Cuchulain of Muirthemne

XIX. The Great Gathering at Muirthemne

   Now after all the battles Cuchulain had fought, and all the men he had killed, it is no wonder he had a good share of enemies watching to get the upper hand of him. And besides Maeve, those that had their minds most set against him were Erc, son of Cairbre Niafer, that he had killed at Rosnaree, and Lugaid, son of Curoi, that he had killed at his own house in Munster, and the three daughters of Calatin.
   This, now, was the way it happened that Curoi got his death by him. He met with Blanad one time, a good while after Curoi had given him the championship of Ulster, and it is what she told him that there was not a man on the face of the earth she loved more than himself. And she bade him come, near Samhain time, to Curoi's dun at Finglas, and his men with him, and to bring her away by force.
   So when the time came, Cuchulain set out, and his men with him, and they came to a wood near the dun, that had a stream running through it, and he sent word to Blanad he was waiting there. And Blanad sent him back word to come and bring her away at whatever time he would see the stream in the wood turning white. And when what she thought to be a good time came, when all the men of the place were sent out looking for stones to build a great new dun, she milked the three white cows with red ears Curoi had brought away by force from her father, Midhir, into the cauldron he had brought away with them, and she poured a great vessel of new milk into the stream, where it ran by the dun. And when Cuchulain saw the stream turning white, he went up to the dun. But he found Curoi there before him, and they fought, and Curoi was killed, the son of Daire, lord of the southern sea, that had a great name and great praise on him before Blanad was his wife.
   Then Cuchulain brought Blanad away with him to Ulster. But Curoi's poet, Feirceirtne, followed after them to avenge his master's death. And when they were come as far as the headland of Cian Beara, he saw Blanad standing on the edge of a high rock, and she alone. And he went up to her, and took her in his aims, and threw her, and himself along with her, over the rock, and they both got their death by the fall on the moment.
   And as to the children of Calatin, this is the way it was with them. At the time Cuchulain made an end of Calatin at the ford, and of all his sons with him, Calatin's wife was with child. And when her time came, there were three daughters born at the one birth, and they deformed, and each of them having but one eye.
   Then Maeve came from Cruachan to visit them, and she brought away the children with her, and took the charge of them. And when they were come to sensible years, she came to see them, and she said: "Do you know who it was killed your father?" "We know well," they said, "it was Cuchulain, son of Sualtim, killed him." "That is so," said Maeve, "and let you make a journey now," she said, "through the whole world, to get knowledge of spells and enchantments from them that have it, the way you will be able to avenge your father when the time comes."
   When the three one-eyed daughters of Calatin heard that, they went out into Alban, and to every other country, from the rising to the setting of the sun, and they were learning every sort of enchantment and of witchcraft. And at the end they came back to Cruachan.
   And as to Maeve, she went up one morning to her sunny parlour, and from there she saw the three daughters of Calatin sitting outside on the lawn. So she took her cloak, that had beautiful embroidery on it, and put it about her, and she went out on the lawn and bade them welcome, and she sat down before them, and asked news of all they had done since they left Ireland. And they told her all they had learned. "Do you remember it all?" said Maeve. "We remember it well," they said, "and we can do many things, and we can make the appearance of terrible battles by secret words."
   Maeve brought them then into the royal house, and they were attended on, and they were given every sort of food and of drink, and of good treatment.
   And then Maeve sent word to Lugaid, and he came to Cruachan, and himself and Maeve began to talk together. "Do you remember," she said, "who it was killed Curoi your father?" "I remember it well," he said; "it was Cuchulain killed him." Then Erc came to her, and she asked him the same question about his father Cairbre Niafer, and he made the same answer. "What you say is true," Maeve said then, "and the children of Calatin are come back to me now, after going through the whole world, to fight against Cuchulain with their enchantments. And there is no king or chief man, or fighting man in the four provinces of Ireland, but lost his friend or his comrade, his father or his brother, by him in the war for the Bull of Cuailgne, or at some other time. And now," she said, "it is best for us to gather together a great army of the men of Ireland to make an attack on him, for the men of Ulster have their weakness coming on them, and it is likely they will not be able to help him."
   With that, Lugaid went away southward to the king of Munster, to bid him come, and bring his men with him; and Erc went and called to the chief men of Leinster in the same way.
