Chapter V: Tales of the Ultonian Cycle
The Curse of Macha
The centre of interest in Irish legend now shifts from Tara to Ulster, and a
multitude of heroic tales gather round the Ulster king Conor mac Nessa, round
Cuchulain, [pronounced "Koohoo´lin."] his great vassal, and the Red
Branch Order of chivalry, which had its seat in Emain Macha.
The legend of the foundation of Emain Macha has already been told [page 150].
But Macha, who was no mere woman, but a supernatural being, appears again in
connexion with the history of Ulster in a very curious tale which was supposed
to account for the strange debility or helplessness that at critical moments
sometimes fell, it was believed, upon the warriors of the province.
The legend tells that a wealthy Ulster farmer named
Crundchu, son of Agnoman,
dwelling in a solitary place among the hills, found one day in his dūn a
young woman of great beauty and in splendid array, whom he had never seen
before. Crundchu, we are told, was a widower, his wife having died after bearing
him four sons. The strange woman, without a word, set herself to do the houshold
tasks, prepared dinner, milked the cow, and took on herself all the duties of
the mistress of the household. At night she lay down at Crundchu's side, and
thereafter dwelt with him as his wife; and they loved each other dearly. Her
name was Macha.
One day Crundchu prepared himself to go to a great fair or assembly of the
Ultonians, where there would be feasting and horse-racing, tournaments and
music, and merrymaking of all kinds. Macha begged her husband not to go. He persisted. "Then," she said, "at least do not
speak of me in the assembly, for I may dwell with you only so long as I am not
It has been observed that we have here the earliest appearance in
postclassical European literature of the well-known motive of the fairy bride
who can stay with her mortal lover only so long as certain conditions are
observed, such as that he shall not spy upon her, ill-treat her, or ask of her
Crundchu promised to obey the injunction, and went to the festival. Here the
two horses of the king carried off prize after prize in the racing, and the
people cried "There is not in Ireland a swifter than the King's pair of
"I have a wife at home," said
Crundchu, in a moment of
forgetfulness, "who can run quicker than these horses."
"Seize that man," said the angry king, "and hold him till his
wife be brought to the contest."
So messengers went for Macha, and she was brought before the assembly; and
she was with child. The king bade her prepare for the race. She pleaded her
condition. "I am close upon my hour," she said. "Then hew her man
in pieces," said the king to his guards. Macha turned to the bystanders.
"Help me," she cried, "for a mother hath borne each of you!
Give me but a short delay till I am delivered." But the king and all the
crowd in their savage lust for sport would hear of no delay. "Then bring up
the horses," said Macha, "and because you have no pity a heavier
infamy shall fall upon you." So she raced against the horses, and outran
them, but as she came to the goal she gave a great cry, and her travail seized
her, and she gave birth to twin children. As she uttered that cry, however, all
the spectators felt themselves seized with pangs like her own and had no more strength than a
woman in her travail. And Macha prophesied "From this hour the shame you
have wrought on me will fall upon each man of Ulster. In the hours of your
greatest need ye shall be weak and helpless as women in childbirth, and this
shall endure for five days and four nights - to the ninth generation the curse
shall be upon you." And so it came to pass; and this is the cause of the
Debility of the Ultonians that was wont to afflict the warriors of the province.
Conor mac Nessa
The chief occasion on which this Debility was manifested was when
of Connacht, made the famous Cattle-raid of Quelgny (Tam Bo Cuailgné),
which forms the subject of the greatest tale in Irish literature. We have
now to relate the preliminary history leading up to this epic tale and
introducing its chief characters.
Fachtna the Giant, King of Ulster, had to wife
Nessa, daughter of Echid
Yellow-heel, and she bore him a son named Conor. But when Fachtna died Fergus
son of Roy, his half-brother, succeeded him, Conor being then but a youth. Now
Fergus loved Nessa, and would have wedded her, but she made conditions.
"Let my son Conor reign one year," she said, "so that his
posterity may be the descendants of a king, and I consent." Fergus agreed,
and young Conor took the throne. But so wise and prosperous was his rule and so
sagacious his judgments that, at the year's end, the people, as Nessa foresaw,
would have him remain king; and Fergus, who loved the feast and the chase better
than the toils of kingship, was content to have it so, and remained at Conor's
court for a time, great, honoured, and happy, but king no longer.
The Red Branch
In his time was the glory of the "Red Branch" in Ulster, who were
the offspring of Ross the Red, King of Ulster, with collateral relatives and
allies, forming ultimately a kind of warlike Order. Most of the Red Branch
heroes appear in the Ultonian Cycle of legend, so that a statement of their
names and relationships may be usefully placed here before we proceed to speak
of their doings. It is noticeable that they have a partly supernatural ancestry.
Ross the Red, it is said, wedded a Danaan woman, Maga, daughter of Angus Og.. As a second wife he wedded a
maiden named Roy. His descendants are as follows:
But Maga was also wedded to the Druid
Cathbad, and by him had three
daughters, whose descendants played a notable part in the Ultonian legendary
[Dectera also had a mortal husband, Sualtam, who passed as Cuchulain's
Birth of Cuchulain
It was during the reign of Conor mac Nessa that the birth of the mightiest
hero of the Celtic race, Cuchulain, came about, and this was the manner of it.
The maiden Dectera, daughter of Cathbad, with fifty young girls, her companions
at the court of Conor, one day disappeared, and for three years no searching
availed to discover their dwelling-place or their fate. At last one summer day a
flock of birds descended on the fields about Emain Macha and began to destroy
the crops and fruit. The king, with Fergus and others of his nobles, went out
against them with slings, but the birds flew only a little way off, luring
the party on and on till at last they found themselves near the Fairy Mound of
Angus on the river Boyne. Night fell, and the king sent Fergus with a party to
discover some habitation where they might sleep. A hut was found, where they
betook themselves to rest, but one of them, exploring further, came to a noble
mansion by the river, and on entering it was met by a young man of splendid
appearance. With the stranger was a lovely woman, his wife, and fifty maidens,
who saluted the Ulster warrior with joy. And he recognised in them Dectera and
her maidens, whom they had missed for three years, and in the glorious youth
Lugh of the Long Arm, son of Ethlinn. He went back with his tale to the king,
who immediately sent for Dectera to come to him. She, alleging that she was ill,
requested a delay; and so the night passed; but in the morning there was found
in the hut among the Ulster warriors a new-born male infant. It was Dectera's
gift to Ulster, and for this purpose she had lured them to the fairy palace by
the Boyne. The child was taken home by the warriors and was given to Dectera's
sister, Finchoom, who was then nursing her own child, Conall, and the boy's name was called
Setanta. And the
part of Ulster from Dundalk southward to Usna in Meath, which is called the
Plain of Murthemney, was allotted for his inheritance, and in later days his
fortress and dwelling-place was in Dundalk.
It is said that the Druid Morann prophesied over the infant : "His
praise will be in the mouths of all men charioteers and warriors, kings and
sages will recount his deeds; he will win the love of many. This child will
avenge all your wrongs; he will give combat at your fords, he will decide all
The Hound of CuIlan
When he was old enough the boy Setanta went to the court of Conor to be
brought up and instructed along with the other sons of princes and chieftains.
It was now that the event occurred from which he got the name of Cuchulain, by
which he was hereafter to be known.
One afternoon King Conor and his nobles were going to a feast to which they
were bidden at the dun of a wealthy smith named Cullan, in Quelgny, where they
also meant to spend the night. Setanta was to accompany them, but as the
cavalcade set off he was in the midst of a game of hurley with his companions
and bade the king go forward, saying he would follow later when his play was
done. The royal company arrived at their destination as night began to fall.
Cullan received them hospitably, and in the great hall they made merry over meat
and wine while the lord of the house barred the gates of his fortress and let
loose outside a huge and ferocious dog which every night guarded the lonely
mansion, and under whose protection, it was said, Cullan feared nothing less
than the onset of an army.
But they had forgotten Setanta! In the middle of the laughter and music of
the feast a terrible sound was heard which brought every man to his feet in an
instant. It was the tremendous baying of the hound of Cullan, giving tongue as
it saw a stranger approach. Soon the noise changed to the howls of a fierce
combat, but, on rushing to the gates, they saw in the glare of the lanterns a
young boy and the hound lying dead at his feet. When it flew at him he had
seized it by the throat and dashed its life out against the side-posts of the
gate. The warriors bore in the lad with rejoicing and wonder, but soon the
triumph ceased, for there stood their host, silent and sorrowful over the body
of his faithful friend, who had died for the safety of his house and would never
guard it more.
"Give me," then said the lad
Setanta, "a whelp of that hound,
O Cullan, and I will train him to be all to you that his sire was. And until
then give me shield and spear and I will myself guard your house; never hound
guarded it better than I will."
And all the company shouted applause at the generous pledge, and on the spot,
as a commemoration of his first deed of valour, they named the lad Cuchulain.
[It is noticeable that among the characters figuring in the Ultonian legendary
cycle many names occur of which the word Cn (hound) forms a part. Thus we
have Curoi, Cucorb, Beälcu, &c. The reference is no doubt to the Irish
wolf-hound, a fine type of valour and beauty.] the Hound of Cullan, and by that
name he was known until he died.
Cuchulain Assumes Arms
When he was older, and near the time when he might assume the weapons of
manhood, it chanced one day that he passed close by where Cathbad the Druid was teaching to certain of his pupils the art of divination and augury. One
of them asked of Cathbad for what kind of enterprise that same day might be
favourable; and Cathbad, having worked a spell of divination, said: "The
youth who should take up arms on this day would become of all men in Erin most
famous for great deeds, yet will his life be short and fleeting." Cuchulain
passed on as though he marked it not, and he came before the king. "What
wilt thou?" asked Conor. "To take the arms of manhood," said
Cuchulain. "So be it," said the king, and he gave the lad two great
spears. But Cuchulain shook them in his hand, and the staves splintered and
broke. And so he did with many others; and the chariots in which they set him
to drive he broke to pieces with stamping of his foot, until at last the king's
own chariot of war and his two spears and sword were brought to the lad, and
these he could not break, do what he would; so this equipment he retained.
His Courtship of Emer
The young Cuchulain was by this grown so fair and noble a youth that every
maid or matron on whom he looked was bewitched by him, and the men of Ulster
bade him take a wife of his own. But none were pleasing to him, till at last he
saw the lovely maiden Emer, daughter of Forgall, the lord of Lusca, [Now Lusk, a
village on the coast a few miles north of Dublin.] and he resolved to woo her
for his bride. So he bade harness his chariot, and with Laeg, his friend and
charioteer, he journeyed to Dūn Forgall.
As he drew near, the maiden was with her companions, daughters of the vassals
of Forgall, and she was teaching them embroidery, for in that art she excelled
all women. She had "the six gifts of womanhood - the gift of beauty, the gift of voice, the gift of sweet speech,
the gift of needlework, the gift of wisdom, and the gift of chastity."
Hearing the thunder of horse-hoofs and the clangour of the chariot from afar,
she bade one of the maidens go to the rampart of the Dun and tell her what she
saw. "A chariot is coming on," said the maiden, "drawn by two
steeds with tossing heads, fierce and powerful; one is grey, the other black.
They breathe fire from their jaws, and the clods of turf they throw up behind
them as they race are like a flock of birds that follow in their track. In the
chariot is a dark, sad man, comeliest of the men of Erin. He is clad in a
crimson cloak, with a brooch of gold, and on his back is a crimson shield with a
silver rim wrought with figures of beasts. With him as his charioteer is a tall,
slender, freckled man with curling red hair held by a fillet of bronze, with
plates of gold at either side of his face. With a goad of red gold he urges the
When the chariot drew up Emer went to meet Cuchulain and saluted him. But
when he urged his love upon her she told him of the might and the wiliness of
her father Forgall, and of the strength of the champions that guarded her lest
she should wed against his will. And when he pressed her more she said "I
may not marry before my sister Fial, who is older than I. She is with me here -
she is excellent in handiwork." "It is not Fial whom I love,"
said Cuchulain. Then as they were conversing he saw the breast of the maiden
over the bosom of her smock, and said to her "Fair is this plain, the plain
of the noble yoke." "None comes to this plain," said she,
"who has not slain his hundreds, and thy deeds are still to do."
So Cuchulain then left her, and drove back to Emain
Cuchulain in the Land of Skatha
Next day Cuchulain bethought himself how he could prepare himself for war and
for the deeds of heroism which Emer had demanded of him. Now he had heard of a
mighty woman-warrior named Skatha, who dwelt in the Land of Shadows, [owing to
the similarity of the name the supernatural country of Skath:, "the
Shadowy," was early identified with the islands of Skye, where the
Cuchulain Peaks still bear witness to the legend.] and who could teach to young
heroes who came to her wonderful feats of arms. So Cuchulain went overseas to
find her, and many dangers he had to meet, black forests and desert plains to
traverse, before he could get tidings of Skatha and her land. At last he came to
the Plain of Ill-luck, where he could not cross without being mired in its
bottomless bogs or sticky clay, and while he was debating what he should do he
saw coming towards him a young man with a face that shone like the sun, [this of
course, was Cuchulain's father, Lugh] and whose very look put cheerfulness and
hope into his heart. The young man gave him a wheel and told him to roll it
before him on the plain, and to follow it whithersoever it went. So Cuchulain
set the wheel rolling, and as it went it blazed with light that shot like rays
from its rim, and the heat of it made a firm path across the quagmire, where
Cuchulain followed safely.
When he had passed the Plain of Ill-luck, and escaped the beasts of the
Perilous Glen, he came to the Bridge of the Leaps, beyond which was the country
of Skatha. Here he found on the hither side many sons of the princes of Ireland
who were come to learn feats of war from Skatha, and they were playing at hurley
on the green. And among them was his friend Ferdia, son of the Firbolg, Daman;
and they all asked him of the news from Ireland. When he had told them all he asked Ferdia how he
should pass to the dun of Skatha. Now the Bridge of Leaps was very narrow and
very high, and it crossed a gorge where far below swung the tides of a boiling
sea, in which ravenous monsters could be seen swimming.
