Oenach Oengusa: The games assembly of Newgrange – a hidden gem in the Dindshenchas

There is lots of mythology about Newgrange and Brú na Bóinne, but even myths which are ostensibly about other places can mention the great complex of the Boyne. I found one fascinating reference to the Brú in a passage in the Rennes Dindshenchas, and here I explore its significance.

In the past few days, I have found a hidden gem in some medieval stories about ancient Irish place names, one that I wish I had known about when I was writing my book Dronehenge: The Story Behind the Remarkable Discovery at Newgrange.

I made a special effort to get my hands on the translations of the Rennes Dindshenchas which had been undertaken by the prolific scholar Whitley Stokes and published in a French academic journal known as Revue Celtique in the late 19th century.

These prose tales (many of the old Dindshenchas are in metrical or rhyming/poem format) are contained in a manuscript preserved in the library of the University of Rennes in France. Dindshenchas is a combination of Irish words – Dind, meaning a ‘noteworthy place’, and senchasa, meaning ‘old stories’, ‘ancient history’ or ‘tradition’.[i]

The tales, in the original Irish with Stokes’ translations and notes, were published in volumes XV and XVI of Revue Celtique (now known as Études Celtiques) in 1894 and 1895. I secured facsimile reprints of these volumes from two sellers on the internet, one based in the United States and one based in France. I suspect that my trawl of Stokes’ great work will result in more hidden gems being revealed, but for now I want to talk about just one.

It was while browsing story no. 65, ‘Raith Cruachan’, that I stumbled upon this fascinating reference.

The story begins:

Raith Cruachan, canas roainmniged?

Ni ansa. Cruachu nó Cróchan Croderg inelt Etaine dodechaid for aithed la Mider Bríg Léith a Fremaind a hOenug Oengusa.

Rath Cruachan, whence the name?

Not hard (Not difficult to say). Cruachu or Cróchan Croderg was the handmaid of Etaín who eloped with Mider of Brí Léith from Fremann, from Oenach Oengusa.

This mention of Oenach Oengusa immediately caught my attention. In my book about Dronehenge and the late Neolithic henges of Brú na Bóinne, many of which are overlooked by the great passage-mound of Newgrange, I drew particular attention to a mention in Lebor na hUidre (The Book of the Dun Cow, the earliest surviving manuscript containing stories in Irish[ii]) of Óenuch in Broga. The Oenachs were ancient assembly sites where major festivities, games, rituals and political ceremonies were held in historic times, but it is believed they had their origins deep in prehistory.[iii]

The three major Oenach sites, according to Lebor na hUidre, were Oenach Cruachan, Oenach Talten and Oenach in Broga. These assembly sites correspond with major monument complexes at Rathcroghan (Cruachan Aí in Roscommon, a major archaeological complex in Connacht), Teltown (the site of the Irish ‘Olympic Games’, a monument complex in Co Meath), and the now famous World Heritage Site of Brú na Bóinne. It was at the latter, Brú na Bóinne, that Ken Williams and I discovered a hitherto unknown late Neolithic complex of giant timber monuments in the summer of 2018 during a drought.

Rathcroghan mound, Cruachan Aí, Co. Roscommon. Photo: © National Monuments Service.

 

The academic literature about Newgrange, Knowth and the Bend of the Boyne monument complex is notable for its lack of attention to this critical reference to Óenuch in Broga in the manuscripts. Perhaps that oversight stems from lack of knowledge of the true extent of the late Neolithic henge/embanked enclosure complex at Brú na Bóinne prior to the drought of 2018. That prolonged lack of rainfall led to an abundance of crop marks becoming visible by drone which revealed a significant previously unrecorded assemblage of impermanent structures on the alluvial terraces located between Newgrange and the river Boyne.[iv]

The modern archaeological literature about the monuments of Brú na Bóinne places a particular emphasis on the fact that the major passage-mound or chambered cairn monuments were tombs. This is somewhat understandable, because it seems obvious that the great mounds of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth were built to serve as places of burial (notwithstanding the fact that they may have had significant other uses, including as monuments aligned to astronomical events). But the wider picture in terms of a ceremonial monumental landscape incorporating human ritual, sports and political events receives much less prominence.

