Irish Mythology: When Irish Druids go Bad

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One of my favourite characters in Irish mythology is a little known individual by the name of Beag mac Dé (literally, Small One of God). Ironically, from the few clues we have, Beag (in Old Irish, Becc) seems to have actually been a very well-known (if physically diminutive) figure back in his day. This is confirmed by the fact that, later, Christian writers tried to incorporate him into Christian literature [they’re the ones who added the artificial soubriquet ‘Son of God’]).

According to the sources, Beag not only was a supremely talented poet and linguist (two skills considered essential for druids – Irish druids, at least) but also had the skill of prophecy. That’s all very fascinating of course but the real reason I like this character is because he’s so pessimistically loufoque. There are only a few stories about him still in existence but they’re quite hilarious as most of them concern his rather pessimistic view of the future.

The first of these stories – and probably the most famous – concerns the period shortly after his birth when (like many Irish poet stories) he demonstrated the first signs of his future brilliance. According to the texts, a group of guests came around to visit his parents and started to comment openly on how tiny he was.

Beag, finally losing patience, managed to stand up on his bed and proclaimed that he might be small but he had no bloody small knowledge of matters, be they general or esoteric. With this, he then proceeded to proclaim a series of prophecies that were doom-laden and pessimistic, the guests went running for the door.

Whenever I remember this story I always imagine it being played out along the lines of ‘Stewie’ from ‘The Family Guy.’

There are a number of other stories in which Beag plays a part and many of these involve the high-king Diarmaid mac Cearrbheoil, for who, he acted as druid and advisor. These two had a bit of a fractious relationship. Diarmuid was … well, he was a king and Beag a dramatically pessimistic teller of futures who seemed to love nothing more than telling people when they were going to die, when their loved ones were going to die, etc. etc. It was no wonder they had so many arguments.

Ironically, given his predilection for death prophecies, the best story about Beag concerns his own death prophecy. According to the tale, the druid was approached one day by Saint Colm Cille. The saint knew that Beag never made a false prophecy but he was curious because he had a prophecy of his own which indicated the druid would make two false prophecies before he died. In his usual, friendly and upfront manner Colm Cille approached the druid and asked him the following question:

“Hast thou knowledge also of when thou shalt thyself die?”

“I do indeed”, answered Beag. “I have yet another seven years before my life is ended.”

“A man might do good works in shorter space than that,” said Colm Cille. “And knowest thou for a surety that thou hast so much of life still?”

Beag went all quiet at this and then gave something of an embarrassed shrug. “I may have overstated it,” he admitted. “The truth is I actually only seven months of life left in me.”

“Ah, that is well,” said Colm Cille. “And art thou certain thou hast still so much of life to come?”

“Well, feck you, anyway, Colm Cille” said Beag. “I cannot withstand the prophecy you’ve come up with which has me making two false prophecies before I die. Now, thanks to you, I’ve only got seven hours left.” He sighed. “I suppose you’d better give me the feckin sacrament.”

“It was to give thee this that I came hither today,” said Colm Cille, helpfully. “For God revealed to me that thou shouldst die today.”

(picture credit: http://www.brunosart.com/)