Banner: Knocknarea sunset
The Eglone
The Eglone, a huge glacial pillar of limestone on the plain of Moytura. The Eglone is the tallest of the many pillar stones in this area, said to be the graves of the warriors who fell during the Second Battle of Moytura.

Moytura Co Sligo.

Many beautiful men fell there in the stall of death. Great was the slaughter and the grave-lying which took place there. Pride and shame were there side by side. There was anger and indignation. Abundant was the stream of blood over the white skin of young warriors mangled by the hands of bold men while rushing into danger for shame.

Harsh was the noise made by the multitude of warriors and champions protecting their swords and shields and bodies while others were striking them with spears and swords. Harsh too the tumult all over the battlefield—the shouting of the warriors and the clashing of bright shields, the swish of swords and ivory-hilted blades, the clatter and rattling of the quivers, the hum and whirr of spears and javelins, the crashing strokes of weapons.

The Second Battle of Moytura.

The Second Battle of Moytura is the central story, the Jewel in the Crown of the Irish mythological cycles and sagas. It is a great epic wonder-tale of combat between the forces of Light and Darkness, good and evil, order and chaos, and yet at the same time it may well be an echo of the actual history two competeing groups of neolithic farmers who colonised and contested this landscape thousands of years ago.

Shee Lugh
A moonrise viewed from the mound of Shee Lugh on the summit of the ridge of Moytura. In the sky, representing Balor's Eye, is an image of the huge stone basin found in the eastern chamber at Knowth.

The story was recorded in two versions in the sixteenth century; both of these, though they differ in some respects, follow the same thread which is thought to be based on an earlier twelfth century manuscript. This in turn is known to be based on an ancient oral tradition which may well stretch back to the neolithic and beyond to the origins of agriculture in ancient Anatolia. The location of the battlefields was a cause of some vexation to histiorians:

Few subjects have exercised our Irish antiquaries more than the battles of the two Moyturas. For that there were two Moytura battle-fields, one near Cong in county Mayo, called the southern Moytura, and the other in the parish of Kilmactrany in the county Sligo, called the northern Moytura,* seems to have been commonly admitted until Mr. W. M. Hennessy, in the preface to his edition of the Annals of Loch Ce, published in 1871, called in question the existence of the southern battlefield. As, however, the Mayo Moytura does not come within the scope of these pages, the writer has nothing to say to the difference between Mr. Hennessy and his brother antiquaries, which may one day develop into a new battle of Moytura, in which, as in the old one, giants are sure to be engaged.

* The Venerable Charles O'Conor writes thus in reference to this subject:—

"The Fomorians invited back the Belgians to their assistance, and their conjunction produced the second battle of Moy-turey, near the lake of Arrow (Lough Arrow), but distant from the former Moy-turey about fifty miles, and, by way of distinction, called Moyturey of the Fomorians. This place, surrounded by high hills, great rocks, and narrow defiles, was pitched upon, probably, by the weaker side, but which made the attack is not recorded."

— Dissertations on the History of Ireland, p. 167, Dublin, 1753.

The history of Sligo: town and county, Volume II

T. O'Rorke, 1900.

Terence O'Rourke, quoting Charles O'Conor, states above that the Lough Arrow battlefield was known in the mid sixteenth century.

The view from Shee Lugh, the neolithic cairn on Moytura in County Sligo.
The wide and sweeping view from Shee Lugh, the neolithic cairn on the summit of Moytura in County Sligo. Visible are the huge hillfort of Knocknashee, top left and the massive neolithic passage-grave at Heapstown, bottom right.

Location, Location, Location

There are several localised folklore versions of the Battles around the country, for example in north Sligo, Balor lived on Dernish Island instead of the more traditional Tory Island, while Eochy, King of the Firbolg was buried in Ballisodare instead of the massive cairn bearing his name in Ballinrobe. In much the same way, Queen Maeve's final resting place could be Rathmullen, Knocknarea or Knockma. Lady Gregory's somewhat sanitized version of the Battle of Moytura, published in Gods and Fighting Men in 1902 with a preface by Yeats, is a most accessible introduction to the story and is always in print. You can read the text online here.

