Stories, Myths & Legends 

Bres Mac Elatha and the Tuatha Dé Danann

One day Ériu of the Tuatha Dé Danann was looking from her house out to sea, and she saw that it was as flat as a plank and without movement.  Then a vessel of silver appeared  to her, its size was very large but the shape of it was blurred, and the flow of the tide brought it to land.  In it was the handsomest  man, with golden hair to his shoulders, and a shirt and a cloak trimmed with gold.  A brooch of gold was on his breast, five golden rings about his neck, a sword with inlays at his belt, and a pair of shining spears in the grip of his hand.

'A fine time for love-making,' said the man.

'I've made no tryst with you,' she replied.

'What need for a tryst?' said he.

So they stretched themselves down together.  When the man rose, the woman wept.

'Why the tears?' he asked.

'I cry for two things,'  she said, 'Firstly, that you possess me now, though the youth of the Tuatha Dé have entreated me in vain.  Secondly that you are leaving.'

He drew a gold ring from his middle finger and put it into  her hand saying, 'Part not with it either by sale or gift, except to one whose finger it will fit.'

'Another sorrow have I,' she said 'for I do not know who has come to me.'

'No reason for ignorance there,' he replied. 'Elatha, king of the Fomorians, has lain with you.  You will bear a son and let his name be Eochu Bres, that is 'Eochu the Beautiful'.  Every lovely thing to be seen in Ireland, field or fortress, ale or candle, woman or man or horse - will be judged by him, so people will say "it is a Bres."'

In time she gave birth to a boy and he was named as Elatha had said.  In seven days he had made two weeks growth, and in seven years he had the growth of fourteen summers.   And  when the contention arose between the Tuatha Dé Danann as to who should be king because of the wounding of Nuada - he being no longer whole;  They chose Bres thinking he would bring lasting peace between the Tuatha Dé and the Fomorians.  His mother Ériu gave him land and the fort of Dun Brese was built on that land.

But after Bres was made king, three Fomorian kings put Ireland under tribute so that there was not smoke  from the roof that was not taxed.  Even the champions of Ireland were pressed into service.  Oghma was forced to carry firewood, and Dagda had to build ramparts and dig trenches around the fort of Bres and it was the Dagda who built it all.

Soon Dagda was not happy with this degrading work.  He would meet in the house of an old satirist named Cridenbel the Blind whose mouth grew out of his chest.  Cridenbel thought his own portion was small in comparison with Dagda's and he begged 'O, Dagda on your honour, give me the three best bits of your meal!'  Now a champion cannot refuse a request made on his honour and so Dagda gave a third of his meal to Cridenbel each night.  But large indeed were the portions given to Cridenbel, each piece being the size of a good pig.  And the appearance of Dagda was the worse for that.

One day Dagda was in the trench when he saw Mac Óg coming towards him.

'Very Good, O Dagda,' said Mac Óg.

'Even so,' said Dagda.

'But you have a bad look about you.'

'I  have good reason,' replied the Dagda.  'Cridenbel the satirist, takes the three best bits of my meal every night.'

'It will not last,' said Mac Óg.  'Soon you will finish your work, but seek no payment until the cattle of Ireland are brought to you.  Then choose the dark, black-maned, lively heifer.'

When the work was finished and Bres offered a payment, Dagda asked for a heifer, which seemed a foolish choice to Bres.  He thought Dagda would have chosen something more.

All this time that Bres held the kingship, there was murmuring against him among the Tuatha Dé Danann, for their knives were not greased by him, and however often they visited him their breaths did not smell of ale.  And there was no entertainment in the household from either poet or bard or satirist or harper or piper or hornblower  or juggler or jester.  They saw no races, no sporting contest, and only Oghma was there to prove his skill before the king.  Yet his poor duty was only this: to bring the firewood to the fort.  Each day he carried a bundle from the islands of Clew Bay, but the sea snatched two-thirds of his load, because he was weak for lack of food.

On a certain day Cairpre, poet of the Tuatha Dé Danann, came in his travels to the house of Bres.  He entered a narrow, black, dark little house, with neither fire nor chair nor bed in it.  Three small cakes he was given, and they were dry.  On the morrow he arose, and he was not thankful.  As he crossed the threshold he made this magical curse:

'Without food quickly on a dish,

Without cow's milk for a calf to grow on,

Without a man's abode under the dark of night,

Without pay for a company of storytellers -

Let that be Bres's condition.

