The Tain Bo Culaigne
The Taking Of Arms By Cuchulain And The Slaying Of The
Three Sons Of Necht Scenè Is Now Told Here
"The little lad performed a third deed in the
following year," said Fiachu son of Firaba." What deed performed he?" asked Ailill.
"Cathba the druid was with his son, namely Conchobar son of Ness, imparting
learning to his pupils in the north-east of Emain, and eight eager pupils in the
class of druidic cunning were with him. That is the number that Cathba
instructed. One of them questioned his teacher, what fortune and presage might
there be for the day they were in, whether it was good or whether it was ill.
Then spake Cathba: "The little boy that takes arms-- this day shall be splendid
and renowned for deeds of arms above the youths of Erin land the tales of his
high deeds shall be told forever, but he shall be short-lived and fleeting."
Cuchulain overheard what he said, though far off at his play-feats south-west
of Emain; and he threw away all his play-things and hastened to Conchobar's
sleep-room to ask for arms. "All good attend thee, O king of the Fene!" cried
the little lad. "This greeting is the speech of one soliciting something of some
one. What wouldst thou, lad?" said Conchobar. "To take arms," the lad made
answer. "Who hath advised thee, little boy?" asked Conchobar. "Cathba the
druid," said the lad. "He would not deceive thee, little boy," said Conchobar.
Conchobar gave him two spears and a sword and a shield. The little boy shook
and brandished the arms in the middle of the house so that he made small pieces
and fragments of them. Conchobar gave him two other spears and a shield and a
sword. He shook and brandished, flourished and poised them, so that he shivered
them into small pieces and fragments. There where were the fourteen a suits of
arms which Conchobar had in Emain, in reserve in case of breaking of weapons or
for equipping the youths and the boys-- to the end that whatever boy assumed
arms, it might be Conchobar that gave him the equipment of battle, and the
victory of cunning would be his thenceforward-- even so, this little boy made
splinters and fragments of them all.
"Truly these arms here are not good, O Conchobar my master," the stripling
cried. "Herefrom cometh not what is worthy of me." Conchobar gave him his own
two spears and his shield and his sword. He shook and he brandished, he bent and
he poised them so that tip touched butt, and he broke not the arms and they bore
up against him, and he saluted the king whose arms they were. "Truly, these arms
are good," said the little boy; "they are suited to me. Hail to the king whose
arms and equipment these are. Hail to the land whereout he is come!''
"Then Cathba the druid chanced to come into the tent, and what he said was,
"Hath he yonder taken arms?" Cathba asked. "Aye, then, it must be," Conchobar
answered. "Not by his mother's son would I wish them to be taken this day," said
Cathba. "How so? Was it not thyself advised him?" Conchobar asked. "Not I, in
faith," replied Cathba. "What mean'st thou, bewitched elf-man?" cried Conchobar
to Cuchulain. "Is it a lie thou hast told us?" "But be not wroth thereat, O my
master Conchobar," said the little boy. "No lie have I told; for yet is it he
that advised me, when he taught his other pupils this morning. For his pupil
asked him what luck might lie in the day, and he said: The youth that took arms
on this day would be illustrious and famous, except that he would be fleeting
and short-lived." "That I avow to be true," spake Cathba. "Good indeed is the
day, glorious and renowned shalt thou be, the one that taketh arms, yet passing
and short lived!" "Noble the gift! " cried Cuchulain." Little it recks me,
though I should be but one day and one night in the world, if only the fame of
me and of my deeds live after me!"
"Another day one of them asked of the druids for what that day would be
propitious. "The one that mounts a chariot to-day," Cathba answered," his name
will be renowned over Erin for ever."