Balor by Simon Bisley
A most fantastic rendition of Balor of the Evil Eye on his way to do battle at Moytura. Illustration by Simon Bisley.

The fact that there were two great mythological battles involving the Túatha Dé Danann, the first said to be at Ballisodare and Cong, has caused a great deal of confusion amongst antiquarian writers. These learned gentlemen of the ascendency were attempting to piece together Irish history from Victorian period translations of medieval Irish manuscripts. The process of figuring out meanings and placenames and their attached mythological associations began in earnest during the 1830's.

The Ordnance Survey sent out officers who travelled the country and collected placenames and their translations, and local monuments, myths and folklore. This information was sent back to headquarters in Dublin where John O'Donovan and George Petrie attempted to work out correspondences in the massive archive of medieval manuscripts at their disposal. It was Petrie who figured out the until then unknown location of the Second Battle of Moytura, on the ridge above the eastern shore Lough Arrow in County Sligo, based on comments by the great antiquarian Charles O'Conor.

A huge chunk of glacial erratic limestone on Moytura in County Sligo.
A huge chunk of glacial erratic limestone at Moytura, the Plain of Pillars beside Lough Arrow in County Sligo..

George Petrie Discovers Moytura

Petrie made a field trip in August of 1837, and just missed O'Donovan, who had returned to Dublin. Petrie visited the monuments and massive erratic pillars by Lough Arrow, in something of a temper because of missing O'Donovan and because the weather was dreadful and he got drenched. He proceeded to the home of his friend and fellow collector, Roger Walker of Rathcarrick, whose home on the side of Knocknarea was close to the traditional site of the First Battle of Moytura at Carrowmore in County Sligo.

The Carrowmore monuments had long been regarded as the graves of fallen warriors, who were killed in the battle a few kilometers south, where the now lost Ecohy's cairn on Ballisodare strand at Tanrego marked the location of the battle field. When Petrie recovered from the fever he had caught during his visit to Lough Arrow, he proceeded to survey the what we now know to be very early neolithic monuments at Carrowmore and map the area.

Early dates from the causewayed enclosure at Magheraboy certainly show some of the earliest neolithic colonists to land in Ireland arriving at the Cuil Iorra peninsula by 4,150 BC. The remains of the earliest domesticated cow yet found in Ireland, at Ferriter's Cove in County Kerry, are most likely to be the remains of a neolithic colonist who was shipwrecked while attempting the voyage up the perilious west coast of Ireland. The cattle bones were securely dated to 4,350 BC.

People acquainted with the literature of the Battle of Moytura may be disappointed at not finding here some reference to what Sir James Fergusson has written on the subject in his esteemed work on Rude Stone Monuments. No one has a better right than Sir James to be heard on such a subject, and the writer turned to his chapter on "Moytura" with a confident expectation of finding light in it, but was surprised to discover that the twelve pages and four illustrations, which Sir James thought he was devoting to the northern Moytura, were, every word and every line, given to Carrowmore in Coolerra, a place near twenty miles distant.

It is a great loss that, by the intervention of a putative Moytura, we are left in the dark as to the views of this sober, experienced, and able antiquary in regard to the real Moytura. However the extraordinary mistake may have occurred, it supplies one of the most striking instances, to be met with, of leaving Hamlet out of the play.

In appearance the plateau of Moytura is one of the most unattractive in Ireland—sombre, weird, and barren. Dull, however, as it looks, it commands a varied and picturesque prospect: all round, the mountains of Leitrim and Sligo; to the south, the rich and cultivated tract of Tir Tuathal; at various points, the lakes of Lough Bo, Lough na Suil, Lough Skean, Lough Ce, and Lough Arrow; and on the west, the sunny, smiling slopes of Hollybrook, backed up by the historic Dunaveeragh.

Can these myths be echoes and fragments of memories recalling prehistoric colonizations. The Dananns are said to have come to Ireland in magical ships, which they burned upon landing to show they had come to stay. An early version of the myth has them arriving at Lough Corrib in Co. Galway, sailing up the lake as far as Cong which is close to the site of the First Battle.

Summer Solstice
Summer solstice sunset over Knocknarea viewed from the cairn called Shee Lugh on the summit of Moytura.

