Midweek Writer-Rummage: Tales of the British Isles ~ Ireland

The Transformations of Tuan and the Battles of Mag Tuired

Here, then, is the tale of Tuan, the only Partholónian to survive the plague that killed 9,000 of his people.

Tuan lived alone for many years and finally passed away in his sleep. But death did not claim him. He awoke the next morning, not as a man but as a young stag, complete with his memories of his life as a man. With that knowledge, he became king of the deer. King though he had become, he could only stand by and witness the subjugation of Nemed’s people, his people, by the Fomorians, led by their king who was also a wizard, Balor of the Piercing Eye. And he watched as the Nemedians rose up against their oppressors to fight bravely. But after three victories, the fourth battle ended with their defeat. With a heavy heart, Tuan watched as the surviving Nemedians, barely 30 in one ship, left Ireland.

As the years passed, Tuan grew old; he waited for his end. Like before, when his last breath left him, he did not die but underwent another transformation. He awoke as a black boar, young and powerful again. Like before, his memories of his past lives remained with him and he became king of the boars. It was as a boar that he witnessed the arrival of another race of men – the Fir Bolg, descendants of the Nemedians. They were led by their king, Eochaí, a good and benevolent ruler. Under his rule, the people and the land flourished.

But Eochaí’s dreams were troubled, fuelled by rumours of a sinister fleet of ships, led by Balor, the wizard-king of the Fomorians. When Eochaí’s own wizard, César, fathomed the king’s dreams, it filled him with anguish for it foretold that those who were coming to Ireland did so as enemies; they were of the same blood, sons of Nemed, the Tuatha de Danaan.

As Tuan heard of the Coming of the Tuatha de Danaan, he felt the weariness that he now realised preceded, not his death, but his change. It was summer when he fell into the deep sleep that was so like death. When he opened his eyes, he beheld spring, for winter had come and gone. Instead of four legs, he found he now had wings and, spreading them wide, took to the skies. Tuan was now a mighty sea-eagle.

He remembered Eochaí’s prophetic dream and watched for the coming of the Tuatha de Danaan. Using their knowledge of magic, the Tuatha de Danaan conjured thunder-clouds and mists to hide their arrival. Soaring high above the clouds, Tuan alone saw them in their great fleet of ships.

When the Fir Bolg finally learnt that the Tuatha de Danaan had gathered, Eochaí sent his champion, Streng, to spy on the newcomers. After many days’ journey, he came upon their camp and, having painted himself as if for battle, strode out to meet them.

Nuadu, king of the Tuatha de Danaan, sent his champion, Breas the Beautiful who was renowned for his beauty, to meet Streng. When Breas spoke, Streng recognised the language of his people, and greeted Breas as he would a brother. They spoke together, each telling the other who they were and where they had come from. When Breas stated the Tuatha de’s terms, for the Fir Bolg to give the Tuatha de half of Ireland or face them in battle, Streng replied that he would readily give half of Ireland but it was not his to give, and he would return to Eochaí with the terms. Before parting, both men pledged their brotherhood.

Tuan flew overhead as Streng returned to his king. He listened as the warrior spoke of the Tuatha de and advised the assembly to divide the land and let the newcomers have half as they shared the same blood. But the Fir Bolg did not heed Streng’s wise counsel, believing that if they let the Tuatha de have half of the land, they would then take all of it.

When Breas told Nuadu, his king, of the fearsome weapons that the Fir Bolg possessed, Nuadu ordered that the Tuatha de move further west and fortify their camp. When Tuan witnessed this, he knew the days of peace were numbered.

As the sun rose on Midsummer’s Day, the hosts of the Fir Bolg and the Tuatha de Danaan faced one another. Both were proud people, descended from the mighty Nemed; the fighting would be hard and bloody. Thus began the First Battle of Mag Tuired (Battle of Moy Tura). Tuan soared overhead as battle was joined, and he heard the battle-cries and screams, saw the slaughter and hideous face of war.

The battle lasted days, and it was Streng, facing Nuadu in single combat, who dealt the sword-thrust that struck through Nuadu’s right arm, cleaving it from his body. Bent on avenging their father, three of Nuadu’s sons, sought out Eochaí with 150 men.

Despite the odds, Eochaí fought bravely. Tuan witnessed the king sweep the enemy before him, driving Nuadu’s sons into the sea. Although mortally wounded, he slew the three sons of Nuadu before he himself fell. And Tuan silently mourned the passing of a just and noble king, the first High King of Ireland.

Greatly saddened, the surviving Fir Bolg gathered together. Streng pleaded with the Assembly to find a peaceful solution but they did not listen, and Streng was made to lead the last onslaught. He challenged Nuadu to single combat, to finish the fight they had begun earlier. Despite his injury and pain, Nuadu faced Streng. But when Streng saw that Nuadu was missing his right arm, he spared Nuadu inevitable defeat and death by releasing him from any obligation to fight and stating that the fight had already been resolved. Streng’s noble gesture led to the Tuatha de offering the Fir Bolg a choice of the provinces, and a pact of peace and friendship. Streng agreed and so ended the First Battle of Mag Tuired, the Plain of Pillars.