"He mounted the chariot. He put his hands between the two poles of the
chariot, and the first chariot he mounted withal he shook and tossed about him
till he reduced it to splinters and fragments. He mounted the second chariot, so
that he made small pieces and fragments of it in like manner. Further he made
pieces of the third chariot. There where were the seventeen a chariots which
Conchobar kept for the boy-troop and youths in Emain, the lad made small pieces
and fragments of them and they did not withstand him. "These chariots here are
not good, O my master Conchobar," said the little boy; "my merit cometh not from
"Where is Ibar son of Riangabair?" asked Conchobar. "Here, in sooth, am I,"
Ibar answered." Take with thee mine own two steeds for him yonder, and yoke my
chariot." Thereupon the charioteer took the horses and yoked the chariot. Then
the little boy mounted the chariot. He shook the chariot about him, and it
withstood him, and he broke it not. "Truly this chariot is good," cried the lad,
"and this chariot is suited to me."
"Prithee, little boy," said Ibar, "come out of the chariot now and let the
horses out on their pasture." "It is yet too soon, O Ibar," the lad answered.
"Only let us go on a circuit of Emain to-day and thou shalt have a reward
therefor, to-day being my first day of taking arms, to the end that it be a
victory of cunning for me."
"Thrice they made the circuit of Emain. "Leave the horses now to their
grazing, O little boy," said Ibar. "It is yet too soon, O Ibar," the little lad
answered; "let us keep on, that the boys may give me a blessing to-day the first
day of my taking arms." They kept their course to the place where the boys were.
"Is it arms he yonder has taken?" each one asked. "Of a truth, are they." "May
it be for victory, for first wounding and triumph. But we deem it too soon for
thee to take arms, because thou departest from us at the game-feats." "By no
means will I leave ye, but for luck I took arms this day."
"Now, little boy, leave the horses to their grazing," said Ibar. "It is still
too soon for that, O Ibar," the lad answered. "And this great road winding by
us, what way leads it?" the lad asked." What is that to thee?" Ibar answered.
"But thou art a pleasant wight, I bow, little lad," quoth Ibar. "I wish, fellow,
to inquire about the high-road of the province, what stretch it goes?" "To Ath
na Foraire ('the Ford of Watching') in Sliab Fuait it goes," Ibar answered.
"Wherefore is it called 'the Ford of Watching,' knowest thou?"
"Yea, I know it well," Ibar made answer. "A stout warrior of Ulster is on
watch and on guard there every day, so that there come no strange youths into
Ulster to challenge them to battle, and he is a champion to give battle in
behalf of the whole province. Likewise if men of song leave the Ulstermen and
the province in dudgeon, he is there to soothe them by proffering treasures and
valuables, and so to save the honour of the province. Again, if men of song
enter the land, he is the man that is their surety that they win the favour of
Conchobar, so that songs and lays made for him will be the first to be sung
after their arrival in Emain." "Knowest thou who is at the ford to-day?" "Yea, I
know," Ibar answered; " Conall Cernach (' the Triumphant'), the heroic, warlike
son of Amargin, royal champion of Erin," Ibar answered." Thither guide us,
fellow, that so we reach the ford."
"Onwards they drove into sight of the ford where was Conall. "Are those arms
he yonder has taken?" asked Conall. "Of a truth, are they," Ibar made answer.
"May it be for victory and for triumph and first wounding," said Conall; "but we
think it too soon for thee to take arms, because thou art not yet capable of
deeds. Were it surety he needed, he that should come hither," he continued, "so
wouldst thou furnish a perfect warrant amongst the Ulstermen, and the nobles of
the province would rise up to support thee in the contest." "What cost thou
here, O Conall my master?" asked the lad. "Watch and ward of the province, lad,
I keep here," Conall made answer.
"Do thou go home now, O master Conall," said the lad, "and leave me the watch
and guard of the province to keep here." "Say not so, little son," replied
Conall; "thou art not yet able to cope with a goodly warrior." "Then, will I
keep on to the south," said the little boy, "to Fertas ('the Bank') of Loch
Echtrann for a while; champions are wont to take stand there; perchance I may
redden my hands on friend or on foe this day." "I will go, little boy," said
Conall, "to save thee, that thou go not alone into peril on the border." "Not
so," said the lad. "But I will go," said Conall; "for the men of Ulster will
blame me for leaving thee to go alone on the border."
