Were There Giants in Ancient Ireland?
Updated: May 13, 2020
I suppose that depends on what you mean by ‘giant’. The Oxford Dictionary is vague:
‘An imaginary or mythical being of human form but superhuman size’
It backs this up with:
‘An abnormally or extremely tall or large person, animal, or plant'
If you Google it, you will be told that Irish mythology is full of stories of giants. Despite popular belief, search a little more deeply, and you’ll find this is not true. More often than not, it is folklore which tells of giants, as last week’s post explains: Fionn mac Cumhall reduced to hiding in a crib dressed as a baby, even though he was so large he was responsible for building a road across the sea to Scotland, which we now know as the ‘Giant’s Causeway’; the giant witch-hag falling to her death as she leaped from crag to crag, carrying boulders in her apron which formed the cairns of Loughcrew, throwing competitions among the men of the Fianna which resulted in the split rock of Easky, and so on.
As you can see, people used famous characters to explain features in the landscape, like cairns or the stones of the Giant's Causeway, which could not otherwise be explained, and this in itself is interesting; the God of Christianity is not credited with creating these wonders.
Clearly, from these examples, Irish giants were… well, fecking gigantic! But how ginormous is a giant, exactly? Here’s an interesting story, which might give us a clue.
DNA extracted from the teeth of a man named Charles Byrne, from Northern Ireland, who lived in the eighteenth century, proves that he had a genetic mutation which resulted in extreme growth. He was 7ft 7 ins tall when he died in the 1780s aged just 22. His skeleton can still be seen at the Hunterian Museum in the London headquarters of the Royal College of Surgeons.
By StoneColdCrazy at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16500747
What’s so intriguing about this case, is that the DNA matched with that of five Northern Irish families still living in that area today, and scientists believe they all inherited the gene mutation from the same common ancestor who lived up to 66 generations, or 1500 years, ago. Who knows, perhaps in the future, it will be traced even further back. If so, then perhaps we have just found the origin of the giant stories in Irish folklore. (You can read the full story here.)
The Tuatha de Danann were said to be tall, slender and powerful, although they were never described as giants. The Fomori, a sea-faring race who battled against the arrival of the Danann, were led by a King known as Balor, who was said to be a giant; he wasn't much of a looker, by all accounts... he had one eye in the centre of his head which could kill people with a single glance.
Although the Fomori are portrayed as nasty and despicable, and really quite ugly, it is only Balor who is described as a giant. I would also dispute their ugliness; Elatha was so beautiful that when he appeared over the sea to Eriu in his silver boat, she consented immediately to sleep with him. Their resulting son, Bres, was also beautiful; in fact, that is the very meaning of his name.
Balor locked his daughter, Ethne, away in a tower on an island after hearing a prophecy that he would be killed by his own grandson. (I wonder if Balor had sons, and if he locked all them up too...) Despite this, Cian of the Danann comes to her and they sleep together. She gives birth to triplet sons, but Balor orders them to be thrown into the sea. One of them is rescued by Birog, a druidess, and he grows up to be Lugh, God of Lightning. At the Second Battle of Moytura, Lugh does indeed kill his grandfather with a spear through his evil eye, and so the prophecy came to pass.
My favourite giant story, however, concerns the origins of the five sacred guardian trees of Ireland. I can’t help feeling that this myth has really really ancient origins.
One day, a tall stranger, some say a giant ‘as high as a wood’, came to the court of the High King at Tara bearing a branch from which grew three fruits: an apple, an acorn, and a hazelnut.
The stranger’s name was Trefuilngid Tre-eochair, meaning ‘of the three sprouts’. From the description, he was clearly a descendant of the Otherworld:
“As high as a wood was the top of his shoulders, the sky and the sun visible between his legs, by reason of his size and his comeliness. A shining crystal veil about him like unto raiment of precious linen. Sandals upon his feet, and it is not known of what material they were. Golden-yellow hair upon him falling in curls to the level of his thighs.”
He requested of Conan Bec-eclach, a just and brave High King, that all the men of Ireland be assembled, and from them he selected seven of the wisest men of knowledge from each ‘quarter’ of the land, and also seven from Tara.
He taught them all about their history and heritage, and shared with them his knowledge, but during that time, not a drop of wine or morsel of food passed his lips, for he was sustained purely by the fragrance of the fruits of his branch.
When his work was done, he gave the fruits from his branch to Fintan, the White-Haired Ancient One, who extracted seeds and planted them in each quarter of the land, and one in the centre, at Uisneach. The trees which grew from these seeds became the five sacred trees of Ireland.
Searbhan was a giant who protected a sacred rowan tree in the forest of Dubros (in Co Sligo), upon which grew magical berries which had the power to restore youth to the old. During their flight from jealous Fionn mac Cumhall, Diarmuid and Grainne entered the forest, looking for a safe place to sleep. Being quite pregnant by this time, as soon as Grainne laid eyes on the glossy red berries, she was consumed with an insatiable craving for them.
Inevitably, Searbhan refused to give her any, causing Diarmuid to attack him in anger. The giant swung his huge club, but Diarmuid was a mighty warrior of the Fianna, and not only did he dodge nimbly out of the way, but he managed to relieve Searbhan of his weapon, and kill him with it.
Here in Co Cavan, folklore local to the Burren (Cavan Burren, not Clare Burren... yes, there are two Burrens in Ireland, it means 'stony place'.) tells the tale of two sibling giants, Lugh (an important and well loved character from mythology, borrowed yet again) and Lag, who both fell in love with the same female giant. To decide which one of them should win her, they challenged one another to jump over a wide chasm. They both succeeded. Lag then decided he would jump the chasm backwards, and of course, he fell to his death. He was buried in a wedge tomb beside the chasm, which to this day is known as ‘the Giant’s Leap’.
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