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The Celtic Fire Feasts - Main Essay

The Expedition of Dathi

The story of King Dathi tells us much of the traditions of Beltaine and Samhain in the Dark Ages. At Beltaine the King hosts a national conference and games, and at Samhain the previous year he had his druid foretell what was to be achieved over the following summer campaign. This abstract is from the Book of Leinster, and called the Sluaghid Dathi co Sliabh n-Ealpa, or the Expedition of Dathi to the Alpine Mountains. Eugene O'Curry (1796-1862) provides us with an English account of the story in his 1855 and 1856 'Lectures on the manuscript materials of ancient Irish history delivered at the Catholic University of Ireland', published in 1861 by James Duffy, London, pp.284-288.

Of his source material, O'Curry advises us on p.288, at the end of the story, that "There are two copies of the present tract in Dublin, one in the Royal irish academy, and the other in my own collection, both on paper, and neither of them older than the year 1760; and although the tract has so far suffered at the hands of ignorant transcribers, as to be much corrupted in style and language, still I have found in it many genuine illustrations of ancient manners, customs, and ceremonies, to which other very ancient and better preserved pieces contain but allusions more or less obscure".

Doghra's Samhain prophecy

[Page 284] Niall of the Nine Hostages was succeeded in the monarchy (A.D. 405) by Dathi, the son of his brother Fiachra, king of Connacht; and was, like his uncle, a valiant and ambitious man. It happened that, in the seventeenth year of his reign, king Dathi was induced to go from Tara to Eas Ruaidh, the great cataract of the River Erne (at the present Ballyshannon), to adjust some territorial dispute which had sprung up among his relatives. The time at which this journey was undertaken was the close of the summer, so that the king arrived at his destination close upon November Eve, a season of great solemnity of old among the pagan Gaedhils.

Dathi, having concluded an amicable adjustment among his friends, and finding himself on the eve of the great festival of Samhain, was desirous that his Druids should ascertain for him, by their art, the incidents that were to happen to him from that time till the festival of Samhain of the next year. With this view he commanded the presence of the Druids; and Doghra, the chief among them, immediately stood before him. "I wish", said the king, "to know my destiny, and that of my country, from this night till this night twelvemonths". "Then", said Doghra, "if you will send nine of your noblest chiefs with me from this to Rath Archaill, on the bank of the river Muaidh [the Moy], I will reveal something to them". "It shall be so", said the king, "and I shall be one of the number myself".

They departed secretly from the camp, and arrived in due time at the plain of Rath Archaill, where the druid's alters and idols were. Dathi's queen, Ruadh, had a palace at Mullach Ruaidhé, in this neighbourhood, [a place still known under that name, in the parish of Screene, in the barony of Tireragh, and county of Sligo]. Here the king took up his quarters for the night, whilst the Druid repaired to Dumha na n-Druadh (or [p.285] the Druid's Mound), near Rath Archaill, on the south, to consult his art according to the request of the king.

At the rising of the sun in the morning, the Druid repaired to the king's bed-room, and said, "Art thou asleep, O king of Erinn and of Albain?" "I am not asleep", answered the monarch, "but why have you made an addition to my titles? for, although I have taken the sovereignty of Erinn, I have not yet obtained that of Albain [Scotland]". "Thou shalt not be long so', said the druid, "for I have consulted the clouds of the men of Erinn, and found that thou wilt soon return to Tara, where thou wilt invite all the provincial kings. and chiefs of Erinn, to the great feast of Tara, and there thou shalt decide with them upon making an expedition into Albain, Britain, and France, following the conquering footsteps of thy great uncle, Niall, and thy granduncle, Crimhthann Môr".

The king, delighted with this favourable prediction, returned to his camp, where he related what had happened, and disclosed his desire for foreign conquests to such of the great men of the nation as happened to be of his train at the time. His designs were approved of, and the nobles were dismissed to their respective homes, after having cordially promised to attend on the king at Tara, with all their forces, whenever he should summon them, to discuss farther the great project which now wholly siezed his attention.

