The Ulster Cycle

Heroic legends from Ireland

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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
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Written by paddybrown

November 7, 2009 at 11:34 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.


References

  • 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:

Blackberries,
Sloes,
Cloves of wild garlic;
Pine nuts,
Crab apples,
Curds.
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.


References

  • 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

Cú Chulainn’s Shield

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A law was made by the Ulstermen that they should make silver shields, and that the engraving on each shield should be different. At that time Cú Chulainn was at his training with Scáthach and Búanann. When he saw the kind of shields that were being made for him in that land, he went to the specialist shield-maker, Mac Endge.

‘Make me a shield,’ he said, ‘and make sure no other other Ulsterman’s shield has the same engraving on it.’

‘I can’t do that,’ said Mac Endge, ‘for I used up all my skill on the Ulstermen’s shields.’

‘I swear by my weapon,’ said Cú Chulainn, ‘I will kill you if you don’t make it as I ask.’

‘I am under Conchobar’s protection against you,’ said Mac Endge.

‘Go to Conchobar for protection,’ said Cú Chulainn, ‘and I’ll still kill you.’

Cú Chulainn headed home, and Mac Endge became very depressed. Just then he saw a man sitting in the skylight, a two-pronged fork in his hand.

‘This is terrible,’ said the man.

‘You’re telling me!’ said Mac Endge. ‘I’ll be killed if I don’t make Cú Chulainn his shield.’

‘Clean your house,’ said the man, ‘and have ashes strewn on the floor, as deep as a man’s feet.’

It was done as he said, and he marked out one of the portions of the design in the ashes. Lúathrinde (a point brought swiftly, or a point brought from the ashes) was the name of the point, and, as Dubdetba said, ‘If I were Mac Endge, this is how I would engrave,’ and further, ‘this is how Dubdetba makes shields.’

It was this Lúathrinde that was cut into Cú Chulainn’s shield, and Dubán (“Blackie”) was the name of the shield.


Notes and manuscript sources

  • An anecdote found in the manuscript H.3.17. This is my own translation, with thanks to Breandán Dalton, Dennis King, and especially David Stifter for their help and suggestions. © Patrick Brown 2003.
  • Lúathrinde (‘swift-point’ or ‘ash-point’) is thought to be the name of a motif or style of engraving, or perhaps the instrument used to create such engraving. Given the “two-pronged fork” weilded by Mac Endge’s mysterious visitor, it is probably a pair of compasses, such as would have been used to create the familar La Tène style of Celtic art.


References

  • R I Best (1911), “Cuchulainn’s Shield”, Ériu 5, p.72

Written by paddybrown

November 7, 2009 at 10:52 am

Posted in Arms, Crafts, Cu Chulainn

Athirne the Unsociable

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Athirne the Importunate, son of Ferchertne: it’s he who was the most inhospitable man who ever lived in Ireland. He went to Midir of Brí Léith and brought the three cranes of exclusion and inhospitality away from him to his own house, for the sake of stinginess and inhospitality, so none of the men of Ireland would visit his house expecting celebration or entertainment.

‘You’re not coming in,’ said the first crane. ‘Get out of here,’ said its companion. ‘Keep walking,’ said the third crane.

From that day on, none of the men of Ireland who saw them would go to his door.

He would never eat his fill where anyone could see him. So he went with a cooked pig and a wineskin of mead to eat his fill by himself. He was settling himself down in front of the pig and the wineskin when he saw a man coming towards him.

‘You were going to eat that by yourself!’ said the man, striking the pig and the bottle from him.

‘What is your name?’ said Athirne.

‘It’s not well known,’ said the man. ‘Sethor Ethor Othor Sele Dele Dreng Gerce mac Gerce Ger Gér Dír Dír, that’s my name.’

Athirne couldn’t compose a satire on that, so he didn’t get the pig back. It may be that the man was sent by God to take the pig, for Athirne stopped being unsociable from then on.


Notes and manuscript sources

  • This is my own translation of a short text from the Book of Leinster (c. 1160). Thanks to Dennis King, David Stifter and the Old-Irish-L listserv. © Patrick Brown 2003.


References

  • R I Best et al (1954-1983), The Book of Leinster p. 434
  • 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 10:45 am

Posted in Athirne, Midir, Poetry, Satire