The Ulster Cycle

Heroic legends from Ireland

Archive for the ‘Remscela’ 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 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)

Written by paddybrown

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