"Conall's horses were caught for him and his chariot was yoked and he set out
to protect the little boy. When Conall came up abreast of him, Cuchulain felt
certain that, even though a chance came to him, Conall would not permit him to
use it. He picked up a hand-stone from the ground which was the full of his
grasp. He hurled it from him from his sling the length of a stone-shot at the
yoke of Conall's chariot, so that he broke the chariot-collar in two and thereby
Conall fell to the ground, so that the nape of his neck went out from his
shoulder." What have we here, boy?" asked Conall; "why threwest thou the stone?"
"It is I threw it to see if my cast be straight, or how I cast at all, or if I
have the stuff of a warrior in me." "A bane on thy cast and a bane on thyself as
well. E'en though thou leavest thy head this time with thine enemies, I will go
no further to protect thee." "'Twas what I craved of thee," answered he; "for it
is geis amongst you men of Ulster to proceed, after a mishap has befallen your
chariots." Conall turned back northwards again to the Ford of Watching.
"As for the little boy, he fared southwards to Fertas Locha Echtrann. He
remained there till the end of the day and they found no one there before them.
"If we dared tell thee, little boy," spoke Ibar, "it were time for us to return
to Emain now; for dealing and carving and dispensing of food is long since begun
in Emain, and there is a place assigned for thee there. Every day it is
appointed thee to sit between Conchobar's feet, while for me there is naught but
to tarry among the hostlers and tumblers of Conchobar's household. For that
reason, methinks it is time to have a scramble a among them." "Fetch then the
horses for us."
The charioteer fetched the horses and the lad mounted the chariot. "But, O
Ibar, what hill is that there now, the hill to the north?" the lad asked." Now,
that is Sliab Moduirn," Ibar answered. "Let us go and get there," siad
Cuchulain. Then they go on till they reach it. When they reached the mountain,
Cuchulain asked, "And what is that white cairn yonder on the height of the
mountain?" "And that is Finncharn ('the White Cairn') of Sliab Moduirn," Ibar
answered. "But yonder cairn is beautiful," exclaimed the lad. "It surely is
beautiful," Ibar answered. "Lead on, fellow, till we reach yonder cairn." "Well,
but thou art both a pleasant and tedious inquisitor, I see," exclaimed Ibar; "
but this is my first journey and my first time with thee. It shall be my last
time till the very day of doom, if once I get back to Emain."
"Howbeit they went to the top of the hill. "It is pleasant here, O Ibar," the
little boy exclaimed. "Point out to me Ulster on every side, for I am no wise
acquainted with the land of my master Conchobar." The horseman pointed him out
Ulster all around him. He pointed him out the hills and the fields and the
mounts of the province on every side. He pointed him out the plains and the dûns
and the strongholds of the province. "'Tis a goodly sight, O Ibar," exclaimed
the little lad. "What is that indented, angular, bordered and glenny plain to
the south of us?" "Mag Breg," replied Ibar. "Tell thou to me the buildings and
forts of that plain." The gilla taught him the name of every chief dûn between
Temair and Cenannas, Temair and Taltiu, Cletech and Cnogba and Brug ('the Fort')
of Mac Oc. He pointed out to him then the dûn of the three sons of Necht Scenè
Foill and Fandall and Tuachall, their names; Fer Ulli son of Lugaid was their
father, and Necht from the mouth of the Scenè was their mother. Now the
Ulstermen had slain their father; it was for that reason they were at war with
But are those not Necht's sons, that boast that not more of the Ulstermen are
alive than have fallen at their hands?" "The same, in sooth," answered the
gilla. "On with us to the dûn of the macNechta," cried the little boy. "Alas, in
truth, that thou sayest so," quoth Ibar; "'tis a peril for us." "Truly, not to
avoid it do we go," answered Cuchulain." We know it is an act of great folly for
us to say so, but whoever may go," said Ibar," it will not be myself." "Living
or dead, go there thou shalt," the little boy cried. "'Tis alive I shall go to
the south," answered Ibar," and dead I shall be left at the dûn, I know, even at
the dûn of the macNechta."
