The Ulster Cycle

Heroic legends from Ireland

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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.

References

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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.


References

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

Written by paddybrown

November 7, 2009 at 11:34 am