I was very nervous about tackling this tale. It was the first set text I had when learning Old Irish and quite a few people who have learned the language would have had a go at translating it. But I started talking about Celtchar’s dog last week and I feel I should fill you in about the other two dogs found in the cairn. I’m afraid that this is going to be a two-parter but let’s get on with Scéla Mucce Meic Da Thó.
There was once a famous king in Leinster (who was actually a hospitaller because, you know, all these stories begin with a hospitaller) and his name was Mac Da Thó. He had a fantastic spotted dog called Ailbe. You’ll remember him from The Death of Celtchar. The dog used to protect all of Mac Da Thó’s land and soon tales of the dog’s awesomeness had filled all of Ireland. So messengers were sent to ask for the dog from Ailill and Medb, the rulers of Connacht. Awkwardly they arrived in Leinster at the same as messengers sent from king Conchobur of Ulster who came to ask for the dog. Why the rulers of Connacht and Ulster thought they could just ask for someone else’s dog is beyond me.
Luckily, as a hospitaller, Mac Da Thó could accommodate all the messengers. His was one of the five great hostels of Ireland. The others were Da Derga’s hostel, Forgall Manach’s, Macc Da Réo’s and Da Choca’s. Guess what? There are stories about some of these hostels too. It’s like Russian dolls, isn’t it? Stories in stories in stories. It’s a wonder I can keep to one coherent narrative.
Mac Da Thó’s hostel had seven doors for its seven entrances. In the middle were seven hearths and on each hearth, a cauldron. In each cauldron there was beef and pork and all sorts of tasty food. When someone passed the cauldron they would stick a fork into it and whatever they pulled out they would eat that night. You didn’t get a second chance. This was an intense buffet.
Before dinner that night the messengers came before Mac Da Thó. “We’ve come to ask for the hound”, said the messengers from Ailill and Medb.
“Well, I’ll give you 160 cows right now”, replied Mac Da Thó, “and a chariot. And the two best horses in Connacht (although I don’t know how he got his hands on those). And the same again next year.”
“Is that a yes?” asked the messengers.
“What do you want, messengers from Ulster?” ignored Mac Da Thó.
“We, too, have come to ask for the hound. Don’t forget that our king, Conchobur, can be very generous with jewellery and cattle. If you give us the hound, it’ll be the beginning of a great friendship.”
This was, understandably, a great dilemma for Mac Da Thó. The two most powerful courts in Ireland, that of Ailill and Medb in Connacht and that of Conchobur in Ulster, had both just asked him for his dog. He’d have to turn someone down and they were a traditionally irascible lot, mythical Irish kings. He was so out of sorts that he didn’t eat for three days and spent every night tossing and turning. His wife was put out by this and finally asked him what the matter was.
There follows, in the original, a poem by the wife. It is a well know fact that everyone always skips the poems in The Lord of the Rings so I have concluded that modern audiences don’t like poems. For that reason I have rendered it in monologue form. Maybe we’ll return to poems one day.
“You’re not sleeping and do you know why? You need advice but you won’t tell anyone what’s wrong. Is this part of your traditional manliness, then? Turning to the wall, away from your wife? I know what Crimthann Nía Náir says ‘Never tell secrets to women, they can’t keep them. You wouldn’t give jewels to a slave, would you?’ but he’s an idiot. No harm will come of it and I may be able to help you. I’ve got a different perspective. We both know it was a terrible day when those messengers appeared. If Conchobur gets turned down he’ll be down from Ulster with a great army. Same for Ailill with Cet at the head of the force, burning our possessions. So this is my plan: promise the dog to both sides. When they come to get it they can fight it out between themselves.”
“I knew there was a reason I married you,” said Mac Da Thó. “That’s a great plan. I’m off for a midnight snack now, I think.”
The next day he took the messengers from Connacht to one side. “I know I’ve been dithering for three days but I’ve finally come to a decision. I’ll give the dog to Ailill and Medb. Make sure they turn up with a great host when they come to collect him. We’ll have a right piss up.” Later that day Mac Da Thó took the messengers from Ulster off into a corner. “After a long, hard think I’ve decided to hand Ailbe over to Conchobur. Tell him to get all his champions and warriors together when he comes to collect him and we can have great celebration.”