The Rennes Dindshenchas mention of Oenach Oengusa is very important. It suggests that there might have been an assembly at Brú na Bóinne dedicated in honour of Oengus, who is one of the chief deities associated with the monument of Newgrange/Síd in Broga/Síd Mac in Óc. Several stories recorded in medieval manuscripts detail how Oengus came into possession of the great monument of Newgrange. In Tochmarc Étaín, the Wooing of Étaín, he is urged by his father, the Dagda, the chief Tuatha Dé Danann deity, to threaten Elcmar, the owner of Newgrange, and to ask him for possession of the Brug (Brú) as its king for a night and a day. When Elcmar asks for the return of the monument the next day, Oengus is instructed to say to him that “it is in days and nights that the world passes” and he is to keep possession of the great monument.[v]

A similar story is told in De Gabáil int Síde (‘The Taking of the Otherworld Mound’), except this time Dagda is the owner of Síd in Broga and Oengus asks his father if he can stay there for a night and a day, using similar verbal ambiguity to claim it forever when Dagda asks for it back.[vi]

Yet another story (Altram Tige Dá Medar[vii]) has Elcmar as the owner of Newgrange, but in this version the deity Manannán is the one who encourages Oengus to replace Elcmar as the owner of the Brú.

Oengus was one of the principal deities associated with Síd in Broga/Newgrange. Photo: © Anthony Murphy

 

It should be clear from the manuscripts that Oengus became the “head honcho” at Brú na Bóinne at some point, having ousted one of two significant deities associated with the place, either Elcmar, or Oengus’s own father, Dagda.

In the prose Dindshenchas, we now glimpse the possibility that significant ceremonial/celebratory events may have been held at Brú na Bóinne at some time in the ancient past.[viii] The story titled Aided Náth Í (The Violent Death of Náth Í) in Lebor na hUidre refers to Óenach in Broga, i.e. the assembly or gathering at the Brug/Brú. But the Dindshenchas story of Raith Cruachan refers to Oenach Oengusa, suggesting that at some point a similar ceremonial assembly might have been held that was more distinctly associated with Oengus.

Cruachu/Cróchan Croderg was the “handmaid of Etaín who eloped with Midir of Brí Léith from Fremann, from Oenach Oengusa”. This refers to the very well-known story Tochmarc Étaín, found in Lebor na hUidre and the Yellow Book of Lecan. In Tochmarc Étaín, Oengus was fostered by Midir at Brí Léith after his conception at Newgrange through the illicit union of Dagda with Bóinn. Bóinn was married to Elcmar, owner of Newgrange, but Dagda sent him away on an errand that would last just one day – but which, through the work of Dagda’s great magic, stretched out to nine months.

Oengus was reared by Midir at Brí Léith for a period of nine years, until Tríath, another fosterling of Midir, made fun of Oengus on account of the fact that he did not know who his parents were. Oengus asked Midir about his parentage and Midir told him his parents were Echu Ollathir (also known as Dagda) and Eithne (another name for Bóinn), the wife of Elcmar of Newgrange.