Tuan’s relief at the end of the battle was marred by Nuadu’s fate. It was the Tuatha de Danaan’s law that a man not whole in body could not be king. And so, despite having led his people to victory over the Fir Bolg, Nuadu, having lost his right arm, had to hand over his crown to the elders.

The rule of the Tuatha de was given to Breas the Beautiful. A brave warrior, alas he was no leader of men. His father, whom he had never known, was Elathan the Immortal, sea-lord of the Fomor. This brought sorrow and trouble to the Tuatha de Danaan for Breas was unable to deny his father’s people their demand for taxes. The proud Tuatha de had to pay tribute to the king of the Fomor.

By the magic of his people, Nuadu regained his right arm, which was made of silver and fashioned to move as if he had been born with it. He was reinstated as king and came to be known as Nuadu of the Silver Arm. And Tuan the sea-eagle rejoiced with the warriors of the Tuatha de Danaan at the return of their noble king.

Breas, unhappy at the loss of his kingship, sailed for the land of the Fomor under a flag of truce. He still saw himself as a son of Ireland yet met with his father, Elathan, for he wanted his father’s support to win back his crown. But Elathan was an honourable man, and when he learned that his son’s rule had not been just, he would not help him. Instead, he advised him to seek out the wizard, Balor.

Breas travelled deep into the land of the Fomor. His fear was great, for Balor could stop the hearts of men simply by opening his eye; he could reduce an entire army to ashes with a single glance. But that did not stop Breas asking Balor to help him regain his honour; and Balor agreed, showing him, in a vision, the Second Battle of Mag Tuired.

While Breas was in the land of the Fomor, there came to the Tuathe de Danaan a great host led by the fairest of men. This was Lugh, the Ildánach (‘skilled in many arts’). He rode his white horse, Enbarr of the Flowing Mane; no one seated on her could fall or be killed. At his side hung his sword, Freagarthach, the Answerer; no man could survive a wound from it. The warriors who followed him were of the Sidhe, the Faerie Host.

It had been prophesied that Balor would meet his end at the hands of his own grandson. That grandson, born of the Tuatha de Danaan, was the all-powerful, invincible Lugh. But Balor did not believe the young hero was his grandson for he believed the son of his daughter to be dead. He had kept his daughter, Lugh’s mother, imprisoned in a tower and so heavily guarded that no man had been allowed near her. But, as they say, love will always find a way, and so it was that Lugh’s father found his way to her side. When Lugh was born, he was switched with a still-born infant and smuggled away.

Tuan rejoiced at the coming of Lugh for he was the one who would free the children of Nemed from their humiliating bondage.

At the Second Battle of Mag Tuired, Lugh and his warriors faced Breas, who had come ahead of the Fomorians and Balor. Lugh succeeded in defeating Breas, but, instead of killing him, spared the lives of him and his men.

At the end of the battle, Nuadu defeated Indech, the Fomorian king. When the man refused to yield, Nuadu severed Indech’s head from his shoulders.

Tuan felt a great foreboding, for he knew Balor would come to avenge Indech’s death and put an end to the Tuatha de Danaan. The wizard summoned a fell beast to battle Nuadu. The king fought valiantly but was unable to defeat such evil. So died Nuadu, king of the Tuatha de Danaan.

Lugh’s grief at the death of the noble king swiftly turned to anger. Shining bright as the sun, Lugh rode Enbarr to face Balor, engulfed in darkness. For the first time, the Fomor wizard knew real fear.

Balor opened his Piercing Eye and a thousand warriors, Fomor and Tuatha de Danaan, fell in an instant, turned to ashes. Then Lugh drew his most powerful weapon, his sling-stone, a fireball of untold energy. Raising it in a long sling, he swung it over his head and released it. It flew straight into Balor’s eye, destroying the wizard.

As Lugh severed the head of Balor and held it aloft, fulfilling the prophecy of long ago, Tuan watched in awe. Then he wept at the passing of Nuadu and his slain warriors. He witnessed Lugh taking Nuadu’s place as king of the Tuatha de Danaan.

As the years passed, Tuan, who had passed from a sea-eagle to be reborn as a salmon, saw the mantle of king passed down until there came the day when the Tuatha de passed into legend.

This time Tuan did not live a long life nor did he die in his sleep. Instead, he was caught, cooked and eaten by a woman. She became pregnant and gave birth to Tuan. Given the form of man once more, he remembered all that had happened in his past lives. And when he grew old, older than any man, he met with the priests of the new religion. They were curious about the tales he told. And Tuan recounted the entire history of his people, the Nemedians, the Fir Bolg and the Tuatha de Danaan to St. Finnian. This time, when Tuan died, no longer was he fated to be reborn but was finally allowed to rest.