"Not one of us has crossed that bridge," said
there are two feats that Skatha teaches last, and one is the leap across the
bridge, and the other the thrust of the Gae Bolg. [this means probably "the
belly spear." With this terrible weapon Cuchulain was fated in the end to
slay his friend Ferdia.] For if a man step upon one end of that bridge, the
middle straightway rises up and flings him back, and if he leap upon it he may
chance to miss his footing and fall into the gulf, where the sea-monsters are
waiting for him."
But Cuchulain waited till evening, when he had recovered his strength from
his long journey, and then essayed the crossing of the bridge. Three times he
ran towards it from a distance, gathering all his powers together, and strove to
leap upon the middle, but three times it rose against him and flung him back,
while his companions jeered at him because he would not wait for the help of
Skatha. But at the fourth leap he lit fairly on the centre of the bridge, and
with one leap more he was across it, and stood before the strong fortress of
Skatha; and she wondered at his courage and vigour, and admitted him to be her
For a year and a day Cuchulain abode with
Skatha, and all the feats she had
to teach he learned easily, and last of all she taught him the use of the Gae
Bolg, and gave him that dreadful weapon, which she had deemed no champion before
him good enough to have. And the manner of using the Gae Boig was that it was
thrown with the foot, and if it entered an enemy's body it filled every limb and crevice of him with its barbs. While Cuchulain
dwelt with Skatha his friend above all friends and his rival in skill and valour
was Ferdia, and ere they parted they vowed to love and help one another as long
as they should live.
Cuchulain and Aifa
Now whilst Cuchulain was in the Land of the Shadows it chanced that Skatha
made war on the people of the Princess Aifa, who was the fiercest and strongest
of the woman-warriors of the world, so that even Skatha feared to meet her in
arms. On going forth to the war, therefore, Skatha mixed with Cuchulain's drink
a sleepy herb so that he should not wake for four-and-twenty hours, by which
time the host would be far on its way, for she feared lest evil should come to
him ere he had got his full strength. But the potion that would have served
another man for a day and a night only held Cuchulain for one hour; and when he
waked up he seized his arms and followed the host by its chariot-tracks till he
came up with them. Then it is said that Skatha uttered a sigh, for she knew that
he would not be restrained from the war.
When the armies met, Cuchulain and the two sons of Skatha wrought great deeds
on the foe, and slew six of the mightiest of Aifa's warriors. Then Aifa sent
word to Skatha and challenged her to single combat. But Cuchulain declared that
he would meet the fair Fury in place of Skatha, and he asked first of all what
were the things she most valued. "What Aifa loves most," said Skatha,
"are her two horses, her chariot and her charioteer." Then the pair
met in single combat, and every champion's feat which they knew they tried on
each other in vain, till at last a blow of Aifa's shattered the sword of
Cuchulain to the hilt.
At this Cuchulain cried out: "Ah me! behold the chariot and horses of
Aifa fallen into the glen!" Aifa glanced round, and Cuchulain, rushing in,
seized her round the waist and slung her over his shoulder and bore her back to
the camp of Skatha. There he flung her on the ground and put his knife to her
throat. She begged for her life, and Cuchulain granted it on condition that she
made a lasting peace with Skatha, and gave hostages for her fulfilment of the
pledge. To this she agreed, and Cuchulain and she became not only friends but
The Tragedy of Cuchulain and Connla
Before Cuchulain left the Land of Shadows he gave Aifa a golden ring, saying
that if she should bear him a son he was to be sent to seek his father in Erin
so soon as he should have grown so that his finger would fit the ring. And
Cuchulain said, "Charge him under geise that he shall not make
himself known, that he never turn out of the way for any man, nor ever refuse a
combat. And be his name called Connla."
In later years it is narrated that one day when King Conor of Ulster and the
lords of Ulster were at a festal gathering on the Strand of the Footprints they
saw coming towards them across the sea a little boat of bronze, and in it a
young lad with gilded oars in his hands. In the boat was a heap of stones, and
ever and anon the lad would put one of these stones into a sling and cast it at
a flying sea-bird in such fashion that it would bring down the bird alive to his
feet. And many other wonderful feats of skill he did. Then Conor said, as the
boat drew nearer: "If the grown men of that lad's country came here they
would surely grind us to powder. Woe to the land into which that boy shall come!"
When the boy came to land, a messenger,
Condery, was sent to bid him be off.
"I will not turn back for thee," said the lad, and Condery repeated
what he had said to the king. Then Conall of the Victories was sent against him,
but the lad slung a great stone at him, and the whizz and wind of it knocked him
down, and the lad sprang upon him, and bound his arms with the strap of his
shield. And so man after man was served; some were bound, and some were slain,
but the lad defied the whole power of Ulster to turn him back, nor would he tell
his name or lineage.
"Send for Cuchulain," then said King
Conor. And they sent a
messenger to Dundalk, where Cuchulain was with Emer his wife, and bade him come
to do battle against a stranger boy whom Conall of the Victories could not
overcome. Emer threw her arm round Cuchulain's neck. "Do not go," she
entreated. "Surely this is the son of Aifa. Slay not thine only son."
But Cuchulain said: "Forbear, woman! Were it Connla himself I would slay
him for the honour of Ulster," and he bade yoke his chariot and went to the
Strand. Here he found the boy tossing up his weapons and doing marvellous feats
with them. "Delightful is thy play, boy," said Cuchulain; "who
art thou and whence dost thou come?" "I may not reveal that,"
said the lad. "Then thou shalt die," said Cuchulain. "So be
it," said the lad, and then they fought with swords for a while, till the
lad delicately shore off a lock of Cuchulain's hair. "Enough of
trifling," said Cuchulain, and they closed with each other, but the lad
planted himself on a rock and stood so firm that Cuchulain could not move him,
and in the stubborn wrestling they had the lad's two feet sank deep into the
stone and made the footprints whence the Strand of the Footprints has its name.
At last they both fell into the sea, and Cuchulain was near being drowned, till he bethought himself
of the Gae Bolg, and he drove that weapon against the lad and it ripped up his
belly. "That is what Skatha never taught me," cried the lad. "Woe
is me, for I am hurt." Cuchulain looked at him and saw the ring on his
finger. "It is true," he said; and he took up the boy and bore him on
shore and laid him down before Conor and the lords of Ulster. "Here is my
son for you, men of Ulster," he said. And the boy said: "it is true.
And if I had five years to grow among you, you would conquer the world on every
side of you and rule as far as Rome. But since it is as it is, point out to me
the famous warriors that are here, that I may know them and take leave of them
before I die." Then one after another they were brought to him, and he
kissed them and took leave of his father, and he died; and the men of Ulster
made his grave and set up his pillar-stone with great mourning. This was the
only son Cuchulain ever had, and this son he slew.
This tale, as I have given it here, dates from the ninth century, and is
found in the "Yellow Book of Lecan." There are many other Gaelic
versions of it in poetry and prose. It is one of the earliest extant appearances
in literature of the since well-known theme of the slaying of a heroic son by
his father. The Persian rendering of it in the tale of Sohrab and Rustum has
been made familiar by Matthew Arnold's fine poem. In the Irish version it will
be noted that the father is not without a suspicion of the identity of his
antagonist, but he does battle with him under the stimulus of that passionate
sense of loyalty to his prince and province which was Cuchulain's most signal
To complete the story of Aifa and her son we have anticipated events, and now
turn back to take up the thread again.
Cuchulain's First Foray
After a year and a day of training in warfare under
returned to Erin, eager to test his prowess and to win Emer for his wife. So he
bade harness his chariot and drove out to make a foray upon the fords and
marches of Connacht, for between Connacht and Ulster there was always an angry
surf of fighting along the borders.
And first he drove to the White Cairn, which is on the highest of the
Mountains of Mourne, and surveyed the land of Ulster spread out smiling in the
sunshine far below and bade his charioteer tell him the name of every hill and
plain and dūn that he saw. Then turning southwards he looked over the
plains of Bregia, and the charioteer pointed out to him Tara and Teltin, and
Brugh na Boyna and the great dūn of the sons of Nechtan. "Are
they," asked Cuchulain, "those sons of Nechtan of whom it is said that
more of the men of Ulster have fallen by their hands than are yet living on the
earth?" "The same," said the charioteer. Then let us drive
thither," said Cuchulain. So, much unwilling, the charioteer drove to the
fortress of the sons of Nechtan, and there on the green before it they found a
pillar-stone, and round it a collar of bronze having on it writing in Ogham.
This Cuchulain read, and it declared that any man of age to bear arms who should
come to that green should hold it geis for him to depart without having
challenged one of the dwellers in the dūn to single combat. Then Cuchulain
flung his arms round the stone, and, swaying it backwards and forwards, heaved
it at last out of the earth and flung it, collar and all, into the river that
ran hard by. "Surely," said the charioteer, " thou art seeking
for a violent death, and now thou wilt find it without delay."
Then Foill son of Nechtan came forth from the dūn, and seeing
whom he deemed but a lad, he was annoyed. But Cuchulain bade him fetch his arms,
"for I slay not drivers nor messengers nor unarmed men," and Foill
went back into the dūn.
"Thou canst not slay him," then said the charioteer, "for he
is invulnerable by magic power to the point or edge of any blade." But
Cuchulain put in his sling a ball of tempered iron, and when Foill appeared he
slung at him so that it struck his forehead, and went clean through brain and
skull; and Cuchulain took his head and bound it to his chariot-rim. And other
sons of Nechtan, issuing forth, he fought with and slew by sword or spear; and
then he fired the dūn and left it in a blaze and drove on exultant. And on
the way he saw a flock of wild swans, and sixteen of them he brought down alive
with his sling, and tied them to the chariot; and seeing a herd of wild deer
which his horses could not overtake he lighted down and chased them on foot till
he caught two great stags, and with thongs and ropes he made them fast to the
But at Emain Macha a scout of King Conor came running in to give him news.
"Behold, a solitary chariot is approaching swiftly over the plain; wild
white birds flutter round it and wild stags are tethered to it; it is decked all
round with the bleeding heads ot enemies." And Conor looked to see who was
approaching, and he saw that Cuchulain was in his battle-fury, and would deal
death around him whomsoever he met; so he hastily gave order that a troop of the
women of Emania should go forth to meet him, and, having stripped off their
clothing, should stand naked in the way. This they did, and when the lad saw
them, smitten with shame, he bowed his head upon the chariot-rim. Then Conor's
men instantly seized him and plunged him into a vat of cold water which had been made ready, but the
water boiled around him and the staves and hoops of the vat were burst asunder.
This they did again and yet again, and at last his fury left him, and his
natural form and aspect were restored. Then they clad him in fresh raiment and
bade him in to the feast in the king's banqueting-hall.
The Winning of Emer
Next day he went to the dūn of Forgall the Wily, father of
Emer, and he
leaped "the hero's salmon leap," that he had learned of Skatha, over
the high ramparts of the dūn. Then the mighty men of Forgall set on him,
and he dealt but three blows, and each blow slew eight men, and Forgall himself
fell lifeless in leaping from the rampart of the dūn to escape Cuchulain.
So he carried off Emer and her foster-sister and two loads of gold and silver.
But outside the dun the sister of Forgall raised a host against him, and his
battle-fury came on him, and furious were the blows he dealt, so that the ford
of Glondath ran blood and the turf on Crofot was trampled into bloody mire. A
hundred he slew at every ford from Olbiny to the Boyne; and so was Emer won as
she desired, and he brought her to Emain Macha and made her his wife, and they
were not parted again until he died.
Cuchulain Champion of Erin
A lord of Ulster named Briccriu of the Poisoned Tongue once made a feast to
which he bade King Conor and all the heroes of the Red Branch, and because it
was always his delight to stir up strife among men or women he set the heroes
contending among themselves as to who was the champion of the land of Erin. At
last it was agreed that the championship must lie among three of them, namely,
Cuchulain, and Conall of the Victories
and Laery the Triumphant. To decide between these three a demon named The
Terrible was summoned from a lake in the depth of which he dwelt. He proposed to
the heroes a test of courage. Any one of them, he said, might cut off his head
to-day provided that he, the claimant of the championship, would lay down his
own head for the axe to-morrow. Conall and Laery shrank from the test, but
Cuchulain accepted it, and after reciting a charm over his sword, he cut off the
head of the demon, who immediately rose, and taking the bleeding head in one
hand and his axe in the other, plunged into the lake.
Next day he reappeared, whole and sound, to claim the fulfilment of the
bargain. Cuchulain, quailing but resolute, laid his head on the block.
"Stretch out your neck, wretch," cried the demon ; "tis too short
for me to strike at." Cuchulain does as he is bidden. The demon swings his
axe thrice over his victim, brings down the butt with a crash on the block, and
then bids Cuchulain rise unhurt, Champion of Ireland and her boldest man.
Deirdre and the Sons of Usna
We have now to turn to a story in which Cuchulain takes no part. It is the
chief of the preliminary tales to the Cattle-spoil of Quelgny.