"They push on to the dûn. And the little boy sprang out of the chariot onto
the green. Thus was the green of the dûn, with a pillar-stone upon it and an
iron band around that, and a band for prowess it was, and there was a writing in
ogam at its joint, and this is the writing it bore: 'Whoever should come to the
green, if he be a champion, it is geis for him to depart from the green without
giving challenge to single combat.' The lad deciphered the writing and put his
two arms around the pillar-stone. Just as the pillar-stone was with its ring, he
flung it with a cast of his hand into the moat, so that a wave passed over it.
"Methinks," spake Ibar, "it is no better now than to be where it was. And we
know thou shalt now get on this green the thing thou desires", even the token of
death, yea, of doom and destruction!" "Good, O Ibar, spread the
chariot-coverings and its skins for me that I may snatch a little sleep." "Woe
is me, that thou sayest so," answered the gilla; "for a foeman's land is this
and not a green for diversion." The gilla arranged the chariot-coverings and its
skins under Cuchulain, and the lad fell asleep on the green.
"Then came one of the macNechta onto the fair-green, to wit, Foill son of
Necht. "Unyoke not the horses, gilla," cried Foill." I am not fain to, at all,"
answered Ibar; "the reins and the lines are still in my hand." "Whose horses are
those, then?" Foill asked. "Two of Conchobar's horses," answered the gilla; "the
two of the dappled heads." "That is the knowledge I have of them. And what hath
brought these steeds here to the borders?" "A tender youth that has assumed arms
amongst us to-day for luck and good omen," the horseboy answered, "is come to
the edges of the marshes to display his comeliness." "May it not be for victory
nor for triumph, his first-taking of arms," exclaimed Foill. "If I knew he was
fit for deeds, it is dead he should go back northwards to Emain and not alive!"
"In good sooth, he is not fit for deeds," Ibar answered; "it is by no means
right to say it of him; it is the seventh year since he was taken from the crib.
"The little lad raised his face from the ground and drew his hand over his
face, and he became as one crimson wheelball from his crown to the ground. "Aye,
but I am fit for deeds!" the lad cried. "That pleaseth me well," said the
champion; "but more like than what thou sayest, meseemeth, thou art not fit for
deeds." "Thou wilt know that better if we go to the ford. But, go fetch thy
weapons, for I see it is in the guise of a churl thou art come, and I slay nor
charioteers nor grooms nor folk without arms."
The man went apace after his arms. "Now thou shouldst have a care for us
against yonder man that comes to meet thee, little lad," said Ibar. "And why
so?" asked the lad. "Foill son of Necht is the man thou seest. Neither points
nor edges of weapons can harm him." "Not before me shouldst thou say that, O
Ibar," quoth the lad. "I will put my hand to the lath-trick for him, namely, to
the apple of twice-melted iron, and it will light upon the disc of his shield
and on the flat of his forehead, and it will carry away the size of an apple of
his brain out through the back of his head, so that it will make a sieve-hole
outside of his head, till the light of the sky will be visible through his
"Foill son of Necht came forth. Cuchulain took the lath-trick in hand for him
and threw it from him the length of his cast, so that it lighted on the flat of
his shield and on the front of his forehead and carried away the bulk of an
apple of his brain out through the back of his head, so that it made a
sieve-hole thereof outside of his head, till the light of the sky might be seen
through his head. He went to him then and struck off the head from the trunk.
Thereafter he bore away his spoils and his head with him.
"Then came the second son out on the green, his name Tuachall ('the Cunning')
son of Necht. "Aha, I see thou wouldst boast of this deed," quoth Tuachall. "In
the first place I deem it no cause to boast for slaying one champion," said
Cuchulain; "thou shalt not boast of it this time, for thou shalt fall by my
hand." "Off with thee for thine arms, then, for 'tis not as a warrior thou art
come." The man rushed after his arms. "Thou shouldst have a care for us against
yon man, lad," said Ibar. "How so?" the lad asked. "Tuachall son of Necht is the
man thou beholdest. And he is nowise misnamed, for he falls not by arms at all.
