The Combat of Lug and Balor: Discourses of Power in Irish Myth and Folktale
Oral Tradition, Volume 7, Number 1
If you stand on the northwestern coast of Ireland’s County Donegal and look out across the North Atlantic on a clear day, you will see like “a castellated mirage on the horizon”—Tory Island, one of the world’s most barren inhabited islands. Two and one-half miles long and three-quarters of a mile wide, Tory is windswept and has no trees. Its two tiny towns and their surrounding fields and bog are dwarfed by gigantic rock formations and dramatic ocean inlets, just as the names of Tory’s towns—East Town and West Town—fade to cartographic blandness next to the vivid, evocative names of its natural crags and harbors. Like so many other environments of potent oral cultures throughout the world, Tory’s named landscape is the visible and significant record of its layers of oral history. Among the stories told by and among these rocks is a very ancient one. Dún Baloir, Balor’s Castle, the high rock at the eastern end of the island, is the legendary home of King Balor, a monstrous oppressor whose single, poisonous eye is said to have withered permanently all the vegetation on Tory and on the visible mountains of the nearby
Donegal coast. Balor had a single daughter whom he kept imprisoned in the crag of An Tor Mór (The Great Tower), near his castle, isolated from all men because of a prophecy that Balor could be killed only by his own grandson. Another island placename, Port na Glaise (The Harbor of the Gray Cow), commemorates Balor’s predatory jealousy of the mainlanders, evoking the story of how he stole from a Donegal blacksmith a magical cow, An Glas Gaibhleann, that gave an endless supply of milk, and by her tail dragged her ashore onto the island at Port na Glaise. The young hero, Ceannfhaolaidh (Kineely), who came to rescue the cow also gained access to An Tor Mór and left Balor’s daughter (and in most versions of the tale her twelve serving maids as well!) pregnant before he made his escape the next day. Returning nine months later, he escaped in his little boat with all thirteen infants, wrapped up in a cloak fastened with a thorn; the name of Portdellig (The Port of the Thorn) commemorates the offshore spot where the thorn broke, casting the infants (all but Balor’s grandson) into the sea, where in some tellers’ renditions they became seals.