Cuchulain of Muirthemne

XVII. Battle of Rosnaree

   There was a time, now, after the war for the Bull of Cuailgne, when King Conchubar got someway down-hearted, and there was a heaviness on his mind.
   And the men of Ulster thought it might be lonesome he was, and fretting after Deirdre yet, and they searched about through the whole province for a wife for him.
   And at last they found a beautiful young girl of good race, whose name was Luain, and they brought her to Eniain Macha, and a great wedding was made, and great feasting; and the king grew to be quiet and happy in his mind. But among the men that came to the wedding were the two sons of the poet Aithirne, that had such a bad name for covetousness and for cruelty.
   The two sons were poets as well, Cuingedach and Abhartach, and when they saw Luain, Conchubar's queen, and she so beautiful, the two of them fell in love with her there and then. And they stopped at Emain, and after a while each of them tried to gain her secret love. But there was great anger and displeasure on Luain at that, and she drove them from her.
   They went home then to their father, Aithirne, and the three of them, to avenge themselves on Luain, made satires on her, that brought blotches out on her face. And when her face that was so beautiful was spoiled like that, she went back and hid herself in her father's house, and with the shame and the sorrow that were on her, she died there.
   Then great anger and rage came on Conchubar, and he sent the men of Ulster to Aithirne's house, and they killed himself and his two sons, and they pulled his house down to the ground.
   But the rest of the poets of Ulster were not well pleased that Conchubar should put such disrespect on one of themselves and do such a great vengeance on him, and they gathered together and gave Aithinie a great burial and keened him, and it was Amergin that made a lament over his grave.
   And then Conchubar stopped in Emain Macha, and the cloud of trouble came on him again, and he used to be thinking of the war for the Bull of Cuailgne, and of all that Maeve's army did when he was in his weakness; and he did not sleep in the night, and there was no food that pleased him.
   And then the men of Ulster bid Cathbad, the Druid, go to Conchubar, and rouse him out of his sickness.
   So Cathbad went to him, and he cried tears down when he saw him, and he said: "Tell me, Conchubar, what wound it is or what sickness has weakened you and has made your face so pale?" "It is no wonder sickness to be on me," said Conchubar, "when I think of the way the four provinces of Ireland came and destroyed my forts and my duns and my walled towns and the houses of my people, and when I think how Maeve brought away cattle and gold and silver; and how she came as far as Dun Sescind and Dun Sobairce, and brought away Daire's bull out of my own province. And it is what vexes me, Maeve herself to have got away safe from the battle; and it is time for me to go and avenge that time on the men of Ireland," he said. "That is no right you are saying," said Cathbad, "for the men of Ulster did a good vengeance on the men of Ireland the time they gained the battle of Ilgairech." "I do not count any battle to be a battle," said Conchubar, "unless a king or a queen has fallen in it; and I swear by the oath of my people, Cathbad," he said, "that kings and great men will be brought to their death by me, or else I myself will go to my death."
   "This is my advice to you," said Cathbad, "not to set out till the winter is gone by; for at this time the winds are rough, and the roads are heavy, and the rivers are full and flooded, and every windy gap is cold. It is best to wait for the summer," he said, "till the fords are shallow and the roads are smooth, till the thick leaves on the bushes will be shelters, till every sod of grass will be a pillow, till our colts will be strong, till the nights will be short for keeping watch against an enemy. It is best to wait," he said, "till you can gather together the men of Ulster, and till you can send messengers to your friends among the Gall." "I am willing to do that," said Conchubar, "but I give my word," he said, "let them come, or let them not come, I will go myself to Teamhair to get satisfaction from Cairbre Niafer, my own son-in-law, that did not come to help me at the gathering at Ilgairech, and to Lugaid, son of Curoi, and to Eocha, son of Luchta, and to Maeve, and to Ailell, till I throw down the stones over the graves of their chief men, till I destroy and lay waste their country, the same way as the men of Ireland destroyed my province."
   So then Conchubar sent out messengers to Conall Cearnach, that was raising his tribute in the islands of Leodus, and of Cadd, and of Orc, and to the countries of the Gall, to Olaib, grandson of the king of Norway, and to Baire of the Scigger islands, and to Siugraid Soga, king of Sudiam; to the seven sons of Romra, and to the son of the king of Alban, and to the king of the island of Orc.
