Cuchulain of Muirthemne

IX. Cruachan

   Now as to Cruachan, the home of Ailell and of Maeve, it is on the plain of Magh Ai it was, in the province of Connaught.
   And this is the way the plain came by its name. In the time long ago, there was a king whose name was Conn, that had the Druid power, so that when the Sidhe themselves came against him, he was able to defend himself with enchantments as good as their own. And one time he went out against them, and broke up their houses, and carried away their cattle, and then, to hinder them from following after him, he covered the whole province with a deep snow.
   The Sidhe went then to consult with Dalach, the king's brother, that had the Druid knowledge even better than himself; and it is what he told them to do, to kill three hundred white cows with red ears, and to spread out their livers on a certain plain. And when they had done this, he made spells on them, and the heat the livers gave out melted the snow over the whole plain and the whole province, and after that the plain was given the name of Magh Ai, the Plain of the Livers.
   Ailell was son of Ross Ruadh, king of Leinster, and Maeve was daughter of Eochaid, king of Ireland, and her brothers were the Three Fair Twins that rose up against their father, and fought against him at Druim Criadh. And they were beaten in the fight, and went back over the Sionnan, and they were overtaken and their heads were cut off, and brought back to their father, and he fretted after them to the end of his life.
   Seven sons Ailell and Maeve had, and the name of every one of them was Maine. There was Maine Mathremail, like his mother, and Maine Athremail, like his father, and Maine Mo Epert, the Talker, and Maine Milscothach, the Honey-Worded, and Maine Andoe the Quick, and Maine Mingor, the Gently Dutiful, and Maine Morgor, the Very Dutiful. Their own people they had, and their own place of living.
   This now was the appearance of Cruachan, the Royal house of Ailell and of Maeve, that some called Cruachan of the poets; there were seven divisions in the house, with couches in them, from the hearth to the wall; a front of bronze to every division, and of red yew with carvings on it; and there were seven strips of bronze from the foundation to the roof of the house. The house was made of oak, and the roof was covered with oak shingles; sixteen windows with glass there were, and shutters of bronze on them, and a bar of bronze across every shutter. There was a raised place in the middle of the house for Ailell and Maeve, with silver fronts and strips of bronze around it, and four bronze pillars on it, and a silver rod beside it, the way Ailell and Maeve could strike the middle beam and check their people.
   And outside the royal house was the dun, with the walls about it that were built by Brocc, son of Blar, and the great gate; and it is there the houses were for strangers to be lodged.
   And besides this, there was at Cruachan the Hill of the Sidhe, or, as some called it, the Cave of Cruachan. It was there Midhir brought Etain one time, and it is there the people of the Sidhe lived; but it is seldom any living person had the power to see them.
   It is out of that hill a flock of white birds came one time, and everything they touched in all Ireland withered up, until at last the men of Ulster killed them with their slings. And another time enchanted pigs came out of the hill, and in every place they trod, neither corn nor grass nor leaf would sprout before the end of seven years, and no sort of weapon would wound them. But if they were counted in any place, or if the people so much as tried to count them, they would not stop in that place, but they would go on to another. But however often the people of the country tried to count them, no two people could ever make out the one number, and one man would call out, "There are three pigs in it," and another, "No, but there are seven," and another that it was eleven were in it, or thirteen, and so the count would be lost. One time Maeve and Ailell themselves tried to count them on the plain, but while they were doing it, one of the pigs made a leap over Maeve's chariot, and she in it. Every one called out, "A pig has gone over you, Maeve!" "It has not," she said, and with that she caught hold of the pig by the shank, but if she did, its skin opened at the head, and it made its escape. And it is from that the place was called Magh-mucrimha, the Plain of Swine-counting.
