Irish Druids And Old Irish
As to magical arts, exercised by Druids and Druidesses, the ancient Irish
MSS. are full of stories about them. Joyce has said, "The Gaelic word for Druidical
is almost always applied where we should use the word magical--to spells,
incantations, metamorphoses, &c" Not even China at the present day is
more given to charms and spells than was Ireland of old. Constant application of
Druidic arts upon the individual must have given a sadness and terror to life,
continuing long after the Druid had been supplanted.
It was a comfort to know that magician could be pitted against magician, and
that though one might turn a person into a swan or horse, another could turn him
Yet, the chewing of one's thumb was sometimes as effectual a
disenchanter as the elevation or marking of the cross in subsequent centuries.
Thus, when Fionn was once invited to take a seat beside a fair lady on her way
to a palace, he, having some suspicion, put his thumb between his teeth, and she
immediately changed into an ugly old hag with evil in her heart. That was a
simple mode of detection, but may have been efficacious only in the case of such
a hero as Fionn. Certainly, many a bad spirit would be expelled, in a rising
quarrel, if one party were wise enough to put his thumb between his teeth.
Charm-mongers, who could take off a spell, must have been popular characters,
and as useful as wart-removers. It is a pity, however, that the sacred salmon
which used to frequent the Boyne is missing now, when examinations are so
necessary, as he or she who bit a piece forgot nothing ever after. Balar, the
Fomorian King, was a good-natured fellow, for, finding that a glance from his
right eye caused death to a subject, he kept that eye constantly closed.
One way of calling spirits from the deep, to do one's will, was to go to
sleep with the palms of both hands upon the cheek. The magic cauldron was not in
such requirement as with the Welsh. But it was a Druidic trick to take an idol
to bed, lay the hands to the face, and discover the secret of a riddle in
dreams. Another trick reminds one of the skill of modern spiritualistic mediums,
who could discover the history of a man by a piece of his coat; for, Cormac read
the whole life of a dog from the skull.
Healing powers were magical. Our forefathers fancied that a part of enjoyment
in heaven was fighting by day and feasting at night, the head cut off in
daylight conflict resuming its position when the evening table was spread. The
rival forces of Fomorians and Danaans had Druids, whose special work was to heal
the wounded at night, so as to be ready for the next morning's battle.
In the Story of Deirdri it is written, "As Conor saw this, he
went to Cathbad the Druid, and said to him, 'Go, Cathbad, unto the sons of
Usnach, and play Druidism upon them.'" This was done. "He had recourse
to his intelligence and art to restrain the children of Usnach, so that he laid
them under enchantment, that is, by putting around them a viscid sea of whelming
Nothing was more common than the raising of Druidic fogs. It would be easier
to do that in Ireland or Scotland than in Australia. The Story of Cu
speaks of a King Brudin who "made a black fog of Druidism" by his draoidheacht,
or magic. Druidic winds were blasting, as they came from the East. The
Children of Lir were made to wander on the Irish Sea till the land became
A wonderful story in an old MS. respecting Diarmuid is connected with the
threatened divorce of the lovely Mughain, as no prince had appeared to her
husband the King. "On this," says the chronicler, "the Queen went
to Finnen, a Magus (Druid) of Baal or Belus, and to Easbad, named Aedha, son
of Beg, and told them she was barren. The Reataire (chief Druids) then
consecrated some water, of which she drank, and conceived; and the produce of
her womb was a white lamb. 'Woe is me!' said Mughain,' to bring forth a
four-footed beast.' 'Not so,' replied Finnen, for your womb is thereby
sanctified, and the lamb must be sacrificed as your first-born.' The priests
blessed the water for her, she drank, and conceived. Say the priests, 'You shall
now bring forth a son, and he shall be King over Ireland.' Then Finnen and
Easbad Aedha blessed the Queen and the seed of her loins, and giving her more
consecrated water, she drank of it, and called his name Aedh Slaines,
because he was saved from the sacrifice."