Midir and Oengus went to Uisneach to see Echu/Dagda, and Oengus met his father there. Midir told Echu/Dagda that “it is not right that your son be without land when you are king of Ériu”.[ix]

Dagda told his son that the land he had chosen for him was still occupied, by Elcmar. He advised Oengus to go to the Bruig at Samhain. He would find Elcmar at Cnocc Síde in the Bruig (Newgrange), holding a fork of white hazel, wearing a cloak with a gold brooch in it, watching the “three fifties of youths at play on the playing field”. This reference to a playing field is very important. It may be an allusion to a henge or henges on the floodplain of the Boyne, visible from Newgrange, where sports might have been played.[x]

On the advice of Echu/Dagda, Oengus requested to be king of the Brug for a day and a night. Elcmar agreed. The next day, Elcmar returned to reclaim the land but Oengus told him the matter must be arbitrated by Dagda. In a judgement which cannot by any means be said to be impartial, Dagda found in favour of his son, and Elcmar was given a land in compensation “that is no worse than the Bruig” at Cletech, where, incidentally, he would still be able to see “the boys from the Bruig playing before you every day”.[xi] The likely location of the síd/mound of Cletech was at Rosnaree, which offers views overlooking the great henges on the floodplain at Newgrange.[xii]

A year later, Midir returned to the Brug to visit Oengus. It was Samhain again and there were two groups of boys playing before Oengus, with Elcmar watching from the mound of Cletech. A row broke out among the boys, and Midir went to intervene. A sprig of holly was thrown at Midir, knocking out one of his eyes. Midir was distraught but Oengus offered to have him healed with the help of Dían Cécht, and invited him to stay at the Brug for a year. Midir said he would not stay unless he had some sort of reward.

The reward he asked for was “a chariot worth seven cumals and clothing appropriate to my rank and the fairest woman in Ériu.”

The woman was identified by Midir as Étaín Echrade, from Ulster. Oengus went to Étaín’s father, Ailill, the king of Ulster, to ask for her. Eventually she was given, but only after Ailill suffered upon Oengus the completion of great tasks including the clearing of forests to make fields for pasture for Ailill’s cattle, and the diversion of several rivers to help drain the land.

Site A mound and henge ... the mythic "playing fields" of Brú na Bóinne might have been its henges.

 

Eventually, Oengus brought Étaín back to Brú na Bóinne, where Midir met them. Midir and Étaín slept together (at the Brú) that night. As promised, after receipt of his reward, he stayed for a year at the Bruig with Oengus, returning to his own land at Brí Léith after that.

And this is what the Rennes Dindshenchas refers to when it says that Étaín eloped with Midir from Oenach Oengusa.

Oengus asked for the kingship of the Brug from Elcmar at Samhain, when there were boys playing in the playing fields (henges/assembly site). It was one year later when Midir came to the Brug to visit Oengus, and received his injury. So in other words, it was Samhain again, the time of great festivity in ancient Ireland. Samhain was one of the great festivals, marking the beginning of winter.[xiii] After receiving Étaín as part of his “reward” or recompense for his eye injury, Midir stayed a year at the Brug, so when he departed with Étaín to go to Brí Léith, it was Samhain again, and undoubtedly there were games and festivities in the “playing fields” (henges).

So when Étaín eloped with Midir, she did so from Oenach Oenguso. Can we deduce from this brief mention in the Rennes Dindshenchas story about Raith Cruachan that there was some sort of annual gathering at Brú na Bóinne some time in the ancient past? And furthermore that it was known as either Oenach in Broga or Oenach Oenguso?

Games at Samhain

There is a specific mention of games at Samhain in the Bodleian Dinnshenchas, a collection of prose stories representing about one-third of the total prose stories, contained in a manuscript in the Bodleian library at Oxford marked Rawlinson B. 506.

Here, the story about Cnogba (Knowth, one of the great mounds of Brú na Bóinne), differs a little in detail compared with the Metrical Dindshenchas.

“Englic, daughter of Elcmaire, loved Oengus mac ind Óc, and she had not seen him. They held a meeting for games there between Cletech and Síd in Broga. The Bright Folk and fairy-hosts of Ireland used to visit that game every Halloween,[xiv] having a moderate share of food, to wit, a nut. From the north went three sons of Derc, son of Ethaman, out of Síd Findabrach, and they eloped with Elcmaire’s daughter, (going) round the young folk without their knowledge. When they knew it, they ran after her as far as the hill named Cnogba. Great lamentation they made there, and this is the feast that supported them, their gathering. Hence ‘Cnogba’, that is, cnó-guba “nut-lamentation”, from the lamentation they made at yon gathering.”[xv]

Hence is Cnogba of the troops,
So that every host deems it famous,
From the lamentation after reaping nuts . . . .
Following Elcmaire’s daughter.[xvi]

The word Halloween in Stokes’ translation is rendered from “cach aidhche samna”, meaning every Samhain night, or at Samhain every year.

