Bres Mac Elathan appears in a number of texts besides Cath Maige Tuired, and often in a more sympathetic light. He appears as one of the Túatha Dé Danann, as in Tocmairc Étaíne, “The Wooing of Étaín”, where the Dagda sends Elcmar of the Brug away on business to Bres in Mag nInis so that the Dagda can sleep with Elcmar’s wife, Eithniu (a.k.a. Boand). In this text, there is no sense of an outside agressor, such as the Fomoire, with whom the Túatha Dé must contend.
Perhaps the fullest sympathetic picture of Bres we have is in the Metrical Dinshenchas poem on Carn Uí Néit, the Cairn (grave-mound) of the grandson (or descendent) of Nét. In Cath Maige Tuired, only Balor is identified consistently as uí Néit, although Nét himself is not usually characterised as particularly of the Fomoire. He is, however, one of the “ancestor figures” whose name appears as a “grandfather” of many characters, both of the Túatha Dé and the Fomoire.
Below is my translation of the poem on Carn uí Néit. As ever, I deliberately offer alternative readings to those of Edward Gwynn, whose edition I work from and whose translation you can read here.
Words and names on which there are notes are marked in bold. Notes follow the translation.
From the Metrical Dindshenchas, Vol 3.
Poem 40: pp 216 – 223
Carn Húi Néit
1. Lecht Bressi co mbúada,
The grave of Bres, with [his] entitlements,
cosna gessi gráda,
with the taboos [due to his] rank,
maic Elathan óebda
the son of beautiful Elatha
deg-athar ar ndála,
the great father of our tribes
2. 5] Dag-macc Néit maic Indúi
The goodly son of Nét, son of Indúi
co nglan-gairt, ba hAlldaí,
[the son of] pure-generous Allda
mac Thait as mac Thabuirn
son of Tait from the son of Taburn
co ramuirn co rablaí,
with great [clamourous] troops, with great [shouts of] fame.
3. Mac Endai maic Báad,
Son of Enda son of Báad
ráad iarna rethaib,
who rowed through his journeys
mac Ibaid co n-óebdacht
son of Ibaid of beauty
robo sóer-macc Bethaig,
who was the noble son of Bethach.
4. Mac Iarboineóil fátha
The son of able Iarboineól
co ngliaid bireóil úatha,
with terrible lance-skill contests
mac Nemid co congaib,
Son of Nemed of the hosts
luid il-longaib lúatha.
who came in many swift ships.
5. Ba hé sin a cairddes,
This was their treaty:
ní hairdmes co mertain,
it was no discouraging calculation,
Túathe Dé co demin
The Túatha Dé [had] with certainty,
fri claind Nemid nertmair.
with the great, strong people of Nemed.
6. Bress, ba cóem in cara,
Bres, he was a beloved friend,
ba sóer is ba sona,
he was noble and he was prosperous,
mind slúaig cen gné nguba,
the crown of the host, without mournful expression,
do Thúaith Dé ba toga.
he was chosen [elected?] of the Túatha Dé
7. 25] Ól cét cacha cléithi
A hundred liquid measures [e.g. vats] for every rooftree [i.e. household]
cen tréithi don tríathach,
without ignorance [i.e. knowingly?] [given] to the chieftain
do lacht búair co n-uidre:
[measures] of milk from dun cows
fúair duilge don bíathad.
He had trouble from that food.
8. Hi flaith Nechtain bass-cháin,
In the reign of Nechtain Tax-Hand co serc-blaid co sith-rúin,
with famous love, with long-running secrets,
for ríg na dá Muman,
upon the king of the two Mumans[East and West Munster]
fríth bunad don bith-dúil.
came the foundation of the living nature
[? Gwynn: “occurred the cause of the enduring name.”]
9. Búar Muman cach baile,
[to] The cattle of every estate in Muman
pudar búan, la suide
A lasting harm [was done] by him,
forollscad for ratha,
they were burned [i.e. branded] upon tribute
comdar datha duibe.
until they were coloured black.
