Our ancient tales are full of the exploits of renowned warriors and nobles, characters such as Cuchulainn, Fionn Mac Cumhaill and Queen Medb of Connacht; gods and heroes who give us a sense of the drama and the values of their culture. Yet the most colourful figure in popular imagination must be that of the druid, variously portrayed as poet, prophet and magician. We hear many stories of shape-shifting, of magic mists, of spells and enchantments, and of sacred woods and potions, and can picture a Getafix-like character from the pages of Asterix the Gaul.
In our stories, the most documented power of the druid (or file, which in modern Irish means poet but in ancient tales was interchangeable with druid) was his satire, which not merely insulted the honour but could physically punish an ungracious host or other victim. In the epic tale of Táin Bó Cuailnge, (the Cattle Raid of Cooley), for instance, the Ulster hero Ferdia could not be persuaded to switch his allegiance until “Medb sent the druids and satirists and harsh bards…that they might make three satires to stay him and three lampoons, and that they might raise on his face three blisters, shame, blemish and disgrace, so that he might die before the end of nine days if he did not succumb at once”. Cairbre Mac Eadaoine, having visited the inhospitable king Breas, was forced to spend the cold night in a dark, bare hut with only stale cakes to eat. He then satirized the king for his meanness, and “from that hour there was nothing but blight on Breas”. Even the elements could be controlled by the druid’s satire. Aodh Mac Aininne, a poet at the court of the Ulster king Conchobhar Mac Neasa, was sentenced to execution by drowning for cohabiting with Mughain, the king’s concubine. Each lake he was taken to, however, dried up completely after Aodh chanted over it, and the sentence was eventually lifted.
The power of foresight was another attribute of the druids. They possessed a secret knowledge that enabled them to interpret natural phenomena such as birdsongs and cloud formations as good or bad omens. They also used certain rituals in order to prophesise, practices such as the ‘tairbhfheis’ or ‘bull-feast’, whereby a bull would be killed, a seer would gorge himself on the raw flesh and blood, and then sleep on the hide. During his sleep, he would have a vision which would reveal the sought-after knowledge, such as, for example, the identity of the future king. When Eterscele, the king of Tara, died, the men of Ireland declared a tairbhfheis. The sleeper had a vision of a naked man approaching Tara after nightfall, carrying a stone in a sling. Meanwhile, the youth Conaire, an illegitimate son of Eterscele, was hunting a flock of strange birds as far as, and then into, the sea, where they threw off their birdskins and assumed human form. One of them advised him that they were his kin, and that he should proceed immediately to Tara. When Conaire arrived naked, as he had pursued the birds into the water, he was installed as the new king.
With his capacity to recite hundreds of tales, his knowledge of the lineages of the kings and his ability to harness the power of the Otherworld, the druid/file often demanded, and received, enormous payments. A Galway king, Guaire, was once visited by Seanchán Torpeist and his retinue. Seanchán made a series of difficult demands of his host, including the provision of strawberries in winter, the killing of a favourite pet, and the exclusion from a feast of the nobility of Connacht. In another tale, the court of a one-eyed king, Eochaidh MacLuchta, was called upon by Aithirne Ailgeasach. After being offered any gift he desired, Aithirne asked for Eochaidh’s good eye. The king plucked it out himself and placed it in Aithirne’s palm. Aithirne then moved on to spend a year in the court of a Leinster king, Meas Geaghra, and departed with the wives of 150 of the Leinster nobles. As well as catering for the file, the host had the added burden of satisfying his retinue, and this hospitality was exploited to the extent that “fully one third of the free-tribes had become enrolled in roaming companies of poets. These companies were wont to descend on the houses of kings and chieftains, requiring entertainment so long as it pleased them, and gifts of whatsoever they coveted.” That they were so treated is testament to how the druids were perceived in their own society – feared for their powers and honoured for their high social status, they were shamans, magi and seers, as well as the official historians, royal genealogists and judges.
The excessive demands of the file and his retinue, however, did provoke a reaction, and by 575 A.D. the High King Aodh Sláine had resolved to banish the whole caste. In that year, a convention was held at Drom Ceat (Daisy Hill, near Limavady in Co. Derry) and it was only the intervention of St Colmcille, who interceded on their behalf that induced the High King to withdraw his threat of exile. The privileges of the druids were curbed, however; even the master-file, the ollamh, was restricted to a retinue of twenty four men. It is with this St Colmcille that we first see the absorption of the old paganism into the new Christian movement. In the Leabhar Breac it was stated that his mother consulted a druid as to the proper time to start his schooling, and that this druid was actually his first tutor. St Barra, the patron saint of Cork city, was by one account, the son of Amhairghin, druid to Tighearnach, a west Cork king. Maolochtair, king of the Decies, had his own druid yet bestowed the site of Lismore on St Mochud. His stepson St Cumaine Fada then went on to become bishop of Clonfert until his death of plague in 661 A.D. Not that it was all a peaceful transition – St Caillin, for example, when founding a monastery at Fenagh, Co Leitrim, was opposed by the local king Feargna and his druids. Through the saints invocations, Feargna was swallowed up by the ground and the druids were turned to stone. St Patrick had to contend with the High King Laoghaire’s druids, causing one to rise in the air and then drop to the ground, dashing his brains out on a stone. He engaged the second, Lucat Moel, in a contest of wondrous feats which ended in Lucat being burnt to death.
The occurrence of a series of natural disasters from the 6th to the 8th century assisted the spreading of the new religion throughout the island, and as it spread the longtime link between mysticism and literature was broken and the file became more and more of a purely literary figure. He lost the art of divination and other supernatural powers, and only the tradition of his magic survived. By the tenth century, the bardic schools in Ireland were studying metrical tracts called ‘iombas forosnai’, ‘teinm laida’ and ‘dichetal do chennaibh’, names which centuries earlier had been given to druidic rituals. The magicians had become wordsmiths, and Thus ended the Age of the Druids………