'There's no prosperity in Bres,' he added, and that was true.  There was blight on him from that hour.  And this is the first poetical curse made in Ireland.

After this the Tuatha Dé met together to talk with their foster son Bres.  It was agreed that he might remain king for seven years, so long as he gave proper sureties.  As he was not willing to give up his kingship, Bres made this delay so that he might gather the magical warriors of the Fomorians and seize the Tuatha Dé by force.

Then he went to his mother and asked where his family was.  'I am certain about that,' said she and she gave him the ring that Elatha had left her.  He put it on his middle finger and it fitted him perfectly.

Together they went to the lands of the Fomorians.  The people there as was the custom put them to the test, making races and fighting in sword-play.  When the dogs raced the hounds of Bres were faster, and his horses were faster too than those of the Fomorians.  Then they came to sword-play.  But as Bres lifted his arm to strike, Elatha recognized the ring on his finger and asked who he was, and Ériu told the whole story of his birth.

His father was sad for him, and asked 'What need brings you here from the land you ruled?'

'Nothing,' said Bres, 'but my own injustice and pride.  I took their jewels and their land and their food.  Until this time none had taken from them tributes or payments.'  'That is bad for the telling' said his father.  'Better their prosperity than your kingship.  Better their prayers than curses.  Why have you come here?'

'To ask for soldiers since I mean to keep the land by force.'

'Gain it by justice only.'

'Well then, here's a question what advice do you give me?' asked Bres.  

But Elatha would not help him and sent him instead to Balor, king of the Hebrides and to Indech, one of the other kings of the Fomorians.  And these kings gathered all the forces from Lochlann westward to Ireland, to impose tribute and rule by force, and they made a single bridge of ships from the Hebrides to Ireland.  No host ever came to Ireland that was more terrifying than these warriors.

After Bres had departed to the Fomorians.  Nuada was once more re-instated as king of the Tuatha Dé, for he had been fitted with a silver arm by Dian Cécht which was as good as any other and he was once more a whole man.  So in celebration Nuada held a great feast at Tara for the Tuatha Dé Danann.  And there  came before the doorkeepers of Tara a warrior  and a company of strangers, led by a handsome sturdy fellow with a king's diadem on his head.

'Who is there?' the doorkeepers asked the leader.

'Lugh Lonnansclech is here, son of Cian, son of Dian Cécht and of Ethnea, daughter of Balor.'

'And what is your art, no one without skill enters Tara' said the doorkeepers.

'You question me, who was named Samildánach?' asked the warrior incredulously.

'Well,' replied the doorkeepers 'speak on.'

'I am a builder, I am a smith, I am a champion, I am a harper, I am a soldier, I am a poet, I am a sorcerer.'  said Lugh.

'We have a representation of all those skills and need no more' said the doorkeepers 'as for sorcerers, our druids and magicians and witches are as many as the sands on the beach.'

'I will speak further,' went on Samildánach.  'I am a physician, I am a cupbearer, I am a metalworker.  Ho! doorman ask the king if he has anyone with as many arts and skills as I have.  If he has I will not enter Tara.'

One of the doorkeepers went to Nuada and said,  'The warrior Samildánach has come to court.  He practices all the arts and is master of every skill.'

Then the courtiers brought out the chess-boards of Tara, and Samildánach won every game.  When all this was told to the king, he said  'Let him enter, for never before has a man like him come to our fort.'

And Samildánach went into the hall and sat in the seat of the wise man for he was wise in every art.  And in the evening he played on the harp, playing the music of sleep and lulling the king and the court into sleep from that time until the same time next day.

When he saw this man's many powers, Nuada wondered if he might protect them from the Fomorians.  So the Tuatha Dé held a council, and the next day Nuada spoke with Oghma and Dagda on Girley Hill, and the king summoned also his two kinsmen Dian Cécht and Goibniu.  A full year they spent in close discussion, and then the druids of Ireland were called together, with their doctors and charioteers and smiths and landowners and lawgivers.  They all spoke together secretly.

'What  is your accomplishment?' the king asked Mathgen, the sorcerer, and Mathgen answered that he would shake the mountains of Ireland under the Fomorians until their summits fell to the ground.  Then it would seem as if the twelve chief mountains of Ireland were fighting for the Tuatha Dé Danann.

'And I will rain three showers of fire onto the faces of the Fomorians' said the druid Figol 'Also I will take out of them two-thirds of their courage and skill and strength and I will block up the bladders in their bodies and in the bodies of their horses.  And the courage of the men of Ireland will increase with every breath even if they fight for seven years they will not get tired.'

