The Ulster Cycle

Heroic legends from Ireland

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The Quarrel of the Two Swineherds

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Question: out of what was the quarrel of the two swineherds? Not hard. The swineherd of Ochall Oichni, and the swineherd of Bodb, king of the síd-mounds of Munster (the other being king of the síd-mounds of Connacht. Bodb’s síd-mound is Síd ar Femun; Ochall’s síd-mound is Síd Cruachan).

There was enmity between the king of the síd-mounds of Munster and the king of the síd-mounds of Connacht. Well, they had two swineherds, Friuch and Rucht their names – Friuch, Bodb’s swineherd, and Rucht, Ochall’s swineherd. There was friendship between these two: they each had pagan knowledge, and they would form themselves into every shape, like Mongan mac Fiachna used to.

This was the friendship of the two swineherds: when there was mast in Munster, the swineherd from the north would go south with his skinny pigs; and when there was mast in the north, the swineherd from the south would go north – until strife was stirred up between them. The Connachta said their swineherd’s power was greater. Well, the Munstermen said their swineherd’s power was greater.

So that year there was great mast in Munster, and the swineherd from the north went south with his pigs. His friend made him welcome. “There’s trouble being stirred up between us, me and you,” he said. “These men say your power is greater than mine.” “Well, it’s no smaller,” said Ochall’s swineherd. “That’s something we can find out,” said Bodb’s swineherd. “I’ll put a spell on your pigs so that they will not become fat however much mast there is for them, but my pigs will become fat.”

So that’s what happened, and Ochall’s swineherd went home with his skinny pigs. They hardly made it, they were so wretched. Everyone laughed at them when they reached their country. “An evil hour you went,” everyone said to him. “Your friend’s power is greater than yours.” “That’s not so,” he said. “We will have mast again, and I’ll play the same trick on him.”

And so that’s what happened after that. Bodb’s swineherd goes south the same day the following year with his skinny pigs, into the land of Connacht. And Ochall’s swineherd does the same to his pigs until they wasted away. Everyone said the power of both of them was equal. Bodb’s swineherd went south with his skinny pigs. So Bodb takes pig-keeping off him. And pig-keeping is taken off the man from the north.

Two years they spent after that in the form of hawks – one of the two years in the north in Connacht over Dún Chruachan, the other year at Síd ar Femun. One day the men of Munster met in a single assembly there. “Not small the noise the birds before us make,” they said. “A year they’ve been arguing and carrying on until today.”

Then, while they were speaking, they saw Ochall’s steward coming towards them over the hill, Fuidell mac Fiadmire his name. He was made welcome. “Great is the noise the birds before us make. I’m sure they were the two birds who were in the north last year. And, well, they did the same thing for a year.”

After that, they saw something: the two hawks there were in the form of people. Then they saw they were the two swineherds. They made them welcome.

“Don’t welcome us,” said Bodb’s swineherd. “There will be much lovely destruction and much noise of slaughter from us.” “What has been provided to you?” said Bodb. “Nothing good has been provided,” they said. “Since we left you,” they both said, “for two years until today, we have been in the form of birds. You’ve seen what we have done before you. We had a year in Cruachan in this state, and another year at Síd ar Femun. The men of both north and south have seen our power. So now we will go in the form of sea creatures and be under the sea for the next two years.”

They set out away from them after that, each of them his own way. One went into the river Shannon, the other into the Suir. After that they were two years underwater. One year they were seen biting one another in the Suir, the next year they were seen in the Shannon. Then they were two stags, each massing his herds so as to make a heap of stones of the other’s territory. They were two fian-warriors, each striking the other. They were two ghosts, each frightening the other. They were two dragons, each raising snow over the other’s land.

Then both of them fell out of the air and became two worms. One of them went into the well of the river Cronn in Cooley, from which a cow of Dáire mac Fiachnai drank, and the other into the spring of Garad in Connacht, from which a cow of Medb and Ailill drank, so from them were born the two bulls, the White-Horned of Aí and the Black of Cooley.