   And the first to answer the messengers, and to set out for Ulster Conall Cearnach, for there was great anger on him when he heard of all that had happened in Ulster in the war for the Bull of Cuailgne, and he not in it. "And if I had been in it," he said, "the men of Connaught would not have taken spoil from Ulster, without an equal vengeance being measured to them again." And Olaib, grandson of the king of Norway, came with him, and Baire, of the Scigger islands, and their men with them in their ships, and they came through the green waves, and the seals and the sword-fishes rising about them, towards Dundealgan, and the place where they landed was at the Strand of Baile, son of Buan.
   This, now, is the story of Baile that was buried at that strand.
   He was of the race of Rudraige, and although he had but little land belonging to him, he was the heir of Ulster, and every one that saw him loved him, both man and woman, because he was so sweet-spoken; and they called him Baile of the Honey-Mouth. And the one that loved him best was Aillinn, daughter of Lugaidh, the King of Leinster's son. And one time she herself and Bade settled to meet one another near Dundealgan, beside the sea. Baile was the first to set out, and he came from Emain Macha, over Slieve Fuad, over Muirthemne, to the strand where they were to meet; and he stopped there, and his chariots were unyoked, and his horses were let out to graze. And while he and his people were waiting there they saw a strange, wild-looking man, coming towards them from the South, as fast as a hawk that darts from a cliff or as the wind that blows from off the green sea. "Go and meet him," said Bade to his people, "and ask him news of where he is going and where he comes from, and what is the reason of his haste." So they asked news of him, and he said: "I am going back now to Tuagh Inbhir, from Slieve Suidhe Laighen, and this is all the news I have, that Aillinn, daughter of Lugaidh, was on her way to meet Baile, son of Buan, that she loved. And the young men of Leinster overtook her, and kept her back from going to him, and she died of the heartbreak there and then. For it was foretold by Druids that were friendly to them that they would not come together in their life-time, but that after their death they would meet, and be happy for ever after." And with that he left them, and was gone again like a blast of wind, and they were not able to hinder him.
   And when Baile heard that news, his life went out from him, and he fell dead there on the strand.
   And at that time the young girl Aillinn was in her sunny parlour to the south, for she had not set out yet. And the same strange man came in to her, and the asked him where he came from. "I come from the North," he said, "from Tuagh Inver, and I am going past this place to Slieve Suidhe Laighen. And all the news I have," he said, "is that I saw the men of Ulster gathered together on the strand near Dundealgan, and they raising a stone, and writing on it the name of Baile, son of Buan, that died there when he was on his way to meet the woman he had given his love to; for it was not meant for them ever to reach one another alive, or that one of them should see the other alive." And when he had said that he vanished away, and as to Aillinn, her life went from her, and she died the same way that Baile had died.
   And an apple-tree grew out of her grave, and a yew tree out of Baile's grave. And it was near that yew-tree Conall Cearnach landed, and Baire, and the grandson of the king of Norway. And Cuchulain had made ready a great feast for them, and for Conchubar that had come to meet them, at bright-faced Dundealgan.
   And the Hound bade them a kind, loving welcome, and he said:
   "Welcome to those I know, and those I do not know, to the good and the bad, the young and the old among you." And they stopped there a week, and Conchubar was well pleased to see the whole strand full of his friends that were come in their ships. And then he bade farewell to Emer, daughter of Forgall, and he said to Cuchulain: "Go now to the three fifties of old fighting men, that are resting in their age, under Irgalach, son of Macclach, and say to them to come with me to this gathering and to this war, the way I will have their help and their advice." "Let them go to it if they have a mind," said Cuchulain; "but it is not I that will go and ask it of them."
   So then Conchubar himself went to the great house, where the old fighting men used to be living that had laid by their arms. And when he came in, they raised their heads from their places to look at the great king. And then they leaped up, and they said: "What has brought you to us to-day, our chief and our lord?" "Did you get no word," he said, "of the way the four provinces of Ireland came against us, and how they burned down our forts and our houses, and how they brought their makers of poems and of stories along with them, that their deeds might be told, and our disgrace might be the greater. And I am going out against them now," he said, "to get satisfaction from them; and let you come with me, and I will have your advice." Then the hearts of the old men rose in them, and they caught their old horses and yoked their old chariots. And they went on with the king to the mouth of the Water of Luachann that night.
