So we saw over the last two weeks that Cet mac Mágach is a pretty badass fella. So let’s see how he dies. Also this gives me the chance to add to the list of death tales. One day I’ll do them all!
Once upon a time Cet mac Mágach traveled into Ulster in order to slay an Ulsterman. Best place for him to go, really. This was because Cet was a very unimaginative man and he never had a day, since his childhood, when he wouldn’t try and kill an Ulsterman. I suppose you have to have a hobby. After a fine old time in Ulster he turned his chariot westwards, the three clumps of nine heads banging on the side of his chariot as he went. The Ulstermen set Conall Cernach on his trail (you remember him as the one who killed Cet’s brother in Scéla Mucce, right? Cool.) The trail was pretty easy to follow as it was winter and the snow lay thick on the ground.
Conall and his charioteer had only driven as far as Breifne when they came upon an abandoned house, half buried in the snow. On further investigation the house turned out not to be as empty as they first assumed. The smoke from a cooking fire rising out of the top, the hobbled horses and chariot with “I AM CET MAC MAGACH” written in blood on the side should have really given it away. On seeing the Cet evidence, Conall pulled grimaced and started to get back in his chariot.
“Yeah, this is Cet. I think we’d better just go back home. He’s a real badass, you know. Savage and fierce.”
“Seriously?” replied his charioteer. “We’ve come all this way to find Cet and now that we’ve got him, you’re just going to go home? One, he’s an enemy of Ulster so you should get all up in his business. Two, even if he does beat you, there’s no shame in dying by his hand. As you said he’s a badass.”
“Look, you know my policy, unnamed charioteer. I will not die by just one man’s hand. There’s no honour in that. I tell you what I will do, if it’ll make you happy. I’ll mess these horses up a bit.”
Then Conall cut locks out of the manes of the horses and stuck them on the front of Cet’s chariot. Then he went back eastwards, his heroic duty having been fulfilled.
Cet’s charioteer came out of the house and seeing the horses slightly shorn, called out to his master. “Woe, Cet! Something’s happened, although I am not entirely sure what. But in these stories it’s usually bad.”
“There’s no need to be crying out,” said Cet. “This is a sign from Conall. It’s a good thing that he spared the horse, since now we can reconcile each other and strike up a great friendship.” (I know by now you’re used to it, but there’s a lot in these tales that rests on assertions or knowledge of customs and semiotics that seem a bit obscure now. As always the advice is ‘just go with it’.)
“This is no good, Cet. You can’t be friends with a man who has so consistently made a laughing stock out of the men of Connacht. It just won’t do. You’ll have to take the fight to him. Do him in for messing about with your horses.”
So they set off after Conall and caught up with him at Cet’s Ford (Wonder how it got that name?).
“Now I’ve found you, Conall,” said Cet. “You won’t escape alive from this day.”
“Funny,” said Conall, “I was going to say the same thing to you.”
The two heroes met in the ford – classic location for a show-down in medieval Ireland. The clash of their swords, the striking of their spears on the shields, the whinnying of the horses and the encouraging shouts of the charioteers filled the land for miles around. Some people in the region went deaf. Eventually the two heroes parted and collapsed on either side of the ford. Cet was dead before he hit the ground but Conall was only mortally wounded.
He cried out to his charioteer, as he lay bleeding on the side of the river. Conall asked that he be taken back to Ulster before the men of Connacht could find him in such a state. The hero was so big though, that his charioteer could not lift from where he lay, his feet trailing in the river.
“This is a disaster,” said Conall. “That I should be killed by a man in single combat. How many times have I said that I will not let just one man have the honour of killing me? I would rather someone comes to finish me off now, than to have the kingship of the whole world.”
His charioteer thought that this last was a bit melodramatic but he did not have a chance to say anything before Bélchú of Breifne chanced upon the dying hero. Surveying the tragic scene he said “This is Cet and this is Conall, dead in the ford. The whole of Ireland will rejoice now that these two nightmares are dead. Good riddance to a pair of ruinous psychopaths.” As he was saying this he rested the butt of his spear on what he thought was the corpse of Conall.
“Get that bloody spear off me, you oaf,” said Conall as he knocked the offending implement away. “I’m not dead yet.”
“No thanks to you.”
“Oh I see. You want me to finish you off so that you can maintain your stupid promise not to be killed by one man alone. Well, I’ll not do it. You’re already dead as it is. Your body just doesn’t know it yet.”
“You’re such an old woman, Bélchú. You wouldn’t dare cut my cloak.”
“Alright, Conall great hero of Ulster,” Bélchú kneeled down next to the body. “I’ll not kill you now, but here’s what I will do: I’ll take you back to my house and heal you up. When you’re whole again, then I’ll fight and kill you.” So saying Bélchú took Conall on his back and started for his house. Conall was so large, however, that his legs were dragging along the ground all the way.
The doctors came and patched Conall up. After they had left, promising that the Ulster warrior would be right as rain in no time, Bélchú started having second thoughts. When Conall returned to full strength, could he really take him in single combat? So he devised a ruse – and we all know how well ruses tend to go. He gathered his sons around him and told them of his plan “We need to do away with Conall before he fully heals. Tomorrow night I will leave the house open. You all should sneak in and kill Conall in his bed.”
With this piece of expert cunning put in motion, the sons went away. On the next night Bélchú got up to open the house.
“Where are you going, Bélchú?” asked Conall from the bed. “You’ve been such a good host I wouldn’t want you sleeping outside on my behalf. Come and share this bed with me.”
Bélchú knew the rules of hospitality as well as anyone and so could not refuse his guest. He closed up the house and thought how he would spring his plan the next day. After Bélchú had fallen asleep, Conall himself got up. He opened up the house and hid himself in a corner. As the night wore on the sons of Bélchú came in the open house and stabbed the man sleeping in Conall’s bed. Little did they know that they had killed their own father. Luckily they were not left with much chance to mourn as Conall sprung on them from the shadows, hacking at their heads until the walls of the house were covered with their blood. Conall eventually returned to Ulster in triumph, carrying their four heads with him.
Another classic mix of comedy and death. Plans often go awry and sometimes the reasons given for heroes’ actions are hard to determine. As with all death tales there is much more than the advertised death. Indeed this raises a question about titling tales: is this really the death tale of Cet or is it rather another triumphant episode in the life of Conall?