Well might Vallencey exclaim, "The whole of this story is strong of
Chaldæan Paganism, and could not have been invented by any Christian monks
Cuchulainn of Ulster was much given to magic. He caught birds by it. He left
his wife to be with a lady in fairy-land. Caught by spells, he was brought back
home. He drank the draught of forgetfulness that he might not remember
fairy-land, and she drank to forget her jealousy. All this is in Leabhar
When the Danaans raised a storm to drive off the invading hosts of Milesians,
this was the spell used by Milesius, as told in the Book of Invasions:--"I
pray that they reach the land of Erinn, these who are riding upon the great,
productive, vast sea--that there may be a King for us in Tara,--that noble Erinn
be a home for the ships and boats of the son of Milesius."
By the 14th Canon of the Synod at Armagh, as asserted for the year 448, a
penance was exacted for any soothsaying, or the foretelling of future events by
an inspection of animals' entrails, as was the practice with the Druids. It is curious to
see how this magic was, by the early writers, associated with Simon Magus; so
much so, that, as Rhys observes, "The Goidelic Druids appear at times under
the name of the School of Simon Druid."
Fionn was once coursing with his dog Bran, when the hare suddenly turned into
a lady weeping for the loss of her ring in the lake. Like a gallant, the hero
dived down and got it; but all he had for his trouble was to be turned by her
into a white-haired old man. On another occasion he was changed into a grey
fawn. But Fionn endured the metamorphoses of twenty years as a hog, one hundred
a stag, one hundred an eagle, and thirty a fish, besides living one hundred as a
man. The heroine Caer had to be alternate years a swan and a woman.
The Kilkenny Transactions refer to one Liban, transformed for three
hundred years as a fish, or, rather a mermaid, with her lap-dog in the shape of
an otter after her. Bevan, however, caught her in a net, had her baptized, and
then she died. In the Fate of the Children of Lir, we read of Aoife,
second wife of Lir, jealous of her husband's children by his first mate, turning
them into four swans till her spell could be broken. This happened under the
Tuath rule, and lasted nine hundred years. They are reported to have said,
"Thou shalt fall in revenge for it, for thy power for our destruction is
not greater than the Druidic power of our friends to avenge it upon thee."
However, having musical qualities, they enjoyed themselves in chanting every
night. At last they heard the bell of St. Patrick. This broke the spell. They
sang to the High King of heaven, revealed their name, and cried out, "Come
to baptize us, O cleric, for our death is near."
An odd story of the Druid Mananan is preserved in the Ossian Transactions.
It concerned a magical branch, bearing nine apples of gold. They who
shook the tree were lulled to sleep by music,
forgetting want or sorrow.
Through that, Cormac, grandson of Conn of the hundred fights, lost his wife
Eithne, son Cairbre, and daughter Ailbhe. At the end of a year's search, and
passing through a dark, magical mist, he came to a hut, where a youth gave him a
pork supper. The entertainer proved to be Mananan. The story runs, "After
this Mananan came to him in his proper shape, and said thus: 'lit was who bore
these three away from thee; I it was who gave thee that branch, and it was in
order to bring thee to this house. It was I that worked magic upon you, so that
you might be with me tonight in friendship." It may be doubted if this
satisfied King Cormac.
A chessboard often served the purpose of divination. The laying on of hands
has been from remote antiquity an effectual mode for the transmission of a
charm. But a Magic Wand or Rod, in proper hands, has been the approved
method of transformation, or any other miraculous interposition. Here is one Wand
story relative to the romance of Grainne and Diarmuid:--"Then came the
Reachtaire again, having a Magic Wand of sorcery, and struck his son with 'that
wand, so that he made of him a cropped pig, having neither ear nor tail, and he
said, 'I conjure thee that thou have the same length of life as Diarmuid
O'Duibhne, and that it be by thee that he shall fall at last.'"
This was the boar that killed, not the Syrian Adonis, but a similar
sun-deity, Diarmuid. When Fionn, the disappointed husband, in pursuit of the
runaway, found the abductor dying, he was entreated by the beautiful solar hero
to save him. "How can I do it?" asked the half-repentant Fionn.
"Easily," said the wounded one; "for when thou didst get the
noble, precious gift of divining at the Boinn, it was given thee that to whomsoever thou shouldst give a drink
from the palms of thy hands, he should after that be young and sound from every
sickness." Unhappily, Fionn was so long debating with himself as to this
gift to his enemy, that, when he walked towards him with the water, life had
departed from the boar-stricken Irish Adonis.