   Then all the provinces gathered together to Cruachan, and they stopped there with feasting and merriment for three days and three nights. And at the end of that time they went out of Cruachan. But Maeve did not bring Fergus with them this time, for she was sure the men of Ireland would never be able to make an end of Cuchulain if Fergus was along with them.
   And this is the way they went, beyond Magh Finn to Athluain, and they rested there that night.
   And the next day they went on their road till they came to Glean-na-loin, and from that to Glean-mor, and from that to Tailtin, and they stopped the night there; and then they went on by the borders of Magh Breagh, and Midhe, and Treathfa, and Cuailgne.
   It is then Conchubar, King of Ulster, got word that the borders of his province were being robbed and destroyed by the men of Munster and Leinster, and of Connaught.
   "Where is Levarcham?" said Conchubar. "I am here," she said. "Go out for me now," said Conchubar, "and bring Cuchulain here to Emain; for it is against him this army we have news of is gathered. Bid him to make no delay, but to leave Dundealgan and Muirthemne and to come here to advise with myself, and with Cathbad and Amergin, and all the knowledgeable men. For if he can put off this battle till I myself, and Conall, and all the men of Ulster, will be ready to go out with him, we will give them a great defeat, the way they will not come into my province again. For there are many bear him ill-will," he said, "on account of all he killed. Finn, son of Ross, Fraoch, son of Idath, and Dearg, son of Conroi, and many of the best men of Ulster; and Cairbre Niafer at the battle of Rosnaree; and Curoi, son of Daire, High King of Munster, and many of the men of Munster besides him; Fircearna, and Fiamain, and Niall, and Laoc Leathbuine, and many more along with them."
   Levarcham went quickly then with that message, and it is where she found Cuchulain, between sea and land, on Bails's Strand, and he trying to bring down sea-birds with his sling; but with all the birds that were flying over him and past him, he could not bring one down, but they all escaped him.
   And there was heaviness on him, not to be able to hit them, for he knew it had some bad meaning. And indeed he had never been very happy in his mind since the death of the blossomed branch, Aoife's son, there on that strand. Then he saw Levarcham coming, and he bade her welcome. "I am glad of that welcome," said Levarcham, "and it with news from Conchubar I am come to you."
   "What is your news?" said Cuchulain. "I have news indeed," she said. And then she told him all that Conchubar had said, from beginning to end. "And it is what all are asking of you," she said: "chief men and fighting men, poets and learned men, women and young girls, to keep aside from the men of Ireland that are coming here to Muirthemne, and not to go out alone against that great army." "I would sooner stop here and defend my own place," said Cuchulain. "It is best for you to go to Emain," said Laeg. So after a while he gave in to them, and they went back to Dundealgan, and Emer came out on the lawn to meet them, and they gave her the same advice, to go to Emain Macha where Conchubar and his chief men were gathered together. Then Emer got her chariot, and she sent her servants and the herds, and the cattle to Slieve Cuilenn in the North, and herself and Cuchulain set out for Emain. And that was the first time Dundealgan was emptied since Cuchulain had the sway over it.
   And when Cuchulain came to Emain Macha, they brought him to the bright, sunny house. And when the women of the place heard he was there, they came and spoke sweet words, and the poets and the harpers came, and the skilled men, and they all made music, and feasting, and pleasant talk round about Cuchulain, in the wide, white, sunny house of the Red Branch; for what always quieted Cuchulain best was singing of songs and rhymes before him. It is that way Scumac, the story-teller, quieted him one time he was vexed, and had a mind to set fire to Emain, because Conchubar had gone to a feast given by Conall, son of Gleo Glas, in Cuailgne, and had left no word for him to follow.
   And Conchubar bade Cathbad, and the learned men, and the women, to keep a good watch on Cuchulain, and to mind him well. "For I leave the charge of him on you," he said, "to save him from the plans Maeve has made against him, and from the power of the children of Calatin. For if he should fall," he said, "it is certain the safety and the prosperity of Ulster will fall with him for ever." "That is true," said Cathbad, and all the others said the same.
