Eochaid, High-king of Ireland, saw a vision in a dream. He thought on it with wonder and perplexity.
'I saw a flock of black birds,' he told his wizard Cesard, 'coming out of the ocean. They swarmed all over us, and fought the people of Ireland. They confused us and destroyed us. But one of us struck the noblest of the birds and cut off a wing. Tell me, O skilful Cesard, what is the meaning of this vision?'
'Bad tidings for you,' answered the wizard. 'Warriors come from the sea, a thousand heroes covering the ocean. The speckled ship will swoop upon us. All kinds of death they announce, a people skilled in magic arts. Evil spirits will deceive you and hurt you and they shall have victory over you.'
From their landing place in the north, at wide Tracht Mugha in Ulster, the Tuatha De Danann marched through Ireland to the Red Hill of Rain, in the east of Connacht, and camped there. Their hearts were content at last, for they had reached the land of their forefathers.
When the Firbolg of Ireland heard of this arrival and went to find the invaders, they spied on the camp and saw the most handsome of mankind, well and fiercely armed, skilful in music and playing, the most gifted that ever came across the sea. Then the Firbolg were afraid, for the Tuatha De Danann excelled all the other peoples of the world in every art.
'It will be an advantage to have some report of those lads,' said the Firbolg. 'Who are they, and what are they up to? Where do they mean to settle? Let Sreng visit them, for he is bold to ask questions. He is big and fierce and uncouth and terrifying to behold.'
So Sreng rose up and went. He took his red-brown shield and two thick spears, his deadly sword and four-cornered helmet and iron club and he went off on his way to the Hill of Rain. And when the Tuatha Dé Danann saw such a huge fearsome man approaching, they sent large Bres the son of Elatha, to speak with him. The two men drew near looking keenly but saying no word. Each was astonished by the grim size and weapons of the other . So they crouched behind their shields and at last gave cautious greetings, for the same language was on both their lips.
After they had talked, Sreng said: ''when you speak of your ancestor Nemed, your cheerful words gladden my flesh and my tongue. Your People and mine are brothers, both descendants from Simeon Breac. So bear this in mind. Humble your pride, let our hearts draw together. Remember our brotherhood, and save your own men from destruction. If we clash, many will be crushed most cruelly. 'Its not an entertainment that will amuse.'
'Remove your shield and reveal yourself,' replied Bres, 'so I can tell the Tuatha De Danann about the look of you.'
'I'll do that,' said Sreng, and he raised his shield.
'Those weapons have a strange and venomous look,' said Bres.
'What do you see?' asked Sreng.
'Huge weapons, broad-pointed, heavy, keen-edged. Woe to him they should strike. Death is in their mighty blows, wounds in their hard plying, overwhelming is the horror of them. What do you call them?'
'Battle javelins are these,' replied Sreng.
'Good weapons,' said Bres. 'Bruised bodies they mean, gushing gore, broken bones and shattered shields, scars and ill-health. Death and eternal blemish they deal. Those who would use them have a fratricidal fury in their heart. It is better that we make a covenant.'
So they came together and talked.
'Where were you last night?' said Bres.
'At the holy heart of Ireland, in the hill-fort of the kings at Tara, with Eochaid, the High-King of Ireland, and the chiefs of the Firbolg. And where were you?'
'On the hill, in the crowded camp yonder on the mountainside, with the Tuatha De Danann and Nuada, our king, who comes from the north of the world in a cloud of mist and a magic shower.' said Bres.
'I'll go now,' said Sreng, 'it is a long journey that awaits me.'
'This is our message,' replied Bres. 'Tell the Firbolg to give battle, or to give up half of Ireland.'
'On my word,' said Sreng, 'I had rather give up half Ireland than feel the edge of your weapons.' So they parted in peace and fellowship.
When Sreng returned to Tara, the Firbolg asked him, 'What tidings?'
'Stout are their soldiers,' he replied, ' manly their men, bloody and battle-sure. Great and strong are their shields, keenly sharp their blades. Hard it will be to fight with them. 'It is better to give them half Ireland, as they desire.'
'No,' cried the Firbolg, ' we shall not grant that, indeed. If we do so, they will take all the land in time.'
At about the same hour Bres reached his camp and told of his meeting with Sreng.
'A big powerful, fierce, ugly lump of a man,' he said, ' with large and wonderful weapons. He is warlike and hard, without awe or fear of any.'