There was among the lords of Ulster, it is said, one named Felim son of
who on a certain day made a great feast for the king. And the king came with his
Druid Cathbad, and Fergus mac Roy, and many heroes of the Red Branch, and while
they were making merry over the roasted flesh and wheaten cakes and Greek wine a
messenger from the women's apartments came to tell Felim that his wife had just borne him a daughter. So all the
lords and warriors drank health to the new-born infant, and the king bade
Cathbade perform divination in the manner of the Druids and foretell what the
future would have in store for Felim's base. Cathbad gazed upon the stars and
drew the horoscope of the child, and he was much troubled; and at length he
said: "The infant shall he fairest among the women of Erin, and shall wed a
king, but because of her shall death and ruin come upon the Province of
Ulster." Then the warriors would have put her to death upon the spot, but
Conor forbade them. "I will avert the doom," he said, "for she
shall wed no foreign king, but she shall he my own mate when she is of
age." So he took away the child, and committed it to his nurse Levarcam,
and the name they gave it was Deirdre. And Conor charged Levarcam that the child
should be brought up in a strong dūn in the solitude of a great wood, and
that no young man should see her or she him until she was of marriageable age
for the king to wed. And there she dwelt, seeing none but her nurse and Cathbad,
and sometime: the king, now growing an aged man, who would visit the dūn
from time to time to see that all was well with the folk there, and that his
commands were observed.
One day, when the time for the marriage of Deirdre and Conor was drawing
near, Deirdre and Levarcam looked over the rampart of their dun. It was winter,
a heavy snow had fallen in the night, and in the still, frosty air the trees
stood up as if wrought in silver, and the green before the dun was a sheet of
unbroken white, save that in one place a scullion had killed a calf for their
dinner, and the blood of the calf lay on the snow. And as Deirdre looked, a
raven lit down from a tree hard by and began to sip the blood. "O nurse," cried
Deirdre suddenly, "such, and not like Conor, would be the man that I would
love-his hair like the raven's wing, and in his cheek the hue of blood, and his
skin as white as snow. "Thou hast pictured a man of Conor's
household," said the nurse. "Who is he ?" asked Deirdre. "He
is Naisi, son of Usna. [see genealogical table, p. 181] a champion of the Red
Branch," said the nurse. Thereupon Deirdre entreated Levarcam to bring her
to speak with Naisi; and because the old woman loved the girl and would not have
her wedded to the aged king, she at last agreed. Deirdre implored Naisi to save
her from Conor, but he would not, till at last her entreaties and her beauty won
him, and he vowed to be hers. Then secretly one night he came with his two
brethren, Ardan and Ainlé, and bore away Deirdre with Levarcam, and they
escaped the king's pursuit and took ship for Scotland, where Naisi took service
with the King of the Picts. Yet here they could not rest, for the king got sight
of Deirdre, and would have taken her from Naisi, but Naisi with his brothers
escaped, and in the solitude of Glen Etive they made their dwelling by the lake,
and there lived in the wild wood by hunting and fishing, seeing no man but
themselves and their servants.
And the years went by and Conor made no sign, but he did not forget, and his
spies told him of all that befell Naisi and Deirdre. At last, judging that Naisi
and his brothers would have tired of solitude, he sent the bosom friend of Naisi, Fergus son of Roy, to bid them return, and to promise them that all would
be forgiven. Fergus went joyfully, and joyfully did Naisi and his brothers hear
the message, but Deirdre foresaw evil, and would fain have sent Fergus home
But Naisi blamed her for her doubt and suspicion, and bade her mark that they
were under the protection of Fergus, whose safeguard no king in Ireland would
dare to violate; and they at last made ready to go.
On landing in Ireland they were met by Baruch, a lord of the Red Branch, who
had his dūn close by, and he bade Fergus to a feast he had prepared for him
that night. " I may not stay," said Fergus, "for I must first
convey Deirdre and the sons of Usna safely to Emain Macha"
"Nevertheless," said Baruch, "thou must stay with me to-night,
for it is a geis for thee to refuse a feast." Deirdre implored him
not to leave them, but Fergus was tempted by the feast, and feared to break his geis,
and he bade his two sons Illan the Fair and Buino the Red take charge of the
party in his place, and he himself abode with Baruch.
And so the party came to Emain Macha, and they were lodged in the House of
the Red Branch, but Conor did not receive them. After the evening meal, as he
sat, drinking heavily and silently, he sent a messenger to bid Levarcam come
before him. "How is it with the sons of Usna?" he said to her.
"It is well," she said. "Thou hast got the three most valorous
champions in Ulster in thy court. Truly the king who has those three need fear
no enemy." "Is it well with Deirdre?" he asked. "She is
well," said the nurse, "but she has lived many years in the wildwood,
and toil and care have changed her - little of her beauty of old now remains to
her, O King." Then the king dismissed her, and sat drinking again. But
after a while he called to him a servant named Trendorn, and bade him go to the
Red Branch House and mark who was there and what they did. But when Trendorn
came the place was bolted and barred for the night, and he could not get an
entrance, and at last he mounted on a ladder and looked in at a high window. And there he saw the
brothers of Naisi and the sons of Fergus, as they talked or cleaned their arms,
or made them ready for slumber, and there sat Naisi with a chess-board before
him, and playing chess with him was the fairest of women that he had ever seen.
But as he looked in wonder at the noble pair, suddenly one caught sight of him
and rose with a cry, pointing to the face at the window. And Naisi looked up and
saw it, and seizing a chessman from the board he hurled it at the face of the
spy, and it struck out his eye. Then Trendorn hastily descended, and went back
with his bloody face to the king. "I have seen them," he cried,
"I have seen the fairest woman of the world, and but that Naisi had struck
my eye out I had been looking on her still."
Then Conor arose and called for his guards and bade them bring the sons of
Usna before him for maiming his messenger. And the guards went; but first
Buino,son of Fergus, with his retinue, met them, and at the sword's point drove
them back; but Naisi and Deirdre continued quietly to play chess,
"For," said Naisi, "it is not seemly that we should seek to
defend ourselves while we are under the protection of the sons of Fergus."
But Conor went to Buino, and with a great gift of lands he bought him over to
desert his charge. Then Illan took up the defence of the Red Branch Hostel, but
the two sons of Conor slew him. And then at last Naisi and his brothers seized
their weapons and rushed amid the foe, and many were they who fell before the
onset. Then Conor entreated Cathbad the Druid to cast spells upon them lest they
should get away and become the enemies of the province, and he vowed to do them
no hurt if they were taken alive. So Cathbad conjured up, as it were, a lake of
slime that seemed to be about the feet of the sons of Usna, and they could not tear their feet from it, and
Naisi caught up Deirdre and put her on his shoulder, for they seemed to be
sinking in the slime. Then the guards and servants of Conor seized and bound
them and brought them before the king. And the king called upon man after man to
come forward and slay the sons of Usna, but none would obey him, till at last
Owen son of Duracht and Prince of Ferney came and took the sword of Naisi, and
with one sweep he shore off the heads of all three, and so they died.
Then Conor took Deirdre perforce, and for a year she abode with him in the
palace in Emain Macha, but during all that time she never smiled. At length
Conor said: "What is it that you hate most of all on earth, Deirdre?"
And she said: "Thou thyself and Owen son of Duracht," and Owen was
standing by. "Then thou shalt go to Owen for a year," said Conor. But
when Deirdre mounted the chariot behind Owen she kept her eyes on the ground,
for she would not look on those who thus tormented her; and Conor said, taunting
her: "Deirdre, the glance of thee between me and Owen is the glance of a
ewe between two rams." Then Deirdre started up, and, flinging herself head
foremost from the chariot, she dashed her head against a rock and fell dead.
And when they buried her it is said there grew from her grave and from
Naisi's two yew-trees, whose tops, when they were full-grown, met each other
over the roof of the great church of Armagh, and intertwined together, and none
could part them.
The Rebellion of Fergus
When Fergus mac Roy came home to Emain Macha after the feast to which Baruch
bade him and found the sons of Usna slain and one of his own sons dead and the other a traitor,
he broke out against Conor in a storm of wrath and cursing, and vowed to be
avenged on him with fire and sword. And he went off straightway to Connacht to
take service of arms with Ailell and Maev, who were king and queen of that
But though Ailell was king, Maev was the ruler in truth, and ordered all
things as she wished, and took what husbands she wished, and dismissed them at
pleasure; for she was as fierce and strong as a goddess of war, and knew no law
but her own wild will. She was tall, it is said, with a long, pale face and
masses of hair yellow as ripe corn. When Fergus came to her in her palace at
Rathcroghan in Roscommon she gave him her love, as she had given it to many
before, and they plotted together how to attack and devastate the Province of
The Brown Bull of Quelgny
Now it happened that Maev possessed a famous red bull with white front and
horns named Finnbenach, and one day when she and Ailell were counting up their
respective possessions and matching them against each other he taunted her
because the Finnbenach would not stay in the hands of a woman, but had attached
himself to Ailell's herd. So Maev in vexation went to her steward, mac Roth, and
asked of him if there were anywhere in Erin a bull as fine as the Finnbenach.
"Truly," said the steward, "there is - for the Brown Bull of
Quelgny, that belongs to Dara son of Fachtna, is the mightiest beast that is in
Ireland." And after that Maev felt as if she had no flocks and herds that were worth anything at all unless she possessed the Brown Bull of
Quelgny. But this was in Ulster, and the Ulstermen knew the treasure they
possessed, and Maev knew that they would not give up the hull without fighting
for it. So she and Fergus and Ailell agreed to make a foray against Ulster for
the Brown Bull, and thus to enter into war with the province, for Fergus longed
for vengeance, and Maev for fighting, for glory, and for the bull, and Audi to
Here let us note that this contest for the bull, which is the ostensible
theme of the greatest of Celtic legendary tales, the "Tain Bo Cuailgné,"
has a deeper meaning than appears on the surface. An ancient piece of Aryan
mythology is embedded in it. The Brown Bull is the Celtic counterpart of the
Hindu sky-deity, Indra, represented in Hindu myth as a mighty bull, whose
roaring is the thunder and who lets loose the rains "like cows streaming
forth to pasture." The advance of the Western (Connacht) host for the
capture of this bull is emblematic of the onset of Night. The bull is defended
by the solar hero Cuchulain, who, however, is ultimately overthrown and the bull
is captured for a season. The two animals in the Celtic legend probably typify
the sky in different aspects. They are described with a pomp and circumstance
which shows that they are no common beasts. Once, we are told, they were
swineherds of the people of Dana. "They had been successively transformed
into two ravens, two sea-monsters, two warriors, two demons, two worms or
animalculae, and finally into two kine." [Miss Hull, "The Cuchullin
Saga," p. Ixxii, where the solar theory of the Brown Bull is dealt with at
length.] The Brown Bull is described as having a back broad enough for fifty
children to play on; when he is angry with his keeper he stamps the man thirty feet into the ground; he is likened to a sea wave, to a boar, to a
dragon, a lion, the writer heaping up images of strength and savagery. We are
therefore concerned with no ordinary cattle-raid, but with a myth, the features
of which are discernible under the dressing given it by the fervid imagination
of the unknown Celtic bard who composed the "Tain," although the exact
meaning of every detail may be difficult to ascertain.
The first attempt of Maev to get possession of the bull was to send an
embassy to Dara to ask for the loan of him for a year, the recompense offered
being fifty heifers, besides the bull himself back, and if Dara chose to settle
in Connacht he should have as much land there as he now possessed in Ulster, and
a chariot worth thrice seven cumals, [A cumal was the unit of
value in Celtic Ireland. It is mentioned as such by St. Patrick. It meant the
price of a woman-slave.] with the patronage and friendship of Maev.
Dara was at first delighted with the prospect, but tales were borne to him of
the chatter of Maev's messengers, and how they said that if the bull was not
yielded willingly it would be taken by force; and he sent back a message of
refusal and defiance. "'Twas known," said Maev, "the bull will
not be yielded by fair means; he shall now be won by foul." And so she sent
messengers around on every side to summon her hosts for the Raid.
The Hosting of Queen Maev
And there came all the mighty men of Connacht - first the seven
of Ailell and Maev, each with his retinue; and Ket and Anluan, sons of Maga,
with thirty hundreds of armed men; and yellow-haired Ferdia, with his company of
Firbolgs, boisterous giants who delighted in war and in strong ale. And there came also the allies of
Maev - host of the men of Leinster, who so excelled the rest in warlike skill
that they were broken up and distributed among the companies of Connacht, lest
they should prove a danger to the host; and Cormac son of Conor, with Fergus mac
Roy and other exiles from Ulster, who had revolted against Conor for his
treachery to the sons of Usna.
Ulster under the Curse
But before the host set forth towards Ulster Maev sent her spies into
the land to tell her of the preparations there being made. And the spies brought
back a wondrous tale, and one that rejoiced the heart of Maev, for they said
that the Debility of the Ultonians [the curse laid on them by Macha. See p. 180]
had descended on the province. Conor the king lay in pangs at Emain Macha, and
his son Cuscrid in his island-fortress, and Owen Prince of Ferney was helpless
as a child; Celtchar, the huge grey warrior, son of Uthecar Hornskin, and even
Conall of the Victories, lay moaning and writhing on their beds, and there was
no hand in Ulster that could lift a spear.
Nevertheless Maev went to her chief Druid, and demanded of him what her own
lot in the war should be. And the Druid said only: "Whoever comes back in
safety, or comes not, thou thyself shalt come." But on her journey back she
saw suddenly standing before her chariot-pole a young maiden with tresses of
yellow hair that fell below her knees, and clad in a mantle of green; and with
a shuttle of gold she wove a fabric upon a loom. "Who art thou, girl?" said
Maev, "and what dost thou?" "I am the prophetess, Fedelma, from the
Fairy Mound of Croghan," said the maid, "and I weave the four
provinces of Ireland together for the foray into Ulster." "How seest
thou our host?" asked Maev. "I see them all be-crimsoned, red,"
replied the prophetess. "Yet the Ulster heroes are all in their pangs -
there is none that can lift a spear against us," said Maev. "I see the
host all be-crimsoned," said Fedelma. "I see a man of small stature,
but the hero's light is on his brow - a stripling young and modest, but in
battle a dragon; he is like unto Cuchulain of Murthemney; he doth wondrous feats
with his weapons; by him your slain shall lie thickly." [Cuchulain, as the
son of the god Lugh, was not subject to the curse of Macha which afflicted the
At this the vision of the weaving maiden vanished, and Maev drove homewards
to Rathcroghan wondering at what she had seen and heard.