   "Well," said Geanann, Cathbad's son, "I will go now and see him." He went then to the place Cuchulain and Emer were, and the poets, and the women, and the learned men with them, and a feast laid out on the table, and all of them at drinking and pleasantness and games.
   Now as to the men of Ireland, they came to the plain of Muirthemne, and they made their camp there, and they began to destroy and to take all they could find there, and in Macaire Conall; and when they knew Cuchulain had left Dundealgan, it is then the three daughters of Calatin went with the lightness and the quickness of the wind to Emain Macha. And they sat down on the lawn outside the house where Cuchulain was, and they began to tear up the earth and the grass, and by means of their witchcraft they put the appearance of troops of men and of armies on stalks and coloured oak-leaves, arid little fuzz-balls; and the sounds of fighting and striking, and the shouting of a great army were heard on every side, as if there was an attack being made on the dun.
   It was bright-faced Geanann, son of Cathbad, was keeping a watch on Cuchulain that day, and he saw him sit up and look out on the lawn, and redness and shame came on his face, when he saw, as he though; two armies fighting one another, and he put out his hand as if to take his sword, but Geanann threw his two arms about him and hindered him, and told him there was nothing before him but witchcraft and enchantment, and the appearance of fighting made up by the children of Calatin to bring him out to his death. And Cathbad and all the learned men came then and told him the same thing. But after all that, it was hardly they were able to hold him back and to persuade him.
   The next day Cathbad himself came to keep a watch on him with the rest, and after a while the noise of shouting began again, and for all they could do, Cuchulain went and looked out at the window. And the first thing he thought he saw was the army of Ireland standing there upon the plain. And then he thought he saw Gradh, son of Lir, standing there; and after that he thought he heard the harp of the son of Meardha playing the sweet music of the Sidhe, and he knew when he heard those sounds that his time was come, and that his courage and his strength would soon be made an end of. And then one of the daughters of Calatin took the appearance of a crow, and came flying over him and saying mocking words, and she bade him go out and save his own house and his lands from the enemies that were destroying them. And though Cuchulain knew well by this time it was witchcraft was being worked against him, he was as ready as before to rush out when he heard the sounds and the shouting of battle; and there came trouble and confusion on his mind with the noise of striking and of fighting, and with the sweet sounds of the harp of the Sidhe. But Cathbad did his best with him, and it is what he told him, that if he would but stop quiet for another three days in Emain, the power of the enchantments would be broken, and Conall Cearnach would have come to his help, and he could go out again, and the whole world would be full of his name and of his lasting victories.
   And the women of Emain and the musicians closed round him, and they sang sweet songs, and led away his mind from what he had beard, until the day drew to a close.
   And on the morning of the morrow, Conchubar called for Cathbad and Bright-Faced Geanann, and the rest of the Druids. And Emer came along with them, and Celthair's daughter, Niamh, that Cuchulain loved, and the rest of the women of the House of the Red Branch. And Conchubar asked them in what way they could best keep a watch on Cuchulain through the day. "We do not know that," they said. "I will tell you what is best to do," said Conchubar then. "Bring him away with you to Glean-na-Bodhar, the Deaf Valley. For if all the men of Ireland were letting out shouts and cries of war around it, no one that would be in that valley would hear any sound at all. Bring Cuchulain there, then," he said, "and keep him there with you till their enchantments will be spent, and till Conall Cearnach will come to his help out of the island of Leodus."
   "King," said Niamh, "we were asking him and persuading him all through yesterday to go to that valley, but he would not go there, for all I myself or the rest of the women of Ireland could say. And let yourself go to him now," she said, "with Cathbad, and Geanann, and the poets, and with Emer, and let you bring him into that valley, and let there be music and pleasantness made about him there, the way he will not hear the shouts and the mocking words of the children of Calatin." "It is not I will go with him," said Emer, "but let Niamh go, and my blessing with her, for it will be hard for him to refuse her." So they agreed to that, and they went to where Cuchulain was, and Conchubar's harper, Cobhtach, went along with them, making sweet music. Then Cathbad went out to Cuchulain where he was lying on the bed, and he began to ask him and to persuade him. "Dear son," he said, "come with me to-day to use the feast I am making, and all the women and the poets will come with us. And there are bonds on you not to refuse my feast." "My grief for that," said Cuchulain. "This is no fit time for me to be feasting and making merry, and the four provinces of Ireland burning and destroying Ulster, and the men of Ulster in their weakness, and Conall away, and the men of Ireland putting insults on me and reproaches, and saying I have run away before them. And but for yourself and Conchubar," he said, "and for Geanann and Amergin, I would fall on them and scatter them, that their dead would be more than their living." Then all the women persuaded him, and Emer spoke to him, and it is what she said: "Little Hound, I never hindered you until this hour from any deed or any adventure you had a mind for. So now, for my sake, my choice Sweetheart, my first love and first darling of the men of the world, go with Cathbad and with Geanann, with Niamh and with the poets, to share Cathbad's feast."
