Voyages from I to Thou.

Location: Skellig Michel, Ireland

Monday, January 31, 2005

Skellig Michael's Older History

(The) biblicized “history” ((of Ireland)), as set out in Lebor Gabala, culminates in the story of “The Sons of Mil.” After journeying through Egypt, Crete, and Sicily, these ancestors of the Irish eventually reached Spain, and one of their company, Bregon, built a tower there. From the top of this tower Ith son of Bregon saw Ireland across the sea and set sail to investigate the land he had seen. At that time Tuatha De Danaan were in occupation of the country, and they, suspicious of his motives, killed him. Then his kinsmen, the eight Sons of Mil, invaded Ireland to avenge his death. The most prominent among them were Donn the king, Amairgen the poet and judge, Eremon the leader of the expedition, and Eber. They were accompanied by Lugaid the son of Ith, their own sons, the sons of Bregon, and a number of champions.

On reaching Ireland, they defeated the Tuatha, here associated with Demons and Fomoire, and then proceeded to Tara. On their way they meet in turn the three goddesses, Banba, Fotla, and Eiru, each of whom extracted from Amairgen the promise that her name should be a name for the island.

At Tara they encountered the three kings of the Tuatha, Mac Cuill, mac Cechct, and Mac Grene, who “pronounced a judgment against the sons of Mil” to the effect that they should leave the island in peace for three days. The justice of the case was referred to Amairgen, on pain of death if he judged falsely. “I pronounce it,” said Amairgen, “Let this island be left to them.” “How far shall we go?” said Eber. “Past just nine waves,” said Amairgen. this was the first judgement he gave in Ireland.

And so they withdrew and went through the motions of landing again as though they were performing a ritual. Their first landing had been resisted, for every time they came up with Ireland the demons made for the port as it were a hog’s back, and they skirted round the island three times before coming ashore. Now the poets of the Tuatha sang spells against them, and a magic wind carried them far out to sea, but Amairgen countered with a poem which calmed the wind. The invaders landed for the second time and, after a further victory over the Tuatha, took possession of the country.

The repeated landing, which may have a significance comparable to that of the “second birth” in the life-story of individual personages, is not the only feature which reveals the pre-Christian origin of the tale. As the invaders raced for land the first time, Donn showed envy of his brother Ir who had gained the lead. The oar broke in Ir’s hand and he fell backwards and died. He was buried in “Skellig of the Spectres” off the west coast of Munster, and his brothers judged that it would not be right for the envious Donn to share in the land.

After they had landed, Donn offended Eiru, the queen of the Tuatha De Danann, and she prophesied that neither he nor his progeny should enjoy the island. When he again spoke threateningly of the Tuatha before landing the second time, a wind arose and his ship was wrecked.

Lebor Gabala also says that the youngest brother, Erannan, climbed the mast to reconnoiter and fell to his death. But according to the dinsenchas it fell to the lot of Donn to climb the mast, to chant incantations against the Tuatha, and as a result of the Tuatha’s curse an ague came into the ship.

Donnn asked that his body be carried to one of the islands lest the disease remain in Ireland, “and my people will lay a blessing on me for ever.” After his ship had foundered, his brother Amairgen declared that his folk should come to the high rock, Tech Duinn, “the House of Donn,” whither his body was carried, and so, according to the heathen, the souls of sinners visit it and give their blessing to Donn before going to Hell, while the souls of the penitent behold the place from afar and are not borne astray.

There are references to the House of Donn as the assembly-place of the dead in earlier sources: “To me, to my house ye shall all come after your death.” And the belief has survived in Ireland that on moonlit nights the souls of the dead can be seen over the Skellig rocks, on their way to “The Land of the Young.” (Tir na nOg)

-- Rees and Rees, Celtic Heritage


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