   And the next day Conchubar set out with his own men and his friends from beyond the sea, to Slieve Breagh, that is near Rosnaree on the Boinne. And they made their camp at Cuanglas, the green harbour, and lighted their fires, and music and merry songs were made for them. But Cuchulain stopped behind in Dundealgan to gather his own people, and to make provision for them on the march.
   Now news had been brought to Cairbre Niafer at Teamhair, that Conchubar was gathering his men to get satisfaction for all that had been done to Ulster in the war for the Bull of Cuailgne, and that it was likely he himself would be the first he would come against.
   For there was some bad feehng between Cairbre and the men of Ulster, since the time he drove the sons of Umor into Connaught, with the heavy rent he put on them, and that after Conall Cearnach and Cuchulain giving their own security for their good behaviour. They turned on their securities after that, and fought with them, and Conall Cool, the son of their chief, fell; and Cuchulain, and his father, and his friends, raised the heap of stones over him that is called Cam Chonaill, in the province of Connaught.
   And Cairbre sent a message to Cruachan, to say to Ailell and to Maeve: "If it is towards us Conchubar and the men of Ulster are coming, let you come to our help; but if it is past us they go, into the fair-headed province of Connaught, we will go to your help." So when Conchubar came to Cuanglas, at Rosnaree, there was a good army gathered there to make a stand against him; the three troops of the children of Deagha, and a great troop of the Collamnachs, and of the men of Bregia, and of the Gailiana. And he rose up early in the morning, and he could see the moving of men and the shining of spears, and he heard the noise of a great army, and he said: "We will send some one of our men to bring us word about them."
   And he sent out Feic, son of Follaman. And Feic went up to a lull beside the Boinne, and he began to look at the army and to count it, and it vexed him to see how many were in it. "If I go back now and tell this," he said, "the men of Ulster will come and will begin the battle, and there will be no better chance for me to get a great name and do great deeds than for any other man. And why would I not go and begin a fight now by myself?" And with that he crossed the river.
   But the men that were in front caught sight of him, and the whole army began shouting around him, and he had not courage to go against them, but he turned to cross the river again. But he gave a false leap, just where the water was deepest, and a wave laughed over him, and he died.
   It seemed a long time to Conchubar that he was away, and be said to the men of Ulster: "What is your advice to us about this battle?" "It is what we advise," they said, "to wait till our strong fighters and our chief men are come. And they had not long to wait before they saw troops coming, Cathbad with twelve hundred men, and Amergin with twelve hundred men, and Eoghan, king of Fernmaighe, and Laegaire Buadach, and the three sons of Conall Buide.
   And then they saw another troop coming, and in the front of it a fierce, brown man. Rough, dark hair he had, and a big nose and hollow cheeks, and his talk was quick and hurried. A blue cloak about him, and a brooch of silver as white as a bird, a heavy sword, and a shield with iron rims. And this is who he was, Daire of Cuailgne, that was come to get satisfaction for his bull and for his herds on the men of Ireland. "What is delaying you here?" he said to Conchubar. "I have good reason for delaying," said Conchubar, "for there is a great army under Cairbre Niafer before us at Rosnaree, and there are not enough of us to go against them. And it is not refusing a battle we are, but waiting till we get our full number." "By my word," said Daire, "if you do not go out against them, it is I will go against them by myself."
   Then Conchubar put on his armour, and took his many-coloured shield, and his sword, the Ochain. And all the men of Ulster gathered around him, and they raised their spears and their shields, and it was like a great river breaking from the side of a mountain, and breaking what it meets of stones and trees before it, that they went to meet the men of Leinster at Rosnaree on the Boinne.
   And when Cairbre Niafer and his friends and his men saw them coming, they made ready for them, and came towards the river.