   Then Niamh went over to him and gave him three fond loving kisses; and then they all rose up, and he rose along with them, heavy and sorrowful, and in that way he went in their company into Glean-na-Bodhar. And when they came into it, he said: "My grief! I ever to have come here, and I never came to any place I liked less than this: for now the men of Ireland will be saying it was to escape them I came here." "You gave me your word," said Niamh, "you would not go out to meet the men of Ireland without leave from me." "If I gave it," said Cuchulain, "it is right for me to hold to it."
   Their chariots were unyoked then, and the Grey of Macha and the Black Sainglain were let loose to graze in the valley, and they all went to the house Cathbad had made ready. And there was a great feast laid out, and Cuchulain was put in the chief place, and to his right hand were Cathbad and Geanann and the poets, and on the left was Niamh, daughter of Celthair, with the women. And opposite them were the musicians and the reciters. And then they all took to feasting and drinking and to games, and they made a great show of mirth and pleasantness before Cuchulain.
   But as to the three deformed, one-eyed children of Calatin, they came quickly and lightly, the way they had come on the other days, to the lawn at Emain, to the place where they had got sight of Cuchulain in the house. And when they did not see him there, they searched through the whole of Emain, but when they did not find him with Conchubar, or with the men of the Red Branch, there was great wonder on them. And then they began to think it was Cathbad was hiding him from them, and they rose up high in the air, on a blast of moaning wind they made by their enchantments, and on it they went over the whole province, searching out every wood and valley, every cave and secret path. But they found nothing, till at last they came over Glean-na-Bodhar, and there in the middle of the valley they saw the Grey of Macha and the Black Sainglain and Laeg, son of Riangabra, beside them.
   They anew then that Cuchulain must be in the valley, and presently they heard the sounds of music and of laughter and of women's voices, where all the people in the feasting-house were trying their best to raise the cloud and the heaviness off Cuchulain's mind.
   Then the children of Calatin came down into the valley, and the same way as before they took thistle-stalks and little fuzz-balls and withered leaves, and put on them the appearance of troops of armed men, so that there seemed to be no hill or no place outside the whole valley but was filled with battalions, coming hundred by hundred. And the air was all filled with sounds of battle and shouts, and of trumpets and dreadful laughter and the cries of wounded men. And there seemed to be fires in the country about, and a noise of the crying of women. And great dread came on all that heard that outcry, both men and women, and dogs of every kind.
   But when the women that were with Cuchulain heard those shouts, they shouted back again and raised their voices, but with all they could do, they did not keep the outcry from reaching to Cuchulain. "My grief!" he said, "I hear the shouts of the men of Ireland that are spoiling the whole of the province; my fame is at an end, my great name is gone from me, Ulster is put down for ever." "Let the noise pass by," said Cathbad; "it is only the noise made by the children of Calatin, that want to draw you out from where you are, to make an end of you. Stop here with us now, and put the trouble off your mind."
   Cuchulain stayed quiet then, but the children of Calatin went on a long time filling the air with battle noises. But they tired of it at last, for they saw that Cathbad and the women were too much for them.
   Then anger came on Badb, one of Calatin's daughters, and she said: "Go on now, making sounds of fighting in the air, and I myself will go into the valley; for even if I get my death by it, I will speak with Cuchulain."
   With that, she went on in the madness of her anger to the very house where the feast was going on, and there she took the appearance of a woman of Niamh's women, and she beckoned Niamh out to speak with her.
