today in many places in Ireland, including the Ring of Gullion, where the partners still walk hand in hand in rituals that interlink both pagan and Christian practices in a neat balance. The key is nearly always the God Lugh.

The first great battle that Lugh fought was with the Sun. Lugh defeated the Sun and took its place, the God of life, earth, and all living things.

The circular shape of the early Lios was not an accident. It was constructed deliberately in homage to the Sun. All the rituals carried out on May Day followed the path of the Sun, clockwise around the Lios. Ancient burial mounds, including two on Slieve Gullion, were built in the same circular shape. So too are stone mounds associated with Christianity, where pilgrims still walk the pathway of the Sun around them, as on Lough Derg and Croke Patrick.

In the case of the latter, people walk today around stone mounds, the supposed burial place of saints, some of which pre-date Christianity by two millennia. This mountain was one of the great pagan centres of Ireland, dominating the local area both physically and symbolically, a fact whose significance was not lost on St Patrick. He wasted little time in claiming it for Christianity and stamping the new Christian imprint on the old pagan image, but the original still shimmers through the overlay.

This is also true in the case of the pagan Goddess Brighit. Her later Christian form rose, almost from the shingle of Slieve Gullion, at Faughart, St. Brigid. The devotion to her and the many ceremonies performed in her honour eclipsed the memory of her pagan counterpart, but not quite. St. Brigid’s feast day, which still falls significantly at Imbolc, the ancient pagan feast celebrating the first day of Spring, the first of February, is a gentle reminder of her presence.

So too is the culture of the stones associated with the Saint’s birthplace, and the much revered St. Brigid’s cross, always hung in byres and outhouses during my youth to protect the animals, which reflects in its structure the rays of the sun. We see it also in the dances taught to schoolchildren to be performed in her honour on her feast day, in fact, ritual dances of fertility.

Today flowers, which were always scattered on May Day in honour of the Tuatha Dé Danann, or Sí, the guardians of the land, around doorsteps and on byre roofs, are now placed in honour of the Blessed Virgin. So too the May fires, lit now under a Christian guise, so that the old phrase, Idir dhá thine Bhealtaine, between two May fires, has taken on a new meaning in Irish, 'on the horns of a dilemma', torn between the pagan and the Christian in ourselves.

The great God of the Tuatha De Danann, Lugh, has given his name to the month of August in Irish, Lughnasa (Lúnasa), the month of Lugh, the time of the great pagan festivals in his honour. This is still recalled symbolically today in the festival of Puck Fair in Killorglin in Kerry, where a buck goat, representing fertility, is raised aloft and crowned throughout the duration of the celebrations.