Dr. W. R. Sullivan has a translation of the Fair of Carman, concerning
three magicians and their mother from Athens:--
"By charms, and spells, and incantations, the mother blighted every
place, and it was through magical devastation and dishonesty that the men dealt
out destruction. They came to Erin to bring evil upon the Tuatha de Danann, by
blighting the fertility of this isle. The Tuatha were angry at this; and they
sent against them Ai the son of Allamh, on the part of their poets, and
Credenbel on the part of their satirists, and Lug Laeban, i. e. the son
of Cacher, on the part of their Druids, and Becuille on the part of the witches,
to pronounce incantations against them. And these never parted from them until
they forced the three men over the sea, and they left a pledge behind them, i.e.,
Carman, their mother, that they would never return to Erin."
A counter-charm is given in the Senchus Mor. When the Druids sought to
poison St. Patrick, the latter wrote over the liquor:--
"Tubu fis fri ibu, fis ibu anfis,
He left it on record that whoever pronounced these words over poison or
liquor should receive no injury from it. It might be useful with Irish whisky;
only the translator adds that the words of the charm, like most of the charms of
the Middle Ages, appear to have had no meaning.
Fris bru uatha, ibu lithu, Christi Jesus."
Spiritualism, in all its forms, appears to have been practised by the Irish
and Scotch Druids. Dr. Armstrong's Gaelic Dictionary has an account of
the Divination of the Toghairm, once a noted superstition among the Gaels, and
evidently derived from Druid-serving ancestors. The so-called prophet "was
wrapped in the warm, smoking robe of a newly slain ox or cow, and laid at full
length in the wildest recess of some lonely waterfall. The question was then put
to him, and the oracle was left in solitude to consider it." The steaming
body cultivated the frenzy for a reply, although "it was firmly believed to
have been communicated by invisible beings."
Similar traditions are related by Kennedy, in Fictions of the Irish Celts.
One of the tales is of Sculloge, who spent his father's gold. While out hunting
he saw an old man betting his left hand against his right. At once he played
with him for sixpence, but won of the ancient Druid a hundred guineas. The next
game won, the old fellow was made to rebuild the Irishman's mill. Another
victory brought him as wife a princess from the far country. But Sabina, when
married, besought him to have no more to do with old Lassa Buaicht of the glen.
Things went on well a good while, till the man wanted more gold, and he
ventured upon a game. Losing, he was directed to bring the old Druid the Sword
of Light. Sabina helped her husband to a Druidic horse, that carried him to her
father's castle. There he learned it was held by another brother, also a Druid,
in an enchanted place. With a black steed he leaped the wall, but was driven out
by the magic sword. At last, through Fiach the Druid, the sword was given to
Lassa Buaicht. The cry came, "Take your Sword of Light, and off with his
head." Then the un-spelled wife reappeared, and the couple were happy ever
Conn of the Hundred Battles is often mentioned in
connection with Druids. One of the Irish MSS. thus introduces the Magical
Stone of Tara:--"One evening Conn repaired at sunrise to the battlements of
the Ri Raith or Royal fortress at Tara, accompanied by his three Druids, Mael,
Bloc, and Bluicné, and his three poets, Ethain, Corb, and Cesare; for he was
accustomed every day to repair to this place with the same company, for the
purpose of watching the firmament, that no hostile aerial beings should descend
upon Erin unknown to him. While standing in the usual place this morning, Conn
happened to tread on a stone, and immediately the stone shrieked under his feet
so as to be heard all over Tara, and throughout all Bregia or East Meath. Conn
then asked his Druids why the stone had shrieked, what its name was, and what it
said. The Druids took fifty-three days to consider, and returned the following
answer:--'Fal is the name of the stone; it came from Inis Fal, or the
Island of Fal. It has shrieked under your royal feet, and the number of the
shrieks, which the stone has given forth, is the number of Kings that will
At the Battle of Magh Tuireadh with the Fomorians, it is said that the chief
men of the Tuatha de Danann "called their smiths, their brass-workers,
their sorcerers, their Druids, their poets &c. The Druids were engaged
putting the wounded in a bath of herbs, and then returning them whole to the
Nash, who showed much scepticism respecting Druids in Britain,
wrote:--"In the Irish tales, on the contrary, the magician under the name
of Draoi and Drudh, magician or Druid, Draioideacht, Druidhieat, magic
plays a considerable part." The Cabinri play a great part according to some
authors; one speaks of the "magic of Samhan, that is to say, Cabur." A
charm against evil spirits, found at Poitiers, is half Gallic, half Latin.