So the Tuatha De Danann set out to look for some strong place. They traveled westward over plains and rivers till they came to the back-end of the Black Hill, which is called Slieve Belgadain.
'Its a good place,' they said, ' rough and strong and impregnable. From here we shall wage our war.'
And from this summit, the Tuatha De Danann laid hold of Ireland.
Then Badb and Macha and Morrigan, battle-crows and sorceresses of the Tuatha De Danann, went to the Hill of the Hostages, and the Hill of the Gathering Host, at Tara. And they sent forth magic showers of sorcery and compact clouds of mist and a furious rain of fire, with a downpour of red blood on the heads of the warriors. They gave the Firbolg neither safety nor rest for three days and nights.
So the Firbolg gathered their armies in a place of meeting. From all over Ireland the warriors came, and they numbered eleven large companies. When they were ready they marched to the Plain of Nia where the Tuatha De Danann, with seven companies, had taken their position at the western end. Once again envoys met, for the discussion of their terms. But they could not agree.
'Then,' said the envoys, 'must it be war?'
'Hold hard now,' cried the nobles of the Firbolg. 'Some delay is called for. We must prepare, for tattered is our mail, dented our helmets, and dull the edges of our swords.' So an armistice was arranged to make all ready for battle.
When the preparations were done, Eochaid, said to his poet Fathach, 'Go to the west and ask the Tuatha De Danann how the battle is to be fought. Is it for one day or for many?'
This was sad news for the Firbolg, as the Tuatha had the greater army. So they sent for wise Fintan and took counsel. They put a trench around a great fort. Later this was called the Fort of the Packs, from the packs of dogs that ate the bodies of the battle dead, or the Fort of the Bloody Pools, from the red gore in which the wounded lay. Nearby they dug a Well of Healing, sprinkled with herbs, for the cure of the wounded. And the Tuatha De Danann prepared in like manner and their fort was called the Fort of Onsets, and they had a Well of Healing dug also.
Six weeks of summer were gone when the day of battle came. The armies rose that day at dawn, and the early sun glimmered on bare blades. In close-packed companies, swept forward by stern-voiced commands, the armies advanced across the Plain of Nia. And it was Fathach, the poet of the Firbolg, who went between them, to sing of their fury and spread the report of it. He raised up in the middle of the plain a pillar of stone, and climbed up on it looking east and west. Fathach's Pillar it is called now. From there in anguish, the poet wept melancholy tears and cried: 'What show, what glory, in the advance! On the Plain of Nia most terribly they clash. It's the Tuatha De Danann from the frozen north on that side, the Firbolg of the blood-etched blades on this side. Badb drinker of the red blood, will thank them for bodies. Many will not return from their visit to Moytura. They will lie gashed, with heads cut off.'
Then Dagda began the attack, hacking from the west through Firbolg ranks, cutting a wide path. When he saw this Cirb raised his arm against the Tuatha De Danann, hurling death, clearing his own large space. All day the battle went on, in combats and deadly duels. The seams of the shields were torn apart, swords wrenched from their hilts, rivets popped from the heads of the spears. A great many bold fellows stretched out on the turf for the never-ending sleep.
By the fall of the light the Tuatha De Danann were driven back and they retreated to their camp. The Firbolg did not pursue them but went cheerfully to their fort. Each warrior brought with him to the king a stone and a head, which they built into a great cairn. Then the magicians and the wizards on both sides brought crushed, healing herbs to scatter on the well-water. Thick and green was the healing water, and the wounded men rose whole out of it.
In the morning, strong armies well refreshed came at each other again. Big blows were dealt, bosses of the shields were shattered, and spears twisted out of the hand. Swords broke on splintered bones, and agony-screams covered the battle-cries. When night fell the Firbolg were driven across the battlefield, though each still carried a head and a stone to Eochaid their king.
'Is it you who were beaten today?' said Eochaid.
'It is,' said Cirb, 'but it will not profit them.'
Next day, as they set out, the Tuatha Dé Danann looked at each other, saying, 'Who shall lead us?'
'It is I who shall do it' said Dagda for in me you have an excellent warrior.' And he went forth with his sons and brothers towards the ranks of the Firbolg, drawn up by their pillars and wooden props in the plain. And for this reason the field of battle was called Magh Tuiredh or the Plain of Props.
The Dagda started breaking men apart at this end, and Cirb the Firbolg was slaughtering brave warriors at that end, and each heard the battering blows of the other. Then they came together with furious slashes of their good swords, until at twilight Cirb fell. Then the Firbolg were thrashed to their fort, and the Tuatha De Danann went home with a stone pillar and a head each, and they took the head of Cirb also.
