The following article is based on my dissertation, which I did ten years ago now. As such there is plenty I could add, or would want to change now if I had the resources to hand. At the time of writing there was a strict word limit to stick to, so there are some parts that I haven’t been able to address completely, and plenty of things that I wasn’t able to address at all. Even so, it still may be of interest.
Given the length, I’ve had to split the dissertation into three parts. These cover:
- Introduction and background
- The divine Dagda: a general view
- The chieftain and fertility god
- The Otherworld
The Dinnshenchas is a predominantly twelfth century body of onomastic folklore which explains the origins of various places and features in the landscape, using mythological, historical and pseudo-historical figures.1 It has suffered somewhat from lack of scholarly interest for the most part, as it can be hard to work with and offers relatively little information about divine aspects of characters in comparison with the mythological tales, for example. Even so, the Dinnshenchas does offer some interesting insights into the society from which it originates and was recorded in, which we can see with the way the Dagda is used in the Dinnshenchas tales themselves.
MacQuarrie has noted that Manannán mac Lir often appears incidentally in the Dinnshenchas tales, not playing a role in the tale per se, but simply named as someone’s father or relative in order to help identify them in a wider context.2 An example can be found in a poem entitled Bend Etair II, translated by Gwynn:
“Etar with murderous mood in every strife
was the kin of Manannan;
he died here after separation across the sea
for love of Aine the pure.”3
The Dagda often takes a similar role in the Dinnshenchas, as his incidental mention in Loch Lugborta shows:
“Loch Lugborta, whence the name? Not hard to say. A great meeting was held at Caendruim (which is called Usnech) between the three sons of Cermait, the Dagda’s son, and Lug son of Ethne, to make peace with him in regard to their father Cermait, whom he had slain through jealousy about his wife.”4
Cermait is a member of the Tuatha Dé Danann, a son of the Dagda according to the Lebar Gabála,5 so in this case, the tale is quite correct in its association of the Dagda with Cermait, and gives the perhaps lesser known character a firmer context in relating him directly to his father. As MacQuarrie notes, for the most part the authors of the Dinnshenchas were aware of the genealogies of the characters involved in the poems and largely tried to respect them in the telling of their tales.6
However, within the Dinnshenchas, the Dagda can also be associated with people that are not his relations in the Mythological Cycle. This could be due to mistakes in the process of transcribing the tales, but could also refer to actual people or characters from other tales that are otherwise unknown, which the author wishes to associate the Dagda with in order to strengthen or raise their apparent lineage or “Irishness”. In the tale Snám Dá Én, for example the Dagda is said to be the father of Conan Honey-mouth:
“…Conan Honey-mouth, the Dagda’s son, and Ferdoman son of Ronan, whose other name is Aed Rind, fought in combat there for the sake of Celg, Ferdoman’s daughter, whom Conan sought to wed, and Ferdoman gave him a refusal…”7
It could be that the person referred to is actually Cermait, the Dagda’s son, who is more commonly associated with the epithet “Honey-mouth,” but equally it could be that the poem is associating the Dagda with a person in order to make them seem more important.8 Such a name does not appear elsewhere, outside of the Dinnshenchas poem.
Note also that many members of the aes síde, whom the Dagda is later chieftain over, are commonly associated with particular síd – like Mider is with Brí Leith, and Bodb with Síd al Femen for example.9 But within the Dinnshenchas, these rules are not strictly observed, as the Dagda’s strong associations with Ailech show – Ailech being north-west of his traditional home at Newgrange. We can thus infer that perhaps there is more than mythological reasoning at play within these stories – perhaps social and political factors as well, as shall be discussed in due course.
There are other passing references to the Dagda in the lore, that do not necessarily help to anchor a character within a particular context, but possibly serve to help anchor the tale itself within a wider literary context, whilst demonstrating that the author or transcriber is learned as well. This can be seen in Boand for example, which tells of Boann’s death and deeds, where the Dagda’s seduction of her is mentioned.10 Equally, such mentions could simply be an example of how well-learned the author of the Dinnshenchas poem is, but all the same it helps to firmly anchor the content of the poem within a wider mythological landscape, even when liberties have been taken with it.
In this sense, the Dagda is an important literary figure of this time. He is a figure famous enough to be used to help identify lesser characters, or else make some characters seem more important than they actually are. At this time in Ireland, there was great interest in the mythological cycles of pre-Christian times, as can be seen from the proliferation of manuscripts containing such tales from this period, and hand in hand with creating a pseudo-history of Ireland, it was fashionable to associate yourself and your family with important literary figures, whether there was any actual basis for this or not.
The main driving force behind this was probably due to the massive political upheavals of the time. With the Viking raiders and settlers from the eighth century, by the twelfth century Ireland was also dealing with Anglo-Norman settlers, all aiming to assert their own authority.11 By associating yourself with famous kings and historical figures, how better to make yourself look more important than everyone else, and more Irish? A person’s lineage and kin defined a person in Irish society, in terms of social status, and also in the eyes of the law. If a crime was committed in Ireland, then the victim and their family was entitled to receive compensation for the offense, by way of recompense. Such compensation was dependent on your social status, which determined your honour-price.12 Therefore, a king, of high social status, would have a considerably higher honour-price than that of a peasant farmer, for example.