Rucht and Friuch, Grunt and Bristle, when they were two swineherds; Ingen and Eitte, Claw and Wing, when they were two hawks; Bled and Blod, Whale and Seahorse, when they were two sea creatures; Rind and Faebur, Point and Edge, when they were two fian-warriors; Scáth and Scíath, Shadow and Shield, when they were two ghosts; Cruinniuc and Tuinniuc, Dewdrop and Sunbeam, when they were two worms: Finnbend Aí and in Dond Cualngi, Whitehorn of Aí and the Brown of Cooley, their names when they were two bulls.

This is how the Brown Bull of Cooley was:

Dark brown, bold, brown-eared, brown-eyed, wide-eyed, big-nosed, smooth-flanked, stout-chested, high-headed, curly-haired, thick-necked, cunning-necked, many-gifted, furious, vigorous, haughty, hairy, stampeding, overbearing, lowing, snorting, aggressive, valiant, strong; with a bullish brow, with the gait of a wave, with the strength of a king, with the charge of a bear, with the heat of a beast, with the stroke of a thief, with the fierceness of a lion; he would find room for thirty young teenage boys from his withers to his rump; stallion of the fast herd, wandering fool, paragon of cattle; stock of husbandry, father of ancient herds, taller than a tree.

Whitehorn however:

That ox, white-headed, white-footed, bloody as from the Crucifixion; blood-red as from driving a wheel, as from bathing in gore, as from grinding purple dye; separating the orphan from the teat with his back, three well-bloody manes, paragon of the cattle of Aí; with a mighty tail, with a horselike breast, with the forequarters of a salmon, with the hindquarters of a chieftain, with feats of sport, the apple of a cow’s eye; victory-wound of the victoriously-wounded, bellowing a cry of reckoning, darling of the herd, double dignity.

Notes and manuscript sources

  • This story comes from the Book of Leinster (c. 1160). Translation © Patrick Brown 2009


  • R. I. Best and M. A. O’Brien (ed), The Book of Leinster Vol 5, p. 1121-1124
  • Thomas Kinsella (1969), The Táin, pp. 46-50

Written by paddybrown

November 7, 2009 at 11:30 pm

The Conception of Cú Chulainn version 1

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There follows the Conception of Cú Chulainn from the Book of Druimm Snechta.

Conchobar and the nobles of Ulster were at Emain Macha.  A flock of birds arrived on the plain before Emain, and ate, leaving not so much as a root or a leaf or a blade of grass in the ground. It was upsetting for the Ulstermen to see their land so despoiled. That day they made ready nine chariots to chase them away, for hunting birds was a custom of theirs.

There was Conchobar in his chariot, his full-grown sister Deichtine beside him, for she was her father’s charioteer. Then the champions of Ulster in their chariots, Conall Cernach and Lóegaire Buadach and everyone else. Even Bricriu was with them.

The birds went before them effortlessly, past Slíab Fúait, past Edmond, past Brega. There was neither earthwork nor fence nor stone wall in the country of Ireland at that time, only level plains (it wasn’t until the times of the sons of Áed Slane that they created boundaries in Ireland, so great were the number of dwellings).

The flight of the birds, and their song, captivated the Ulstermen with their beauty. There were nine score birds in all, with a silver chain between each pair of birds, and each score flew its own way. And two birds flew out in front, a silver yoke between them.

As evening drew on, three birds split off from the rest and flew on ahead towards the Brug na Bóinde. Night fell upon the Ulstermen, and there was a great fall of snow. Conchobar told his retinue to unyoke the chariots and to have a look for some shelter for them.

Conall and Bricriu went to have a look. They found a single, newly-built house. They went in, and found a couple there, who made them welcome. Then they returned to the retinue. Bricriu said it wasn’t fit for them to stay in a house that couldn’t offer them food or clothing, and which was on the small side, but they went all the same, taking their chariots with them.

They barely fit into that house. Immediately they saw a door to a storehouse. When it was time to serve food, the Ulstermen were soon merry with drink and in good humour.

Then the man of the house told them his wife was in labour in the storehouse. Deichtine went in and gave her assistance, and she bore a son. At the same time, a mare gave birth to two colts in the doorway of the house. The Ulstermen took the boy, and they gave him the colts as a gift. Deichtine nursed him.

When morning came, the Ulstermen found themselves to the east of the Brug, and neither the house nor the birds could be seen, only their own horses, and the boy and his colts. They took them to Emain with them, and the boy was raised to early childhood among them. Then he took sick, and died of it. He was mourned.

