The Tain Bo Culaigne
The Youthful Exploits Of Cuchulain
"Now this lad was reared in the
house of his father and mother at Dairgthech
('the Oak House' (?)), namely, in the plain of Murthemne, and the tales of the
youths of Emain were told to him. Forasmuch as in this wise Conchobar passed his
reign ever since he, the king, assumed his sovereignty, to wit: As soon as he
arose, forthwith in settling the cares and affairs of the province; thereafter,
the day he divided in three: first, the first third he spent a-watching the
youths play games of skill and of hurling; the next third of the day, a-playing
draughts and chess, and the last third a-feasting on meat and a-quaffing ale,
till sleep possessed them all, the while minstrels and harpers lulled him to
sleep. For all that I am a long time in banishment because of him, I give my
word," said Fergus," there is not in Erin nor in Alba a warrior the like of
"And the lad was told the tales of the boys and the boy-troop in Emain; and
the child said to his mother, he would go to have part in the games on the
play-field of Emain. "It is too soon for thee, little son," said his mother;
"wait till there go with thee a champion of the champions of Ulster, or some of
the attendants of Conchobar to enjoin thy protection and thy safety on the
boy-troop." "I think it too long for that, my mother," the little lad answered,"
I will not wait for it. But do thou show me what place lies Emain Macha.''
"Northwards, there; it is far away from thee," said his mother," the place
wherein it lies, and the way is hard. Sliab Fuait lies between thee and Emain."
"At all hazards, I will essay it," he answered.
"The boy fared forth and took his playthings with him. His little lath-shield
he took, and his hurley of bronze and his ball of silver; and he took his little
javelin for throwing; and his toy-staff he took with its fire-hardened butt-end,
and he began to shorten the length of his journey with them. He would give the
ball a stroke with the hurl-bat, so that he sent it a long distance from him.
Then with a second throw he would cast his hurley so that it went a distance no
shorter than the first throw. He would hurl his little darts, and let fly his
toy-staff, and make a wild chase after them. Then he would catch up his hurl-bat
and pick up the ball and snatch up the dart, and the stock of the toy-staff had
not touched the ground when he caught its tip which was in the air.
"He went his way to the mound-seat of Emain, where was the boy-troop. Thrice
fifty youths were with Folloman, Conchobar's son, at their games on the
fair-green of Emain. "The little lad went on to the play-field into the midst of
the boys, and he whipped the ball between his two legs away from them, nor did
he suffer it to travel higher up than the top of his knee, nor did he let it
lower down than his ankle, and he drove it and held it between his two legs and
not one of the boys was able to get a prod nor a stroke nor a blow nor a shot at
it, so that he carried it over the brink of the goal away from them.
Then he goes to the youths without binding them to protect him. For no one
used to approach them on their play-field without first securing from them a
pledge of protection. He was weetless thereof.
"Then they all gazed upon him. They wondered and marvelled. "Come, boys!"
cried Folloman, Conchobar's son," the urchin insults us. Throw yourselves all on
yon fellow, and his death shall come at my hands; for it is geis among you for
any youth to come into your game, without first entrusting his safety to you.
And do you all attack him together, for we know that yon wight is some one of
the heroes of Ulster; and they shall not make it their wont to break into your
sports without first entrusting their safety and protection to you."
"Thereupon they all set upon him together. They cast their thrice fifty
hurl-bats at the poll of the boy's head. He raises his single toy-staff and
wards off the thrice fifty hurries. Then they throw their thrice fifty balls at
the lad. He raises his upper arm and his forearm and the palms of his hands
against them and parries the thrice fifty balls. They throw at him the thrice
fifty play-spears charred at the end. The boy raises his little lath-shield
against them and fends off the thrice fifty play-staffs, and they all remain
stuck in his lath-shield.
Thereupon contortions took hold of him. Thou wouldst have weened it was a
hammering wherewith each hair was hammered into his head, with such an uprising
it rose. Thou wouldst have weened it was a spark of fire that was on every
single hair there. He closed one of his eyes so that it was no wider than the
eye of a needle. He opened the other wide so that it was as big as the mouth of
a mead-cup. He stretched his mouth from his jaw-bones to his ears; he opened his
mouth wide to his jaw so that his gullet was seen. The champion's light rose up
from his crown.
"It was then he ran in among them. He scattered fifty king's sons of them
over the ground underneath him before they got to the gate of Emain. Five of
them," Fergus continued, "dashed headlong between me and Conchobar, where we
were playing chess, even on Cennchaem ('Fairhead') the chessboard of Conchobar,
on the mound-seat of Emain. The little boy pursued them to cut them off.
Conchobar seized the little lad by the wrists. "Hold, little boy. I see 'tis
not gently thou dealest with the boy-band." "Good reason I have," quoth the
little lad. "I had not a guest's honour at the hands of the boy-troop on my
arrival, for all that I came from far-away lands." "How is that? Who art thou,
and what is thy name?" asked Conchobar. "Little Setanta am I, son of Sualtaim.
Son am I to Dechtire, thine own sister; and not through thee did I expect to be
thus aggrieved." "How so, little one?" said Conchobar. "Knewest thou not that it
is forbidden among the boy-troop, that it is geis for them for any boy to
approach them in their land without first claiming his protection from them?" "I
knew it not," said the lad. "Had I known it, I would have been on my guard
against them." "Good, now, ye boys," Conchobar cried; " take ye upon you the
protection of the little lad." "We grant it, indeed," they made answer.
"The little lad went into the game again under the protection of the
boy-troop. Thereupon they loosed hands from him, and once more he rushed amongst
them throughout the house. He laid low fifty of their princes on the ground
under him. Their fathers thought it was death he had given them. That was it
not, but stunned they were with front-blows and mid-blows and long-blows." Hold!
" cried Conchobar." Why art thou yet at them?" "I swear by my gods whom I
worship" (said the boy) "they shall all come under my protection and shielding,
as I have put myself under their protection and shielding. Otherwise I shall not
lighten my hands off them until I have brought them all to earth." "Well, little
lad, take thou upon thee the protection of the boy-troop." "I grant it, indeed,"
said the lad. Thereupon the boy-troop went under his protection and shielding.
"A youngster did that deed," Fergus continued, "at the dose of five years
after his birth, when he overthrew the sons of champions and warriors at the
very door of their liss and dûn. No need is there of wonder or surprise, if he
should do great deeds, if he should come to the confines of the land, if he
should cut off the four-pronged fork, if he should slay one man or two men or
three men or four men, when there are seventeen full years of him now on the
Cattle-lifting of Cualnge."
"In sooth, then, we know that youth," spoke out Conall Cernach ('the
Victorious'), "and it is all the better we should know him, for he is a
fosterling of our own."