First king of the Tuatha de Danann, Nuada was in charge when they arrived in Ireland and had been for seven years while they journeyed from the north*. At the time, the Tuatha de Danann “excelled all the peoples of the world in their proficiency in every art.” (para. 23, The First Battle of Magh Turedh) In spite of their terror, the Fir Bolg, rulers of Ireland, sent their champion, Sreng, to find out what the Tuatha de wanted. The Tuatha de sent Bres, their own champion. After finding out that both groups were descended from Nemed, showing off their weapons, and making a pact of friendship between the two of them, Bres told Sreng that the Fir Bolg must either fight, or give half of Ireland to the Tuatha de. (It seems a little cheeky to me, seeing as how they’ve just landed and all, but whatever.) Sreng made it clear he didn’t want to go up against the fearsome weapons of the Tuatha de, and all seemed to be going well when they went back to their respective camps.
Except it wasn’t. In spite of the pact between Bres and Sreng , the Fir Bolg did indeed think the Tuatha de were being cheeky and declared war on the Tuatha de Danann. They, about the same time, declared war on the Fir Bolg. After a day spent preparing weapons and inspecting the other side to make sure the fight would be fair, including handing out weapons to their enemy, if they were needed (still amazed by that tidbit), they fought.
The battle raged for four days. On the fourth, Nuada was in the center of the battle, surrounded by twelve bodyguards. He fought against Sreng, and Sreng managed to slice off his arm “at the shoulder.” Nuada cried out for help. “Aengaba of Norway” rushed to his aid and began to fight Sreng.
More importantly, the Dagda, who had been fighting in a different part of the battle, rushed to the aid of the wounded Nuada and protected him while he was taken from the field.
The wounding of their king infuriated the Tuatha de, causing them to fight even harder. By the end of day, the king of the Fir Bolg was dead, and both sides were reeling from heavy losses.
Nuada demanded to know how the rest of the battle went. The Dagda told him. It wasn’t good. It doesn’t say how Nuada felt about their losses, but given who fell that day, I imagine saying he was upset might be an understatement.
This is where the tale gets really strange. According to The First Battle of Magh Turadh, Sreng demands Nuada fight him in single combat.
The guy’s missing an arm. A whole arm. Cut off at the shoulder. But apparently both sides have these Wells of Healing that are full of herbs. Men go in wounded, they come out healed, though not necessarily with whatever got cut off. So, Nuada agrees to do battle with him. Single combat. Without an arm.
This, by the way, is pointed out in The First Battle of Magh Turadh, not as a sign of madness, but as a sign of the bravery of Nuada and how one-sided (forgive me!) this challenge by Sreng was from the start. In fact, Nuada himself points this out and says that Sreng can’t use both hands to fight, since that wouldn’t be fair.
Instead of fighting, the two sides decide to divide the land between them, with the Fir Bolg moving on to Connacht while the Tuatha de got the rest of the island. (There are some variations to this ending, by the way.)
Sometime after these events, Dian Cecht, the physician for the Tuatha de Danann, along with the metalsmith, Credne, made Nuada a silver arm. It was an amazing bit of machinery, able to move the same as a flesh and blood hand and arm. Unfortunately, even with this amazing contraption, the Tuatha de thought he wasn’t fit to be king over them. Apparently, they wanted someone perfectly whole instead of someone with an amazing silver arm. Bres was put in charge, but he only lasted seven years, due to an oppressive tribute that caused the people to hate him.
Sometime before he lost the kingship, Miach, son of Dian Cecht, became sick of looking at the contraption his father had made. It seemed “evil” to him. I’m not sure why. It’s a silver arm. Anyway, it irritated him so much that he went out into the field and got Nuada’s original arm, chanted over it, and in about nine days, voila! It reattached and Nuada was whole!
Okay, the account in The Second Battle of Magh Turedh is a little more detailed than that, but some of it doesn’t make much sense, and frankly, some of it is a little icky. Moving on.
Dian Cecht was not happy with this. He felt his son’s solution was “evil” as well and killed him.
The story doesn’t really have a very happy ending at this point. Bres is kicked out of his kingship after seven years, the no-longer-armless Nuada takes his place, and Bres comes back with the Formorians (his relatives) to do battle against Nuada, and there’s war and bloodshed and so on and so forth, but frankly I wish they’d written more about that silver prosthetic. It’s never mentioned again.
*It’s implied in The First Battle of Magh Turedh that he wasn’t king when the group started journeying, so apparently they’d been traveling a while.
The First Battle of Magh Turedh (The formatting on my browser looked terrible, but if you copy and paste into notepad or some other word processing document, it’s perfectly readable. If anyone has a better source for this document, I’m more than willing to post the link.)
Nuada Airgetlám (Wikipedia) (Please note that “lám” can mean either hand or arm, and that The First Battle of Magh Turedh describes Nuada’s arm being cut off at the shoulder and falling to the ground. I’m not sure how it got switched to hand.)