Deichtine was devastated at the loss of her foster-child. Her sighing made her thirsty. She asked for a drink from a copper vessel, and one was brought to her. When she brought it to her lips, a tiny creature leaped from the liquid into her mouth. When she put it down, empty, she felt drained.

As she slept that night, she saw a man who spoke to her. He told her she would bear his child. It was he who had brought her and her companions to the Brug na Bóinde, and it was in his house they’d spent the night. The child she had nursed was his, as was the one he had put into her belly. His name was to be Sétanta, and the colts were to be reared for him. The man was Lug mac Ethnenn  himself.

And so the girl was pregant, and this was a matter of concern among the Ulstermen, because she didn’t have a husband. They attributed the child to a drunken Conchobar, for the girl used to sleep next to him.

After that, Conchobar betrothed the girl to Súaltam mac Róich. She was very ashamed to go to her husband’s bed pregnant by another, o she went to the bedstead and stabbed and beat her belly this way and that, until she was virgin-whole. Then she slept with her husband, and immediately became pregnant again. She bore him a son.

Culann the smith took him as his foster-son. When he was a lad, he killed Culann’s dog, which came from the síd,  when he was playing, and because of that he said, ‘I’ll be your dog, master.’ And that’s how the name Cú Chulainn – Culann’s Hound – became attached to him.

Manuscript sources

  • This version of the story is found in Lebor na hUidre (the Book of the Dun Cow, c.1106) and a number of other manuscripts, where it is claimed to have been copied from the lost Book of Druimm Snechta, believed to date from the early eighth century. The version given here is my own translation, from the text edited by A G Van Hamel, and the text of Lebor na hUidre edited by R I Best and Osborn Bergin.


Written by paddybrown

November 7, 2009 at 12:17 pm

The War of Fergus and Conchobar

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After the province went to Conchobar and after the expulsion of Fergus, the latter came to Eochaid Feidlech at Tara, so that their old enmities and their new enmities might be joined together after Fachtna Fáthach had fallen in the Battle of Leitir Ruad in the Corann. So Eochaid went to welcome Fergus and said to him: “Great welcome from me to you, Fergus. You will be my guest at Tara and my daughter Clothra will be your wife.” It’s then Clothra was given to Fergus.

Fergus went to the border of Ulster with seven hundred warriors, and this is the way they came: from the Chariot Track of Ugaine Mór, which is called Achall, to Tulach na Mac Ríg; along Slige na Sochaide from Tara, by Síd Elcmair, to the Palace of the Mac Óc, to Dubros, which is called Ros na Ríg (there were three kings over Ireland, Mac Cuill, Mac Cecht and Mac Gréine, who ruled by turns over the Tuatha Dé Danann, and it’s there they came to meet each other and seek the kingship from each other. From that it is called Ros na Ríg, the wood of the kings); by the Mountain of Breg mac Breógain, to Muirthemne Plain, to Dún Delgan (it was Delga son of of Dub son of Derg son of Muinnmarg of the Fir Bolg who built the fort), to Iarrlogair, to the wood of Conall Collamrach son of Eterscél of Tara (it’s there he was born and brought up; it’s current name is Fid Mór), to Dubloch, to Sliab Cuilinn (Cuilinn, the son of the king of the Islands of Britain, was killed there by Congall Clairingnech), to Benn Boirche.

It’s there was Lugaid Lámechtach, son of Lóch, son of Conchobar the Bald, and Eochaid the Great, son of Eochaid Yellow-Heel, and there was a big party there. And Fergus shut up the hostel with his army, and they gave great cries there. Lugaid and Eógan leapt nimbly into the middle of the royal hostel (or the warriors’ hostel), […] five hundred warriors, and they defended the hostel in this way, and it was trouble for Fergus to hold the hostel against them and set fire to it. They went around the hostel and put the fire out, and they killed a hundred men and a hundred of theirs were killed. Eógan stayed outside on the lawn and they fought against Eochaid Fer Tlachta mac Rossa, Fergus’s blood brother, until Eógan was killed there. The hostel is taken and Lugaid and the sons of Lóch are killed. They ravaged Benn Boirche, and Mag Seimne, and Mag Lathairne, and Lochmag, and Dubtherann, and Ardachad na Ríg, and Dún na gCliar, and Garbros Iúbair Aninne, which is called Iubar Chinn Cháith, and Dún Róith, and Tulach na n-Arm, and Dún an Bhanchuire, and Cnoc Mór. It’s there Ness was. “She who betrays us,” they said, “let her be killed by us.” Fergus said, “A company of women or a murder of women should not be the beginning of our depradations or our combats.” They gathered together their booty and their tribute and went in triumph over the Trácht Chroisinid (which is called the Beach of Baile mac Búan), with the sea on their left and the land on their right. And Sualtam Sídach and the men of Muirthemne Plain stood in their way and he puts them to flight with great vengeance on all sides, and Fergus brought back his arms and his spoils to Tara. The men of Tara came out with great joy and jubilation and the booty was given to Eochaid as a dowry for his daughter.

