The Ulster Cycle

Heroic legends from Ireland

Conchobar mac Nessa

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Conchobar mac Nessa is the king of the Ulaid whose reign is the setting for the Ulster Cycle. His mother is Ness, daughter of a former king of the Ulaid, Eochaid Sálbuide. His father is either Cathbad the druid or the High King of Ireland, Fachtna Fáthach. He marries several of the daughters of Fachtna’s successor, Eochu Feidlech, in turn, including Medb, later queen of the Connachta and his most important enemy. His desire to marry the tragic heroine Deirdre causes strife in his kingdom. He has a number of sons, including Cormac Cond Longas and his eventual successor Cúscraid Mend Macha, and the most prominent heroes in his service are his nephews Cú Chulainn and Conall Cernach. His seat is at Emain Macha, now Navan Fort, near Armagh.

Birth

There are several version of how Conchobar was conceived. In the earliest, Ness, daughter of Eochaid Sálbuide, then king of Ulster, asks the druid Cathbad what it is an auspicious time for. Cathbad replies, “for begetting a king on a queen”. There are no other men around, so Ness takes Cathbad to bed and conceives a son.

In a later version, Ness is brought up by twelve foster-fathers, and while all twelve are at a feast, Cathbad, leading a fian or landless war-band, attacks the house and kills them all. Eochaid is unable to avenge them as the culprit cannot be identified, so Ness forms her own ”fian” to hunt Cathbad down. But while she is bathing alone in a pool, Cathbad appears, stands between her and her weapons, and bares his sword. He spares her life on the condition that she becomes his wife.

They settle near a river called Conchobar, and Ness soon conceives a son, but in this version the father is the High King Fachtna Fáthach, who is Ness’s lover. As she and Cathbad set out to visit Fachtna, Ness goes into labour. Cathbad tells her if she can manage not to give birth until the following day, her son will be a great king and have everlasting fame, for he will be born on the same day as Jesus Christ. Ness sits on a flagstone by the river Conchobar, and the following morning gives birth. The baby falls into the river, but Cathbad lifts him out, names him Conchobar after the river, and brings him up as his own son.

Conchobar becomes king

By the time Conchobar is seven, Fergus mac Róich is king of Ulster, and falls in love with Ness. She agrees to become his wife, on condition that Fergus allows Conchobar to be king for a year, so his children will be called the sons of a king (under medieval Irish law, inheritance passed through the male line, and only those who had a king as a male-line ancestor were eligible for kingship). The nobles of Ulster advise Fergus that this will not affect his standing with them, as the boy will be king in name only, so he agrees. But Conchobar, advised by his mother, rules so well that by the end of the year decide he should be king permanently. Fergus makes an alliance with the new High King, Eochu Feidlech, and they make war on Ulster. After a series of bloody battles, Conchobar makes overtures for peace. Fergus is offered land, the Champion’s Portion at Emain Macha, and the position of Conchobar’s heir. Conchobar demands compensation from Eochu for the killing of his father, Fachtna Fáthach, and is granted land, status and the High King’s daughter in marriage.

Marriages and family

In fact, Conchobar marries several of Eochu’s daughters. Medb, later queen of Connacht, is the first. She bears him a son called Amalgad, but soon leaves him. Eithne conceives a son by him, but Medb murders her by drowning her in a stream, and her son Furbaide is delivered by posthumous Caesarian section. Mugain bears him a son called Glaisne, and remains his chief wife. The mother of Conchobar’s eldest son, Cormac Cond Longas, is either Eochu’s daughter Clothru, or Conchobar’s own mother Ness. Cormac is given to Fergus to foster. His other sons include Cúscraid Mend Macha and Folloman. His daughter Fedelm Noíchrothach marries Cairpre Nia Fer, king of Tara, and they have a son, Erc, and a daughter, Achall.

Conchobar’s has two sisters, Findchóem and Deichtine. Findchóem marries the poet Amergin, and they have a son, Conall Cernach. Deichtine is the mother of Cú Chulainn, by either her mortal husband Sualtam or the apparent god Lug mac Ethlenn.