Professor Lottner saw that "the Gallic words were identical with expressions still used in
We are told of a rebel chief who was helped by a Druid against the King of
Munster, to plague the Irish in the south-west by magically drying up all the
water. The King succeeded in finding another Druid who brought forth an abundant
supply. He did but cast his javelin, and a powerful spring burst forth at the
spot where the weapon fell. Dill, the Druidical grandfather of another King of
Munster, had a magical black horse, which won at every race.
Elsewhere is a chapter on the Tuatha de Danaans, concerning whom are so many
stories of Druids. Attention is drawn by Rhys to "the tendency of higher
races to ascribe magical powers to lower ones; or, rather, to the
A Druid's counsel was sometimes of service. A certain dwarf magician of
Erregal, Co. Derry, had done a deal of mischief before he could be caught,
killed, and buried. It was not long before he rose from the dead, and resumed
his cruelties. Once more slain, he managed to appear again at his work. A Druid
advised Finn Mac Cumhail to bury the fellow the next time head downward, which
effectually stopped his magic and his resurrection powers.
Fintain was another hero of antiquity. When the Deluge occurred, he managed
by Druidic arts to escape. Subsequently, through the ages, he manifested himself
in various forms. This was, to O'Flaherty, an evidence that Irish Druids
believed in the doctrine of metempsychosis. Fintain's grave is still to be
recognized, though he has made no appearance on earth since the days of King
It is not safe to run counter to the Druids. When King Cormac turned against
the Craft, Maelgenn incited the Siabhradh, an evil spirit, to take revenge. By turning himself into a
salmon, he succeeded in choking the sovereign with one of his bones. It was
Fraechan, Druid of King Diarmaid, who made the wonderful Airbhi Druadh,
or Druidical charm, that caused the death of three thousand warriors.
A King was once plagued by a lot of birds wherever he went. He inquired of
his Druid Becnia as to the place they came from. The answer was, "From the
East." Then came the order--"Bring me a tree from every wood in
Ireland." This was to get the right material to serve as a charm. Tree
after tree failed to be of use. Only that from the wood of Frosmuine produced
what was required for a charm. Upon the dichetal, or incantation, being
uttered, the birds visited the King no more.
In the Book of Lecan is the story of a man who underwent some
remarkable transformations. He was for 300 years a deer, for 300 a wild boar,
for 300 a bird, and for the like age a salmon. In the latter state he was
caught, and partly eaten by the Queen. The effect of this repast was the birth
of Tuan Mac Coireall, who told the story of the antediluvian colonization of
Ireland. One Druid, Trosdane, had a bath of the milk of thirty white-faced cows,
which rendered his body invulnerable to poisoned arrows in battle.
A Druid once said to Dathi, "I have consulted the clouds of the man of
Erin, and found that thou wilt soon return to Tara, and wilt invite all the
provincial Kings and chiefs of Erin to the great feast of Tara, and there thou
shalt decide with them upon making an expedition into Alba, Britain, and France,
following the conquering footsteps of thy great-uncle Niall." He succeeded
in Alba, but died in Gaul. A brother of his became a convert to St. Patrick.
Grainne, the heroine of an elopement with the beautiful hero
Dermot, fell into her trouble through Druid named Daire Duanach MacMorna. She
was th daughter of King Cormac, whose grave is still shown at Tara, but she was
betrothed to the aged, gigantic sovereign Fionn the Fenian. At the banquet in
honour of the alliance, the Druid told the lady the names and qualities the
chiefs assembled, particularly mentioning the graceful Diarmuid. She was smitten
by his charms, particularly a love-mark on his shoulder, and readily agreed to
break her promised vows in order to share his company. When she fled with him,
Fionn and his son pursued the couple, who were aided in their flight by another
Druid named Diorraing styled a skilful man of science.
