Of all of the accounts of magical battles fought in the hallowed mythology of Ireland, one of the most impressive occurs in an early written story from the Book of Lismore known variously as ‘The Siege of Druim Damhgaire’ (Druim Damhgaire = ‘Ridge of the Ox-?bellow’) or using its modern Co. Limerick name: the ‘Siege of Knocklong’, and the main player is the wizard known variously as Mug Ruith or Mogh Roith (Ruith/roith = ‘Wheel’!). It was called by 19thC scholar and Celticist Eugene O’Curry the
‘…most important story full of information on topography manners customs and Druidism…’ (‘Lectures on the Manuscript Materials of Ancient Irish History’)
Mogh Ruith seems in many ways similar to the character of Manannan (the shapeshifting magician) or his Otherworld Lord equivalents – Lugh the active warrior, Donn Lord of the Dead, etc. He was said to come from Dairbre (Valentia) Island off Co. Kerry, so like the Cailleach Beara he is a powerful Munster favourite.
In the ‘Siege of Druim Damhgaire’, the mythical wolf-fostered King, Cormac mac Airt ua Cuinn, inheritor of the fairy-gifted court of Tara, decides to invade Munster and camp at Druim Damhgaire in order to exact tribute. His druids set about strangling the watercourses and drying the lakes of Munster causing much alarm, so Mogh Ruith is summoned to dislodge him. His price is high, but it is worth it:
He storms onto the battlefield in his glorious chariot pulled by magical oxen and, clothed in a hornless bull-hide and wearing a feathered hat (looking no doubt something like a Celtic version of Mercury, you may note) proceeds to perform feats that would make both Gandalf and St Patrick run for cover! His powers, we are told by the Book of Lismore, come by dint of his oriental tutor – one Simon Magus, famous flying adversary of St Peter in Rome, who also appears to taught the Manx wizard Melinus to fly in Jocelyn’s 12thC Vita Patricii! It seems like Mogh – like Manannan had a wanderlust that took him to the East, for in other Irish literary accounts he is even responsible for beheading John the Baptist… Mythologists might note that going to (and coming from) the East is a very solar motif.
Mogh’s first magical act of the battle is to free up the water supplies by tossing a magical spear into the ground; he then orders magical fires of Rowan wood to be made which chase across the landscape towards his enemies. He summons giant eels or serpents, he creates dogs to kill Cormac’s druidesses who assume the guise of magic sheep (a theme also seen in the tales of Mongan mac Fiachna). After this he blows from his mouth a roiling black cloud which descends down upon Cormac’s army as a rain of blood which rushes as far as Tara! Next up are Cormac’s druids who he turns to stone with another magical breath. Cormac, unsurprisingly, concedes defeat and Munster prevails!
The aspects of magical displayed in the narrative show Mogh commanding every one of the classical elements to use as weapons: water, fire, air and earth. It is the kind of omnipotence and mysterious power we’d normally expect from a tribal god rather than a druid professor or bishop, and is certainly one of the most fantastical display of all-out magical mastery that has survived in early Irish literature.
The story represents a powerful tale of Munster sovereignty over the depredations of the Connachta and the Ui Niall. When looked upon in the context of legendary warrior tales, it is also special in that the warrior is magical, like Cuchullain, Fionn, Manannán mac Lir and the Norse Odinn, and their British counterpart Merlin. The wider story-tradition of a wizard-prophet-warrior, was the inspiration for Geoffrey of Monmouth and other ‘Arthurian’ writers (‘Vita Merlini’, the French ‘Vulgate Cycle’) not to mention religious writers such as Jocelyn of Furness during the 12th-15th centuries, but from what we can tell Ireland’s wonder tales are some of the oldest written accounts of these.