The most famous smith in Irish mythology is Goibniu (pronounced Gov-new). He was one of the Tuatha de Denann, contemporary with Nuada Argetlam and the Dagda. His name comes from Gobae, or Gobann, which is Old Irish for ‘smith’, although I would say that it is more likely that the reverse is true, and that the word for ‘smith’ was borrowed from his name.
There are conflicting tales about his parentage. Some say his father was Esarg, son of the war-god Néit, and thus related to Balor of the Fomori; others say that his father was Tuirbe Trágmar, the ‘axe-thrower’; it was said of him that he threw his axe onto the shore thus defying the encroaching tide, which obeyed his command, reaching up the sand on a level with, but not beyond the weapon. However, this was written in a C15th text, and it’s possible that the Gobánn referred to is in fact a C7th architect known as Gobann Saor.
Goibniu is often connected with Credne the silversmith and craftsman, and Luchtaine the carpenter. Together they form a triad known as the Trí de Dána, or the ‘Three Gods of Art’. Although these characters are spoken of in the mythology as three distinct persons, it is also possible that they represented the triple aspect of the God of Smithcraft, as was so popular in ancient Irish lore. We see this, for example, with Brigit, who was said to have two sisters also named Brigit, the three Queens of Eire, Banba, Fodla and Eriu, and the Morrigan, whose sisters were named Anann and Nemhain.
Credne and Luchtaine were sometimes thought to be Gobniu’s brothers, but on occasions Dian-Cecht, the Denann physician, and Nuada and the Dagda are also given as his brothers.
As usual, Irish mythology is endearingly clear as mud!
His forge, known as the Cerdcha Ghaibhnenn, was thought to be located east of Mullaghmast Hill on the Kildare/ Wicklow border. Here in ancient times there was a plentiful supply of copper, yet the Denann were famous for their weapons and tools of iron, not copper or bronze. Another (unlikely) theory locates his smithy on the Beara peninsula in Co Cork.
When the Tuatha de Denann first arrived in Ireland, they were said to have camped out at Sliabh an Iarainn in Leitrim, also known as ‘the Iron Mountain’… I think the clue’s in the name, really, don’t you?
Iron and coal mining was carried out in the region for hundreds of years. Later, the Denann settled in Magh Rein, Breffni and ruled from Tara, so it is more likely that Gobniu’s forge was situated in a more central location. However, as war and battle was such a way of life, the smith had to bring his forge with him in order to repair weapons and make new ones, so it’s reasonable to suppose that the forge may not in fact have had a permanent location at all.
This short film shows how the iron-Age Celts made their forge. Although it takes place in Holland, it is not unlike how our Irish ancestors were reported to have constructed their smithies.
In ancient times, the art of the smith was held in great esteem. It was considered a powerful magic indeed to wield and master the element of fire, which was representative of the great Sun-God himself; to take the bones of the earth (said to be the very bones of the mother Goddess Eriu, remember) and transform them through the application of fire, strength, skill, secret knowledge and magic into the much revered and coveted bright shining metallic objects of tools, weapons and jewellery.
Goibniu was a very important member of the Denann community, and his name crops up in many of the stories. When Nuada had his sword arm struck off by Sreng of the Fir Bolg in the First Battle of Moytura, Goibniu worked closely with Dian-Cacht to craft a fully working replacement of silver for him. Could this have been the world’s first ever bionic arm? It’s without doubt a most intriguing story.
In the Second Battle of Moytura, Goibniu was working away in his forge when Ruadan approached and requested the making of a new spear. Unbeknown by the Denann, Ruadan, who was the son of Brigit and the tyrant ex-Denann King Bres, has been recruited by his father as a spy. His mission was to try and identify the secret of Goibniu’s magic, and the source of the healing power with which Dian-Cecht restored the Denann warriors at the end of a full day’s battling.
When Goibniu hands over the spear, Ruadan stabs him with it, but the smith is made of hardy stuff. He pulls out the spear from his body and casts it at Ruadan, so killing him. Dian-Cecht carries Goibniu into the enchanted restorative waters of the Well of Healing, and thus the smith recovers.
There is a curious tradition which links Goibniu with the brewing of a divine beverage said to bestow eternal youth and life on the drinker.
It is said that after the Denann were defeated by the Milesians, Manannán the Sea-God called a council for the remaining Denann leaders at Newgrange. There, Bodb Derg was appointed the new Ard Ri, or High King of the Sidhe. (You will read all about this in my new book… soon, but not just yet.) Manannán raised the Feath Fiadha to shield the Sidhe from the enemy, and Goibniu held a feast for the Sidhe to ‘ward off age and death’.
The C12th Acallamh na Sénórach, or ‘The Coloquy of The Old Men’ also mentions this brew. It claims a Sidhe woman told St Patrick that everyone who drank at the Feast of Goibniu suffered neither illness nor disease. Another passage in the same manuscript describes the warrior Caoilte (of the Fianna) saying he knows of a Sidhe woman who ‘has the drink of healing and curing of the Tuatha de Denann which survives from the Feast of Goibniu’.
It is interesting because this marvellous mythic potion features not just in Irish mythology; Greek mythology has a similar theme in the Ambrosia, or Nectar drunk by the Gods; Norse mythology mentions mead in this context, and Verdic mythology tells of a similar concoction known as Amrita. The common factor is that they were all fermented from honey.
Could this story just be a borrowing from other older traditions, or does it in fact corroborate an ancient world-wide pattern of belief? We’ll probably never know, but one thing’s for certain, I’d sure like to get my hands on some of that stuff.
Want more mythology? Sign up to my mailing list!