A fine poem--The Fate of the Son of Usnach--relate the trials of
Deirdri the Fair. Dr. Keating has this version "Caffa the Druid foreboded
and prophesied for the daughter (Deirdri, just born), that numerous mischiefs
and losses would happen the Province (Ulster) on her account. Upon hearing this,
the nobles proposed to put her to death forth with. 'Let it not be done so,'
cried Conor (King), 'but I will take her with me, and send her to be reared,
that she may become my own wife." It was in her close retreat that she was
seen and loved by Naisi, the son of Usnach and this brought on a fearful war
between Ulster and Alba.
The Book of Leinster has the story of one that loved the Queen, who
returned the compliment, but was watched too well to meet with him. He, however,
and his foster brother, were turned, by a Druidic spell, into two beautiful
birds, and so gained an entrance to the lady's bower making their escape again
by a bird transformation. The King had some suspicion, and asked his Druid to
find out the secret. The next time the birds flew, the King had his
watch; and, as soon as they resumed their human appearance, he set upon them
and killed both.
The Book of Leinster records several cases of Druids taking opposite
sides in battle. It was Greek meeting Greek. The northern Druids plagued the
southern men by drying up the wells; but Mog Ruth, of the South, drove a silver
tube into the ground, and a spring burst forth. Ciothrue made a fire, and said a
charm with his mountain-ash stick, when a black cloud sent down a shower of
blood. Nothing daunted, the other Druid,. Mog Ruth, transformed three noisy
northern Druids into stones.
Spiritualism, as appears by the Banquet of Dun na n-Gedh, was used
thus:--"This is the way it is to be done. The poet chews a piece of the
flesh of a red pig, or of a dog or cat, and brings it afterwards on a flag
behind the door, and chants an incantation upon it, and offers it to idol gods;
and his idol gods are brought to him, but he finds them not on the morrow. And
he pronounces incantations on his two palms; and his idol gods are also brought
to him, in order that his sleep may not be interrupted. And he lays his two
palms on his two cheeks, and thus falls asleep. And he is watched in order that
no one may disturb or interrupt him, until everything about which he is engaged
is revealed to him, which may be a minute, or two, or three, or as long as the
ceremony requires--one palm over the other across his cheeks."
The author of The Golden Bough, J. G. Frazer, judiciously reminds us
that "the superstitious beliefs and practices, which have been handed down
by word of mouth, are generally of a far more archaic type than the religions
depicted in the most ancient literature of the Aryan race." A careful
reading of the chapter on the "Superstitions of the Irish" would be
convincing on that point.
Among ancient superstitions of the Irish there was some relation to the Sacred
Cow, reminding one of India, or even of the Egyptian worship of Apis. The Ossianic
Transactions refer to this peculiarity.
There was the celebrated Glas Gaibhne, or Grey Cow of the Smith of the
magical Tuaths. This serviceable animal supplied a large family and a host of
servants. The Fomorians envied the possessor, and their leader stole her. The
captive continued her beneficent gifts for many generations. Her ancient camps
are still remembered by the peasantry. Another story is of King Diarmuid Mac
Cearbhail, half a Druid and half a Christian, who killed his son for destroying
a Sacred Cow. But Owen Connelan has a translation of the Proceedings of the
Great Bardic Institute, which contains the narrative of a cow, which
supplied at Tuaim-Daghualan the daily wants of nine score nuns; these ladies
must have been Druidesses, the word Caillach meaning equally nuns
and Druidesses. As W. Hackett remarks, "The probability is that they
were pagan Druidesses, and that the cows were living idols like Apis, or in some
sense considered sacred animals."
One points out the usefulness of the Irish Druids in a day when enchantments
prevailed. Etain, wife of Eochaid, was carried off by Mider through the roof,
and two swans were seen in the air above Tara, joined together by a golden yoke.
However, the husband managed to recover his stolen property by the aid of the
mighty spell of his Druid.