fascinating, closely argued book ‘In Search of the Irish Dreamtime’
(Thames and Hudson, 2016) archaeologist and linguist J P Mallory
examines the suggestion that Irish mythological cycles preserve some memories and
practices of the Irish Bronze or Iron Ages. He concludes (spoiler alert) that
there is little or no evidence for this - and that early medieval clerks mostly
back-projected legends on to these highly visible, mysterious
monuments. The mound of Brú na Bóinne/Newgrange, for example, appears in the
Tochmarc Étaine (The Wooing of Étain) as the palace of Oengus,
foster-son of Midir, ‘king of the elf-mounds of Ireland’, but of course the mound of was never any kind of palace.
There is however one suggestive detail. Midir, this prince of the Sidhe, comes to Bru na Bóinne to ask his foster-son for a gift, and Oengus offers him the most beautiful woman in Ireland, Étain, for his wife. The story soon becomes very complicated: Midir’s original wife Fúamnach is understandably jealous. She transforms Étain into a purple, singing fly which lives for a thousand years before falling into a cup of wine, where it is swallowed by another woman who subsequently gives birth to Étain Mk II. (The accidental swallowing of small living things - insects or worms or even grains of wheat - causing pregnancy and birth or rebirth, is a recurrent theme in Celtic mythology.) The reborn Étain is then married to Eochaid king of Tara, and the immortal Midir, still in love with her, has to perform a number of what might well be termed Herculean tasks in order to win permission from Eochaid to embrace her. One of these tasks is to build a causeway over a bog called Móin Lamraige which no one had ever been able to cross.
This legendary causeway is similar to the great Iron Age timber causeway running out into Corlea Bog which was discovered in the 1980s during mechanical peat excavation. The timbers were dated by dendrochonology to 148 BC, and the construction took no longer than a single year. The causeway ended at a small island and is thought to have been made for a ritual purpose: it's estimated to have used the wood of three hundred oak trees: a thousand wagonloads of cut wood. Maybe the Sidhe were involved! JP Mallory points out that since “the bog swallowed up the trackway soon after it was constructed,” no tale-teller of a thousand years later would have been able to “generate a contemporary account of its construction.” And he therefore concludes that “it would be churlish not to accept … the argument that that the tale does retain remembrance that once a magnificent road had been built to cross a specific bog.”
The millenium-long love story of Étain and Midir ends happily for them, if not for poor King Eochaid. When Midir finally succeeds in holding Etain in his arms, the two of them fly up through the rooflight in the shape of two white swans.
The Corlea Trackway in County Longford, Ireland, 2009 (a reconstruction): Kevin King at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corlea_Trackway
Midir and Etain flying up out of Eochaid's hall: “The Frenzied Prince, Being Heroic Stories of Ancient Ireland” 1943. Illustration by Willy Pogány