Whitley Stokes, translator of the Rennes Dindshenchas.

 

Here again the location of the games is placed between Cletech and Síd in Broga (Newgrange), and although the site of Dronehenge and its immediate neighbours is not exactly positioned between the two, there seems to be a concern in the literature with the visibility of the playing fields from both Newgrange and the mound at Cletech. In any case, in prehistoric times if one was to travel from Newgrange to Cletech (a distance of exactly one mile or 1.6km as the crow flies), one would have to cross the river and it is likely that the ford or crossing point of the Boyne was the one identified on the 18th and 19th century Ordnance Survey maps at Rosnaree, not far from the likely location of Cletech.[xvii]

Another Oenach Oengusso

While reading through Gwynn’s translation of the Metrical Dindshenchas, I found reference to a second, or apparently different, Oenach Oengusso, which is very interesting. The reference is contained in the poem about Loch Ri (Lough Ree, one of the major lakes on the river Shannon in the Irish midlands) and how it was formed. Fascinatingly, the story of Loch Ri is also given in the prose Dindshenchas in the Rennes manuscript, and a comparison of the texts reveals some interesting details.

The two sons of Mairid, Ri (spelt Ríb in Rennes) and Eochaid, went southward from Tara into Luachair and then parted at Belach dá liacc (the Pass of the two Flagstones). Eochaid went over the plain of Bregia to the Brug of Mac ind Óc (Newgrange). Oengus came to them with a haltered horse in his hand, and told “them”[xviii] they could not stay on his meadow. When they refused to move, Oengus inflicted three plagues on them.

Ri went westwards and “set up on Mag Find, and that was the playground of Oengus and Mider” (tir cluichi Aengusa agus Midir).[xix] Mider came to them “in like manner”, with a haltered horse in hand, and ordered them to decamp and would kill them forthwith.

Edmund Hogan, in his Onomasticon Goedelicum, places Mag Find (the “bright plain”) at the Bredagh, in the parish of Taghmaconnell, County Roscommon, which lies approximately 9.3 miles (15km) southwest of Lough Ree.[xx]

The Metrical Dindshenchas version of the Loch Ri story gives the alternative names for Mag Find:

The plain was called in turn Tir Oenaig Midir
and Mag Find, with triumphs of rich winnings;
it is now a land guarded by saints
since the destruction of Oenach Oengusso.[xxi]

So there were several names for this Mag Find, the Bright Plain. The Metrical Dindshenchas says that it was first called Tir n-Óenaig Midir, which literally translates as the “land of the Oenach or Assembly of Midir”. It was then called Mag Find, but that it is now a land “guarded by saints since the destruction of Oenach Oengusso”. Unfortunately this last portion of the verse does not definitively tell us if Mag Find and Oenach Oengusso are the same place.

Rennes calls the place tir cluichi Aengusa agus Midir, literally the “land of the games of Oengus and Midir”. If nothing else, this comparison of Rennes and Metrical Dindshenchas passages demonstrates the link between games and oenachs/assembly sites.