Deirdre

When Conchobar is visiting the house of his storyteller Fedlimid mac Daill, Fedlimid’s wife gives birth to a daughter. Cathbad, now Conchobar’s chief druid, prophesies that she will be so beautiful that kings will go to war over her, and she will bring nothing but sorrow. The child is named Deirdre, and Conchobar decides to have her brought up in seclusion from men, intending to marry her when she comes of age. However, she elopes with a young warrior called Naoise. Along with Naoise’s two brothers, the couple go into hiding, and are eventually forced to flee to Scotland. Wherever they settle, the local king tries to have the brothers killed so he can have Deirdre for himself, and they have to move on.

Eventually Conchobar tracks them down to a remote island, and sends Fergus to them with his guarantee of safe passage home. On the way home he arranges for Fergus to be separated from his charges by having him invited to a feast, so they are escorted back to Emain Macha by Fergus’s son Fiachu. When they arrive, Fiachu, Naoise and his brothers are murdered on Conchobar’s orders by Éogan mac Durthacht, king of Fernmag, a small allied kingdom, and Deirdre is forced to marry Conchobar. Fergus, outraged by the death of his son and the betrayal of his honour, makes war against Conchobar, alongside Cormac Cond Longas, who sides with his foster-father against his father, and Dubthach Dóeltenga. They burn Emain and slaughter the maidens of Ulster, before going into exile with Medb and her husband Ailill in Connacht.

Deirdre lives with Conchobar for a year, but during that time she never smiles, rarely eats or sleeps, and refuses to be comforted. Conchobar asks her what it is she hates, and she replies, “you, and Éogan mac Durthacht.” Conchobar gives her to Éogan. The next day, riding in Éogan’s chariot, she commits suicide by dashing her head against a stone.

The Táin

When Medb raises an army from four of the five provinces of Ireland and launches an invasion of Ulster to steal the bull Donn Cúailnge in the Táin Bó Cúailnge, Conchobar, like all the Ulstermen but Cú Chulainn, is unable to fight, disabled by the curse of Macha. Cú Chulainn fights a series of single combats against Connacht champions, hoping to give the Ulstermen time to recover and take the field. Eventually Cú Chulainn’s father, Sualtam, comes to Conchobar at Emain Macha to warn him of the devastation the Connacht army is creating and demand he raise his army before it’s too late. Conchobar and his druids agree that Sualtam should be put to death for breaking the protocol of the court – no-one is permitted to speak before Conchobar but the druids – and Sualtam runs out, but falls and decapitates himself on the sharpened edge of his shield. His severed head is brought back in on his shield, still crying out his warning.

Conchobar raises his army and leads them into battle. During the fighting, Fergus has him at his mercy, but Cormac Cond Longas prevents his foster-father from killing his biological father, and Fergus strikes off the top of three hills instead. Medb is eventually forced to retreat by Cú Chulainn, but manages to bring the bull back to Connacht, where it fights her husband Ailill’s bull, Finnbennach, kills it, and dies of exhaustion.

The Battle of Ros na Ríg

After the ”Táin”, Conchobar falls ill, and doesn’t eat or sleep. The Ulaid ask Cathbad to find out what’s wrong with their king. Conchobar tells Cathbad that he is ill because the other four provinces of Ireland have made war against him with impunity. Although he was victorious against Ailill and Medb, neither of them were killed in the battle, and he still lost his bull. He wants to make war against Connacht, but it is now winter, so Cathbad advises him to wait until summer when his men and horses will be fresh and energetic, and in the meantime, call on all his foreign allies to bring reinforcements. He sends word to Conall Cernach, who is raising tribute in the Scottish islands, and he raises a great fleet of the Ulaid’s allies in Scandinavia and the Faroe Islands and brings them home to Ulster.