Unless thou worstest him with the first blow or with the first shot or with the
first touch, thou wilt not worst him ever, because of his craftiness and the
skill wherewith he plays round the points of the weapons."
"That should not be said before me, O Ibar," cried the lad. "I will put my
hand on Conchobar's well-tempered lance, on the Craisech Neme ('the Venomous
Lance'). It will light on the shield over his belly, and it will crush through
his ribs on the farther side after piercing his heart in his breast. That would
be the smiting cast of an enemy and not the friendliness of a fellow countryman!
From me he shall not get sick-nursing or care till the brink of doom."
"Tuachall son of Necht came forth on the green, and the lad laid his hand on
Conchobar's lance against him, and it struck the shield above his belly and
broke through the ribs on the farther side after piercing his heart within his
breast. He struck off his head or ever it reached the ground.
"Then came the youngest of the sons forth on the green, namely, Fandall son
of Necht. "Fools were the folk who fought with thee here," cried Fandall. "How,
now!" cried the lad. "Come down to the pool, where thy foot findeth not bottom."
Fandall rushed on to the pool. "Thou shouldst be wary for us of him, little
boy," said Ibar. "Why should I then?" asked the lad. "Fandall son of Necht is
the man whom thou seest. For this he bears the name Fandall ('the Swallow'):
like a swallow or weasel he courseth the sea; the swimmers of the world cannot
"Thou shouldst not speak thus before me, O Ibar," said the lad. "Thou knowest
the river that is in our land, in Emain, the Callann. When the boys frequent it
with their games of sport and when the water is not beneath them, if the surface
is not reached by them all, I do carry a boy over it on either of my palms and a
boy on either of my shoulders, and I myself do not even wet my ankles under the
weight of them."
"They met upon the water and they engaged in wrestling upon it, and the
little boy closed his arms over Fandall, so that the sea came up even with him,
and he gave him a deft blow with Conchobar's sword and chopped off his head from
the trunk, and left the body to go down with the stream, and he carried off the
head and the spoils with him.
"Thereupon Cuchulain went into the dûn and pillaged the place and burned it
so that its buildings were no higher than its walls. And they turned on the way
to Sliab Fuait and carried the three heads of Necht's sons with them.
"When they came to Sliab Fuait they espied a herd of wild deer before them.
"What are those many cattle, O Ibar, those nimble ones yonder?" asked the lad;
"are they tame or are they other deer?" "They are real wild deer, indeed," Ibar
answered; "herds of wild deer that haunt the wastes of Sliab Fuait." "Ply the
goad for us on the horses into the bog, to see can we take some of them." The
charioteer drove a goad into the horses. It was beyond the power of the king's
overfat steeds to keep up with the deer. The lad got down from the chariot and
as the fruit of his run and his race, in the morass which was around him, he
caught two of the swift, stout deer. He fastened them to the back poles and the
bows and the thongs of the chariot.
"They continued their way to the mound-seat of Emain, where they saw flocks
of white swans flying by them. "What are those birds there, O Ibar?" the lad
asked; "are yonder birds tame or are they other birds?" "Indeed, they are real
wild birds," Ibar answered; "flocks of swans are they that come from the rocks
and crags and islands of the great sea without, to feed on the plains and smooth
spots of Erin." "Which would be stranger to the Ulstermen, O Ibar, for them to
be fetched alive to Emain or dead?" asked the lad." Stranger far, alive," Ibar
answered "for not every one succeeds in taking the birds alive, while they are
many that take them dead." Then did the lad perform one of his lesser feats upon
them: he put a small stone in his sling, so that he brought down eight of the
birds; and then he performed a greater feat: he threw a large stone at them and
he brought down sixteen of their number. With his return stroke all that was
done. He fastened them to the hind poles and the bows and the thongs and the
ropes and the traces of the chariot.