Then Dagda said 'That power that you boast, I'll wield it all by myself.'  And so they all prepared for battle.  Lugh, and Dagda and Oghma went to the three gods of Danu and they gave Lugh his weapons, which they had been making ready for seven years.  At last everything was in place and the Tuatha heard the cry of Morrigan.

'Stir yourselves' said the blood-thirsty war monger.  'Go onwards and fight!'

And the druids answered at once 'Yes we will go to war!'


The Fomorians advanced to Scetne.  The men of Ireland were in Magh Aurfolaig.  The two armies were threatening battle.  'Those Irish have a determined look,' said Bres,  'I expect they mean to fight.'

'We'll give them blow for blow' said the Fomorian king, 'so their bones will be crushed small if they don't pay tribute.'

The men of Ireland had agreed to keep Lugh from the battle as they feared his early death and the loss of all his many skills.  Nine foster fathers were sent to guard him.  When the guards and the chiefs of the Tuatha Dé Danann were around him, Lugh asked the smith Goibniu, 'What is the extent of your power?'

'Not hard to say,' replied Goibniu.  'Though the fight be for seven years, every splintered spear, every broken sword shall be mended by me.  My forged spearpoints will not miss their mark.  The skins they pierce will not taste life afterwards.  Dolb the Fomorian smith cannot do as much.  I am prepared for this second battle at Moytura.'

'And you physician Dian Cécht,' asked Lugh 'what is your talent?'

'Not hard to say said he.  'Any of our wounded, unless his head be off, or his brain struck open, I will make him perfectly whole by the next day.'

'And you Oghma, champion warrior,' said Lugh, 'what is your specialty?'

'Not hard to say,' said he.  'Neither the king nor twenty seven of his friends will be a match for me, I will win a third of the battle for the men of Ireland.'

'And you Morrigan, Battle Hag, what is your power?'

'Not hard to say' said she.  'I shall stand fast.  I shall destroy those I have my eye on'

'And you Cairpre the poet, what can you do in battle?'

'I will make a metrical malediction against them.  I will name and shame them, so by my spell they will offer no fight.'

'And you Bé Chuille and Dianann, my witches, what can you do?'

'Not hard to say' they replied.  'We will bewitch the trees and the stones and the sods of the earth so that they will appear like an army against them.  And they will scatter in flight, terrified and trembling.'

'And you Dagda, what power can you use against the army of the Fomorians?'

'Not hard to say,' said the Dagda 'I will lay waste with heavy smiting and destruction and wizardry.  Their bones under my club will be like hailstones under the hooves of horses.'

Thus the battle ranks were drawn up, between fierce and proud warriors.

Then the Fomorians marched out of their camp in strong indestructible battalions.  There was not a soldier among them without armour against his skin, a helmet on his head, a broad spear in his hand, a sharp sword on his belt, a heavy shield on his shoulder.  To attack them that day was like striking a head against a cliff, or putting a hand in a nest of vipers, or thrusting a face into the fire.

Balor and Bres led the Fomorians.  On the other side, Lugh gave his guards the slip and took the forefront of the battle.  In his chariot he led the Tuatha Dé Danann.  He called to the men of Ireland to free themselves  from the bondage of the Fomorians, for it was better to die for the land than to live and pay tribute.  And to give them heart Lugh went around the warriors on one foot and with one eye closed and he chanted this spell: Arotroi cath comartan.  Fo, fo.  Fe, fe.  Cle.  Amainsi!

There was a great shout.  The armies rushed together and started to hack at the one and the other.  Many fine men fell in the trough of death.  Great killing and grave lying was seen there.  Pride and shame were side by side, anger and indignation.  Thick was the stream of blood over white skin.  Harsh the tumult over the field:  shouts and clashes and swishing and rattling and humming and whirring, and everywhere the clanging strokes of hard blows.

They attacked each other till their fingertips and toes almost met.  Blood under their feet, and they slipping and falling down.  A heavy, gory,  pain-inflicting, sharp, bloody battle, with shafts and blades red in the hands of enemies.

Nuada of the Silver Arm fell before the blows of Balor.  Then Lugh and eye-piercing Balor met in battle.  An evil eye had Balor.  That eye was never allowed open save on the battlefield.  Then four men would raise the eye-lid by a polished ring.  Whoever looked in that eye, though they were thousands in number, were rendered helpless.  It had that venomous power for this reason:  once, when his father's druids were brewing magic, he looked in the window, and the fumes of the brew settled in his eye and gave it this dangerous power.  Lugh and Balor came together, and Balor heard the challenge from Lugh.

