Much of the recovery and reconstruction of our Gaelic stories comes from medieval texts, but other stories lived past the conversion of Ireland in the folk memory, and some of these stories did both.
In the Cath Maige Tuired, the story of Lug’s birth is simple:
The Tuatha Dé then made an alliance with the Fomoire, and Balor the grandson of Net gave his daughter Ethne to Cian the son of Dian Cécht. And she bore the glorious child, Lug.
This dynastic marriage, meant to create peace between their peoples doesn’t seem to have helped much, given the latter Battle the text is named for. It also doesn’t explain why no one seems to remember who Lug is later in the story when he arrives at Teamhair. The folktale, with its fairytale structure, is richer and more interesting, with an imprisoned maiden, terrible prophecies, and a hero born out of a secret tryst.*
It is one of these folktales, collected from the area nearest Toraigh or Tory Island, a windswept, treeless place off the north coast of Ireland, that features Bírog. Toraigh is traditionally, in that area at least, held to be the home of Balor, and this is the case in our story as well. Bírog, the druid woman, does not exist in the medieval texts (if anyone knows otherwise, please let me know!). Instead, she is a sort of Merlin character brought into the folktale to nudge things in the right direction for the prophecy of Ceithlenn to come true. She ensures that Cian comes to Tory Island, and ruthlessly distracts him from finding Goibhniu’s cow by pointing him in Ethliu’s direction. All this, to ensure that Lug, the prophecied child, will be born—even as Merlin pushes Uther toward Igraine to ensure Arthur will exist. And, again like Merlin, she saves the baby Lug from the drowning his grandfather decreed for him, freeing his half-brothers as well, but leaving them in the sea to become seals.**
Bírog’s name may mean “thorn” and ties into another version of the tale, where the babies are taken out to be drowned but the thorn holding them in their blanket falls loose and the babies fall out in a bay, called afterward the Bay of the Thorn, for the fallen thorn. Lug is saved, perhaps by luck, washing up on the shore, or perhaps by Manannán, that watery trickster, and his half brothers or sisters (most stories say they are all boys, but not all) become the first seals. Many researchers equate these seal-brothers with the elder brother of Lleu Llaw Gyffes of Wales, Dylan of the Sea, who upon his birth immediately leapt into the sea and swam away, while Lleu, unnamed and unformed, was gathered up by his uncle, Gwydion, to incubate in a trunk at the foot of his bed. I hope to talk more about the parallel stories later.
But the folktale, as is the way with such stories, doesn’t really tell us who Bírog is, only that she is a druid woman from the mountains who decides to involve herself in the story. Is she simply an artifact of storytelling? Is she the memory of a lost Fomoire or Tuath Déa? Why did the storytellers choose a druid woman instead of the more common male wizard/druid to fill this role? I don’t have answers for these questions, but find them interesting to consider nonetheless.
Bírog is a creature of folk tale, not literature—yet she speaks to me as much a part of the story as anything written in the old texts. She emphasizes the complex connections Lug has with women (mothers, wives, aunts…) throughout his stories. More on that later!
*Some parallels with the story of Perseus son of Danae have been noted by scholars as well.
**Interestingly, the parallel here is with Arthur drowning the May Day babies to try to rid himself of Mordred.
[Cites to be added later, hopefully!]