* here an anecdote relating to the palace of Freamhainn is given, where Dathi stayed for some time over the winter, and omitted here*

Dathi's gathering at Tara at Beltaine

[p.286] Let us, however, return to the story of king Dathi himself. On leaving Freamhainn, Dathi came to Ros-na-Righ, the residence of his mother, which was situated north-east of Tara, on the bank of the Boyne. Here he remained for some time, and at last returned to tara, at which place he had, meanwhile, invited the states of the nation to meet him at the approaching feast of Belltainé (one of the great pagan festivals of ancient erinn) on May Day.

[p.287] The feast of Tara this year was solemnized on a scale of splendour never before equalled. the fires of Taillten [now called telltown, to the north of Tara] were lighted, and the sports, games, and ceremonies, for which that ancient place is celebrated, were conducted with unusual magnificence and solemnity.

*a brief anecdote regarding the origin of the Taillten fires by Lug is given and omitted here*

After the religious solemnities were concluded, Dathi, having now discharged his duties to his gods and to his subjects, turned his thoughts to his contemplated expedition; and at a conference with all the great chiefs and leaders of the nation, found them all ready to support him. Accordingly, without further delay, he concluded his preparations, and leaving Tara in the charge of one of his cousins, he marched to Dundealgan (the present Dundalk), where his fleet was ready for sea, at the head of the most powerful army that had ever, up to that time, been known to leave Erinn.

The campaigns

Immediately upon his landing [in Port Patrick in Scotland], Dathi sent his Druid to Feredach Finn, king of Scotland, who was then at his palace of Tuirrin brighé na Righ, calling on him for submission and tribute, or an immediate reason to the contrary on the field of battle. The Scottish king refused either submission or tribute, and accepted the challenge of battle, but required a few days to prepare for so unexpected an event.

The time for battle at last arrived; both armies marched to Magh an Chairthi (the plain of the Pillar Stone), in Glenn Feadha (the woody glen); Dathi at the head of his gaedhils, and Feredach leading a large force composed of
[p.288] native Scots, Picts, Britons, French, Scandinavians, and Hebridean Islanders.

A fierce and destructive fight ensued between the two parties, in which the Scottish forces were at length overthrown and routed with great slaughter. When the Scottish king saw the death of his son and the discomfiture of his army, he threw himself headlong on the ranks of his enemies, dealing death and destruction all round him: but in the height of his fury he was laid hold of by Conall Gulban [the greatest ancestor of Saint Colum Cille and of the O'Donnells of Donnegall], who, taking him up in his arms, hurled him against the pillar stone and dashed out his brains. The scene of this battle has been continued ever since to be called Gort an Chairthé, the Pillarstone Field; and the glenn, Glenn an Chatha, or Battle Glen.

Dathi having now realised the object of his ambition, set up a surviving son of the late king on the throne of Scotland, and receiving hostages and formal public submission from him, he passed onwards into Britain and France, in both of which countries he still received hostages and submission, wherever he proceeded on his march. he continued his progress but with what object does not appear, even to the foot of the Alps, where he was at last killed, in the midst of his glory, by a flash of lightning.

The body of this great king was afterwards carried home by his people, and he was buried with his fathers in the ancient pagan cemetery at Raith Cruachain, in Connacht, as related in a very old poem by Torna Eigeas. At this place his grave was still distinguished by the Coirthe Dearg, the Red Pillar Stone, down to the year 1650, when Dubhaltach mac Firbisigh wrote his first great Book of Genealogies.

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The Celtic Fire Feasts

Fire Feast Introduction AD433: Patrick's fire Beltaine Lughnasa Samhain Imbolc Southern hemisphere
Division of the Year
Ar is dé roinn nobid for an mpliadain and .i. in samrad o beltine co samfuin; in gemred o samfuin co beltine.

For two divisions were formerly on the year, namely, summer from Beltaine the first of May to Samuin, and winter from Samuin to Beltaine.
- from Tochmarc Emer   Representation of an Irish chieftain seated at dinner, 1581from
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