Fortuitously enough, the Connachtmen and the Ulstermen proposed to come and get the dog on the same day. They both showed up, as well. Mac Da Thó went out to greet the two provinces on his doorstep. “My friends! So great to see you. Although I must confess I was not expecting you today.” This got some funny looks from the assembled hosts. “No matter. Come inside and we’ll have a drink.” The two armies came into the hostel and lined up on either side of the great hall. The mood was a bit tense, since these two provinces were enemies from way back.
Now, this tale is called “The Story of Mac Da Thó’s Pig” and I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking “Tom, where is the pig? All you’ve been cracking on about is the dog.” Well, dear reader, wonder no more. Mac Da Thó had a pig. It was huge. It had been fed by sixty cows for seven years. To feed the hosts it was slaughtered and when it was carried into the hall it had forty oxen laid across it as a garnish. “I know it’s not much,” wheedled Mac Da Thó, “but I hope this pig will do for starters. If you need anything else we’ll slaughter the animal, be it pig or cow, directly.”
“Not at all. This pig looks good,” said Conchobur.
“You’re not wrong there,” said Ailill, “but how are we going to divide it?”
“I’ll tell you how,” piped up Bricriu from the back. Bricriu was a renowned dick from Ulster. “The same way Irishmen always sort things out: by fighting. You’ve all had a crack at each other before, as I well know.”
“We’ll do that, then,” said Ailill.
“Fine by me,” replied Conchobur. “My lads have been round the border a few times.”
“Those lads will be put to the test tonight,” said Senláech from Crúachu Con Alad. “I’ve left them on their arses in the mud of Lúachair Dedad often enough. In return they’ve left me with their fat oxen.”
“The ox you left with us was fatter,” said Muinremur son of Gerrgend. “It was your own brother Crúaichiu, if I recall.”
“Crúaichiu was no better than Inloth Már son of Fergus mac Léti, who was killed by Echbél,” added Lugaid son of Cú Roí.
“That’s fair enough,” said Celtchar mac Uthechair. “But what do you say, Lugaid, to the fact that I killed your uncle and buried his head in a cairn?” (See how it all starts to add up? If you haven’t read it, you should read The Tragic Death of Celtchar mac Uthechair.)
Eventually one man won out over all the champions. Cet son of Mágach of the Connachtmen. He hung his weapons up above the host and sat down to the pig with his knife in his hand. “Is there anyone in Ireland to match me or shall I start carving this pig now?” he cried out. This was greeted by an awkward silence from the Ulstermen. A lot of shoe-gazing and shuffling. One man coughed. “Look at that, Lóegaire,” said Conchobur.
“You’re right, my king,” flustered Lóegiare Buadach, coming to his feet to challenge the Connachtman. “It’s not proper that such a man should carve the pig in front of all of us Ulstermen.”
“One moment, Lóegaire,” said Cet, putting down the carving knife. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but you Ulstermen have a tradition, don’t you? When you take up arms you head straight to Connacht, isn’t that right? When you came across the border I met you. I seem to remember that you had to leave your chariot, horses and charioteer with me, while I left my spear sticking in you. Are you going to take this pig off me the same way?”
Lóegaire sat down.
Is there a man in Ulster fit to challenge Cet? What will happen once the feast is over? Who’s getting the dog? Why is Mac Da Thó such a pushover? Answers to all these questions next time on Scéla Mucce Meic Da Thó.
Now that we have two Ulster Cycle tales on the site you can begin to see the ways in which the stories are weaved together to create a coherent picture of the past. I really enjoy this aspect of medieval Irish literature, even if it presents unresolvable chronological difficulties. The competition for the best cut of meat allows for classic flyting dialogue. Instead of actually fighting, as Bricriu encouraged (that sneaky rascal), the conflicts are verbal. Finally, I hate to keep pointing it out but the idea that women’s advice will lead to bad things is again evident in this tale.