Because it was National Dog Day this week and because I bored people on holiday the week before that with tales of the Luch Donn, I have to decided to tell you The Tragic Death of Celtchar or Aided Cheltchair maic Uthechair. These aren’t flimsy reasons. You’re flimsy reasons!
It begins, as these stories tend to do, with a rich hospitaller named Blái. Not only did he have the most cows for miles around but he was also under a geis. In case you were wondering, a geis is a supernatural command which, if you don’t follow it, will lead to your death. Intense responsibility. Blái’s geis was to sleep with every woman who came to his house without her husband. As a hospitaller this was a fair few women. He didn’t complain much until Brig Brethach, Celtchar’s wife, came to his house unaccompanied. Blái was pretty dismayed at this because he was an old man at this stage and he knew what Celtchar’s reaction would be if he slept with his wife. But Brig, the saucy minx, incites Blái to sleep with her, which he does. Once more medieval literature portrays women in a realistic and sympathetic light.
When Celtchar finds out he chases Blái to the royal court of Ulster. At the court Cú Chulainn, the most famous hero of Ulster, and Conchobur, the king, are playing a game of fidchell, which is sort of medieval Irish chess or backgammon. Blái runs behind the two Ulster grandees, presumably seeking their aid. However we’ll never know because at that moment Celtchar throws his spear which goes through the hospitaller, pinning him to the wall. A drop of blood runs down to the spear and falls onto the fidchell board between Cú Chulainn and Conchobur.
Conchobur sucks his teeth and looks meaningfully at Cú Chulainn.
“Well, Conchobur” says Cú Chulainn, raising his eyebrows.
“One of us should do something about this”
“You’re right. Who’s been most insulted by this vicious murder?”
“Probably you, Cú Chulainn. The drop of blood is closer to you after all.”
“I beg to differ, my king. I think you’ll find it’s closer to you. And you’re the king.”
In the end they measure the board to see who the drop of blood is closest to. Turns out it was Conchobur all along. However in this delay Celtchar escapes to Munster.
The people of Ulster are very upset. Not only has their hospitaller been killed but one of their best champions is hiding out down south. So that they don’t end up losing two heroes they ask Conchobur to bring Celtchar back to them. The king sends Celtchar’s own son to Munster to ask him to come back. The son is also to act as Celtchar’s surety if any treachery is being planned. This is a medieval Irish legal slam. Trust me on that.
“What brings you here, son?” asks Celtchar seeing his boy arrive from the north.
“I’ve been sent by the men of Ulster to take you home, dad”.
“What if they’re up to something? Look what they did to Noísiu and his brothers”, Celtchar said, metatextually.
“I am to be your surety”.
“This is a subtle slam, my boy. My own son as my surety and guarantee.! What next!?”
“You’ve hit the nail on the head there”, said a druid who happened to be nearby. “Let his name be ‘Subtle’ from now on”. So from then on Celtchar’s son was called Semon, which sounds like the diminutive of one of the Irish words for ‘subtle’. This was a very common way in which people were named in medieval Irish literature and one that I’ll use on my own child.
“I’ll go back. You stay here”, said Celtchar.
The reparations that Celtchar had to make for killing Blái were to rid the Ulstermen of the three worst pests devastating their lands. The first pest was Conganchness, who was (probably justifiably) wreaking his revenge for the Ulstermen’s killing of his brother Cú Roí. That’s quite a cool story in itself.
The problem with Conganchness was that no weapons could pierce his skin. His name is literally ‘Horny-skin’. Celtchar’s plan began with marrying his daughter, Niamh, to this worst pest in Ulster. Maybe treachery’s afoot but Conganchness doesn’t seem to realise it. Indeed, as the story goes on you’ll see that he’s not really a Mensa candidate. Niamh, using her wicked womanly wiles, one day asks Conganchness, subtle-like, how he can be killed. He replies that the only way of doing it is to drive red-hot iron spikes through the soles of his feet. And then went on with his day, wondering at his wife’s odd question.
So Celtchar prepares a great feast for his new son-in-law with two huge spits roasting over two huge fires. When everyone has had their fill a sleeping spell is put over the host. While they sleep Celtchar takes the two spits and rams them up the soles of Conganchness’s feet with a sledgehammer. This does the trick and in a final act Celtchar cuts his head off and buries it in a cairn.
The second pest was the Luch Donn, the Brown Mouse. This terror was found by the son of a widow in a hollow oak and the widow reared it there until it was big. In a fit of ingratitude, once it was big the Luch Donn killed the sheep of the widow, her son, and finally the widow herself. From then on it would destroy an enclosure in Ulster every night.
To deal with this Celtchar took an alder log as long as his arm. He hollowed it out and then boiled it in a bath of herbs, honey, and grease. This made it soft and tough (don’t try this with a real alder log). He then went to the Mouse’s cave. The Mouse came out, snout in the air, sniffing at the smell of the fragrant log. Our hero waved the log in front of the beast’s face until it snapped at the log and took it in its jaws. Because of the herbal treatment, the log was sticky and tough so the Mouse’s teeth stuck in it. Celtchar then shoved his arm down the hollow into the Mouse’s throat and ripped out its heart. Metal.
Now it had been a year since Celtchar buried Conganchness’s head in a cairn and the people who lived nearby started to hear yelps and whimpers from the pile of stones. When they shifted the stones they found three puppies in the cairn: a brown one, a spotted one and black one. The brown dog was given to Culann the smith and we all know what happened there; the spotted one to Mac Dá Thó and it caused much trouble; and finally the black dog was given to Celtchar who named him Dóelchú.
Dóelchú was a fierce old thing and would only let Celtchar control him. One day he broke free and started to slaughter the herds and flocks near where Celtchar lived. As the hero was away at the time, nothing could be done to stop Dóelchú ravaging the land and becoming the third pest Celtchar had to deal with. He gathers some men and goes to the copse where Dóelchú was hiding.
Celtchar calls the hound three times and he eventually comes out of the undergrowth to his master. He begins to lick Celtchar’s feet.
“It’s a real shame,” say the people who have come with Celtchar. “A real Old Yeller moment. We’re choking up.”
“I’ll not be shamed for this dog’s sake!” cries the hero and stabs the hound with his spear.
The people start crying and Celtchar is similarly moved. As he is raising his spear out of the dead dog a drop of its blood runs down the shaft. At this stage I’m going to have to rely on a literal translation because this makes little sense: The drop of blood ran down the length of the spear and went through him to the ground so that he died of it. Celtchar was then buried and his lament was sung.
Once more we have some classic misogynist presentations of women. The one of the widow, suckling the great pest Luch Donn, is particularly interesting.
As a death tale we have the geis which often appears in these types of story, as well as the air of the ridiculous, which appears more often. The motif of the drop of blood on the spear neatly ties the thing up, as does the idea of destruction falling back on itself.