In response to this build-up, the other provinces mobilise. Eochu mac Luchta, king of Munster, convinces Ailill and Medb, very much against Medb’s better judgement, to offer reparations to Conchobar. Ailill sends a man the Ulaid have reason to mistrust as their envoy to make the offer. Conchobar rejects the offer, and says he will not be satisfied until he is able to pitch his tent anywhere in Ireland. When asked where he wants to pitch his tent that night, he selects Ros na Ríg (Rosnaree) on the river Boyne. A battle ensues at Ros na Ríg between the Ulaid on one side, and on the other side the kingdom of Meath, led by Conchobar’s son-in-law Cairpre Nia Fer, king of Tara, and the Gailióin of Leinster, led by their king Find mac Rossa.

The battle goes badly for the Ulaid until Conall Cernach joins the fray, because the wavering Ulaid are too scared of him to retreat. Conall kills a thousand men in the battle. Cairpre Nia Fer kills 800 before Cú Chulainn kills him with a spear thrown from a distance, and then beheads him before his body hits the ground. The Gailióin retreat and the Ulaid take Tara. Erc, Cairpre’s son and Conchobar’s grandson, is installed as the new king of Tara. He swears allegiance to Conchobar and is given Cú Chulainn’s daughter Fínscoth in marriage.

Death

Conchobar is eventually killed as a result of a wound inflicted by the Connacht warrior Cet mac Mágach. Cet had stolen one of Ulster’s trophies of battle, the petrified brain of Mesgegra, king of Leinster, and shoots it from his sling so it embeds itself in Conchobar’s head; this is supposed to have taken place at Baile Ath in Urchair, (Ardnurcher). Conchobar’s physicians are unable to remove it, but sew up the wound and tell the king he will survive so long as he doesn’t get excited or over-exert himself. Seven reasonably peaceful years later, Conchobar is told of the death of Christ, and becomes so angry that the brain bursts from his head, and he dies. The blood from the wound baptises him as a Christian, and his soul goes to heaven.

The Ulstermen invite his son Cormac Cond Longas, still in exile in Connacht, to succeed him as king, but on his way to Emain Macha Cormac is forced to break his gessa or taboos, and is killed in battle at Da Choca’s Hostel. On Conall Cernach’s recommendation the kingship is then given to Conchobar’s other son, Cúscraid Mend Macha.

References

  • R. I. Best, “The Battle of Airtech”, Ériu 8, 1916, pp. 170-190
  • Maighréad Ní Conmidhe Dobs, “La guerre entre Fergus et Conchobar”, Revue Celtique 40, 1923, pp. 404-423
  • E. Hogan, Cath Ruis na Ríg for Boinn, Todd Lecture Series, 1892
  • Vernam Hull, “The conception of Conchobor” Irish Texts vol. 4, 1934, pp. 4-12
  • Vernam Hull, Longes mac n-Uislenn: the Exile of the Sons of Uisliu, Modern Language Association of America, 1949
  • Kuno Meyer, “Anecdota from the Stowe MS. No 992″, Revue Celtique 6, 1884, pp. 178-182
  • Kuno Meyer, “The Death of Conchobar”, The Death Tales of the Ulster Heroes, 1906, pp. 2-21
  • Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, Early Medieval Ireland, Longman, 1995, pp. 65-66
  • Eugene O’Curry, Lectures on the Manuscript Materials of Ancient Irish History, Dublin, 1861
  • Joseph O’Neill, “Cath Boinde”, Ériu 2, 1905, pp. 173-185
  • Cecile O’Rahilly, Táin Bó Cualnge from the Book of Leinster, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1970
  • Cecile O’Rahilly, Táin Bó Cúailnge Recension I, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1976
  • Whitley Stokes, “Da Choca’s Hostel”, Revue Celtique 21, 1900, pp. 388-402
  • Whitley Stokes, “Tidings of Conchobar mac Nessa”, Ériu 4, 1910, pp. 18-38

Written by paddybrown

November 8, 2009 at 12:18 pm

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