The Ulster Cycle

Heroic legends from Ireland

Archive for the ‘Story types’ Category

The Quarrel of the Two Swineherds

with 3 comments

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

with one comment

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 Taking of the Síd-Mound

with 2 comments

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)

Written by paddybrown

November 7, 2009 at 11:17 am

The Revealing of the Táin Bó Cúailnge

with 2 comments

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

with one comment

“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