Regarding Conchobar, he was a guest in the dwelling of Rath Derg with Eochaid son of Conaing the Yellow when this news reached him. It weighed heavy on him, and the women of Ulster were sad and sorrowful, crying for Eochaid son of Eochaid. The Ulstermen asked Conchobar what vengeance he would take. “It is fitting, “ said Conchobar, “to ravage Mide and to destroy Uisnech and to immediately burn Cnogba and to sack Tara.” It’s then the Ulstermen advanced from the north across Inber Glaise to Liatruim. Then the men of Mogdorn, the sons of Durthacht and Conall Garb and Imchad and Eochaid and Eógan and Dáire Derg left there for Sliab Sulchach in Mide. Dún Connrach, Árd Samnuide, Cnoch Lugach (which is called Tailtiu), the Sickbed of Nuada (which is called Uisnech – it’s there that Nuada Silverhand was healed by Dian Cecht), the racecourse of Ugaine’s sons (which is called southern Tethba) were pillaged by them, Gáiluige Mór, Imlech Glaise Berromain (which is called Eithne, or Dubcairbre Mór Mide), the Collamain of the Boyne, the old Luaigne of Tara, amd Mál Muchna as far as the Ulstermen’s camp below Loch nDobarchon (which today is called Loch Saiglinn) were pillaged by them. They left huge flaming red mounds all over the country, and they went in triumph after that.

After that Eochaid assembled his army to invade Ulster: Fergus mac Róich, and Eochaid Airem, and Mar son of Rogen, and Lugaid Láich-Nuad, son of Crimthann, son of the king of Leinster, and Duagus Finn son of Eochaid Airem, and Coscrach the king of Ireland’s deputy, and Mál the Soldier. Eochaid, the High King of Ireland, addressed them, and this is what he said: “It’s great loss and ruin that Conchobar has inflicted on us: the ruin of Mide, the invasion of Uisnech, the despoiling of Cnogba, the mighty burning of Tara, the fierce invasion of Breg. It’s a great reproach to you, Fergus that a king of the province of Giallchad should be in Emain Macha.” And he spoke this poem there:

Arise, warriors all,
Kings as well as great lords.
Defend Tara mightily
Against the bright-armed sons of Ugaine.

It’s a great story for Mide
To be invaded by strangers.
It pierces my heart mightily:
Emain in the hands of the children of Rudraige.

Let your resolution be firm:
Ravage Ulster south and north.
Defend Tara – Mighty your valour–
Wealthy lords of Tara, arise!

It’s then the army moved along the estuary of the Boyne and westwards across the Dubglaise, and past Carn Cáemgin Conganchnes (which is called Carn Echach Leithdeirg), and past Málinn Muchna, and past Bogmann, to Sliab Toga and Sliab Duib, and to Cnoc mBréisc, and to Senmag, and Eochaid stopped at Rath Luaigne (which is now called Rath Láegaire. It’s there that Luaigne son of Érimón was for eighteen years). From Rin Túaith to Glenn Rossa, and from Imlech Áendarda to Finnmóin an Cosnamaig, were burned and ravaged by them and they gathered their booty and they spoil and their hostages and prisoners, including: Fiachra son of Sobairce, and Eochaid son of Fiacha son of Fedlimid, and many others who fell by them, and the Ulstermen followed them to Glenn Mar, and that day Mál son of Róech and Celtchar son of Uthechar met each other, until Mál fell there. And because of that the valley is called Glenn Mar. Hearing of the death of his brother, Eochaid started to cry right then. He groaned and sighed, and then he went to Cnocán an Áir, and they buried the Ulster prisoners under the earth there: Fiacha and Eochaid and Fiacha son of Fedlimid. The Ulstermen with Celtchar son of Uthechar and Conchobar followed them and killed three hundred of the followers of Fergus and the High King of Ireland. They made a frenzied martial struggle together, and Eochaid was wounded and left on his own, lying in his own blood. He was carried back on the shafts of spears. The Ulstermen returned with much booty taken from Fergus and the followers of the king of Ireland, and the king of Ireland was taken to Tara, and he was a long time being healed there.