'Now, men' said Balor 'raise up my eye-lid that I might see this boastful fellow.'

The lid was raised from Balor's eye.  Then Lugh hurled a stone from his sling-shot at him, which drove the eye through the back of his head, and it was Balor's own army that was looking at it.  Balor fell on top of his own soldiers so that twenty-seven of them died under him, and the crown of his head struck the chest of his king so that a gush of blood spouted from his lips.

Then Morrigan came into the ranks with grim words, stiffening the hearts of the Tuatha Dé Danann to fight fiercely and resolutely.  In a short while the armies broke apart and the Fomorians were driven to the sea.  Many called for mercy and among them was Loch Half-Green the poet of the enemy.  To him Lugh replied 'Grant me my requests.'

'That I will do,' said Loch.  'I will remove forever from Ireland all invasion and plundering by the Fomorians.  And in all hard cases the judgement of your tongue shall resolve the matter until the end of life.'  So Loch the poet was spared, and he chanted to the Tuatha Dé 'The Decree of Fastening'.

After the battle, the Tuatha Dé wished to kill Bres for all this trouble was his fault.  But he stopped their hands saying 'It is better to spare me, than to kill me.'

'How is that so?' asked Lugh.

'If I am spared, the cows of Ireland will always be in milk,' replied Bres.

'Let us consult the wise men' said Lugh.

So Lugh went to wise Maeltne, who answered, 'He shall not be spared, milk he might control but what shall he do about their age or their calving?'

'O Maeltne,' said Bres 'A bitter response you give me.'

Then Lugh asked again 'What else shall save you, Bres?'

'A harvest every quarter shall be yours, if you spare me.'

'No mercy for that' replied Maeltne.  'It is not the proper way for us.  What is suitable is this: spring for ploughing and sowing, summer for the growing of the grain, autumn for the ripeness and reaping, winter for the eating.'

'That does not save you,' said Lugh.

And Bres cried out 'O Maeltne, another bitter response.'

But Lugh said, 'Less will rescue you.'

'What then?' said Bres.

'Answer, this: how shall the men of Ireland plough?  How shall they sow?  How shall they reap?  Make these things known to them.'

'Say to them,' replied Bres 'Tuesday for their ploughing, Tuesday for their sowing, Tuesday for their reaping.'

Thus Bres was spared and released.

Now, in the battle the champion Oghma found the sword of Tethra, one of the kings of the Fomorians.  Oghma unsheathed the sword and cleaned it.  Then the sword told him what it had done, because swords recounted their deeds when laid bare.  Therefore swords are entitled to the homage of cleaning.  Many spells have been kept in swords by that means.  And Loch Half-Green made a verse about that sword.

When the Fomorians retreated, Lugh and Dagda and Oghma went after them because they had carried off Dagda's harp.  After hard sprinting they reached the hall where Bres and Elatha sat.  There was a harp on the wall.  It was the harp in which Dagda had bound the melodies, so that it would not sound until he called forth the music.

Then the harp sprang from the wall, and it killed nine men altogether and it sprang to the hand of Dagda.  Quickly he played for the Fomorians the three great melodies:  The Melody of Sorrow, The Melody of Joy and the Melody of Dreams.  At the sorrowful music the women wept.  At the joyful music the men laughed.  And at the music of dreams the warriors fell asleep.  So Lugh, Dagda and Oghma were able to creep away unharmed, though the Fomorians had wished to slaughter them.

As they went away Dagda gathered up the cattle the Fomorians had plundered.  First he called to his dark, black-maned heifer, the one given him by Bres as wages for building the fort.  Then she called for her calf, and all the cattle of Ireland followed her.

After the breaking of the battle and the cleansing of the carnage, Morrigan, war-Queen, proclaimed the triumph and victory to the royal hills of Ireland, to its spirit army, to its water and rivers and estuaries.  And the great deeds are still spoken of.  And Badb sister of Morrigan pronounced this blessing over Ireland:

Peace up to heaven, heaven down to Earth.

Earth beneath heaven, strength in each.

A cup very full, full of honey.

Mead in abundance, summer in winter.

Peace up to heaven.

Source: Ancient Irish Tales, ed. T.P. Cross & C.H. Slover 1936 (republished Barnes & Noble 1996)


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