   Another time Fraech, son of Idath, of the men of Connaught, that was son of Boann's sister, Befind, from the Sidhe, came to Cruachan. He was the most beautiful of the men of Ireland or of Alban, but his life was not long. It was to ask Findabair for his wife he came, and before he set out his people said: "Send a message to your mother's people, the way they will send you clothing of the Sidhe." So he went to Boann, that was at Magh Breagh, and he brought away fifty blue cloaks with four black ears on each cloak, and a brooch of red gold with each, and pale white shirts with looped beasts of gold around them; and fifty silver shields with edges, and a candle of a king's house in the hand of each of the men, knobs of carbuncle under them, and their points of precious stones. They used to light up the night as if they were sun's rays.
   And he had with him seven trumpeters with gold and silver trumpets, with many coloured clothing, with golden, silken, heads of hair, with coloured cloaks; and three harpers with the appearance of a king on each of them, every harper having the white skin of a deer about him and a cloak of white linen, and a harp-bag of the skins of water-dogs.
   The watchman saw them from the dun when they had come into the Plain of Cruachan. "I see a great crowd," he said, "coming towards us. Since Ailell was king and Maeve was queen, there never came and there never will come a grander or more beautiful crowd than this one. It is like as if I had my head in a vat of wine, with the breeze that goes over them."
   Then Fraech's people let out their hounds, and the hounds found seven deer and seven foxes and seven hares and seven wild boars, and hunted them to Rath Cruachan, and there they were killed on the lawn of the dun.
   Then Ailell and Maeve gave them a welcome, and they were brought into the house, and while food was being made ready, Maeve sat down to play a game of chess with Fraech. It was a beautiful chess-board they had, all of white bronze, and the chessmen of gold and silver, and a candle of precious stones lighting them.
   Then Ailell said: "Let your harpers play for us while the feast is being made ready." "Let them play, indeed," said Fraech.
   So the harpers began to play, and it was much that the people of the house did not die with crying and with sadness. And the music they played was the Three Cries of Uaithne. It was Uaithne, the harp of the Dagda, that first played those cries the time Boann's sons were born. The first was a song of sorrow for the hardness of her pains, and the second was a song of smiling and joy for the birth of her sons, and the third was a sleeping song after the birth.
   And with the music of the harpers, and with the light that shone from the precious stones in the house, they did not know the night was on them, till at last Maeve started up, and she said: "We have done a great deed to keep these young men without food." "It is more you think of chess-playing than of providing for them," said Ailell; "and now, let them stop from the music," he said, "till the food is given out."
   Then the food was divided. It was Lothar used to be sitting on the floor of the house, dividing the food with his cleaver, and he not eating himself, and from the time he began dividing, food never failed under his hand.
   After that, Fraech was brought into the conversation-house, and they asked him what was it he wanted.
   "A visit to yourselves," he said, but he said nothing of Findabair. So they told him he was welcome, and he stopped with them for a while, and every day they went out hunting, and all the people of Connaught used to come and to be looking at them.
   But all this time Fraech got no chance of speaking with Findabair, until one morning at daybreak, he went down to the river for washing, and Findabair and her young girls had gone there before him. And he took her hand, and he said: "Stay here and talk with me, for it is for your sake I am come, and would you go away with me secretly?" "I will not go secretly," she said, "for I am the daughter of a king and of a queen."
   So she went from him then, but she left him a ring to remember her by. It was a ring her mother had given her.
   Then Fraech went to the conversation-house to Ailell and to Maeve. "Will you give your daughter to me?" he said. "We will give her if you will give the marriage portion we ask," said Ailell, "and that is, sixty black-grey horses with golden bits, and twelve milch cows, and a white red-eared calf with each of them; and you to come with us with all your strength and all your musicians at whatever time we go to war in Ulster." "I swear by my shield and my sword, I would not give that for Maeve herself," he said; and he went away out of the house.
   But Ailell had taken notice of Findabair's ring with Fraech, and he said to Maeve: "If he brings our daughter away with him, we will lose the help of many of the kings of Ireland. Let us go after him and make an end of him before he has time to harm us." "That would be a pity," said Maeve, "and it would be a reproach on us." "It will be no reproach on us, the way I will manage it," said he. And Maeve agreed to it, for there was vexation on her that it was Findabair that Fraech wanted, and not herself. So they went into the palace, and Ailell said: "Let us go and see the hounds hunting until mid-day." So they did so, and at mid-day they were tired, and they all went to bathe in the river. And Fraech was swimming in the river, and Ailell said to him: "Do not come back till you bring me a branch of the rowan-tree there beyond, with the beautiful berries." For he knew there was a prophecy that it was in a river Fraech would get his death.
