With battlefields and burial sites dating back over 6000 years, one would do well to drive around County Sligo bearing in mind that in a long-gone universe these same moors and mountains were once home to the Tuatha De Danaan, an ancient and possibly fictitious tribe of whom we know zilch about. Our best lead to date is that they looked upon the Sun - the Goddess of whom was Dana - as their guiding light and source of power. And they also showed a tremendous flair for burying their heroes and heroines in style. I'm working on a theory that these were the people behind those remarkable creations of Carrowkeel, County Sligo and Newgrange, County Meath - lit up by the sun on the longest and shortest day of the year respectively.
Between the great Galway lakes of Corrib and Mask lies a patch of land where, in 1320 BC, the Fir Bolg and the Tuatha De Danaan fought their first great battle on the Plains of Southern Moytura ("The Plain of Weeping"). The battle seems to have been fought between the Firbolg, ancient invaders from Belgium, and the Tuatha De Danaan. The Danaan were victorious and their King Nuadu, who'd lost his arm in the fight, was given a brand new silver one by his physician as a measure of respect. Seven years later, the Firbolgs were wiped out at the battle of Northern Moytura, near Lough Arrow in County Sligo. Nuadu was still waving his silver arm when he died at another battle, this time against the Fomorians, piratical invaders of Nordic origin who'd been imposing a tax on the Danaan. Nuadu's army - replete with gods, heroes, druids and magicians - were again victorious against the Fomorians and Nuadu's death gave rise to a new king, Lug, one of the great heroes of De Danaan. His people ruled Ireland until the arrival of the Milesians, ancient ancestors of the Gaels. The sons of Milesius gave De Danaan the hiding of a lifetime and banished them for eternity. The Tuatha De Danaan had no option but to disappear into the Otherworld and become fairies.
The Tuatha De Danaan are a bewildering bunch if ever there was one. First up, everyone's still very confused as to whether they existed or not. Today's mythological boffs reckon they were 100% fiction, invented by the Irish Celts to keep them entertained during the cold winter nights, sustained by strange incidents that today we would call coincidence. The argument goes that, from the 6th to 9th centuries after Christ, Christian monks set about demoting these Celtic Gods from their lofty perches. They whipped out their quills, dipped them in ink and rewrote the stories. They humanised the Gods and Goddesses, relegating then to being a relatively straightforward tribe with a formidable skill in druidic magic, a la Getafix if you know the Asterix books.
But, at day's end, there's plenty of evidence to suggest that, 5000 years ago, Ireland was home to an extraordinary people possessed of a profound and beautiful understanding of the ways of the world, the sun, the stars and the Universe up above.
Sometimes I think they were a mischievous crew, the De Danaan. That their entire plot revolved around building weird structures that would utterly confound their descendants for evermore. Every year we unearth still more inexplicable pointers to the overwhelming intelligence of these ancient heroes. Passage graves, megalithic tombs, stone cairns, stone circles and capped dolmens abound across the land from Kerry to the Giant's Causeway, all of them built between four and five thousand years ago by a Neolithic people with hearts, brains, toes and boobs, just like you or I.
Put another way, it's not yet been a thousand years since William the Conqueror reigned victorious at the Battle of Hastings. 2000 years ago, Pontius Pilate had a troublesome carpenter's son crucified in the Middle East. 3000 years ago, the mighty Greek Empire was yet been conceived. 4000 years ago, the Egyptians thought about building some large triangular hills. And 5000 years ago, the inhabitants of Ireland were scratching their head and trying to work out what made the sun shine.
Think about it.
The passage grave of Newgrange in the Boyne Valley, where the dawning rays of the winter solstice eerily pour through a crevice on one and only one morning every year. And that's the shortest day of the year, December 21st. The sun's being doing that every year, regular as clockwork, since the creation of this tomb in 3000 BC.
A hundred miles to the west, another passage grave at Carrowkeel, County Sligo, the complimentary mirror to Newgrange, blossoming with the rosy fingers of summer sunlight every June 21st, the longest day of the year, as it has done without fail for over 4500 years.
