The legend of Tuan mac Cairrill (or Starn) gives a perfectly illogical explanation of how the 6th century Christian monks were able to write down the ancient history of Ireland (some claim as far back as 2,000 BC!). If our purpose is to understand our ancestors it is better we not get caught up in whether this account is entirely fact or fiction. It is a mixture of both. The account of Tuath mac Cairrill was written by St. Finnian around 540 A.D. It claims to provide an eye witness account of the entire ancient history of Eire (Ireland). It is referred to as the Lebor Gabála or Book of Invasions. St. Finnian di Moville was the head of the Christian Church in Eire around 540 A.D. (only 100 years after St. Patrick brought Christianity to the Emerald Isle). He brought with him a copy of the Latin Vulgate Bible and set up monasteries dedicated to copying the sacred text. He had 12 leaders of the Irish or Celtic Christian Church often called the 12 Apostles of Ireland. One of these Apostles of Ireland was Còllum Cille (St. Columba) who first took Christianity to Scotland.
St. Finnian heard of a powerful old man who was still practiced in “the old way” and refused to accept Christianity. St Finnian immediately confronted him. The man was Tuan mac Cairill. He told St. Finnian he was not really the son of Cairill mac Muiredig Muinderg, king of Ulaid, but was in actuallyTuan mac Starn. Starn was Partholón’s nephew who came to Ireland over 1,000 years before! He said he came to Ireland with the Partholónian invasion. After flourishing for 300 years and growing to 9,000 strong every one of the Partholónians, exceptTuan died of a mysterious plague. He was over 300 years old when he found himself alone on the island and then he passed away in his sleep.
But the next morning he awoke as a young stag. He soon became king of the deer because he remembered his past human life. He observed the landing of the next people to arrive on Ireland’s shore, the Formorians(possibly from Norway which was known anciently as Formoria). These were the people who introduced the festival of Samhain (pronounced sha aine) when they would converse with deceased ancestors and gain from their experience or suffer from their vengence (to frighten off vengeful spirits they carved frightening faces into large turnips). This festival has survived millenia and is currently known as Halloween.
Tuan lived to see the Formorians battle new invaders called the Nemedians. One Nemedian named Fergus Lethderg fled with his people to Alba (ancient Scotland) after a major battle with the Formorians. The King of the stags Tuan, again died in his sleep, but awoke the next morning as a young bear with all his memory of his previous lives. He soon became king of the bears and observed the arrival of the Fir Bolgs (meaning “bag men”). The Fir Bolgs were Nemedians who fled Ireland after another great battle with the Formorians. They had been enslaved by the Greeks to move earth with bags and came back to Ireland after escaping slavery. Both Fionn mac Cumhall and Eochaidh mac Erc traced their ancestry to the Fir Bolgs.
Tuan lived a long life as King of the bears and died in his sleep only to awake the next morning as a great sea eagle. He again retained his memory of all he had observed and experienced so he soon became King of all the sea eagles. These were huge birds whose wingspan allowed flight over great distances. As a sea eagle Tuan could observe all that occurred on the earth far below. He saw the coming of the Tuatha de Danaan to Ireland. Eochaidh also foresaw their coming in a dream of a huge flock of black birds that flew over Eire from the ocean. Tuan watched the Tuatha de Danaan burn their own ships to confirm their commitment to remain. The Tuatha de Danaan brought with them the Four Great Treasures: the Lia Fail or Stone of Destiny, the An Fragarach or sword named “the answerer”, the spear of Lugh that returned to its thrower, and the Dagda couldron that could provide endless feasts. They were a magical people skilled in all the arts. They possessed the harp of Dagda who was the father of Brec Saighead or Brigit. The festival of Imbolic celebrates the coming of Spring, the rebirth of the world, and Brigit‘s “coming in milk” as mother of the Earth.
Tuan lived a long life as King of the sea eagles and died in his sleep only to awake the next morning as the Salmon of Knowledge possessing all his memories of the experiences and wisdom he had gained from all his lives. As King of the salmon he observed the last invasion which was the Milesians or Míl Espáin, meaning military men of Spain. They were a warrior race (Gael) who came to establish their presence and dominated the Tuatha de Danaanwho retreated to Tir na N’Og, the land of eternal youth. Occasionally Tuatha de Danaan will appear momentarily as fairies, but usually they remain hidden from human view.
But this time Tuan did not live long or die in his sleep. He was caught, cooked, and eaten by the wife of Cairill (d. 533 A.D.). She became pregnant and gave birth to Tuan mac Cairill, who at birth retained all his knowledge and wisdom of his previous lives. Tuan mac Cairill met St. Finnian and recounted the entire history of Eire which St. Finnian wrote in the Lebor Gabála or Book of Invasions. The Lebor Gabála proved a useful tool to Celtic Christian monks who understood the importance Irish culture placed on the ancient Druid seanchaidh. They understood the Christian monks needed to become the seanchaidh of a Christian Ireland. The Lebor Gabála accomplished just that.
Donald J. Macdonald in his introduction to his history of Clan Donald expressed his opinion that much could be learned from the Celtic legends told in the Highlands for generations. He mentioned several legends by name as being familiar to our Clan Donald ancestors and still passed down from generation to generation in the Highlands. The Black and Red Books of Clanranald begin with “These are the sons of Mile” (Milesians). You don’t have to believe Tuan lived for thousands of years or changed from animal to bird to appreciate this Celtic style of relating their history as the seanchaidh had done before them and Clan Donald seanchaidh continued to do for another thousand years as recorded in the Reliquiæ Celticæ.
On a side note: Oxford Prof. Bryan Sykes has asserted the traditional pedigrees of Clan Donald that Somerled was of Clan Cholla are not substantiated by his discovery of a Y chromosome marker in common with Norse Vikings as well as Irish or Scots. He also claims his DNA research has verified the Milesian “Myth” that the Irish came from the Iberian Peninsula. Perhaps if Prof. Sykes were more familiar with the Milesian Myth or more aware of modern 18th century migrations of over a hundred thousand Scots to Norway he might not be so quick to conclude the common markers between Scots & Norse require the conclusion that Somerled had a Norse paternal ancestor.