   And the men of Ulster crossed the river, and the two armies met, and each of them took to hacking and destroying the other. And the Gailiana pressed heavily on the men of Ulster, and came in to the middle of them, and cut them down like trees are cut in a wood. And as for Conchubar he did not give back, where he was, and Celthair on his right hand, and Amergin the poet on his right hand again, and Eoghan, king of Fernmaighe, on his left, and Daire of Cuailgne near him. These few stood against the Gailiana, and fought against them, stout and proud. But as to the young men and those that were never in a fight before, they turned round and burst through the battle northwards.
   It was just then Conall Cearnach was coming in his chariot, and when the young men of Ulster saw the face of Conall, they came to a stop, and Conan saw that they were beaten and running from the battle, and he called out sharp words to them, for there was anger on him, they to have left the fight, and with no sign of blood or of wounds upon them.
   But they were ashamed then, and content to go back to the battle, when they had Conall's hand to help them; and each one of them tore a green branch off the oak trees that were near them, and held it up, and they went with him; for they knew there would be no running away in any place where Conall's face would be seen.
   And it happened just at that time Conchubar, the High King, was taking three backward steps out of the battle northward, but when he saw the face of Conall coming towards him, he called to him to stop the army from falling back. "I give my word," said Conall, "I think it easier to fight the battle by myself than to stop the rout now."
   And just then the three royal poets of the king of Teamhair came in give him their help, Eochaid the Learned, and Diarment of the Songs, and Forgel the Just, and they went into the fight against Conall. And Conall looked at them and he said: "I give my true word," he said, "if you were not poets and men of learning, you would have got your death by me before this; and now that you are come fighting with your master," he said, "where is there any reason for sparing you?" And with that he made a blow at them with a heavy stick that was in his hand, that struck the three heads off them.
   Then Conall drew his sword out of its sheath, and he played the music of his sword on the armies of Leinster, and the sound of it was heard on every side; and when the men near him heard it their faces whitened, and each one of them went back to his place in the battle. And at that time Cuchulain came into the battle, and the men of the Gailiana gave wild shouts at him, and anger came on him and he scattered them.
   And strength came again into the hearts of the men of Ulster, and their anger rose, and the earth shook under their feet, and there was clashing of swords on both sides, and the shouting of young men, and the screams of old men, and the groaning of chariot-fighters, and the crying of ravens. And there were many lying in cold pools, the white soles of their feet close together, and the red lips turning grey, and the bright faces very pale, and darkness coming on their grey eyes, and confusion on their clear wits.
   It is then Cuchulain met with Cairbre Niafer, and he went against him, and put his shield against his shield and there they were face to face. And Cairbre said words of insult to Cuchulain, and Cuchulain answered him back and said: "It is all I ask of you, to fight with me now alone." "I will do that," said Cairbre Niafer, for I am a king in my way of living, and a champion in battles."
   Then each attacked the other, and it was hard for them to hold their feet firm, or to strike with their hands, in the closeness of the fight And Cairbre broke all his weapons, but nine of his men came and kept up the fight against Cuchulain till more weapons could be brought to him. And then Cuchulain's weapons were broken, and Cairbre and nine of his men came and held up their shields before him till Laeg could bring him his own right weapons, the Dubach, the grim one, his spear, and the Cruaidin, his sword. And then they took to hitting at one another again, and at last Cuchulain took his spear into his left hand, and struck at Cairbre with it, and he lowered his shield to protect his body. And then Cuchulain changed it to his right hand, and struck at him over the rim of his shield, and it went through his heart; and before his body could reach the ground, Cuchulain made a spring and struck his head off. And then he held up the head, and shook it before the two armies.
   Then Sencha, son of Ailell, rose up and shook the branch of peace, and the men of Ulster stood still. As to the men of Leinster, when they saw their king was killed, they fell back; but Iriel of the Great Knees, the son of Conall Cearnach, followed after them, and did a great slaughter on the Gailiana and on the rest of the army till they reached to the Rye of Leinster.
   And then the men of Ulster went back to their homes. And as to Conchubar, he went back to Emain, and it was not till a good while after that he got the wound in his head that Fintan sewed up with gold thread, to match the colour of his hair, and that brought him to his death in the end.


Cuchulain by John Duncan
Cuchulain by John Duncan