Fergus went back to the province with a great multitude, burning and killing before them to Sliab Fúait, and from there to Muirthemne. There was friendly kinship between Fergus and Súaltam, because it was Róech daughter of Athach who was mother to both of them. For that reason they often visited each other. The Ulstermen went to Emain after that, and they were sad and sorrowful. Fergus went after them again and went to Dún Dá Bhenn, and killed twenty-seven men of the garrison of the fort. They burned Dún Sobairce and pillaged the southern half of the province, and went in triumph to Mide. It’s then Eochaid gathered the men of Ireland at Tara, and told them that they must go to Ulster to take hostages and prisoners, and he said: “The kingdom is incomplete without Ulster.”

It’s then Eochaid went back to Ulster with a great multitude of the men of Ireland, with Fergus’s great knowledge, and this is the way they took: to Comair na gCath, which is called Móin na Tromdháimhe; to Tulach na Fairgsiona; to Loch Thobar; to Ard na Scéith; to Lochán na Glaise; to Rathlin; to Lochán na Comrainne; so that Ulster and Mide could parlay together. It was heard by the that the men of Ireland were approaching, and they gathered their brave men and their nobles at Sliab Cuilinn, and they cut down the woods. The army arrived at Dubglaise na nDrúad that night and took position and made camp there. The Ulstermen said messengers should send be sent to the king of Ireland to make peace with him, to give land to Fergus and make peace with him. “So who should go there?” said Conchobar. “Cathbad and Mes Dedad and Amergin should go there,” said everyone.

The three poets went before them and they were told to seek compensation for Conchobar’s father, and to make peace with Fergus, to give him the eastern half of the province, and the position of heir apparent to the province, and the champion’s portion, his hereditary dues at Emain, and a bed with golden posts. The druids arrived with this proposition and were admitted into the king of Ireland’s tent. They were asked what news they brought, and they told it from start to finish. Eochaid said that he would give Conchobar compensation for his father: two three-thousands of Breg na Boinne, his own daughter as his wife, half of the House of Midchuairt, and fosterage of the High King. Fergus was given the conditions mentioned above, and from Tuath Inber to the Beach of Baile mac Búain came to him. That concludes the War of Fergus and Conchobar.

Notes and manuscript sources

  • I have worked from the text as edited (and translated into French) by Margaret C. Dobs from MS 23. K. 37 in the Royal Irish Academy, which dates to 1717. Two very similar versions of the same text appear in MS E. IV. 3, also in the Royal Irish Academy, dating to 1727, and MS Egerton 106 in the British Museum, which dates to 1715. Dobs judges that all three were copied, and perhaps abridged, from a 15th century original. Translation © Patrick Brown 2008.


  • Margaret C. Dobs, “La guerre entre Fergus et Conchobar”, Revue Celtique 40, 1923, pp. 404-423

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November 7, 2009 at 11:34 am

The Taking of the Síd-Mound

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The was a wonderful king over the Tuatha Dea [aka the Tuatha Dé Danann, Donann or Domnann] in Ireland, Dagán [or the Dagda] his name. Great was his power, although the land belonged to sons of Míl [the legendary ancestors of the Gaelic aristocracy] after they took it, for the Tuatha Dea used to destroy the sons of Míl’s grain and milk, until they made a covenant with the Dagda. Then he protected their grain and milk.

Great was his power when he was king in the beginning. And it was he who distributed the síd-mounds [the megalithic tombs where the gods were supposed to live] to the Fir Dea: Lug mac Ethnenn in Síd Rodrubán, Ogma in Síd Archltrai. To the Dagda himself went Síd Leithet, the sheep of Síd Cnocc Baine, and Brú Ruair. Síd an Broga [Newgrange] was his to begin with, so it is said.