10. Foillged littu lúatha
A paste of ashes would be smeared
lasna gliccu gnátha
by the ubiquitous cunning ones
‘mon búar co mblaid ítha
upon the cattle, famous for [fatty] porridge
[play on littu, “porridge” above]
40] cosa frítha fátha.
as far as their clever finds [i.e. the cattle they have taken?]
11. Delbsat crann-búar cobsaid
They sculpted steadfast wooden cows
in sam-slúag sóer slim-sain
that united host of slippery freemen
Lug, ba gor cach n-am-sain
Lug – he was affectionate at all those times –
rostog is rostimsaig.
He chose them and he assembled them. [The host or the cattle?!]
12. Lín-paite ‘na ngablaib
Canvas wine-skins in their crotches
fri sír-thraite sulbair;
[were put] with fluent ever-quickness,
rota cen bracht mbal-glain,
pure-effective rue without substance
‘s é lacht rodasurmaid.
That was the milk that filled [?] it.
13. Tri chét, ba hé al-lín-sin
Three hundred, that was their amount
ar sét cosin slúag-sin:
of value, until that hosting
tria cheó ngó don gliaid-sin
Through his false [i.e. artificial] mist [i.e. deceit?], to this strife
nír beó bó don búar-sin.
There was not [brought] one living cow of these cattle.
14. Dolluid Bress co mbruth-gail
Bres came, vehement in valour,
dia mess co lár n-achaid:
to assess them, to the middle of the pasture,
desin cen síl sorthain
from this, without a seed of sustenance,
torchair ocus tathaim.
He was killed and died.
15. Romessad ónd albín
From the little herd was measured
tri chét sessar serb-dúr,
three hundred bitter-hard pints [sessar is some kind of liquid measure]
dia ól don ríg rindmor:
for the paramount king to drink;
ba tirgnom cen deg-rún.
It was provender without hidden goodness [i.e. with hidden ill]
16. Geiss do Bress a n-opa,
It was taboo for Bres to refuse
na cless dobreth chuca:
any trick given to him:
mos-ib cen nach n-ecal:
he drank it without any cowardice:
ní fhetar cid thuca.
I do not know what it might bring.
17. Hi Carn húi Néit níamda
In illustrious Carn uí Néit
romarb in géic grúamda,
the sorrowful scion was killed,
mar attib cen omun
because he drank without fear
dig don rodub rúamda.
a drink of the over-dark rue [red dye]
18. Dind áil-sin cen uisse,
From this demand without justice
iar scaichsin a geisse,
after his taboos were exhausted [? after they had taken effet?]
gráid cen dlecht cen deisse
without lawfulness, without decorousness of esteem,
dofil fair lecht mBreisse. L.
over him is the grave of Bres. [Grave]
Our saga, Cath Maige Tuired, features “The Conception of Bres” very near the beginning, and gives some explanation of his name. His father, Elatha Mac Delbaeth, says he will be so beautiful that after him, any beautiful thing will be called a “bres”. The name itself seems to originate from bres meaning “fight”, “blow”, “effort”, or “uproar”, “din”; then, by extension, a hero, chief or great man. Interestingly, there are instances where it seems to mean “beautiful” or “valuable”, but it is hard to know whether this meaning is the root of the saga explanation or vice versa. I think the naming of the Fomorian king as “Bres” also plays on bras, a word meaning “boastful” or “forward”, particularly implying someone who makes false claims to greatness. This seems to fit with how Bres is characterised in Cath Maige Tuired. However, the root meaning of “uproar” suggests his tragic role of the king who must preside over the time of chaos in order for rightness to be restored.
Elada principally means “art”, “science” or “craft”, particularly the craft of poetry. This has the same implications as Danu: dán = “craft”, “poem”, so the Túatha Dé Danann can be called “the people of the poetic one”.