   So he went and broke a branch off the tree and brought it back over the water, and it is beautiful he looked over the black water, his body without fault, and his face so nice, and his eyes very grey, and the branch with the red berries between the throat and white face. And then he threw the branch to them out of the water. "It is ripe and beautiful the berries are," said Ailell; "bring us more of them."
   So he went off again to the tree, and the water-worm guarded the tree caught a hold of him. "Let me have a sword," called out, but there was not a man on the land would dare to give it to him, through fear of Ailell and of Maeve. But Findabair made a leap to go into the water with a gold knife she had in her hand but Ailell threw a sharp-pointed spear from above, through her plaited hair, that held her; but she threw the knife to Fraech, and he cut off the head of the monster, and brought it with him to land, but he himself had got a deep wound. Then Ailell and Maeve went back to the house. "It is a great deed we have done," said Maeve. "It is a pity, indeed, what we have done to the man," said Ailell "And let a healing-bath be made for him now," he said, "of the marrow of pigs and of a heifer." Fraech was put in the bath then, and pleasant music was played by the trumpeters, and a bed was made for him.
   Then a sorrowful crying was heard on Cruachan, and they saw three times fifty women with purple gowns, with green head-dresses, and pins of silver on their wrists, and a messenger went and I asked them who was it they were crying for "For Fraech, son of Idath," they said, "boy darling of the king of the Sidhe of Ireland"
   Then Fraech heard their crying, and he said: "Lift me out of this, for that is the cry of my mother, and of the women of Boann." So they lifted him out, and the women came round him and brought him away into the Hill of Cruachan.
   And the next day he came out, and he whole and sound, and fifty women with him, and they with the appearance of women of the Sidhe. And at the door of the dun they left him, and they gave out their cry again, so that all the people that heard it could not but feel sorrowful. It is from this the musicians of Ireland learned the sorrowful cry of the women of the Sidhe.
   And when he went into the house, the whole household rose up before him and bade him welcome, as if it was from another world he was come. And there was shame and repentance on Ailell and on Maeve for trying to harm him, and peace was made, and he went away to his own place.
   And it was after that he came to help Ailell and Maeve, and that he got his death in a river as was foretold, at the beginning of the war for the Brown Bull of Cuailgne.
   And one time the Hill was robbed by the men of Cruachan, and this is the way it happened.
   One night at Samhain, Ailell and Maeve were in Cruachan with their whole household, and the food was being made ready.
   Two prisoners had been hanged by them the day before, and Ailell said: "Whoever will put a gad round the foot of either of the two men on the gallows, will get a prize from me."
   It was a very dark night, and bad things would always appear on that night of Samhain, and every man that went out to try came back very quickly into the house. "I will go if I will get a prize," said Nera, then. "I will give you this gold-hilted sword," said Ailell.
   So Nera went out and he put a gad round the foot of one of the men that had been hanged. Then the man spoke to him. "It is good courage you have," he said, "and bring me with you where I can get a drink, for I was very thirsty when I was hanged." So Nera brought him where he would get a drink, and then he put him on the gallows again, and went back to Cruachan.
   But what he saw was the whole of the palace as if on fire before him, and the heads of the people of it lying on the ground, and then he thought he saw an army going into the Hill of Cruachan, and he followed after the army. "There is a man on our track," the last man said. "The track is the heavier," said the next to him, and each said that word to the other from the last to the first. Then they went into the Hill of Cruachan. And they said to their king: "What shall be done to the man that is come in?" "Let him come here till I speak with him," said the king. So Nera came, and the king asked him who it was had brought him in. "I came in with your army," said Nera. "Go to that house beyond," said the king: "there is a woman there will make you welcome. Tell her it is I myself sent you to her. And come every day," he said, "to this house with a load of firing."