   So Niamh came out, thinking she had news to give her, and a good many of the other women of Emain with her, and Badb bade them follow her. And she led them a long way down the valley, and then by her enchantments she raised a thick mist between them and the house, so that they could not find their way, but were astray in the valley, not knowing where they were.
   Then she went back to the feasting-house, and she put on herself the appearance of Niamh, and she came in to where Cuchulain was and called out: "Rise up, Cuchulain; Dundealgan is burned, Muirthemne is destroyed, and Conaille Muirthemne. The whole province is trampled down by the men of Ireland. And it is on myself the blame will be laid," she said, "and all Ulster will say that I hindered you, and kept you back from going out to check the army, and to get satisfaction from the men of Ireland. And it is from Conchubar himself I will get my death on account of that," she said. For she knew Cuchulain had given Niamh his promise that without leave from her, he would not go out to face the men of Ireland.
   "My grief!" said Cuchulain then, "it is hard to trust in women. For I thought," he said, "that you would not have given me that leave for the whole riches of the world. But since you yourself give me leave to go out and face the men of Ireland, I will do it." And with that he rose up to go out. And as he rose up, he threw his cloak about him, and his foot caught in the cloak, and the gold brooch that was in the cloak fell on his foot and pierced it. "Truly the brooch is a friend that gives me a warning," said Cuchulain.
   He went out then, and he bade Laeg to yoke the horses and to make ready the chariot. And Cathbad, and Geanann, and the women followed him out, and took hold of him, but they were not able to stop him. For the cries of battle were still in the air, and he thought he saw a great army standing on the lawn at Emain, and the whole plain filled up and crowded with troops and bands of men, with horses and arms and armour, and he thought he heard great shouts, and that he saw all Conchubar's city burning, and all the hills round about Emain full of things brought away, and he thought he saw Emer's sunny house thrown down, and the House of the Red Branch in one blaze, and all Emain under fire and smoke. And Cathbad tried to quiet him. "Dear son," he said, "for this day only, follow my advice, and do not go out against the men of Ireland, and I will be able to save you from all the enchantments of the children of Calatin." But Cuchulain said: "Dear master, there is no reason for me to care for my life from this out, for my time is at an end, and Niamh has given me leave to go and face the men of Ireland." And then Niamh herself came up to him and said: "My grief! my little Hound, I would never have given you that leave for all the riches of the world; and it was not I that gave you leave, but Badb, the daughter of Calatin, that took my shape on her. And stay with me now," she said, "my friend, my darling." But Cuchulain would not believe her, and he bade Laeg yoke the chariot, and put his arms in order. Laeg went to do that, but indeed that time above all others he had no mind for the work. And when he shook the bridles towards the horses as be was used to do, they went away from him; and the Grey of Macha would not let him come near him at all. "Truly," said Laeg, "this is a warning of some bad thing. And indeed, my life," he said to the Grey, "it is seldom you would not come to meet the bridle and to meet myself, up to this day." Then he went to Cuchulain and said: "I swear by the gods my people swear by, that if all the men in the province of Ulster were round about the Grey of Macha, they would not be able to bring him as far as the chariot, and I never refused you up to this," he said, "and come out now and speak to the Grey yourself."
   So Cuchulain went out, and the horse turned his left side three times to his master. Then he reproached the horse. "You were not used," he said, "to behave like that to me." Then the Grey of Macha came up to him and he let big, round tears of blood fall on Cuchulain's feet.
   Then the chariot was yoked; and it was the Morrigu had unyoked it and had broken it the night before, for she did not like Cuchulain to go out and to get his death in the battle. And Cuchulain set out and came to Emain, and to the house where Emer was, and she came out and bade him come down from his chariot. "I will not," he said, "until I go first to Muirthemne, to attack the four great provinces of Ireland, and to avenge all the hurts and the insults they have put on me, and on Ulster, for I have seen their gatherings and their armies." "Those were made up by enchantments," said Emer. "I tell you, woman," he said, "and I swear by my word, I will never come back here until I have made an attack upon them in their camp."
   Then he turned his chariot towards the south, by the road of Meadhon Luachair, and Levarcham cried out after him, and the three times fifty queens that were in Emain Macha, and that loved him, cried out upon him miserably, and struck their hands together, for they knew he would not come back to them again.


Cuchulain by John Duncan
Cuchulain by John Duncan