Particularly amongst the higher echelons of society at this time, it was fashionable to associate your family with past famous kings and literary figures in order to consolidate, even raise, your social status, and thus consolidate your authority regardless of whether there was any basis for the fact or not. Many kings and royalty traced their genealogies back to the Sons of Míl, the last invaders of Ireland, and these were acceptably Christian ancestors to have. It was less common to find people tracing their family back to members of the Tuatha Dé Danann because of their pagan associations, but nonetheless, it was not unheard of either, and here is perhaps evidence of this in relation to the Dagda.
There is also another aspect to the use of the Dagda within the Dinnshenchas, and that is with his associations with important sites of royal power associated with the Northern Uí Néill kin, who were once one of the most influential families of Ireland.13 It appears that the Dagda is consistently associated with the place of Ailech, in the north of Ireland, which was a principal site of royal power for the Cenél nEógain of the Uí Néill.14
The Dinnshenchas tales that deal with the origin of the name Ailech offer a variety of explanations for the origin of the placename. The most common tale is that Ailech was called so because of a fight between the Dagda’s son Aed and a warrior named Corrgen, over a woman. Corrgen slew Aed unjustly, and as punishment, the Dagda declared that Corrgen would have to carry Aed on his back until a suitable resting place for him was found. After the exertion, and finally laying Aed to rest, Corrgen died: “He found a stone of the sea beside the lough; in pangs of suffering suddenly he died: his fame was broken and his rage; he uttered a cry, it was “ail” [meaning rock] with an “ach”!”15 And so Ailech got its name, and after Aed was laid to rest, the Dagda built a fort over the tomb, which was known by the same name as the hill it was on.16
Even now, the remains of the fort at Ailech can be seen, situated in a plain in Inishowen, co. Donegal. Though small, it was an important centre of power for the Cenél nEógain, and it is interesting that the fort is so firmly and closely associated with the Dagda – rather like the “royal” burial site of Newgrange, where the Tara kings were supposedly buried. The fact that several of the kings of Ailech were called Aed – Áed Uaridnach, Áed Allán, Áed Oirdnide, and Áed Findliath – just like one of the Dagda’s own sons, may have prompted the association with the Dagda in the first place.17 It can only be to the Cenél nEógain’s advantage to trace their ancestry, or suggest such ancestry, back to the Dagda, who is often called the king or high-king of Ireland throughout his appearances in the Dinnshenchas literature,18 as well as his role as king elsewhere in mythology. In doing so, they inevitably make their lineage more illustrious, and so advance their status as well, and who else more appropriate to associate themselves with? A master builder, warrior, sage and king of Ireland.
And let us not forget that the Uí Néill, of which the Cenél nÉogain were a branch of, were frequently kings of Tara. Not only do they elevate their own status, the association of the Dagda with Ailech itself also effectively elevates the status of their royal seat of power, legitimising their authority and base of power. Similar tales associate the Dagda with other hills, like at Druim Suamaig where he reputedly mourned for the death of another of his sons, Cermait.19 The tale Codal, also has Aed and the Dagda playing the same role as in the Ailech tales – and it is interesting to note that Codal was also a principal stronghold of the northern kings. Unfortunately, the location of it is now unknown.20
So who is the Dagda? We have seen many different aspects of the Dagda – he is a chieftain god; fertility god; Otherworldy god; conqueror of women and goddesses; negotiator; father; churl; and a member of the síde. Not only does he appear as a mythological figure and a divine figure, but also a more political figure, in the Dinnshenchas.
He is a complex and at times paradoxical god, by his nature, but also because we can only see the Dagda through layers of interpretation – through time, changes in religion, language, as well as social and political climates. It is very difficult, therefore, to peel back these layers to find the “real” Dagda. He does not exist anymore in a pure, undiluted form, and nor is it likely that he ever did. The divine functions and character of the Dagda have evolved, just as Irish society and mythology has, from pagan times to Christian. He is not, and nor has he ever been, a static figure, and so perceptions and interpretations of the Dagda will always change and perhaps even conflict with each other.
But however complex or paradoxical the Dagda may be, there is definitely also a neat symmetry to his character: as a chieftain god, he cares for and protects his kin and people – as exemplified by his unions with the Morrigan and Indech, for example, to ensure their help, and his negotiations of truce with the Fomoire, even at his own expense. Again as a chieftain he must provide for his people, and as a fertility god, his sexual vigour and cauldron of plenty enables him to do so. And finally, the Dagda is their father, a wise patriarch with great knowledge of Otherworldly origin – and the Otherworld is intimately linked with fertility and kingship as well. Where the Dagda’s paradoxical attributes – of being a grotesque churl, uncouth and indecently dressed, or being taken advantage of – stems predominantly from a state of imbalance within himself.
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1 MacCana, 1970, 17
2 MacQuarrie, 1997, 205
3 Gwynn, 1900, 61
4 Gwynn, 1924, 279
5 Carey, 1983, 288
6 MacQuarrie, 1997, 205
7 Gwynn, 1924, 351
8 Gwynn, 1924, 472
9 O’ Kelly, 1982, 45
10 Gwynn, 1913, 31
11 Richter,1983, 124
12 Kelly, 1995, 7
13 Richter, 1983, 32
14 Byrne, 1973, 83
15 Gwynn, 1924, 95
16 Gwynn, 1924, 97
17 Byrne, 1973, 283-284
18 Gwynn, 1924, 105, 269
19 Gwynn, 1924, 239
20 Gwynn, 1924, 447