"Take the birds along with thee, O Ibar," cried the lad to his charioteer. "I
am in sore straits," answered Ibar; "I find it not easy to go." "What may it
be?" asked the lad. "Great cause have I. The horses have become wild, so that I
cannot go by them. If I stir at all from where I am, the chariot's iron wheels
will cut me down because of their sharpness and because of the strength and the
power and the might of the career of the horses. If I make any move, the horns
of the deer will pierce and gore me.
"Ah, no true champion art thou any longer, O Ibar," said the lad; "because of
the look I shall give at the horses they will not depart from the straight way;
at the look I shall give at the deer they will bend their heads in fear and awe
of me; they will not dare move, and it will be safe for thee e'en though thou
goest in front of their horns."
"Thereupon they went on till they reached the fair plain of Emain. It was
then Lebarcham, the watch in Emain Macha, came forth and discerned them, she,
the daughter of Aue ('Ear') and of Adarc ('Horn.') "A single chariot-fighter is
here, coming towards Emain Macha," cried Lebarcham, "and his coming is fearful.
The heads of his foes all red in his chariot with him. Beautiful, all-white
birds he has hovering around in the chariot. With him are wild, untamed deer,
bound and fettered, shackled and pinioned. And I give my word, if he be not
attended to this night, brood will flow over Conchobar's province by him and the
youths of Ulster will fall by his hand." "We know him, that chariot-fighter,"
spake Conchobar; "belike it is the little gilla, my sister's son, who went to
the edge of the marches at the beginning of the day, who has reddened his hands
and is still unsated of combat, and unless he be attended to, all the youths of
Emain will fall by his hand."
"And this was the counsel they agreed to follow: to let out the womenfolk to
meet the youth, namely, thrice fifty women, even ten and seven-score bold,
stark-naked women, at one and the same time, and their chieftainess, Scannlach
('the Wanton') before them, to discover their persons and their shame to him."
Thereupon the young women all arose and marched out, and they discovered their
nakedness and all their shame to him. The lad hid his face from them and turned
his gaze on the chariot, that he might not see the nakedness or the shame of the
Then the lad was lifted out of the chariot. He was placed in three vats of
cold water to extinguish his wrath; and the first vat into which he was put
burst its staves and its hoops like the cracking of nuts around him. The next
vat into which he went boiled with bubbles as big as fists therefrom. The third
vat into which he went, some men might endure it and others might not. Then the
boy's wrath went down. "Thereupon he came out, and his festive garments were put
His comeliness appeared on him and he made a crimson wheel-ball of himself
from his crown to the ground. Seven toes he had to each of his two feet, and
seven fingers to each of his two hands, and seven pupils to each of his two
kingly eyes, and seven gems of the brilliance of the eye was each separate
pupil. Four spots of down on either of his two cheeks: a blue spot, a purple
spot, a green spot, a yellow spot. Fifty strands of bright-yellow hair from one
ear to the other, like to a comb of birch twigs or like to a brooch of pale gold
in the face of the sun. A clear, white, shorn spot was upon him, as if a cow had
licked it. A fair, laced green mantle about him; a silver pin therein over his
white breast. A hooded tunic of thread of gold about him. And the lad was seated
between the two feet of Conchobar, and that was his couch ever after, and the
king began to stroke his close-shorn hair.
"A mere lad accomplished these deeds at the end of seven years after his
birth," continued Fiachu son of Fiarba; "for he overcame heroes and
battle-champions at whose hands two-thirds of the men of Ulster had fallen, and
these had not got the revenge on them until that scion rose up for them. No need
then is there of wonder or of surprise, though he came to the border, though he
slew one man or two men or three men or four men when now are fulfilled his
seventeen years at the time of the Táin Bó Cúalnge."
Albeit gladness, joy and happiness was the part of the men of Ulster for
that, sorrow, grief and unhappiness was the part of the men of Erin, for they
knew that the little lad that had done those deeds in the time of his boyhood,
it would be no wonder if he should do great deeds of valour in the time of his
These, accordingly, are some of the youthful exploits of Cuchulain on the
Raid for the Kine of Cualnge, and the Prologue of the Tale, and the Names of the
Roads and the March of the Host up to this Point.
The Story proper is this which follows now.