Cuchulain Puts the Host under Geise
On the morrow the host set forth, Fergus mac Roy leading them, and as they
neared the confines of Ulster he bade them keep sharp watch lest Cuchulain of
Murthemney, who guarded the passes of Ulster to the south, should fall upon them
unawares. Now Cuchulain and his father Sualtam [His reputed father, the mortal
husband of Dectera] were on the borders of the province, and Cuchulain, from a
warning Fergus had sent him, suspected the approach of a great host, and bade
Sualtam go northwards to Emania and warn the men of Ulster. But Cuchulain
himself would not stay there, for he said he had a tryst to keep with a handmaid
of the wife of Laery the bodach (farmer), so he went into the forest, and
there, standing on one leg, and using only one hand and one eye, he cut an oak sapling and twisted it
into a circular withe. On this he cut in Ogham characters how the withe was
made, and he put the host of Maev under geise not to pass by that place
till one of them had, under similar conditions, made a similar withe; "and
I except my friend Fergus mac Roy," he added, and wrote his name at the
end. Then he placed the withe round the pillar-stone of Ardcullin, and went his
way to keep his tryst with the handmaid. [In the Irish bardic literature, as in
the Homeric epics, chastity formed no part of the masculine ideal either for
gods or men.]
When the host of Maev came to Ardcullin, the withe upon the pillar-stone was
found and brought to Fergus to decipher it. There was none amongst the host who
could emulate the feat of Cuchulain, and so they went into the wood and encamped
for the night. A heavy snowfall took place, and they were all in much distress,
but next day the sun rose gloriously, and over the white plain they marched away
into Ulster, counting the prohibition as extending only for one night.
The Ford of the Forked Pole
Cuchulain now followed hard on their track, and as he went he estimated by
the tracks they had left the number of the host at eighteen triucha cét (54,000
men). Circling round the host, he now met them in front, and soon came upon
two chariots containing scouts sent ahead by Maev. These he slew, each man with
his driver, and having with one sweep of his sword cut a forked pole of four
prongs from the wood, he drove the pole deep into a river-ford at the place
called Athgowla, ["The Ford of the Forked Pole"] and impaled on each
prong a bloody head. When the host came up they wondered and feared at the sight, and Fergus declared that they were under geise not to pass
that ford till one of them had plucked out the pole even as it was driven in,
with the finger-tips of one hand. So Fergus drove into the water to essay the
feat, and seventeen chariots were broken under him as he tugged it the pole, but
at list he tore it out; and as it was now late the host encamped upon the spot.
These devices of Cuchulain were intended to delay the invaders until the Ulster
men had recovered from their debility.
In the epic, as given in the Book of
Leinster, and other ancient sources, a
long interlude now takes place in which Fergus explains to Maev who it is -
viz., "my little pupil Setanta " - who is thus harrying the host, and
his boyish deeds, some of which have been already told in this narrative, are
The Charioteer of Orlam
The host proceeded on its way next day, and the next encounter with Cuchulain
showing. the hero in a kindlier mood. He hears a noise of timber being cut, and
going into a wood he finds there a charioteer belonging to a son of Ailell and
Maev cutting down chariot-poles of holly. "For," says he, "we
have damaged our chariots sadly in chasing that furious deer, Cuchulain."
Cuchulain - who, it must be remembered, was at ordinary times a slight and
unimposing figure, though in battle he dilated in size and underwent a fearful
distortion, symbolic of Berserker fury - helps the driver in his work.
"Shall I," he asks, "cut the poles or trim them for thee?"
"Do thou the trimming," says the driver. Cuchulain takes the poles by
the tops and draws them against the set of the branches through his toes, and
then runs his fingers down them the same way, and gives them over as smooth and polished as if they were planed by a carpenter. The driver stares at him.
"I doubt this work I set thee to is not thy proper work," he says.
"Who art thou then at all?" "I am that Cuchulain of whom thou
spakest but now " "Surely I am but a dead man," says the driver.
"Nay," replies Cuchulain, "I slay not drivers nor messengers nor
men unarmed. But run, tell thy master Orlam that Cuchulain is about to visit
him." The driver runs off; but Cuchulain outstrips him, meets Orlam first,
and strikes off his head. For a moment the host of Maev see him as he shakes
this bloody trophy before them; then he disappears from sight - it is the first
glimpse they have caught of their persecutor.
The Battle-Frenzy of Cuchulain
A number of scattered episodes now follow. The host of Maev spreads out and
devastates the territories of Bregia and of Murthemney, but they cannot advance
further into Ulster. Cuchulain hovers about them continually, slaying them by
twos and threes, and no man knows where he will swoop next. Maev herself is awed
when, by the bullets of an unseen slinger, a squirrel and a pet bird are killed
as they sit upon her shoulders. Afterwards, as Cuchulain's wrath grows fiercer,
he descends with supernatural might upon whole companies of the Connacht host,
and hundreds fall at his onset. The characteristic distortion or riastradh which
seized him in his battle-frenzy is then described. He became a fearsome and
multiform creature such as never was known before. Every particle of him
quivered like a bulrush in a running stream. His calves and heels and hams
shifted to the front, and his feet and knees to the back, and the muscles of his
neck stood out like the head of a young child. One eye was engulfed deep in his head, the other protruded, his mouth met his
ears, foam poured from his jaws like the fleece of a three-year-old wether. The
beats of his heart sounded like the roars of a lion as he rushes on his prey. A
light blazed above his head, and "his hair became tangled about as it had
been the branches of a red thorn-bush stuffed into the gap of a fence …
Taller, thicker, more rigid, longer than the mast of a great ship was the
perpendicular jet of dusky blood which out of his scalp's very central point
shot upwards and was there scattered to the four cardinal points, whereby was
formed a magic mist of gloom resembling the smoky pall that drapes a regal
dwelling, what time a king at nightfall of a winter's day draws near to
it." [I quote from Standish Hayes O'Grady's translation, in Miss Hull's
Such was the imagery by which Gaelic writers conveyed the idea of superhuman
frenzy. At the sight of Cuchulain in his paroxysm it is said that once a hundred
of Maev's warriors fell dead from horror.
The Compact of the Ford
Maev now tried to tempt him by great largesse to desert the cause of Ulster,
and had a colloquy with him, the two standing on opposite sides of a glen across
which they talked. She scanned him closely, and was struck by his slight and
boyish appearance. She failed to move him from his loyalty to Ulster, and death
descends more thickly than ever upon the Connacht host; the men are afraid to
move out for plunder save in twenties and thirties, and at night the stones from
Cuchulain's sling whistle continually through the camp, braining or maiming. At
last, through the mediation of Fergus, an agreement was come to. Cuchulain
undertook not to harry the host provided they would only send against him one champion at a time, whom Cuchulain would meet in
battle at the ford of the River Dee, which is now called the Ford of Ferdia. [Ath
Fherdia, which is pronounced and now spelt "Ardee." It is in Co.
Louth, at the southern border of the Plain of Murthemney, which was Cuchulain's
territory.] While each right was in progress the host might move on, but when it
was ended they must encamp till the morrow morning. "Better to lose one man
a day than a hundred," said Maev, and the pact was made.
Fergus and Cuchulain
Several single combats are then narrated, in which Cuchulain is always a
victor. Maev even persuades Fergus to go against him, but Fergus and Cuchulain
will on no account right each other, and Cuchulain, by agreement with Fergus,
pretends to fly before him, on Fergus's promise that he will do the same for
Cuchulain when required. How this pledge was kept we shall see later.
Capture of the Brown Bull
During one of Cuchulain's duels with a famous champion,
with a third of her army, makes a sudden foray into Ulster and penetrates as far
as Dunseverick, on the northern coast, plundering and ravaging as they go. The
Brown Bull, who was originally at Quelgny (Co. Down), has been warned at an
earlier stage by the Morrigan [see p. 126] to withdraw himself, and he has taken
refuge, with his herd of cows, in a glen of Slievegallion, Co. Armagh. The
raiders of Maev find him there, and drive him off with the herd in triumph,
passing Cuchulain as they return. Cuchulain slays the leader of the escort -
Buic son of Banblai - but cannot rescue the Bull, and "this," it is said, "was the greatest
affront put on Cuchulain during the course of the raid."
The raid ought now to have ceased, for its object has been attained, but by
this time the hostings of the four southern provinces [In ancient Ireland there
were five provinces, Munster being counted as two, or, as some ancient
authorities explain it, the High King's territory in Meath and Westmeath being
reckoned a separate province] had gathered together under Maev for the plunder
of Ulster, and Cuchulain remained still the solitary warder of the marches. Nor
did Maev keep her agreement, for bands of twenty warriors at a time were loosed
against him and he had much ado to defend himself. The curious episode of the
fight with the Morrigan now occurs. A young woman clad in a mantle of many
colours appears to Cuchulain, telling him that she is a king's daughter,
attracted by the tales of his great exploits, and she has come to offer him her
love. Cuchulain tells her rudely that he is worn and harassed with war and has
no mind to concern himself with women. "It shall go hard with thee,"
then said the maid, "when thou hast to do with men, and I shall be about
thy feet as an eel in the bottom of the Ford." Then she and her chariot
vanished from his sight and he saw but a crow sitting on a branch of a tree, and
he knew that he had spoken with the Morrigan.
The Fight with Loch
The next champion sent against him by Maev was Loch son of
Mofebis. To meet
this hero it is said that Cuchulain had to stain his chin with blackberry juice
so as to simulate a beard, lest Loch should disdain to do combat with a boy. So
they fought in the Ford, and the Morrigan came against him in the guise of a white heifer with red ears, but
Cuchulain fractured her eye with a cast of his spear. Then she came swimming up
the river like a black eel and twisted herself about his legs, and ere he could
rid himself of her Loch wounded him. Then she attacked him as a grey wolf, and
again, before he could subdue her, he was wounded by Loch. At this his
battle-fury took hold of him and he drove the Gae Bolg against Loch, splitting
his heart in two. "Suffer me to rise," said Loch, "that I may
fall on my face on thy side of the ford, and not backward toward the men of
Erin." "It is a warrior's boon thou askest," said Cuchulain,
"and it is granted." So Loch died; and a great despondency, it is
said, now fell upon Cuchulain, for he was outwearied with continued fighting,
and sorely wounded, and he had never slept since the beginning of the raid, save
leaning upon his spear; and he sent his charioteer, Laeg, to see if he could
rouse the men of Ulster to come to his aid at last.
Lugh the Protector
But as he lay at evening by the grave-mound of Lerga in gloom and dejection,
watching the camp-fires of the vast army encamped over against him and the
glitter of their innumerable spears, he saw coming through the host a tall and
comely warrior who strode impetuously forward, and none of the companies through
which he passed turned his head to look at him or seemed to see him. He wore a
tunic of silk embroidered with gold, and a green mantle fastened with a silver
brooch; in one hand was a black shield bordered with silver and two spears in
the other. The stranger came to Cuchulain and spoke gently and sweetly to him of
his long toil and waking, and his sore wounds, and said in the end:
"Sleep now, Cuchulain, by the grave in
Lerga; sleep and slumber deeply for three days, and for that time I will take thy place
and defend the Ford against the host of Maev." Then Cuchulain sank into a
profound slumber and trance, and the stranger laid healing balms of magical
power to his wounds so that he awoke whole and refreshed, and for the time that
Cuchulain slept the stranger held the Ford against the host. And Cuchulain knew
that this was Lugh his father, who had come from among the People of Dana to
help his son through his hour of gloom and despair.
The Sacrifice of the Boy Corps
But still the men of Ulster lay helpless. Now there was at Emain Macha a band
of thrice fifty boys, the sons of all the chieftains of the provinces, who were
there being bred up in arms and in noble ways, and these suffered not from the
curse of Macha, for it fell only on grown men. But when they heard of the sore
straits in which Cuchulain, their playmate not long ago, was lying they put on
their light armour and took their weapons and went forth for the honour of
Ulster, under Conor's young son, Follaman, to aid him. And Follaman vowed that
he would never return to Emania without the diadem of Ailell as a trophy. Three
times they drove against the host of Maev, and thrice their own number fell
before them, but in the end they were overwhelmed and slain, not one escaping
The Carnage of Murthemney
This was done as Cuchulain lay in his trance, and when he awoke, refreshed
and well, and heard what had been done, his frenzy came upon him and he leaped
into his war-chariot and drove furiously round and round the host of Maev. And
the chariot ploughed the earth till the ruts were like the ramparts of a fortress, and the scythes upon its wheels caught and mangled the bodies of
the crowded host till they were piled like a wall around the camp, and as
Cuchulain shouted in his wrath the demons and goblins and wild things in Erin
yelled in answer, so that with the terror and the uproar the host of men heaved
and surged hither and thither, and many perished from each other's weapons, and
many from horror and fear. And this was the great carnage, called the Carnage of
Murthemney, that Cuchulain did to avenge the boy-corps of Emania; six score and
ten princes were then slain of the host of Maev, besides horses and women and
wolf-dogs and common folk without number. It is said that Lugh mac Ethlinn
fought there by his son.
The Clan Calatin
Next the men of Erin resolved to send against
Cuchulain, in single combat,
the Clan Calatin. ["Clan" in Gaelic means children or offspring. Clan
Calatin = the sons of Calatin] Now Calatin was a wizard, and he and his
seven-and-twenty sons formed, as it were, but one being, the sons being organs
of their father, and what any one of them did they all did alike. They were all
poisonous, so that any weapon which one of them used would kill in nine days the
man who was but grazed by it. When this multiform creature met Cuchulain each
hand of it hurled a spear at once, but Cuchulain caught the twenty-eight spears
on his shield and not one of them drew blood. Then he drew his sword to lop off
the spears that bristled from his shield, but as he did so the Clan Calatin
rushed upon him and flung him down, thrusting his face into the gravel. At this
Cuchulain gave a great cry of distress at the unequal combat, and one of the Ulster exile; Fiacha son of
Firaba, who was with the host of Maev, and
was looking on at the fight, could not endure to see the plight of the champion,
and he drew his sword and with one stroke he lopped off the eight-and-twenty
hands that were grinding the face of Cuchulain into the gravel of the Ford. Then
Cuchulain arose and hacked the Clan Calatin into fragments, so that none
survived to tell Maev what Fiacha had done, else had he and his thirty hundred
followers of Clan Rury heen given by Maev to the edge of the sword.