The other landing site was the hulking mountain of Sliabh an Iarann in Co Leitrim, which is not far to the east of Lough Arrow, the site of the Second Battle. If they landed on Sliabh an Iarann, they certainly must have had flying ships as it is quite a high mountain. Why not both landing sites - there is no reason why they might not have landed in two waves.

An erratic limestone mushroom close to the court-cairn at Moytura in County Sligo.
An enigmatic erratic limestone mushroom close to the court-cairn at Moytura, location of a momentous mythological battle in County Sligo.

A Universal Theme

This archetypal myth appears in many cultures around the world. It is found in India, in Babylon, in the Old Testament story of David and Goliath, and here in Ireland. In more recent times the core story of Moytura has directly inspired the works of J.R.R Tolkien, who based his Dark Lord Sauron, the villian in the Lord of the Rings, on Balor of the Evil Eye.

The opening scene from Peter Jackson's version of the Lord of the Rings. Sauron = Balor and the Ring = the Evil Eye. Tolkein, of course, was deeply versed in many mythologies and knew the Irish myths.

Frank Herbert uses the story of the evil grandfather who is eventually defeated by his grandson who was raised in secret in his novel, and now a successful movie, Dune. George Lucas and his Star Wars movies are well-known to be inspired by Dune, but told in a more pop culture wild-west fashion. Darth Vader is based on Balor, while Luke Skywalker is obviously modelled on Lugh of the Long Arm, and they all use the cliamh solas, the Sword of Light as their weapons. Vaders Death Star is a monsterous mechanical creation based on Balor's Evil Eye.

The Battle of Arrakeen from Dune, where the Baron Vladamir Harkonnon is based on Balor of the Evil Eye.

The Saga of the Exiles by Julian May is even more explicit with its tale of two competing tribes based closely on the characters and events of Moytura. My favourite modern working of the Moytura myth is Jack Vance's Lyonesse triligy, where Dhrun the prince is hidden by the fairies from his evil grandfather Casimir.

The Arrival of the Tuatha De Danannn in Ireland by Jim Fitzpatrick.
The Arrival of the Tuatha De Danann in Ireland by Jim Fitzpatrick.

The First Battle of Moytura

The First Battle of Maigh Tuireadh, or Moytura it is said to have been fought on the Plain of Cong at the northern end of Lough Corrib, on the border of counties Galway and Mayo. The combatants were the invading tribes of the Túatha Dé Danann led by Núada the High King, and the defending tribes of the Firbolg led by Eochy the High King of Ireland.

After a gory hurling match in which the losers were decapitated in an Aztec fashion and three days of bloody warfare, the Túatha Dé Danann won the battle and possession of Ireland. However Núada lost his arm to Streng, a champion of the Firbolg, and had to step down as High King; Breas the Beautiful was chosen in his place.

A treaty was agreed between the two tribes. The Firbolg agreed to withdraw and settle in Connaught and on the islands off the west coast. The Túatha Dé Danann took possession of Ireland and ruled from the ancient capital of Tara, where they set up the Lia Fail beside the ancient Mound of the Hostages.

Formorian warriors by Simon Bisley from 2000 AD's graphic novel, Slaine - the Horned God.
Formorian warriors by Simon Bisley from 2000 AD's graphic novel, Slaine - the Horned God. Well worth a read if you can find it.

The plain of Cong is another fascinating region for both mythology and archaeology. There are several caves in the fissured limestone, four stone circles at Nymphsfield - in fact the only stone circles in Connaught apart from those at Carrowmore. There are three massive cairns remaining out of a possible total of five. Ballymacgibbon cairn, Daithi's cairn and Ecohy's cairn are large, mysterious and as yet unopened structures.

A few miles to the east of Cong is the hill of Knockma, said to be the first hill in Ireland to be given a name. Noah's granddaughter Cesair landed there after the Biblical flood, and the great unopened cairn on the summit is said to be her grave, though others say Queen Maeve is buried there. There is a second large cairn which was remodelled by a local landlord and five more cairns on the smaller hills to the east and west.

The Labby Rock
The Labby Rock, the huge neolithic dolmen on Moytura, is said to mark the spot where Nuada, High King of the Dananna was slain by Balor of the Evil Eye.