This connection between the oenach sites and games is further accentuated in the regnal prophecy Baile in Scáil, composed in the ninth century but revised in the eleventh. Conn ascended the royal rampart of Tara early in the morning, before sunrise, and stepped upon a stone which cried out loudly so that its scream was heard throughout Tara and the whole plain of Brega.[xxii] His druid tells him that the stone is called Fál, and makes a prophecy:

“It is in Tara of the land of Fál that it has been placed. It is in the land of Tailtiu that it will remain until the Day of Judgement.”[xxiii]

“It [will] remain forever in the land of Tailtiu, that is the land in which there will be a games-assembly for your descendants as long as there may be sovereignty in Tara.”[xxiv]

This compound word, games-assembly, is translated from the Irish óenach cluchi. This is confirmation, perhaps, that the oenach sites were principally games sites, whatever else may have occurred at the great assemblies. 

'Dronehenge'. Discovered by the author using a drone in 2018, it might well have been part of an ancient assembly complex called Oenach Oengusa or Oenach in Broga.

Web links

https://mythicalireland.com/MI/blog/ancient-sites/dronehenge-reimagined-3d-models-of-late-neolithic-henge-at-newgrange/

https://mythicalireland.com/MI/blog/ancient-sites/the-new-henge-of-newgrange-a-once-in-a-lifetime-discovery/

References

[i] dil.ie/37124

[ii] Read more about Lebor na hUidre here: https://www.ria.ie/library/catalogues/special-collections/medieval-and-early-modern-manuscripts/lebor-na-huidre-book (Retrieved 24th June 2020).

[iii] See in particular Murphy (2019) Dronehenge: The Story Behind the Remarkable Discovery at Newgrange, Liffey Press, chapter 9.

[iv] Detailed in Murphy (2019).

[v] Gantz, Jeffrey (1988) [1981], Early Irish Myths & Sagas, Pengiun Classics, p. 41.

[vi] Carey, John, Time, Memory, and the Boyne Necropolis, Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium, Vol. 10 (1990), pp. 24-36.

[vii] Duncan, Lillian, Altram Tige Dá Medar, Ériu, Vol. 11 (1932), pp. 184-225.

[viii] Some scholars disagree with any notion that the Dindshenchas stories have their origins in prehistory. See the following web page for a discussion on same: https://www.historyextra.com/period/medieval/do-early-medieval-irish-texts-shed-light-prehistoric-incest/

[ix] Gantz, op. cit., p. 40.

[x] See Murphy (2019), p. 176, for further discussion.

[xi] Gantz, op. cit., p. 42.

[xii] Murphy (2019), 167-8.

[xiii] See https://blog.mythicalireland.com/2016/10/the-celebration-of-samhainhalloween.html

[xiv] For Halloween, read “Samhain”.

[xv] Stokes, Whitley, ed. (1892), ‘The Bodleian Dinnshenchas’, Folklore 3, 43. Cnogba.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] For further discussion of this ford and the location of Cletech, see Murphy, Anthony (2017), Mythical Ireland: New Light on the Ancient Past, Liffey Press, chapter 5.1: ‘Cleitech, Rosnaree and the ancient ford of the Boyne’.

[xviii] Stokes, Whitley (1894), The Prose Tales in the Rennes Dindshenchas, Revue Celtique Vol XV, p. 482.The story does not say who “they” are, apart from Eochaid.

[xix] Stokes (1894), p. 482.

[xx] Hogan, Edmund, S.J. (1910), Onomasticon Goedelicum: An Index, with Identifications, to the Gaelic Names of Places and Tribes, Hodges, Figgis & Co., Dublin, p. 520.

[xxi] Gwynn, Edward (1913), Metrical Dindshenchas Part III, Royal Irish Academy Todd Lecture Series Volume X, Hodges, Figgis & Co., Dublin, p. 453.

[xxii] For a translation of the story, see Murray, Kevin (2004), Baile in Scáil, ‘The Phantom’s Frenzy’, Irish Texts Society. For a summary and discussion, see Carey, John (2005), ‘Tara and the Supernatural’ in Bhreathnach, Edel, et al (2005), The Kingship and Landscape of Tara, Four Courts Press for The Discovery Programme.

[xxiii] Carey (2005), p. 37.

[xxiv] Murray (2004), p. 50.

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