Ferdia to the Fray
Cuchulain had now overcome all the mightiest of Maev's men, save only the
mightiest of them all after Fergus, Ferdia son of Daman. And because Ferdia was
the old friend and fellow pupil of Cuchulain he had never gone out against him;
but now Maev begged him to go, and he would not. Then she offered him her
daughter, Findabair of the Fair Eyebrows, to wife, if he would face Cuchulain at
the Ford, but he would not. At last she bade him go, lest the poets and
satirists of Erin should make verses on him and put him to open shame, and then
in wrath and sorrow he consented to go, and bade his charioteer make ready for
to-morrow's fray. Then was gloom among all his people when they heard of that,
for they knew that if Cuchulain and their master met, one of them would return
alive no more.
Very early in the morning Ferdia drove to the Ford, and lay down there on the
cushions and skins of the chariot and slept till Cuchulain should come. Not till
it was full daylight did Ferdia's charioteer hear the thunder of Cuchulain's
war-car approaching, and then he woke his master, and the two friends faced each
other across the Ford. And when they had greeted each other Cuchulain said:
"It is not thou, O Ferdia, who shouldst have come to do battle with me.
When we were with Skatha did we not go side by side in every battle, through
every wood and wilderness? were we not heart-companions, comrades, in the feast
and the assembly? did we not share one bed and one deep slumber?" But
Ferdia replied: "O Cuchulain, thou of the wondrous feats, though we have
studied poetry and science together, and though I have heard thee recite our
deeds of friendship, yet it is my hand that shall wound thee. I bid thee
remember not our comradeship, O Hound of Ulster; it shall not avail thee, it
shall not avail thee."
They then debated with what weapons they should begin the fight, and Ferdia
reminded Cuchulain of the art of casting small javelins that they had learned
from Skatha, and they agreed to begin with these. Back-wards and forwards, then,
across the Ford, hummed the light javelins like bees on a summer's day, but when
noonday had come not one weapon had pierced the defence of either champion. Then
they took to the heavy missile spears, and now at last blood began to flow, for
each champion wounded the other time and again. At last the day came to its
close. "Let us cease now," said Ferdia, and Cuchulain agreed. Each
then threw his arms to his charioteer, and the friends embraced and kissed each
other three times, and went to their rest. Their horses were in the same
paddock, their drivers warmed themselves over the same fire, and the heroes sent
each other food and drink and healing herbs for their wounds.
Next day they betook themselves again to the Ford, and this time, because
Ferdia had the choice of weapons the day before, he bade Cuchulain take it now. [Together with much that is wild and barbaric in this Irish epic of the
"Tain" the reader will be struck by the ideals of courtesy and
gentleness which not infrequently come to light in it. It must be remembered
that, as Mr. A. H. Leahy points out in his " Heroic Romances of
Ireland," the legend of the Raid of Quelgny is, at the very latest, a
century earlier than all other known romances of chivalry Welsh or Continental.
It is found in the "Book of Leinster," a manuscript of the
twelfth century, as well as in other sources, and was doubtless considerably
older than the date of its transcription there. "The whole thing,"
says Mr. Leahy, "stands at the very beginning of the literature of modern
Europe."] Cuchulain chose then the heavy, broad-bladed spears for close
fighting, and with them they fought from the chariots till the sun went down,
and drivers and horses were weary, and the body of each hero was torn with
wounds. Then at last they gave over, and threw away their weapons. And they
kissed each other as before, and as before they shared all things at night, and
slept peacefully till the morning.
When the third day of the combat came Ferdia wore an evil and lowering look,
and Cuchulain reproached him for coming out in battle against his comrade for
the bribe of a fair maiden, even Findabair, whom Maev had offered to every
champion and to Cuchulain himself if the Ford might be won thereby; but Ferdia
said : "Noble Hound, had I not faced thee when summoned, my troth would be
broken, and there would be shame on me in Rathcroghan." It is now the turn
of Ferdia to choose the weapons, and they betake themselves to their "
heavy, hard-smiting swords, and though they hew from each other's thighs and
shoulders great cantles of flesh, neither can prevail over the other, and at
last night ends the combat. This time they parted from each other in heaviness
and gloom, and there was no interchange of friendly acts, and their drivers and
horses slept apart. The passions of the warriors had now risen to a grim
Death of Ferdia
On the fourth day Ferdia knew the contest would be decided, and he armed
himself with especial care. Next his skin was a tunic of striped silk bordered
with golden spangles, and over that hung an apron of brown leather. Upon his
belly he laid a flat stone, large as a millstone, and over that a strong, deep
apron of iron, for he dreaded that Cuchulain would use the Gae Bolg that day.
And he put on his head his crested helmet studded with carbuncle and inlaid with
enamels, and girt on his golden-hilted sword, and on his left arm hung his broad
shield with its fifty bosses of bronze. Thus he stood by the Ford, and as he
waited he tossed up his weapons and caught them again and did many wonderful
feats, playing with his mighty weapons as a juggler plays with apples; and
Cuchulain, watching him, said to Laeg, his driver "If I give ground to-day,
do thou reproach and mock me and spur me on to valour, and praise and hearten me
if I do well, for I shall have need of all my courage.
"O Ferdia," said Cuchulain when they met, "what shall be our
weapons to-day?" "It is thy choice today," said Ferdia.
"Then let it be all or any," said Cuchulain, and Ferdia was cast down
at hearing this, but he said, "So be it," and thereupon the fight
began. Till midday they fought with spears, and none could gain any advantage
over the other. Then Cuchulain drew his sword and sought to smite Ferdia over
the rim of his shield; but the giant Firbolg flung him off. Thrice
Cuchulain leaped high into the air, seeking to strike Ferdia over his shield,
but each time as he descended Ferdia caught him upon the shield and flung him
off like a little child into the Ford. And Laeg mocked him, crying: "He
casts thee off as a river flings its foam, he grinds thee as a millstone grinds a corn of wheat; thou elf,
never call thyself a warrior."
Then at last Cuchulain's frenzy came upon him, and he dilated giant-like,
till he overtopped Ferdia, and the hero-light blazed about his head. In close
contact the two were interlocked, whirling and trampling, while the demons and
goblins and unearthly things of the glens screamed from the edges of their
swords, and the waters of the Ford recoiled in terror from them, so that for a
while they fought on dry land in the midst of the riverbed. And now Ferdia found
Cuchulain a moment oft his guard, and smote him with the edge of the sword, and
it sank deep into his flesh, and all the river ran red with his blood. And he
pressed Cuchulain sorely after that, hewing and thrusting so that Cuchulain
could endure it no longer, and he shouted to Laeg to fling him the Gae BoIg.
When Ferdia heard that he lowered his shield to guard himself from below, and
Cuchulain drove his spear over the rim of the shield and through his breastplate
into his chest. And Ferdia raised his shield again, but in that moment Cuchulain
seized the Gae Bolg in his toes and drove it upward against Ferdia, and it
pierced through the iron apron and burst in three the millstone that guarded
him, and deep into his body it passed, so that every crevice and cranny of him
was filled with its barbs. "'Tis enough," cried Ferdia; "I have
my death of that. It is an ill deed that I fall by thy hand, O Cuchulain."
Cuchulain seized him as he fell, and carried him northward across the Ford, that
he might die on the further side of it, and not on the side of the men of Erin.
Then he laid him down, and a faintness seized Cuchulain, and he was falling,
when Laeg cried: "Rise up, Cuchulain, for the host of Erin will be upon
us. No single combat will they give after Ferdia has fallen." But Cuchulain
said: "Why should I rise again, O my servant, now he that lieth here has fallen by my hand
?" and he fell in a swoon like death. And the host of Maev with tumult and
rejoicing, with tossing of spears and shouting of war-songs, poured across the
border into Ulster.
But before they left the Ford they took the body of Ferdia and laid it in a
grave, and built a mound over him and set up a pillar-stone with his name and
lineage in Ogham. And from Ulster came certain of the friends of
Cuchulain, and they bore him away into Murthemney, where they washed him and
bathed his wounds in the streams, and his kin among the Danaan Folk cast magical
herbs into the rivers for his healing. But he lay there in weakness and in
stupor for many days.
The Rousing of Ulster
Now Sualtam, the father of Cuchulain, had taken his son's horse, the Grey of
Macha, and ridden off again to see if by any means he might rouse the men of
Ulster to defend the province. And he went crying abroad "The men of Ulster
are being slain, the women carried captive, the kine driven!" Yet they
stared on him stupidly, as though they knew not of what he spake. At last he
came to Emania, and there were Cathbad the Druid and Conor the King, and all
their nobles and lords, and Sualtam cried aloud to them: "The men of
Ulster are being slain, the women carried captive, the kine driven; and
Cuchulain alone holds the gap of Ulster against the four provinces of Erin.
Arise and defend yourselves!" But Cathbad only said "Death were the
due of him who thus disturbs the King"; and Conor said: "Yet it is
true what the man says"; and the lords of Ulster wagged their heads and
murmured: "True indeed it is."
Then Sualtam wheeled round his horse in anger and was about to depart when, with a start which the Grey made, his neck fell
against the sharp rim of the shield upon his back, and it shore off his head,
and the head fell on the ground. Yet still it cried its message as it lay, and
at last Conor bade put it on a pillar that it might be at rest. But it still
went on crying and exhorting, and at length into the clouded mind of the king
the truth began to penetrate, and the glazed eyes of the warriors began to glow,
and slowly the spell of Macha's curse was lifted from their minds and bodies.
Then Conor arose and swore a mighty oath, saying "The heavens are above us
and the earth beneath us, and the sea is round about us; and surely, unless the
heavens fall on us and the earth gape to swallow us up, and the sea overwhelm
the earth, I will restore every woman to her hearth, and every cow to its
byre." [Another instance of the survival of the oath formula recited by the
Celtic envoys to Alexander the Great. See p.23.] His Druid proclaimed that the
hour was propitious, and the king bade his messengers go forth on every side and
summon Ulster to arms, and he named to them warriors long dead as well as the
living, for the cloud of the curse still lingered in his brain.
With the curse now departed from them the men of Ulster flocked joyfully to
the summons, and on every hand there was grinding of spears and swords, and
buckling on of armour and harnessing of war-chariots for the rising-out of the
province. ["Rising-out" is the vivid expression wed by Irish writers
for a clan or territory going on the war-path. "Hosting" is also used
in a similar sense.] One host came under Conor the King and Keltchar, son of
Uthecar Hornskin, from Emania southwards, and another from the west along the
very track of the host of Maev. And Conor's host fell upon eight score of the men of Erin in
Meath, who were carrying away a great booty of
women-captives, and they slew every man of the eight score and rescued the
women. Maev and her host then fell back toward Connacht, but when they
reached Slemon Midi, the Hill of Slane, in Meath, the Ulster bands joined each
other there and prepared to give battle. Maev sent her messenger mac Roth to
view the Ulster host on the Plain of Garach and report upon it. Mac Roth came
back with an awe-striking description of what he beheld. When he first looked he
saw the plain covered with deer and other wild beasts. These, explains Fergus,
had been driven out of the forests by the advancing host of the Ulster men. The
second time mac Roth looked he saw a mist that filled the valleys, the hill-tops
standing above it like islands. Out of the mist there came thunder and flashes
of light, and a wind that nearly threw him off his feet. "What is this?" asks
Maev, and Fergus tells her that the mist is the deep breathing of
the warriors as they march, and the light is the flashing of their eyes, and the
thunder is the clangour of their war-cars and the dash of their weapons as they
go to the fight "They think they will never reach it," says Fergus.
"We have warriors to meet them," says Maev. "You will need
that," says Fergus, "for in all Ireland, nay, in all the Western
world, to Greece and Scythia and the Tower of Bregon and the Island
of Gades, there live not who can face the men of Ulster in their wrath."
A long passage then follows describing the appearance and equipment of each
of the Ulster chiefs.
The Battle of Garach
The battle was joined on the Plain of
Garach, in Meath. Fergus, wielding a
two-handed sword, the sword which, it was said, when swung in battle made circles like the arch of
a rainbow, swept down whole ranks of the Ulster men at each blow, [the sword of
Fergus was a fairy weapon called the Caladcholg (hard dinter), a name of
which Arthur's more famous "Excalibur" is a Latinised corruption] and
the fierce Maev charged thrice into the heart of the enemy.
Fergus met Conor the King, and smote him on his golden-bordered shield, but
Cormac, the king's son, begged for his father's life. Fergus then turned on Con
all of the Victories.
"Too hot art thou," said Conall, "against thy people and thy
race for a wanton." [the reference is to Deirdre] Fergus then turned from
slaying the Ulstermen, but in his battle-fury he smote among the hills with his
rainbow-sword, and struck off the tops of the three Maela of Meath, so
that they are flat-topped (mael) to this day.
Cuchulain in his stupor heard the crash of Fergus's blows, and coming slowly
to himself he asked of Laeg what it meant. "It is the sword-play of
Fergus," said Laeg. Then he sprang up, and his body dilated so that the
wrappings and swathings that had been bound on him flew off, and he armed
himself and rushed into the battle. Here he met Fergus. "Turn hither,
Fergus," he shouted; "I will wash thee as foam in a pool, I will go
over thee as the tail goes over a cat, I will smite thee as a mother smites her
infant." "Who speaks thus to me ?" cried Fergus. "Cuchulain
mac Sualtam; and now do thou avoid me as thou art pledged." [see p. 211]
"I have promised even that," said Fergus, and then went out of the
battle, and with him the men of Leinster and the men of Munster, leaving Maev
with her seven sons and the hosting of Connacht alone.
