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Ireland’s Tuatha dé Danann: Myth or History?

If you were an Irish school child before World War II, you’d have learned your history began with the Mythological Cycle, accounts written by medieval monks based on oral tradition going back at least two millennia. Though these texts were considered factual until the 1940s, later historians regarded them as fabulous tales suitable only for fireside storytelling.

One of the texts, the Lebor Gabála Érenn (The Book of the Takings of Ireland, also known as The Book of Invasions) dates from the middle of the Twelfth Century (around 1150 C.E.). According to the LGE, five groups entered Ireland before the arrival of the “Milesians” (Celtic Gaels, ancestors of the modern Irish).

The first three groups died out or left the island, while the fourth, called Fir Bolgs, stayed to meet the fifth wave, the Tuatha dé Danann (Clan of Danu). Described as tall, fair haired and beautiful, Dananns possessed more than mortal abilities. Shapeshifting, great strength, resurrection of the dead, magical metalworking, and spellcasting were some of their more remarkable skills. Above all, they never grew old.

After battling the Fir Bolgs for territory, the Dananns settled into a peaceful life until fierce Nordic raiders called Formorians demanded tribute and slaves from them, as they had from earlier peoples. To pacify the Formorians, the Dananns elected Bres, a man with both Formorian and Danann parents, to be their king.

Their strategy failed when Bres proved to be a stingy, selfish king. After he was deposed, he went to the Formorians seeking allies to force the Dananns out of Ireland; instead, Dananns defeated Formorians at the Second Battle of Mag Tuired. Later, incoming Celts expelled the Dananns to an underground world. Now called People of the Hills (Daoine Sidhe) or simply, Sidhe, Dananns were said to return to Ireland at will throughout the centuries. In 1014, they joined mortals in the fighting Danes at the Battle of Contarf near Dublin according W.Y. Evans-Wentz in his book, The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries (1911).

Hard to believe?

Imagine if the Bible’s New Testament books were transmitted from elder to youth in the same way—seven hundred generations of retelling—before being set down in writing in the year 2000. How much would be lost? How much added? Would dubious scholars, disturbed by accounts of miracles, dismiss all as fantasy?

In my book, Shining Ones, I take the Tuatha dé Danann into the modern world. As one Danann descendant puts it,

Our history became legend, legend turned to fairytale until no believed we ever existed.

And that is just as we wish it to be.

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