The Conception of Conall Cernach
“Conall” and “Cernach”, from what are they said? Not hard. There was hesitation of children upon Findchóem, daughter of Cathbad, the wife of Amergin Dark-Hair, so that she bore no children. A certain druid came to see her, and the druid said to her, “if my fee is good,” he said, “you will bear a good son for Amergin.” “That will be true,” she said. “Your fee from me will be good.” The druid said, “come to the well tomorrow, and I will go with you.” They both went to the well the next day, and the druid sang spells and prophesies over the well. Then the druid said, “wash yourself with it and you will bring forth a son, and no other will be more impious to his mother’s family than him; i.e. to the Connachta.”
The girl drank a draught from the well then, and she swallowed a worm with the draught, and that worm was in the hand of the boy in his mother’s belly, and it pierced the hand and consumed it.
When Cet mac Mágach, his mother’s brother, heard that, [gloss incorporated into the text: i.e. that his sister would bear a child who would kill more than half of the Connachta] he protected his sister until she bears her son. The girl’s time came, and she bore a son. Druids came to baptise the boy into paganism, and they sang their pagan baptism over the little boy, and said, “there will not be born a boy more impious than this boy to the Connachta, and he will not be a night without the head of a Connachtman on his belt, and he will kill more than half of the Connachta.” It’s then he took the little boy to himself, and put him under his heel and crushed his neck, but he did not crush his marrow. It’s then his mother said to Cet, “wolfish (conda) is the treachery (fell) you do, brother!” she said. “It’s true,” said Cet. “Conall, or Confhell, [Lenited f (fh) in Irish is silent.] will be his name from here on.” And he gave her son to her. From which his is named Conall Crookneck Cernach.
Conall Cernach then: there was a swelling (cern) on the side of his head which was as big as the boss of a shield, after he was struck in Scotland over the loyalty of a woman. It’s in that manner he was Cernach.
Conall Cernach, after Conall Cern Niad i.e strong man, for cern means “man” and níad means “strong”. Or it is from (Latin) cerno, “I see”, for it was the same seeing something by day and by night through the bright eye which was in his head. Or Conall Cernach i.e. Conall the Victorious, for cern means “victory”, for great was the victory above everyone.
Notes and manuscript sources
- The story of Conall Cernach’s conception and birth has not survived as an independent tale, but a brief account has been preserved as part of the Cóir Anmann or “Fitness of Names”, a late Middle Irish collection of explanations of the names and epithets of characters from Irish literature and traditional history. I have followed Stokes’ edition of the text, although I have repunctuated it in places, and given the story a title. Translation © Patrick Brown 2008.
- Whitley Stokes (ed. & trans.), “Cóir Anmann (Fitness of Names)”, Irische Texte ser. 3 vol. 2, 1897, pp. 392-395.
- Sharon Arbuthnot, “The Manuscript Tradition of Cóir Anmann”, Studia Celtica 35, 2001, pp. 285-298