It was midday when Cuchulain came into the fight; when the evening sun was
shining through the leaves of the trees his war-chariot was but two wheels and a
handful of shattered ribs, and the host of Connacht was in full flight towards
the border. Cuchulain overtook Maev, who crouched under her chariot and
entreated grace. "I am not wont to slay women," said Cuchulain, and he
protected her till she had crossed the Shannon at Athlone.
The Fight of the Bulls
But the Brown Bull of Quelgny, that Maev had sent into Connacht by a
circuitous way, met the white-horned Bull of Ailell on the Plain of Aei, and the
two beasts fought; but the Brown Bull quickly slew the other, and tossed his
fragments about the land so that pieces of him were strewn from Rathcroghan to
Tara; and then careered madly about till he fell dead, bellowing and vomiting
black gore, at the Ridge of the Bull, between Ulster and Iveagh. Ailell and Maev
made peace with Ulster for seven years, and the Ulster men returned home to
Emain Macha with great glory.
Thus ends the "Tain Bo Cuailgnè," or Cattle Raid of
it was written out in the "Book of Leinster" in the year 1150 by the
hand of Finn mac Gorman, Bishop of Kildare, and at the end is written "A
blessing on all such as faithfully shall recite the "Tain" as it
stands here, and shall not give it in any other form.
Cuchulain in Fairyland
One of the strangest tales in Celtic legend tells how
Cuchulain, as he lay
asleep after hunting, against a pillar-stone, had a vision of two Danaan women
who came to him armed with rods and alternately beat him till he was all but dead, and he could not lift a hand to defend himself.
Next day, and for a year thereafter, he lay in sore sickness, and none could
Then a man whom none knew came and told him to go to the pillar-stone where
he had seen the vision, and he would learn what was to be done for his recovery.
There he found a Danaan woman in a green mantle, one of those who had chastised
him, and she told him that Fand, the Pearl of Beauty, wife of Mananan the
Sea-god, had set her love on him; and she was at enmity with her husband Mananan; and her realm was besieged by three demon kings, against whom
Cuchulain's help was sought, and the price of his help would be the love of Fand.
Laeg, the charioteer, was then sent by Cuchulain to report upon Fand and
her message. He entered Fairyland, which lies beyond a lake across which he
passed in a magic boat of bronze, and came home with a report of Fand's
surpassing beauty and the wonders of the kingdom; and Cuchulain then betook
himself thither. Here he had a battle in a dense mist with the demons, who are
described as resembling sea-waves - no doubt we are to understand that they are
the folk of the angry husband, Mananan. Then he abode with Fand, enjoying all
the delights of Fairyland for a month, after which he bade her farewell, and
appointed a trysting-place on earth, the Strand of the Yew Tree, where she was
to meet him.
Fand, Emer, and Cuchulain
But Emer heard of the tryst; and though not commonly disturbed at Cuchulain's
numerous infidelities, she came on this occasion with fifty of her maidens armed
with sharp knives to slay Fand. Cuchulain and Fand perceive their chariots from
afar, and the armed angry women with golden clasps shining on their breasts, and he
prepares to protect his mistress. He addresses Emer in a curious poem,
describing the beauty and skill and magical powers of Fand- "There is
nothing the spirit can wish for that she has not got." Emer replies:
"In good sooth, the lady to whom thou dost cling seems in no way better
than I am, but the new is ever sweet and the well-known is sour; thou hast all
the wisdom of the time, Cuchulain Once we dwelled in honour together, and still
might dwell if I could find favour in thy sight." "By my word thou
dost," said Cuchulain, "and shalt find it so long as I live."
"Give me up," then said Fand. But Emer said: "Nay, it is more
fitting that I be the deserted one. "Not so," said Fand; "it is I
who must go. "And an eagerness for lamentation seized upon Fand, and her
soul was great within her, for it was shame for her to be deserted and
straightway to return to her home; moreover, the mighty love that she bore to
Cuchulain was tumultuous in her." [S A. H. Leahy's translation, "
Heroic Romances of Ireland," vol.1.]
But Mananan, the Son of the Sea, knew of her sorrow and her shame, and he
came to her aid, none seeing him but she alone, and she welcomed him in a mystic
song. "Wilt thou return to me?" said Mananan, "or abide with
Cuchulain?" "In truth," said Fand, "neither of ye is better
or nobler than the other, but I will go with thee, Mananan, for thou hast no
other mate worthy of thee, but that Cuchulain has in Emer."
So she went to Mananan, and Cuchulain, who did not see the god, asked Laeg
what was happening. "Fand," he replied, " is going away with the
Son of the Sea, since she hath not been pleasing in thy sight."
Then Cuchulain bounded into the air and fled from the place, and lay a long
time refusing meat and drink, until at last the Druids gave him a draught of
forgetfulness; and Mananan, it is said, shook his cloak between Cuchulain and
Fand, so that they might meet no more throughout eternity. [the cloak of Mananan
typifies the sea - here, in its dividing and estranging power.]
The Vengeance of Maev
Though Maev made peace with Ulster after the battle of Garech she vowed the
death of Cuchulain for all the shame and loss he had brought upon her and on her
province, and she sought how she might take her vengeance upon him.
Now the wife of the wizard Calatin, whom Cuchulain slew at the Ford, brought
forth, after her husband's death, six children at a birth, namely, three sons
and three daughters. Misshapen, hideous, poisonous, born for evil were they; and
Maev, hearing of these, sent them to learn the arts of magic, not in Ireland
only, but in Alba; and even as far as Babylon they went to seek for hidden
knowledge, and they came back mighty in their craft, and she loosed them against
Cuchulain and Blanid
Besides the Clan Calatin, Cuchulain had also other foes, namely
Erc, the King
of Ireland, son to Cairpre, whom Cuchulain had slain in battle, and Lewy son of
Curoi, King of Munster.[this Curoi appears in various tales of the Ultonian
Cycle with attributes which show that he was no mortal king, but a local deity.]
For Curoi's wife, Blanid, had set her love on Cuchulain, and she bade him come
and take her from Curoi's dūn, and watch his time to attack the dūn when he would see the stream that flowed from it turn
white. So Cuchulain and his men waited in a wood hard by till Blanid judged that
the time was fit, and she then poured into the stream the milk of three cows.
Then Cuchulain attacked the dūn, and took it by surprise, and slew Curoi,
and bore away the woman. But Fercartna, the bard of Curoi, went with them and
showed no sign, till, finding him-self near Blanid as she stood near the
cliff-edge of Bear; he flung his arms round her, and leaped with her over the
cliff, and so they perished, and Curoi was avenged upon his wife.
All these now did Maev by secret messages and by taunts and exhortations
arouse against Cuchulain, and they waited till they heard that the curse of
Macha was again heavy on the men of UIster, and then they assembled a host and
marched to the Plain of Murthemney.
The Madness of Cuchulain
And first the Children of Calatin caused a horror and a despondency to fall
upon the mind of Cuchulain, and out of the hooded thistles and puff-balls and
fluttering leaves of the forest they made the semblance of armed battalions
marching against Murthemney, and Cuchulain seemed to see on every side the smoke
of burning dwellings going up. And for two days he did battle with the phantoms
till he was sick and wearied out. Then Cathbad and the men of Ulster persuaded
him to retire to a solitary glen, where fifty of the princesses of Ulster, and
among them Niam, wife of his faithful friend Conall of the Victories, tended
him, and Niam made him vow that he would not leave the dūn where he was
until she gave him leave.
But still the Children of Calatin filled the land with apparitions of war,
and smoke and flames went up, and wild cries and wailings with chattering, goblin laughter and the braying of
trumpets and horns were borne upon the winds. And Bave, Calatin's daughter, went
into the glen, and, taking the form of a handmaid of Niam, she beckoned her away
and led her to a distance among the woods and put a spell of straying on her so
that she was lost and could find her way home no more. Bave then went in the
form of Niam to Cuchulain and bade him up and rescue Ulster from the hosts that
were harrying it, and the Morrigan came in the form of a great crow where
Cuchulain sat with the women, and croaked of war and slaughter. Then Cuchulain
sprang up and called Laeg to harness his chariot. But when Laeg sought for the
Grey of Macha to harness him, the horse fled from him, and resisted, and only
with great difficulty could Laeg yoke him in the chariot, while large tears of
dark blood trickled down his face.
Then Cuchulain, having armed himself, drove forth; and on every side shapes
and sounds of dread assailed him and clouded his mind, and then it appeared to
him that he saw a great smoke, lit with bursts of red flame, over the ramparts
of Emain Macha, and he thought he saw the corpse of Emer tossed out over the
ramparts. But when he came to his dūn at Murthemney, there was Emer living,
and she entreated him to leave the phantoms alone, but he would not listen to
her, and he bade her farewell. Then he bade farewell to his mother Dectera, and
she gave him a goblet of wine to drink, but ere he could drink it the wine
turned to blood, and he flung it away, saying, "My life's end is near; this
time I shall not return alive from the battle." And Dectera and Cathbad
besought him to await the coming of Conall of the Victories, who was away on a
journey, but he would not.
The Washer at the Ford
When he came to the ford upon the plain of Emania he saw there kneeling by
the stream as it were a young maiden, weeping and wailing, and she washed a heap
of bloody raiment and warlike arms in the stream, and when she raised a dripping
vest or corselet from the water Cuchulain saw that they were his own. And as
they crossed the ford she vanished from their sight. [this apparition of the
Washer of the Ford is of frequent occurrence in Irish legend.]
Clan Calatin Again
Then, having taken his leave of Conor and of the womenfolk in
turned again towards Murthemney and the foe. But on his way he saw by the
roadside three old crones, each blind of one eye, hideous and wretched, and they
had made a little fire of sticks, and over it they were roasting a dead dog on
spits of rowan wood. As Cuchulain passed they called to him to alight and stay
with them and share their food. "That will I not, in sooth," said he.
"Had we a great feast," they said, "thou wouldst soon have
stayed; it doth not become the great to despise the small." Then Cuchulain,
because he would not be thought discourteous to the wretched, lighted down, and
he took a piece of the roast and ate it, and the hand with which he took it was
stricken up to the shoulder so that its former strength was gone. For it was geis
to Cuchulain to approach a cooking hearth and take food from it, and it was geis
to him to eat of his namesake. [see p. 164 for the reference to geis.
" His namesake refers, of course, to the story of the Hound of Cullan,
pp. 183, 184.]
Death of Cuchulain
Near to Slieve Fuad, south of Armagh, Cuchulain found the host of his
enemies, and drove furiously against them, plying the champion's
"thunder-feat" upon them until the plain was strewn with their dead.
Then a satirist, urged on by Lewy, came near him and demanded his spear. [It was
a point of honour to refuse nothing to a bard; one king is said to have given
his eye when it was demanded of him.] "Have it' then," said Cuchulain,
and flung it at him with such force that it went clean through him and killed
nine men beyond. "A king will fall by that spear," said the Children
of Calatin to Lewy, and Lewy seized it and flung it at Cuchulain, but it smote
Laeg, the king of charioteers, so that his bowels fell out on the cushions of
the chariot, and he bade farewell to his master and he died.
Then another satirist demanded the spear, and Cuchulain said: "I am not
bound to grant more than one request on one day." But the satirist said
"Then I will revile Ulster for thy default," and Cuchulain flung him
the spear as before, and Erc now got it, and this time in flying back it struck
the Grey of Macha with a mortal wound. Cuchulain drew out the spear from the
horse's side, and they bade each other farewell, and the Grey galloped away with
half the yoke hanging to its neck.
And a third time Cuchulain flung the spear to a satirist, and Lewy took it
again and flung it back, and it struck Cuchulain, and his bowels fell out in the
chariot, and the remaining horse, Black Sainglend, broke away and left him.
"I would fain go as far as to that loch-side to drink," said
Cuchulain, knowing the end was come, and they suffered him to go when he had
promised to return to them again. So he gathered up his bowels into his breast and went to the loch-side, and drank, and bathed himself, and came
forth again to die. Now there was close by a tall pillar-stone that stood
westwards of the loch, and he went up to it and slung his girdle over it and
round his breast, so that he might die in his standing and not in his lying
down; and his blood ran down in a little stream into the loch, and an otter came
out of the loch and lapped it. And the host gathered round, but feared to
approach him while the life was still in him, and the hero-light shone above his
brow. Then came the Grey of Macha to protect him, scattering his foes with
biting and kicking.
And then came a crow and settled on his shoulder.
Lewy, when he saw this, drew near and pulled the hair of Cuchulain to one
side over his shoulder, and with his sword he smote off his head; and the sword
fell from Cuchulain's hand, and smote off the hand of Lewy as it fell. They took
the hand of Cuchulain in revenge for this, and bore the head and hand south to
Tara, and there buried them, and over them they raised a mound. But Conall of
the Victories, hastening to Cuchulain's side on the news of the war, met the
Grey of Macha streaming with blood, and together they went to the loch-side and
saw him headless and bound to the pillar-stone, and the horse came and laid its
head on his breast. Conall drove southwards to avenge Cuchulain, and he came on
Lewy by the river Liffey, and because Lewy had but one hand Conall tied one of
his behind his back, and for half the day they fought, but neither could
prevail. Then came Conall's horse, the Dewy-Red, and tore a piece out of Lewy's
side, and Conall slew him, and took his head, and returned to Emain Macha. But
they made no show of triumph in entering the city, for Cuchulain the Hound of
Ulster was no more.