[from the Dictionary of the Irish Language – I couldn’t put together a better explanation!]
Connected with guidid ‘prays’; ailges a prayer or request, the refusal of which brings reproach or ill-luck. Cf. also oll-geisi ‘great demands,’ which glosses ailgeasa. In older literature generally:
(a) a tabu, a prohibition, the infraction (‘coll’, ‘milliud’) of which involved disastrous consequences. Sometimes these ‘gessi‘ were fortuitous, originating in the fact that a certain course of action had produced disastrous results in the past, sometimes they were rules of honour or prudent abstention, often they rested on deep-seated primitive beliefs and ideas. Such tabus might be attached to a rank or office, e.g. the tabus laid on the king of Tara and on some of the provincial kings, (where they are also called urgartha `things forbidden,’ and opposed to buada = ada ‘lucky things’ or ‘things prescribed’)… They might bind a whole community. More often they were restrictions on an individual, either owing to the predictions of druids or soothsayers that certain actions would bring ill-luck, or imposed on him by another who had power to punish their violation, or who trusted to his sense of honour or his fear.
Lug apparently means “lynx”, a wild cat. As a character, the Irish Lug is connected to the Welsh Llew and the Continental Celtic Lugus. With Roman interaction with continental Celtic cultures, it was assumed that Lugus had the same root as lux, “light”, “radiance”. As time went on, Lugus seems to have got shinier and shinier! More about this in Episode 3: Techt Lugo – The Coming of Lug.
Nechtain, as discussed before (see “Texts of Eithliu”), more often appears as a feminine than a masculine name. This is probably because it stems from necht, “clear”, “pure”, “bare”. I am not sure why this Fomoire over-king has such a name.
His soubriquet, bass-cháin, seems to mean “tax-hand” (although bass is more usually a fist). I think in this context, the implication is that his hand is always out to receive tribute.
The principal meaning of meimed is that of a consecrated space or sanctuary, and it is used widely in this sense in early Christian literature, particularly in connection with monastic cells. It has strong cognates in Gaulish (which I won’t pretend to know anything about!), reported by Roman writers as clearings surrounded by trees. In Irish, the term neimed extended to the rights and privileges of those people connected with the neimed, and finally to the privileged people themselves, both individually and collectively. By the later status texts, neimed could refer to kings, nobles, top churchmen, chief poets and master craftsmen.
The mythical character Nemed was said to have led the third wave of settlers in the island of Ireland. His time is greatly associated with the clearing of plains and shaping of the landscape in the Lebor Gabála tradition. As such, he seems to stand for the stage in human cultural development that saw the clearing of separate spaces that allowed for schools of learning alongside agricultural practice.
For more on this, listen to the episode “The Story of Macha“.
It is hard to get through the compacted layer of the glossators when trying to understand the root meaning of Néit. The glosses all describe him as dia catha, “battle god”, and we hit the same concrete with regard to Nemain, who is also called Bé Néit, “Néit’s Lady”. Néi seems to be used occasionally as a common noun meaning “battle” or “warrior”, but this could be under the influence of the glossators and their Medieval Christian culture. In general, these usages are both rare and uncertain in exact meaning.
A possible root could be net, “nest”, which might speak to Néit’s ancestor status. This may connect with Nemain, if we consider her root to be nem, “sky”, rather than nem, “poison”. This is a purely speculative proposition, as an attempt to provide possible alternatives to everything coming back to “battle”!
This is translated by Gwynn as “red bog water”, and the Dictionary of the Irish Language does not seem to have much outside Gwynn to support this. There is another possible root through dye-stuffs and plant lore that may shed particular light on our story.
If rota refers to a red dye-plant, as Hogan suggests, it is likely to be yellow bedstraw, Galium verum. This plant was also used as rennit in making red cheeses. Could this be a reference to curdling milk? Did Bres die of cholesterol poisoning?!