So the Mac Óc [the “Young Son”, also known as Óengus] went to the Dagda, seeking a grant from the distribution of them all. He was the foster-son of Midir of Brí Léith and of Nindid the seer.

“I have nothing for you,” said the Dagda. “My distribution is complete.”

“Give me a concession then,” said the Mac Óc. “let me stay in this dwelling until night.”

That was given to him then.

“The day you wished for is here,” said the Dagda. “Your time’s up.”

“It’s certain,” he said, “that day and night are the whole world, and it’s that you have given me.”

So Dagán went from there, and the Mac Óc is still in the síd, and wonderful the land in it.  There are three trees that always bear fruit, and a pig ever alive on its feet and a roasted pig., and a vat with a unique drink, and all of it will never be exhausted.

Notes and manuscipt sources

  • This story is found in the Book of Leinster (c.1160). It isn’t really part of the Ulster Cycle – it’s a mythological story – but it’s included in the list of remscéla (fore-tales) of the Táin in The Revealing of the Táin Bó Cúailnge. This is my own translation, and is © Patrick Brown 2008.
  • A different version of how the Mac Óc came to possess Newgrange is found the The Wooing of Étaín.


  • R. I. Best and M. A. O’Brien (ed), The Book of Leinster Vol 5, p. 1120
  • Vernam Hull (1933), “De Gabáil in t-Sída – Concerning the Seizure of the Fairy Mound”, Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie 19, pp. 53-58
  • John Carey (1997), “De Gabáil in t-Sída – The Taking of the Hollow Hill”, The Celtic Heroic Age (eds. John T Koch & John Carey), pp. 134-135
  • James MacKillop (1998), Dictionary of Celtic Mythology
  • T W Rolleston (1911), Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race (online edition at Celtic Folklore)

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November 7, 2009 at 11:17 am

The Revealing of the Táin Bó Cúailnge

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So the poets of Ireland were summoned to Senchán Torpeist [A poet of Connacht, supposed to have lived c.570-617, who is said to have been leader of the grand assembly of poets and chief of all the poets in Ireland] to find out if they remembered the Táin Bó Cúailnge in its entirety, and they said they knew nothing but fragments of it only. Then Senchan told his pupils to find out which of them would go, in return for his blessing, into the land of Letha [Letavia, i.e. Brittany] to learn the Táin which the scholar carried east in exchange for the Cuilmenn [The Etymologiae of Isidore of Seville, an encyclopedia of science and the arts, which was considered the summit (cuilmenn) of wisdom].

Emine, grandson of Ninene, and Murgen, son of Senchán, went on their journey east, on which they came to the grave of Fergus mac Róich and past his stone at Énloch among the Connachta. Murgen sits on his own at Fergus’s stone, and meanwhile each of them went to find a guesthouse for them. So Murgen took to singing as if it was Fergus himself he was addressing, when he said to him then:

If it be not your stone.
resplendent, princely-white,
Mac Róich, that I have found,
by whom the drivings were driven
of the cattle of Cooley
on expeditions with heroes
on a day of contest
evident in each
O Fergus

At that a great mist comes around him so his people can’t find him until the end of three days and three nights, and he came to him then, Fergus himself, his appearance beautiful: a green cloak; a hooded shirt with red embroidery; a gold-hilted sword; bronze shorn shoes; a brown mane of hair. Fergus tells him then the whole Táin as it happened from beginning to end (others say it’s to Senchán it was told after fasting against saints of Fergus’s line, and it would not be surprising if it were so). They all go to Senchán then and told him about their travels, and he was pleased with them then.

These are fore-tales of the Táin Bó Cúailnge that are told, all twelve of them: [I know there are only ten titles given, but that’s what it says]

Some say the foretales include Cú Chulainn’s going to the house of Culann the smith, the taking of arms by Cú Chulainn and his trip in a chariot, and when Cú Chulainn went to Emain Macha to the boys, but it is in the body of the Táin these three stories are told.

Manuscript source

  • This anecdote comes from the Book of Leinster (c.1160), and the text is dated to the 9th century. This is my own translation, the bulk of it done in 2008, and the poem retranslated in 2009. © Patrick Brown 2008/2009.