   So Nera went where he was told, and the woman said: "A welcome before you, if it is the king sent you." So he stopped there, and took the woman for his wife. And every day for three days he brought a load of firing to the king's house, and on each day he saw a blind man, and a lame man on his back, coming out of the house before him. They would go on till they were at the brink of a well before the Hill. "Is it there?" the blind man would say. "It is, indeed," the lame man would say. "Let us go away," the lame man would say then.
   And at the end of three days, as he thought, Nera asked the Woman about this. "Why do the blind man and the lame man go every day to the well?" he said. "They go to know is the crown safe that is in the well. It is there the king's crown is kept." "Why do these two go?" said Nera. "It is easy to tell that," she said; "they are trusted by the king to visit the crown, and one of them was blinded by him, and the other was lamed. And another thing," she said, "go now and give a warning to your people to mind themselves next Samhain night, unless they will come to attack the hill, for it is only at Samhain," she said, "the army of the Sidhe can go out, for it is at that time all the hills of the Sidhe of Ireland are opened. But if they will come, I will promise them this, the crown of Briun to be carried off by Ailell and by Maeve."
   "How can I give them that message," said Nera, "when I saw the whole dun of Cruachan burned and destroyed, and all the people destroyed with it?" "You did not see that, indeed," she said "It was the host of the Sidhe came and put that appearance before your eyes. And go back to them now," she said, "and you will find them sitting round the same great pot, and the meat has not yet been taken off the fire." .
   "How will it be believed that I have gone into the Hill?" said Nera. "Bring flowers of summer with you," said the woman. So he brought wild garlic with him, and primroses and golden fern.
   So he went back to the palace, and he found his people round the same great pot, and he told them all that had happened him, and the sword was given to him, and he stopped with his people to the end of a year.
   At the end of the year Ailell said to Nera: "We are going now against the Hill of the Sidhe, and let you go back," he said, "if you have anything to bring out of it." So he went back to see the woman, and she bade him welcome. "Go now," she said, "and bring in a load of firing to the king, for I went in myself every day for the last year with the load on my back, and I said there was sickness on you." So he did that.
   Then the men of Connaught and the black host of the exiles of Ulster went into the Hill and robbed it and brought away the crown of Briun, son of Smetra, that was made by the smith of Angus, son of Umor, and that was kept in the well at Cruachan, to save it from the Morrigu. And Nera was left with his people in the hill, and he has not come out till now, and he will not come out till the end of life and time.
   Now one time the Morrigu brought away a cow from the Hill of Cruachan to the Brown Bull of Cuailgne, and after she brought it back again its calf was born. And one day it went out of the Hill, and it bellowed three times. At that time Ailell and Fergus were playing draughts, for it was after Fergus had come as an exile from Ulster, because of the death of the sons of Usnach, and they heard the bellowing of the bull-calf in the plain. Then Fergus said: "I do not like the sound of the calf bellowing. There will be calves without cows," he said, "when the king goes on his march."
   But now Ailell's bull, Finbanach, the White-Horned, met the calf in the plain of Cruachan, and they fought together, and the calf was beaten and it bellowed. "What did the calf bellow?" Maeve asked her cow-herd Buaigle. "I know that, my master, Fergus," said Bricriu. "It is the song that you were singing a while ago." On that Fergus turned and struck with his fist at his head, so that the five men of the chessmen that were in his hand went into Bricriu's head, and it was a lasting hurt to him. "Tell me now, Buaigle, what did the calf bellow?" said Maeve. "It said indeed," said Buaigle, "that if its father the Brown Bull of Cuailgne would come to fight with the White-Horned, he would not be seen any more in Ai, he would be beaten through the whole plain of Ai on every side." And it is what Maeve said: "I swear by the gods my people swear by, I will not lie down on feathers, or drink red or white ale, till I see those two bulls fighting before my face."


Cuchulain by John Duncan
Cuchulain by John Duncan