Ireland's Ancient East Theme: Ancient Ireland
The legend of Midir and Etain is central to the heritage exhibition in Ardagh Heritage and Creativity Centre and the basis for many of our Creatvie Ardagh workshops (see here). For centuries it has inspired artists and story tellers and we are lucky to have a number of beautiful depictions of the lovers on display including the Eamon O'Doherty sculpture of their transformation into swans.
The full legend can be found on a number of sites (listed below) but here is a summary of it adapted from the play which we have performed a number of times in the grounds of the centre. It is also used for our group drama workshops.
Fadó, fadó, or long, long ago, not so very far from here … in fact you can almost see it … go straight through the village past Lyons and towards Carrickboy and it’s right in front of you before the big bend, we’re going up there at Lughnasa to pick bilberries if you’d like to come … sorry, I got a bit distracted, back to the story … long, long ago there was a fairy prince, one of the Tuatha Dé Dannan, named Midir. He lived on Brí Léith, now known as Ardagh Mountain …
One day Midir was out riding his horse through the countryside surrounding his home when he came across the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. She was beside a river washing her hair. She scooped up the water in a spectacular silver bowl that glinted in the sunlight and attracted his eye towards her. Midir fell instantly in love and stopped to ask the maiden her name. She was Etain, and when their eyes met she too was smitten. Midir wasted no time in asking her to become his wife and she instantly abandoned her task, leaving her silver bowl, her home and all of her past life behind her she travelled to Brí Léith with him.
I may have forgotten to mention, but as was the custom back then, especially among important fairy folk, Midir already had a wife. Fuamnach was her name, and as you can imagine, Fuamnach was not too pleased to see Midir return with a second wife. She was overcome with jealousy, but decided to disguise it until the moment was right. She pretended to make Etain welcome and for a short while was very nice to her. All along though, she had a plan. Fuamnach, being a member of the sidhe race (Irish fairies) had a few magic tricks up her sleeves. She had learned them from a druid and become quite skilled herself. When she found herself alone with Etain she took her chance and ‘poof’ she turned her into a butterfly. For a time the butterfly stayed by Midir’s side, following him everywhere he went, but Fuamnach’s jealousy grew and grew until she had cooked up enough magic inside her to make a storm. This storm blew Etain far, far away from Brí Léith and for many, many years (somewhere between 3 and 700 depending which version you believe) she flew around Ireland trying to make her way back home.
Eventually Etain (the butterfly) came to rest at Newgrange. At this time Aengus, the foster son of Midir, was ruler of Newgrange and it’s surrounds. The sidhe always recognise each other and Aengus knew immediately that the butterfly was Etain. He took her in and made her comfortable and did his best to remove the spell, but Fuamnach’s magic was powerful and all he could do was remove the spell from dusk til dawn. So for a time Etain and Aengus were content in Newgrange, but it wasn’t to last. Fuamnach heard that Aengus was sheltering Etain and was furious. She quickly whipped up another storm and off flew Etain for another seven or three hundred years. Because these old stories were passed down from person to person for years, just like we’re doing today, things got a bit mixed up and exaggerated sometimes, so nobody’s actually sure how long she flew around the countryside for this time, but she grew weaker and weaker as time passed.
Finally Etain grew so weary that she had to rest, she landed on the window sill belonging to Etar, an Ulster chieftain who just happened to be having a great party at the time. Exhausted after her years being tossed and thrown around by the wind, Etain fell from the window into the goblet of Etar’s wife. She drank the wine it contained and without even noticing swallowed the butterfly too.
|Irish language comic available in our Craft gallery|
Nine months later she gave birth to a baby girl who she named Etain. The baby Etain was just as beautiful as she had been in her previous life, she grew into a happy child full of mischief and daydreams, with no recollection of her fairy past. When she was all grown up again, she looked exactly as she had beforehand and had many, many admirers. Etain married Eochaidh, the High King of Ireland. Great celebrations were held at Tara, where the High King lived, for a fortnight before and after the wedding.
Sometime after her wedding Etain was alone in the fields around Tara when she was approached by a stranger. Midir, who had been searching Ireland for his lost love all this time was delighted to finally track her down, but soon realised that she had no memory of their life together. Despite his attempts to remind her of their love, Etain chose to stay with Eochaidh, but became troubled by dreams of Midir and Brí Léith.
Unable to leave her now that he had finally found Etain, Midir showed up at Tara and challenged the High King to a game of fichel, an old Irish game similar to chess. They played with gold pieces on a silver board and Eochaidh decreed that the terms would be decided after each match.
Midir lost the first game and Eochaidh demanded a forest fully grown, instantly a forest appeared. Eochaidh realised that this stranger was of the magical sidhe race, but agreed to play a second game which he also won. This time for his forfeit he ordered Midir to build a road across the bog. Some of you may have seen part of this road before at Corlea Bog. Perhaps foolishly Eochaidh took the third challenge, but this time Midir won. He named his prize, a kiss from Etain. Eochaidh, fearing that his wife would be taken from him, told Midir to come back in a month.
During this time Eochaidh had barricades built around his palace in Tara and increased the guard around him and Etain at all times. He was determined to keep Midir out, but knew the fairy magic was strong, so he kept Etain close. One month later, however, Midir suddenly appeared in the middle of the Great Hall at Tara, took Etain by the hand and both of them vanished. Those who rushed outside didn’t see the pair escape, but instead two swans circled the palace together before disappearing in the direction of Brí Léith, where it’s said there’s an entrance to Tir na nÓg where they still live happily. Maybe we’ll find it on our bilberry walk in July.