The Recovery of the Tain
The history of the "Tain," or Cattle Raid, of Quelgny was
traditionally supposed to have been written by no other than Fergus mac Roy, but
for a long time the great lay or saga was lost. It was believed to have been
written out in Ogham characters on staves of wood, which a bard who possessed
them had taken with him into Italy, whence they never returned.
The recovery of the "Tain" was the subject of a number of legends
which Sir S. Ferguson, in his "Lays of the Western Gael," has combined
in a poem of so much power, so much insight into the spirit of Gaelic
myth, that I venture to reproduce much of it here in telling this singular and
beautiful story. It is said that after the loss of the loss of the
"Tain" Sanchan Torpest, chief bard of Ireland, was once taunted at a
feast by the High King Guary on his inability to recite the most famous and
splendid of Gaelic poems. This touched the bard to the quick, and he resolved to
recover the lost treasure. Far and wide through Erin and through Alba he
searched for traces of the lay, but could only recover scattered
fragments. He would have conjured up by magic arts the spirit of Fergus to teach
it to him, even at the cost of his own life - for such, it seems, would have
been the price demanded for the intervention and help of the dead - but the
place of Fergus's grave, where the spells must be said, could not be discovered.
At last Sanchan sent his son Murgen with his younger brother Eimena to journey
to Italy and endeavour to discover there the fate of the staff-book. The
brothers set off on their journey.
"Eastward, breadthwise over Erin straightway travell'd forth the twain,
Murgen then, though he knew the penalty, appealed to Fergus to pity a son's
distress, and vowed, for the sake of the recovery of the "Tain," to
give his life, and abandon his kin and friends and the maiden he loves, so that
his father might no more be shamed. But Fergus gave no sign, and Murgen tried
Till with many days' wayfaring Murgen fainted by Loch Ein:
'Dear my brother, thou art weary: I for present aid am flown:
Thou for my returning tarry here beside this Standing Stone.'
"Shone the sunset red and solemn: Murgen, where he leant, observed
Down the corners of the column letter-strokes of Ogham carved.
''Tis, belike, a burial pillar,' said he, 'and these shallow lines
Hold some warrior's name of valour, could I rightly spell the signs.'
"Letter then by letter tracing, soft he breathed the sound of each
Sound and sound then interlacing, lo, the signs took form of speech;
And with joy and wonder mainly thrilling, part a-thrill with fear,
Murgen read the legend plainly, 'FERGUS SON OF ROY IS HERE.'"
"Still he stirs not. Love of women thou regard'st not, Fergus, now:
Love of children, instincts human, care for these no more hast thou:
Wider comprehension, deeper insights to the dead belong:-
Since for Love thou wak'st not, Sleeper, yet awake for sake of Song.
"'Thou, the first in rhythmic cadence dressing life's discordant tale,
Wars of chiefs and loves of maidens, gavest the Poem to the Gael;
Now they've lost their noblest measure, and in dark days hard at hand,
Song shall be the only treasure left them in their native land.'
"Fergus rose. A mist ascended with him, and a flash was seen
As of brazen sandals blended with a mantle's wafture green;
But so thick the cloud closed o'er him Eimena, return'd at last,
Found not on the field before him but a mist-heap grey and vast.
"Thrice to pierce the hoar recesses faithful Eimena essay'd;
Thrice through foggy wildernesses back to open air he stray'd;
Till a deep voice through the vapours fill'd the twilight far and near
And the Night her starry tapers kindling, stoop'd from heaven to hear.
"Seem'd as though the skiey Shepherd back to earth had cast the fleece
Envying gods of old caught upward from the darkening shrines of Greece;
So the white mists curl'd and glisten'd, so from heaven's expanses bare,
Stars enlarging lean'd and listen'd down the emptied depths of air.
"All night long by mists surrounded Murgen lay in vapoury bars;
All night long the deep yoice sounded 'neath the keen, enlarging stars:
But when, on the orient verges, stars grew dim and mists retired,
Rising by the stone of Fergus, Murgen stood a man inspired.
Back to Sanchan! -Father, hasten, ere the hour of power be past,
Ask not how obtain'd but listen to the lost lay found at last!'
Yea, these words have tramp of heroes in them; and the marching rhyme
Rolls the voices of the eras down the echoing steeps of Time.'
"Not till all was thrice related, thrice recital full essay'd,
Sad and shamefaced, worn and faded, Murgen sought the faithful maid.
'Ah, so haggard; ah, so altered; thou in life and love so strong!'
'Dearly purchased,' Murgen falter'd, 'life and love I've sold for song!'
"'Woe is me, the losing bargain! what can song the dead avail?'
'Fame immortal,' murmur'd Murgen, 'long as lay delights the Gael.'
'Fame, alas! the price thou chargest not repays one virgin tear.'
'Yet the proud revenge I've purchased for my sire, I deem not dear.'
"So, again to Gort the splendid, when the drinking boards were spread,
Sanchan, as of old attended, came and sat at table-head.
'Bear the cup to Sanchan Torpost : twin gold goblets, Bard, are thine,
If with voice and string thou harpest, Tain--Bo-Cuailgine, line for
" 'Yea, with voice and string I'll chant it.' Murgen to his father's
Set the harp: no prelude wanted, Sanchan struck the master key,
And, as bursts the brimful river all at once from caves of Cong,
Forth at once, and once for ever, leap'd the torrent of the song.
"Floating on a brimful torrent, men go down and banks go by :
Caught adown the lyric current, Guary, captured, ear and eye,
Heard no more the courtiers jeering, saw no more the walls of Gort,
Creeve Roe's [Craobh Ruadh -the Red Branch hostel] a meads instead
appearing, and Emania's royal fort.
"Vision chasing splendid vision, Sanchan roll'd the rhythmic scene ;
They that mock'd in lewd derision now, at gaze, with wondering mien
Sate, and, as the glorying master sway'd the tightening reins of song,
Felt emotion's pulses faster - fancies faster bound along.
"Pity dawn'd on savage faces, when for love of captive Crunn,
Macha, in the ransom-races, girt her gravid loins, to run
'Gainst the fleet Ultonian horses; and, when Deirdra on the road
Headlong dash'd her 'mid the corses, brimming eyelids overflow'd.
"Light of manhood's generous ardour, under brows relaxing shone,
When, mid-ford, on Uladh's border, young Cuchullin stood alone,
Maev and all her hosts withstanding: 'Now, for love of knightly play,
Yield the youth his soul's demanding; let the hosts their marchings stay,
" 'Till the death he craves be given; and, upon his burial stone
Champion-praises duly graven, make his name and glory known;
For, in speech-containing token, age to ages never gave
Salutation better spoken, than, " Behold a hero's grave."'
"What, another and another, and he still or combat calls?
Ah, the lot on thee, his brother sworn in arms, Ferdia, falls;
And the hall with wild applauses sobb'd like woman ere they wist,
When the champions in the pauses of the deadly combat kiss'd.
"Now, for love of land and cattle, while Cuchullin in the fords
Stays the march of Connaught's battle, ride and rouse the Northern Lords;
Swift as angry eagles wing them toward the plunder'd eyrie's call,
Thronging from Dun Dealga bring them, bring them from the Red Branch hall!
"Heard ye not the tramp of armies? Hark! amid the sudden gloom.
'Twas the stroke of Conall's war-mace sounded through the startled room;
And, while still the hall grew darker, king and courtier chill'd with dread,
Heard the rattling of the war-car of Cuchullin overhead.
"Half in wonder, half in terror, loth to stay and loth to fly,
Seem'd to each beglamour'd hearer shade: of kings went thronging by:
But the troubled joy of wonder merged at last in mastering fear,
As they heard through pealing thunder, 'FERGUS SON OF ROY IS HERE!'
"Brazen-sandall'd, vapour-shrouded, moving in an icy blast,
Through the doorway terror-crowded,up the tables Fergus pass'd:-
'Stay thy hand, oh harper, pardon! cease the wild unearthly lay!
Murgen, bear thy sire his guerdon.' Murgen sat, a shape of clay.
"'Bear him on his bier beside me never more in halls of Gort
Shall a niggard king deride me: slaves, of Sanchan make their sport!
But because the maiden's yearnings needs must also be condoled,
Hers shall be the dear-bought earnings, hers the twin-bright cups of gold.'
"'Cups,' she cried, 'of bitter drinking, fling them far as arm can
Let them in the ocean sinking, out of sight and memory go!
Let the joinings of the rhythm, let the links of sense and sound
Of the Tain-Bo perish with them, lost as though they'd ne'er been found!'
"So it comes, the lay, recover'd once at such a deadly cost,
Ere one full recital suffer'd, once again is all but lost:
For, the maiden's malediction still with many a blemish-stain
Clings in coarser garb of fiction round the fragments that remain."
The Phantom Chariot of Cuchulain
Cuchulain, however, makes an impressive reappearance in a much later legend
of Christian origin, found in the twelfth-century "Book of the Dun
Cow." He was summoned from Hell, we are told, by St. Patrick to prove the truths of Christianity and the horrors of damnation to the pagan monarch,
Laery mac Neill, King of Ireland. Laery, with St. Benen, a companion of Patrick,
are standing on the Plain of mac Indoc when a blast of icy wind nearly takes
them off their feet. It is the wind of Hell, Benen explains, after its opening
before Cuchulain. Then a dense mist covers the plain, and anon a huge phantom
chariot with galloping horses, a grey and a black, loom up through the mist.
Within it are the famous two, Cuchulain and his charioteer, giant figures, armed
with all the splendour of the Gaelic warrior.
Cuchulain then talks to Laery, and urges him to "believe in God and in
holy Patrick, for it is not a demon that has come to thee, but Cuchulain son of
Sualtam." To prove his identity he recounts his famous deeds of arms, and
ends by a piteous description of his present state:
"What I suffered of trouble,
He ends by beseeching Patrick that heaven may be granted to him, and the
legend tells that the prayer was granted and that Laery believed.
O Laery, by sea and land -
Yet more severe was a single night
When the demon was wrathful!
Great as was my heroism,
Hard as was my sword,
The devil crushed me with one finger
Into the red charcoal!"
Death of Conor mac Nessa
Christian ideas have also gathered round the end of Cuchulain's lord, King
Conor of Ulster. The manner of his death was as follows: An unjust and cruel
attack had been made by him on Mesgedra, King of Leinster, in which that monarch met his death at the hand of Conall of the Victories.
[the story is told in full in the author's "High Deeds of Finn."]
Conall took out the brains of the dead king and mingled them with lime to make a
sling-stone-such "brain balls," as they were called, being
accounted the most deadly of missiles. This ball was laid up in the king's
treasure-house at Emain Macha, where the Connacht champion, Ket son of Maga,
found it one day when prowling in disguise through Ulster. Ket took it away and
kept it always by him. Not long thereafter the Connacht men took a spoil of
cattle from Ulster, and the Ulster men) under Conor, overtook them at a
river-ford still called Athnurchar (The Ford of the Sling-cast), in Westmeath. A
battle was imminent, and many of the ladies of Connacht came to their side of
the river to view the famous Ultonian warriors, and especially Conor, the
stateliest man of his time. Conor was willing to show himself, and seeing none
hut women on the other bank he drew near them; but Ket, who was lurking in
ambush, now rose and slung the brain-ball at Conor, striking him full in the
forehead. Conor fell, and was carried off by his routed followers. When they got
him home, still living, to Emain Macha, his physician, Fingen, pronounced that
if the ball were extracted from his head he must die; it was accordingly sewn up
with golden thread, and the king was bidden to keep himself from horse-riding
and from all vehement passion and exertion, and he would do well.
Seven years afterwards Conor saw the sun darken at noonday, and he summoned
his Druid to tell him the cause of the portent. The Druid, in a magic trance,
tells him of a hill in a distant land on which stand three crosses with a human
form nailed to each of them, and one of them is like the Immortals. "Is he
a malefactor?" then asks Conor. "Nay," says the Druid, but the
Son of the living God," and he relates to the king the story of the death
of Christ. Conor breaks out in fury, and drawing his sword he hacks at the
oak-trees in the sacred grove, crying, "Thus would I deal with his
enemies," when with the excitement and exertion the brain-ball bursts from
his head, and he falls dead. And thus was the vengeance of Mesgedra fulfilled.
With Conor and with Cuchulain the glory of the Red Branch and the dominance of
Ulster passed away. The next, or Ossianic, cycle of Irish legend brings upon the
scene different characters, different physical surroundings, and altogether
different ideals of life.
Ket and the Boar of mac Datho
The Connacht champion Ket, whose main exploit was the wounding of King Conor
at Ardnurchar, figures also in a very dramatic tale entitled "The Carving
of mac Datho's Boar." The story runs as follows:
Once upon a time there dwelt in the province of Leinster a wealthy hospitable
lord named Mesroda, son of Datho. Two possessions had he; namely, a hound which
could outrun every other hound and every wild beast in Erin, and a boar which
was the finest and greatest in size that man had ever beheld.
Now the fame of this hound was noised all about the land, and many were the
princes and lords who longed to possess it. And it came to pass that Conor King
of Ulster and Maev Queen of Connacht sent messengers to mac Datho to ask him to
sell them the hound for a price, and both the messengers arrived at the dun of
mac Datho on the same day. Said the Connacht messenger:
"We will give thee in exchange for the hound six hundred milch cows, and
a chariot with two horses, the best that are to be found in Connacht, and at the
end of a year thou shalt have as much again." And the messenger of King
Conor said: "We will give no less than Connacht, and the friendship and
alliance of Ulster, and that will be better for thee than the friendship of
Then Mesroda mac Datho fell silent, and for three days he would not
eat or drink, nor could he sleep o' nights, but tossed restlessly on his bed.
His wife observed his condition, and said to him: "Thy fast hath been long,
Mesroda, though good food is by thee in plenty; and at night thou turnest thy
face to the wall, and well I know thou dost not sleep. What is the cause of thy
"There is a saying," replied Mac
Datho, "'Trust not a thrall
with money, nor a woman with a secret.'"