At Beagmore in County Tyrone, a scattering of boulders form a circle that again pays homage to the rise of both the sun and the moon on the summer solstice. I have a friend called Johnny Mescal who went there with a group in the summer of 2000. He insists that when they stood in the circle some form of static energy came upon them so that their hair stood on end. Since then, my friend has become a dedicated student of the Lay-Lines School and I look forward to his guesswork and updates accordingly.
So who might these people have been? There's a theory doing the rounds that they were refugees from Iberia (Spain) who arrived in Ireland after a long and treacherous boat journey around the coasts of France and England. I guess if that's the case, their fervent worship of the sun could be put down to a nostalgia for their Iberian homeland, because surely to God they can't have been thinking of the elusive Irish sun when they built this shit. Surely it wasn't the Irish sun that drove these Stone Age wizards to persevere through 365 days of rain, wind, hail and snow, 366 days every 4 years, patiently totting up figures in their heads, puzzling over leap years, determined to get it right, to master the habits and conditions of the Sun, to know for sure that this was exactly the right angle to build these monumental structures.
My thinking is that these guys fetched up in Ireland and wondered what they'd done wrong for the sun to disappear like that. Hence, they got into worshipping what little sunlight there was. Sorry sorry sorry Mr. Sun. Come back. Please come back.
But it's not just the sweet sunshine that got these guys ticking. They could shift mountains and pinpoint exact locations in a manner NASA would do well to observe.
At the Hill of Uisneach in County Westmeath, ancient Celtic clans would gather every May Day (or Beltane) to welcome in the Summer season. A cairn on the hill - the Catstone - was hailed as the Stone of the Divisions, the central point at which the five kingdoms - Leinster, Munster, Connaught, Ulster and Meath - met. There was never much doubt in their minds that the Stone of Divisions was the centre of Ireland. In the 20th century, geographers and scientists, armed to the teeth with compasses, measuring tape, OS maps, helicopters and satellite images, bemusedly confirmed that the geographical centre of Ireland is at Glasson, 4 miles west of the Hill of Uisneach. Again, I am confounded.
I could bang on about dolmens with 100 tonne capstones and passage graves composed of 40,000 boulders carried to the top of a seemingly random mountain. Ireland's full of it. Incredible and inexplicable man-made formations every which way you look.
The thing is, when it comes to evidence of what these people were thinking, we haven't got a whole lot to go work with.
If the Celts invented the tales in for their word-of-mouth round-the-fire get-togethers, then the monks who scribbled the tales down are sure to have censored them heavily. They'd probably have Tippexed out all the juicier bits about sex and cannibalism and black magic and what not. Whatever survived the Monk Censorship Board then presumably took a hammering from the English and Scottish Planters charged with the eradication of the Gaelic culture during the 17th and 18th centuries. And, to be fair, much of what resurfaced of these ancient tales during the 20th century was inevitably coloured in a manner to make the heroes of the 1916 - 1923 years shine as the natural heirs of King Nuada, Cuchulainn, Finn MacCool et al.
The monks did at least acknowledge that the Tutaha de Danaan weren't all that pushed about life and death as, like Muslims today, they reckoned that once they snuffed it, their souls simply transferred to another body and kept on going. Hence, they cremated their dead. De Danaan Heaven - known as the Otherworld - was hailed as a blissful Never Never Land where the multi-coloured sweet-scented flowers are forever blossoming with beautiful women blessed with massive knockers. That's monks for you. But, come on, picture these poor cassock-clad bald-headed lads, all alone in their beehive cells, rain lashing down and nothing to read but St. Paddy's Confessions. Give 'em a break. Let them dream upon warrior princesses.
I have no conclusions yet. It's all guesswork for me. Over the next few
centuries, I hope to travel the length and breadth of this isle and discover
more about Tuatha De Danaan. If you have any ideas or, better still, if
you are a member of Tuatha De Danaan perhaps you'd be good enough to let