In that same sad night came Fintan the wise, with his sons, to join the Firbolg. Thirteen bleak and hardy men, the sons of Fintan came to Eochaid, and they formed a guard of battle-scarred warriors, the worlds trustiest troops.
A flaming mass was the fight on the next day, lurid in colour, gory of hand. Fierce it was and pitiless and terrible, hard-packed and close-knit, furious, ebbing and flowing with many adventures. The wizards and wise men stood on the pillars in high places, making magic, while the poets took account of the great deeds and turned them into song. As for Nuada of the Tuatha De Danann, he was at the centre of things. And as for Sreng of the Firbolg, he was likewise in the middle. Death and blood pooled at their feet. All this Fathach saw from his pillar, as he stared east and west.
'Its certain the Firbolg will lose many brothers,' he cried. 'Many will be the rolling heads and headless bodies on the plain. They fall by their shields. I'll trust no more to the strength of them while I stay in stormy Ireland. I am Fathach the poet. Strongly the sorrow conquered me. Now that the Firbolg are falling, I surrender to the swift advance of disaster.'
Furies and monsters and hags of doom cried aloud, and their voices were heard in the rocks and waterfalls and in the hollows of the earth. It was like the agony of the last day, when all men will depart this world. Some heroes still bestrode the battlefield, hacking with stout arms, like woodsmen. At the sight of them the armies stopped and wavered, falling away like water boiling off a cauldron. A place was cleared around the great chiefs, and to them was left the battle.
Their feet churned the firm turf. Thirty blows were given and taken, until Sreng lashed out at Nuada. His sword-thrust sliced the rim of Nuada's shield and cut off his right arm at the shoulder. The king's arm lay in the dust, but the Dagda came quickly and stood over Nuada. Then the chiefs of the Tuatha De Danann lifted up their king and carried him from the battle-field, while the blood of the severed arm poured on their bent backs.
The bad day was done and night's black shadow covered all. Then Nuada, spoke from a place of rest.
'Tell me, Dagda,' he said sore-tired, 'how does the battle stand?'
'I will tell you Noble Nuada,' answered Dagda, 'It's calamities and disasters I will also tell. Our nobles fell before the violence of the Firbolg. Our losses are great, we can hardly count them. But Bres, a warrior like a tower, made glorious carnage among the Firbolg, to the number of one hundred and fifty.
'Then huge Sreng was angered. He rained nine blows on your shield. It looked as if you could not withstand him, O impetuous Nuada, but he hacked off your right arm! Then we were disheartened and many died, good men, warriors reeking blood red wounds.
'Eochaid, High king of the Fir Bolg, and his son Slainge the Fair, also did powerful deeds against us. But the High-king grew thirsty with blood-work and went wandering for a drink to the Strand of Eothail. There three sons of Nemed surprised him on the silent sands. They fought, and all fell. Lugaid, your son was killed, and Slainge the Fair, son of Eochaid, is likewise dead.
'After that it was Sreng that was master of the fight - many changed colour when they knew it - but still back and forth went the footsteps of the warriors, staggering, heart-hurt, though none turned and fled. Weary were we now on either side, so we stopped slaughter and went aside to pause and think.'
Sad, wounded and full of heavy reproaches were the Firbolg that night. Each one buried his kin and his friends. They raised mounds over the brave men, and gravestones over the warriors, and tombs on soldiers, and hills over heroes. After that they took counsel, whether they should leave Ireland, or give battle again, or share the land with the Tuatha De Danann. They resolved to make one more fierce fight, though it hurt them sorely to think on it, as Sreng lamented:
Resistance is destruction for men.
We resolutely give battle;
There was clashing of hard swords,
The strong plying of spears by noble warriors,
The breaking of buckler on shield.
Full of trouble are the plains of Ireland.
Disaster met us in the woods,
With the loss of many good men.
In the morning they made one more keen, murderous charge, a band of wild fiery men, their spears as close as bristles, cutting their way in a flame of fury against all opposition. When the Tuatha De Danann saw this, they drew back aghast and begged a time to talk.
'Let Sreng have the province of his choice,' they said. 'Let us stop this slaughter.'
All were agreed, and so they made peace. Sreng chose the province of Connacht, and the Firbolg took possession there. The Tuatha De Danann spread out into all the other parts of Ireland and made Bres their king.