"When should a man talk to a woman," said his wife, "but when
something were amiss? What thy mind cannot solve perchance another's may."
Then mac Datho told his wife of the request for his hound both from Ulster
and from Connacht at one and the same time. "And whichever of them I
deny," he said, "they will harry my cattle and slay my people."
"Then hear my counsel," said the woman. "Give it to
both of them, and bid them come and fetch it; and if there be any harrying to be
done, let them even harry each other; but in no way mayest thou keep the
Mac Datho followed this wise counsel, and bade both Ulster and Connacht to a
great feast on the same day, saying to each of them that they could have the
So on the appointed day Conor of Ulster, and
Maev, and their retinues of
princes and mighty men assembled at the dūn of mac Datho. There they found
a great feast set forth, and to provide the chief dish mac Datho had killed his famous boar, a beast of enormous size. The question now arose
as to who should have the honourable task of carving it, and Bricriu of the
Poisoned Tongue characteristically, for the sake of the strife which he loved,
suggested that the warriors of Ulster and Connacht should compare their
principal deeds of arms, and give the carving of the boar to him who seemed to
have done best in the border-fighting which was always going on between the
provinces. After much bandying of words and of taunts Ket son of Maga arises and
stands over the boar, knife in hand, challenging each of the Ulster lords to
match his deeds of valour. One after another they arise, Cuscrid son of Conor,
Keitchar, Moonremur, Laery the Triumphant, and others - Cuchulain is not
introduced in this story - and in each case Ket has some biting tale to tell of
an encounter in which he has come off better than they, and one by one they sit
down shamed and silenced. At last a shout of welcome is heard at the door of the
hall and the Ulster-men grow jubilant: Conall of the Victories has appeared on
the scene, He strides up to the boar, and Ket and he greet each other with
"And now welcome to thee, O Conall, thou of the iron heart and fiery
blood; keen as the glitter of ice, ever-victorious chieftain; hall, mighty son
of Finnchoom !" said Ket.
And Conall said: "Hall to thee, Ket, flower of heroes, lord of chariots,
a raging sea in battle ; a strong, majestic bull; hail,son of Maga!"
"And now," went on Conall, "rise up from the boar and give me
"Why so?" replied Ket.
"Dost thou seek a contest from me?" said
"Verily thou shalt have it. By the gods of my nation I swear that since
I first took weapons in my hand. I have never passed one day that I did not slay a Connacht man, nor one night
that I did not make a foray on them, nor have I ever slept but I had the head of
a Connacht man under my knee."
"I confess," then said Ket, "that thou art a better man than
I, and I yield thee the boar. But if Anluan my brother were here, he would match
thee deed for deed, and sorrow and shame it is that he is not."
"Anluan is here," shouted Conall, and with that he drew from his
girdle the head of Anluan and dashed it in the face of Ket.
Then all sprang to their feet and a wild shouting and tumult arose, and the
swords flew out of themselves, and battle raged in the hall of mac Datho. Soon
the hosts burst out through the doors of the dūn and smote and slew each
other in the open field., until the Connacht host were put to flight. The hound
of mac Datho pursued the chariot of King Ailell of Connacht till the charioteer
smote off its head, and so the cause of contention was won by neither party, and
mac Datho lost his hound, but saved his lands and life.
The Death of Ket
The death of Ket is told in Keating's "History of Ireland."
Returning from a foray in Ulster, he was over-taken by Connall at the place
called the Ford of Ket, and they fought long and desperately. At last Ket was
slain, but Conall of the Victories was in little better case, and lay bleeding
to death when another Connacht champion named Bealcu [pronounced
"Bay-al-koo"] found him. "Kill me," said Conall to him,
"that it be not said I fell at the hand of one Connacht man."
But Bealcu said : "I will not slay a man at the point of death, but I will
bring thee home and heal thee, and when thy strength is come again thou shalt fight with me in single combat." Then Beilcu put Conall on a
litter and brought him home, and had him tended till his wounds were healed.
The three sons of Bealcu, however, when they saw what the Ulster champion was
like in all his might, resolved to assassinate him before the combat should take
place. By a stratagem Conall contrived that they slew their own father instead;
and then, taking the heads of the three sons, he went back, victoriously as he
was wont, to Ulster.
The Death of Maev
The tale of the death of Queen Maev is also preserved by Keating. Fergus mac
Roy having been slain by Ailell with a cast of a spear as he bathed in a lake
with Maev, and Ailell having been slain by Conall, Macv retired to an island [Inis
Clothrann, now known as Quaker's Island. The pool no longer exists.] on
Loch Ryve, where she was wont to bathe early every morning in a pool near to the
landing place. Forbay son of Conor mac Nessa, having discovered this habit of
the queen's, found means one day to go unperceived to the pool and to measure
the distance from it to the shore of the mainland. Then he went back to
Emania,where he measured out the distance thus obtained, and placing an apple on
a pole at one end he shot at it continually with a sling until he grew so good a
marksman at that distance that he never missed his aim. Then one day,
watching his opportunity by the shores of Loch Ryve, he saw Maev enter the
water, and putting a bullet in his sling he shot at her with so good an aim that
he smote her in the centre of the forehead and she fell dead.
The great warrior queen had reigned in
Connacht, it was said, for
eighty-eight years. She is a signal example of the kind of women whom the Gaelic bards delighted to portray. Gentleness
and modesty were by no means their usual characteristics, but rather a fierce
overflowing life. Women-warriors like Skatha and Aifa are frequently met with,
and one is reminded of the Gaulish women, with their mighty snow-white arms, so
dangerous to provoke, of whom classical writers tell us. The Gaelic bards, who
in so many ways anticipated the ideas of chivalric romance, did not do so in
setting women in a place apart from men. Women were judged and treated like men,
neither as drudges nor as goddesses, and we know that well into historic times
they went with men into battle, a practice only ended in the sixth century.
Fergus mac Leda and the Wee Folk
Of the stories of the Ultonian Cycle which do not centre on the figure of
Cuchulain, one of the most interesting is that of Fergus mac Leda and the King
of the Wee Folk. In this tale Fergus appears as King of Ulster, but as he was
contemporary with Conor mac Nessa, and in the Cattle Raid of Quelgny is
represented as following him to war, we must conclude that he was really a
sub-king, like Cuchulain or Owen of Ferney.
The tale opens in Faylinn, or the Land of the Wee Folk, a race of elves
presenting an amusing parody of human institutions on a reduced scale, but
endowed (like dwarfish people generally in the literature of primitive races)
with magical powers. Lubdan, ["Youb´dan"] the King of Faylinn, when
flushed with wine at a feast, is bragging of the greatness of his power and the
invincibility of his armed forces - have they not the strong man Glower, who
with his axe has been known to hew down a thistle at a stroke ? But the king's
bard, Eisirt, has heard something of a giant race oversea in a land called
Ulster, one man of whom would annihilate a whole battalion of the Wee Folk, and
he incautiously allows himself to hint as much to the boastful monarch. He is
immediately clapped into prison for his audacity, and only gets free by
promising to go immediately to the land of the mighty men, and bring back
evidence of the truth of his incredible story.
So off he goes; and one fine day King Fergus and his lords find at the gate
of their Dūn a tiny little fellow magnificently dad in the robes of a royal
bard, who demands entrance. He is borne in upon the hand of AEda, the king's
dwarf and bard, and after charming the court by his wise and witty sayings, and
receiving a noble largesse, which he at once distributes among the poets and
other court attendants of Ulster, he goes off home, taking with him as a guest
the dwarf AEda, before whom the Wee Folk fly as a "Fomorian giant,"
although, as Eisirt explains, the average man of Ulster can carry him like a
child. lubdan is now convinced, but Eisirt puts him under geise, the bond
of chivalry which no Irish chieftain can repudiate without being shamed, to go
himself, as Eisirt has done, to the palace of Fergus and taste the king's
porridge. lubdan, after he has seen AEda, is much dismayed, but he prepares to
go, and bids Bebo, his wife, accompany him. "You did an ill deed," she
says, "when you condemned Eisirt to prison; but surely there is no man
under the sun that can make thee hear reason."
So off they go, and lubdan's fairy steed bears them over the sea till they
reach Ulster, and by midnight they stand before the king's palace. "Let us
taste the porridge as we were bound," says Bebo, "and make off before
daybreak" They steal in and find the porridge-pot, to the rim of which lubdan can only reach by standing. on his
horse's back. In straining downwards to get at the porridge he overbalances
himself and falls in. There in the thick porridge he sticks fast, and there
Fergus's scullions find him at the break of day, with the faithful Bebo
lamenting. They bear him off to Fergus, who is amazed at finding another wee
man, with a woman too, in his palace. He treats them hospitably, but refuses all
appeals to let them go. The story now recounts in a spirit of broad humour
several Rabelaisian adventures in which Bebo is concerned, and gives a charming
poem supposed to have been uttered by lubdan in the form of advice to Fergus's
fire-gillie as to the merits for burning of different kinds of timber. The
following arc extracts:
"Burn not the sweet apple-tree of drooping branches, of the white
blossoms, to whose gracious head each man puts forth his hand."
"Burn not the noble willow, the unfailing ornament of poems; bees drink
from its blossoms, all delight in the graceful tent."
"The delicate, airy tree of the Druids, the rowan with its berries, this
burn; but avoid the weak tree, burn not the slender hazel."
"The ash-tree of the black buds burn not-timber that speeds the wheel,
that yields the rider his switch the ashen spear is the scale-beam of
At last the Wee Folk come in a great multitude to beg the release of lubdan.
On the king's refusal they visit the country with various plagues, snipping off
the ears of corn, letting the calves suck all the cows dry, defiling the wells,
and so forth; but Fergus is obdurate. In their quality as earth-gods, dei
terreni, they promise to make the plains before the palace of Fergus stand
thick with corn every year without ploughing or sowing, but all is vain. At last, however, Fergus agrees to ransom lubdan against the
best of his fairy treasures, so lubdan recounts them-the cauldron that can never
be emptied, the harp that plays of itself; and finally he mentions a pair of
water-shoes, wearing which a man can go over or under water as freely as on dry
land. Fergus accepts the shoes, and lubdan is released.
The Blemish of Fergus
But it is hard for a mortal to get the better of Fairy-land-a touch of hidden
malice lurks in magical gifts, and so it proved now. Fergus was never tired of
exploring the depths of the lakes and rivers of Ireland; but one day, in Loch
Rury, he met with a hideous monster, the Muirdris, or river-horse, which
inhabited that lake, and from which he barely saved himself by flying to the
shore. With the terror of this encounter his face was twisted awry; but since a
blemished man could not hold rule in Ireland, his queen and nobles took pains,
on some pretext, to banish all mirrors from the palace, and kept the knowledge
of his condition from him. One day, however, he smote a bondmaid with a switch,
for some negligence, and the maid, indignant, cried out: "lt were better
for thee, Fergus, to avenge thyself on the river-horse that hath twisted thy
face than to do brave deeds on women!" Fergus bade fetch him a mirror, and
looked in it. " It is true," he said; "the river-horse of Loch
Rury has done this thing."
Death of Fergus
The conclusion may be given in the words of Sir Samuel Ferguson's fine poem
on this theme. Fergus donned the magic shoes, took sword in hand, and went to Loch Rury:
"For a day and night
This fine tale has been published in full from an Egerton MS., by Mr.
Standish Hayes O'Grady, in his "Silva Gadelica." The humorous
treatment of the fairy element in the story would mark it as belonging to a late
period of Irish legend, but the tragic and noble conclusion unmistakably signs
it as belonging to the Ulster bardic literature, and it falls within the
same order of ideas, if it were not composed within the same period, as
the tales of Cuchulain.
Beneath the waves he rested out of sight,
But all the Ultonians on the bank who stood
Saw the loch boil and redden with his blood.
When next at sunrise skies grew also red
He rose - and in his hand the Muirdris' head.
Gone was the blemish! On his goodly face
Each trait symmetric had resumed its place:
And they who saw him marked in all his mien
A king's composure, ample and serene.
He smiled; he cast his trophy to the bank,
Said, 'I, survivor, Ulstermen!' and sank."
Significance of Irish Place-Names
Before leaving this great cycle of legendary literature let us notice what
has already, perhaps, attracted the attention of some readers - the extent to
which its chief characters and episodes have been commemorated in the still
surviving place-names of the country. [Dr. P. W. Joyce's "Irish Names of
Places" is a storehouse of information on this subject.] This is true of
Irish legend in general - it is especially so of the Ultonian Cycle. Faithfully
indeed, through many a century of darkness and forgetting, have these names
pointed to the hidden treasures of heroic romance which the labours of our own day are now restoring to light. The name of the
little town of Ardee, as we have seen, [p.211, note] commemorates the
tragic death of Ferdia at the hand of his "heart companion," the
noblest hero of the Gad. The ruins of Dūn Baruch, where Fergus was bidden
to the treacherous feast, still look over the waters of Moyle, across which
Naisi and Deirdre sailed to their doom. Ardnurchar, the Hill of the Sling-cast,
in Westmeath, [the name is given to the hill, ard, and to the ford, atha
beneath it.] brings to mind the story of the stately monarch, the crowd of
gazing women, and the crouching enemy with the deadly missile which bore the
vengeance of Mesgedra. The name of Armagh, or Ard Macha, the Hill of Macha,
enshrines the memory of the Fairy Bride and her heroic sacrifice, while the
grassy rampart can still be traced where the war-goddess in the earlier legend
drew its outline with the pin of her brooch when she founded the royal fortress
of Ulster. Many pages might be filled with these instances. Perhaps no modern
country has place-names so charged with legendary associations as are those of
Ireland. Poetry and myth are there still closely wedded to the very soil of the
land-a fact in which there lies ready to hand an agency for education, for
inspiration, of the noblest kind, if we only had the insight to see it and the
art to make use of it.