  • R. I. Best, & M. A. O’Brien (eds.), The Book of Leinster, Vol 5, 1967, p. 1119
  • John Carey, “Varia II: The Address to Fergus’s Stone”, Ériu 51, 2000, pp. 183-187
  • Eduard Müller, “Two Irish Tales”, Revue Celtique 2, 1876
  • Thomas Kinsella, The Táin, 1969, pp. 1-2, 255

Written by paddybrown

November 7, 2009 at 11:10 am

The Conception of Conall Cernach

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“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

Written by paddybrown

November 7, 2009 at 11:04 am

Does Greth Eat Curds?

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There was a famous smith in Ulster, Eccet Salach his name, a master of every craft, such that before or after there has been no better smith. Another name for him was Echen. A son was born to him, Amergin his name. The boy went fourteen years of his childhood without speaking.

His belly grew to the size of a huge house, and it was sinewy, grey and thick. The snot from his nostrils ran into his mouth. His hide was black, his teeth were white, and his face was pale and grey. Like the two handles of a smith’s bellows his shins and his thighs. His feet were bent and crooked. His ankles were enormous. His cheeks were high and long. His eyes were sunken and dark red. His eyebrows grew down thickly. His hair was rough and prickly. His back was nobbly, bony and scab-rough.

So he wasn’t a pretty sight. Due to neglect at his sitting to clean up underneath, his shit would pile up as far as his hips.

His favourite foods were boiled curds, sea salt, red blackberries, green berries, burnt ears of corn, cloves of wild garlic, and empty nutshells, which he used to play with on the table.

One day Athirne sent his servant, Greth his name, to Echet Salach to have him make an axe. Greth saw that lowly, ugly creature on the floor of the house, who scowled at him. Greth gave a start.

Echet’s daughter was in the building near the boy. What was heard was the boy speaking to Athirne’s servant. ‘Does Greth eat curds?’ he said, three times. Greth gave a great start. The boy spoke to him again:

Cloves of wild garlic;
Pine nuts,
Crab apples,
Does Greth eat curds?

Greth ran out of the house, out of the stronghold and across the causeway, and fell in the mud. Then he returned to Athirne.

‘You’ve been in the wars,’ said Athirne when he saw him. ‘You look terrible.’

‘And well I might,’ said Greth. ‘A boy who hasn’t said a word for fourteen years spoke to me today, and unless he’s done away with that boy will take your job.’

‘What did he say to you?’

‘Not hard to tell,’ said Greth, and repeated Amergin’s words.

Shortly after, Eccet returned to his house. ‘Amergin spoke to Athirne’s servant today, who came here to ask you to make an axe,’ his daughter told him.

‘What did he say to him?’ said Eccet. His daughter told him.

‘I know what will come of this,’ said Eccet. ‘Athirne will come and kill the boy, so he won’t get the better of him, for the boy who said that has great wisdom.’

The maiden left the fort, taking the boy with her, and they went south to tend their cattle on Sliab Mis. Eccet made a clay image of the boy, and put it to his left, between himself and the bellows. He dressed it in fine clothes, and set it lying down, as if the boy were asleep.

Athirne and Greth arrived, and saw the boy asleep. Their axe was ready, and they were pleased with it. Athirne took it by the handle and brought it down on the head of the image, thinking it was the boy. Then he and his servant fled, and an outcry was raised behind them.

The armies gave chase. Athirne gathered all his property inside his stronghold. The Ulstermen arrived and besieged him, and a treaty was made between them. Eccet was given the price of seven slave-women, and his own honour-price, and he and Athirne came to an agreement. Athirne took the boy as his foster-son, and taught him the skills of the poet. And that is how Athirne lost his position as chief poet of Ulster, and Amergin took his place.

Notes and manuscript sources

  • This is my own translation of a short story from the Book of Leinster (c.1160). Thanks to Dennis King and the Old-Irish-L listserv. It introduces Amergin, Athirne’s protegé and father of Conall Cernach. © Patrick Brown 2003.


  • R I Best et al (1954-1983), The Book of Leinster pp. 435-436
  • John Carey (1997), “Tales from the Ulster Cycle”, The Celtic Heroic Age (eds John T Koch & John Carey), pp. 48-133

Written by paddybrown

November 7, 2009 at 10:57 am