Midhir and Etain – The Wooing of Etain

Midhir and Etain Sculpture at Ardagh Heritage Centre, County Longford.

Love & Magic
The Legend of Midhir and Étain pre-dates all of the other better known stories of ancient Irish heroes and great battles. The story is based mainly at the hill of Brí Leith in Ardagh but is also connected to the legendary sites of Uisneach, Tara and the ancient boglands of Corlea in Kenagh, Co Longford. Its association to the Tuatha De Dannan, the fairy people who once inhabited ancient Ireland, make this a magical tale which conjures up romantic notions of myth and mystery. It is also a story about the power of love, transformation and the overcoming of obstacles.

The Wooing of Étain
The legend recounts how once upon a time in Ireland there lived a proud young fairy King called Midhir who resided in his fairy palace in Ardagh Co Longford. There, he arrayed himself in splendour, for Midhir possessed great beauty. At that time too, there also lived a princess called Étain, of gracious birth, whose radiant beauty and incomparable grace made her the fairest maiden in all of Ireland. So much so that the poets composed great words and sang of her beauty. Midhir , the proud and beautiful Fairy King, fell in love with the fair Étain and forgetting that he was already married to the fierce and jealous Fuamnach, took her to be his wife, and brought her to his fairy palace at Brí Leith in Ardagh. Using all her magic cunning, the enraged and jealous Fuamnach banished the fair Étain by striking her with a magic rod thereby transforming her into a beautiful purple butterfly who filled the air with perfume and sweet music. In this form Étain  kept Midhir company and attended him constantly. Fuamnachs anger and jealousy became agonising for her  so she raised a great storm, which for seven years blew Étain the purple butterfly hither and thither across the island of Ireland, until she was eventually blown by a gust of wind into a golden cup of mead which was being drank by the wife of Etar. The lady swallowed the butterfly and Étains magic transformed her yet again in the womb so that she was reborn as a mortal child.

This took place a thousand and twelve years after her first birth as a fairy princess. Étain, the mortal child, grew up and become famous throughout Ireland for her beauty, eventually marrying Eochy the High King of Ireland. During this time the kings brother also fell in love with Étain and she agreed to a tryst in order to save him from dying of unrequited love. But the fairy king Midhir had realised she was his princess Étain and he implored her to return with him to the Land of Youth. Étain was reluctant to depart her palace at Tara and forsake the King of Ireland but Midhir told her the story of their earlier love, her life as a fairy princess and of her butterfly origins over one thousand years earlier. Slowly she remembered, realised the truth of his words, and agreed to return with him to their old home in the Land of Youth – but only on the condition that her husband, King Eochy, agreed to her departure.

Shortly after this meeting, Midhir appeared to King Eochy and challenged him to a game of fidhil. The games began between the two and each time Midhir lost he had to perform great tasks as payment to King Eochy, including the building of a trackway through the Corlea boglands. Upon commencing the last game Midir requested that the stake be at the pleasure of the winner, a request to which the King agreed. Midhir of course won and the forfeit fell to King Eochy. Midir requested his hearts desire – to hold the fair Étain in his arms and be granted by her a kiss. The King relented, but on the day Midhir came to Tara to take his kiss, the King would not allow him entry to the Palace. However, Midhir appeared by magic and taking Étain under his arm they transformed into swans and flew away through the roof of the palace, back to the fairy palace of Midhir in Bri Leith, Ardagh, where they entered the Land of Eternal Youth.

The enraged King searched in vain for Etain and his armies dug up the hill of Brí Leith many times during nine years until Midhir eventually appeased him by allowing him to pick a wife from amongst several maidens who looked identical to Étain. One version of the legend tells that in fact The King ended up being tricked by Midhir into taking his own daughter as his wife and fathering a child with her. This child, although abandoned by the King, went on to become the mother of some of ancient Irelands great heroes.

(Adapted from Legends of The Celts by Frank Delaney – 1989)

1Ardagh Heritage Centre
Visitors to Co Longford can take a short trip from Longford town to the award winning heritage village of Ardagh and while there enjoy a cup of coffee and a fairy cake  in the Midhir & Etain café. This magical café is part of the Ardagh Heritage and Creativity Centre run by local women Ann Gerety Smith and Annette Corkery who will happily acquaint you with the area and it’s enchanting history. The Annual Fairy Ball and Bilberry Gathering takes place in Ardagh at the beginning of August, for the Celtic celebration of Lughnasa.  To keep up to date on all things magical and creative take a look at http://creativeardagh.blogspot.ie/ or sign up for their newsletter.

Further information on the Myths and Legends of County Longford can be found on the ‘Explore Longford’ App available to download for both Android and Apple Devices:
Android Store
http://bit.ly/1gMKZYY   Apple Store: http://bit.ly/1n104Kk

County Longford Tourism Office Market Square, Longford, Ireland    Phone: +353 (0)43 33 42577 +353 (0)85 8888876    Email: info@longfordtourism.ie