The Ulster Cycle

Heroic legends from Ireland

Archive for the ‘Conceptions’ Category

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 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