When we last looked the men of Ulster and Connacht were squaring off against one another in the house of Mac Da Thó. The two provinces were there to collect Mac Da Thó’s dog, which the fool promised to both parties. As a prelude to the fight for the dog they are now competing for the best cut of meat. Cet mac Magach, from Connacht, seems to be winning, but how long before it all comes to blows?
Seeing Cet so pleased with himself, another Ulster warrior rose up. “It’s not right that Cet should carve the pig while I’m in the house.”
“Who is this?” asked Cet, putting the carving knife down again.
“Óengus son of Lám Gabuid, of course,” said the gathered Ulstermen.
Cet laughed. “I suppose you know why his father is called Lám Gabuid?” (Just to warn you, there’s going to be a lot of puns in this section. I’ll try and make them as clear as possible. Lám Gabuid means something like ‘Taking a hand’.)
“Actually we don’t,” said the Ulstermen, immediately regretting their decision to back Óengus.
“I do. Once I went to the east and people wailed and moaned at my ravaging. Lám Gabuid came with his people to stop me. He threw his great spear at me, but missed. The kid couldn’t find his two elbows in the dark. I picked it up and threw it back at him. Took his hand clean off. I don’t think I’ll have any trouble from the son of a man like that.”
Óengus sat down.
“On with the contest!” shouted Cet waving the knife in the air. “You’d better have someone good or I’ll start carving the pig.”
Another tall Ulster warrior stood up. “You shouldn’t carve that pig, Cet.”
“Éogan son of Durthacht, the king of Fernmag,” said the Ulstermen. Say what you like about them, they knew their heroes.
“Ah yes, I remember,” said Cet. “I’ve seen him before.”
“Where?” asked Éogan, as if he’d been approached by a stranger in a bar who insists that they went to school with you when you know you’ve never been in a class with a ginger kid.
“At the door of your house. I was in Fernmag, stealing your cattle. You came out to see what the commotion was and when you threw your spear at me it stuck in my shield. I threw it back at you and put out your eye. I’ve seen you, but it’s unlikely you’ve seen me since then. Sit down!”
Éogan sat down.
“Who’s next for the contest?”
“Don’t be too hasty, Cet. You’ve time to lose this challenge yet,” said Muinremur son of Gerrgend.
“Ah Muinremur! I was just thinking about you the other day. I’ve finally cleaned my spears from taking those four heads from your farm six days ago. I believe one of them was your son. Gore is so difficult to work out from the sockets. I’m sure you’ll find out one day. Maybe you could teach your son … Oh right.”
Muinremur sat down.
“On with the contest, Ulstermen! I’m having fun now!”
“You won’t be having fun much longer!” shouted Mend son of Salchad rising to the carving bench.
“Who’s this?” asked Cet.
“Mend son of Salchad,” said everyone, redundantly given this is a written text.
“Christ on a bike! You’re sending the sons of herdsmen with nicknames out now? You must be desperate.” He turned a hard eye to Mend. “I acted as the priest, baptising your father with that ridiculous name (something like “the dirtied one” or “the insulted one” – not the strongest pun, this). I cut off his foot when he was fleeing from me. I’ll not dignify the son of a one-footed man with a proper response.”
Mend sat down.
“More contest! Can none of you fight?”
“Some of us can,” said a great, grey haired, ugly warrior, scraping his head on the beam of the hall as he rose.
“Who’s this?” asked Cet.
“It’s Celtchar son of Uthechair,” said the Ulstermen, not yet realising that this always goes badly for them.
“You could crush me right now I’m sure, Celtchar,” said Cet. “Humour me one moment first. One day I came to your house, causing a bit of commotion. When you came to see what the matter was I threw a spear that caught you right in the crotch. I don’t think you’ve fathered any children since that day, isn’t that right? I don’t want to say you have to have big balls to challenge me, but you definitely need to have some.”
Celtchar sat down. (Didn’t hear about that in his story, did you?)
“On with the contest!” cried Cet.
“I’ll give you a contest,” said Cúscraid Mend Machae son of the king Conchobur.
“Who’s this?” asked Cet. (Are you bored of this yet? Because the author isn’t)
“Cúscraid,” said everyone, “Doesn’t he look like a king?”
“A look you tried to mess with, Cet,” said Cúscraid.
“Ah yes, I remember. You came to Connacht for your first test of arms and we met at the border. You ended up leaving a third of your retinue dead on the field and taking a spear to your neck. Ever you’ve not been able speak a clear word because the spear injured your vocal chords. (Mend means stammerer. Hilarious).”
Cúscraid sat down because now Cet had brought shame on the whole of Ulster.
Just as Cet was about to, finally, carve the pig the doors of the hostel were flung open. Along with the cold wind from outside came Conall Cernach. He strode into the middle of the hall to the great cheers of the Ulstermen. He handed his helmet to Conchobur and shook out an impressive mane of hair.
“Pig smells good. Who’s carving?” he asked.
“The man with the knife there,” chimed in the helpful Ulstermen, “Cet son of Magach.”
“Is that true, Cet? They’ve let you pick up a real, sharp knife again?”
“Welcome to you, Conall,” said Cet. “Heart of stone, angry ardour of the lynx, glitter of ice, red strength of anger in the breast of a champion. Full of wounds, victorious in battle, son of Findchoem, you are my equal.”
“Welcome, Cet,” replied Conall. “Son of Magach, house of a hero, heart of ice, fine feathers of a swan, chariot-fighter, tempestuous sea, fierce beautiful bull, Cet son of Magach.”
The welcomes over, Conall continued, “Our contest will work it all out. A great tale for all to tell, warriors and chariot-drivers alike. Two equal lions locked in fierce combat. Two chariot-fighters matched deed for deed. Before the night is out, men will step over corpses in this hall. Move away from that pig now, Cet.”
“Why should I move now? The whole of Ulster is shamed before me.”
“If you challenge me, I’d meet you in single combat. Since I first picked up a spear there has not been a single day when I haven’t killed a Connacht warrior; not a single night when I haven’t burned a house; when I finally lay my head down to sleep, I sleep with the severed head of Connachtman under my knee.” (It’s good to have lumbar support).
“You’re right, Conall. You are a better warrior than I am,” said Cet. “But if my brother Anlúan was here, you’d have a different contest. He’d be sitting at this pig. It’s a shame he’s not here.”
“Oh but he is, Cet,” answered Conall and with that he pulled the bloody head of Anlúan from his bag and threw it at Cet. The head bounced over the table, landed before Cet with a wet slap and a gobbet of blood flew from its lips onto Cet’s cheek. Cet left the pig for Conall to carve. Although the contest was over Conall had to be protected by the shields of the Ulstermen as some of the Connachtmen had started throwing spears and javelins at him.
This was the carving that Conall made. He took hold of the belly of the pig in his mouth – a burden for nine grown men that belly was. He then sucked on it until he had taken all the flesh and meat off it. As a token Conall left the two fore trotters for the others. This sent them over the edge. The Connachtmen rose up. So did the Ulstermen. Then everyone hit something. Streams and rivers of blood flowed out of the seven doors of the house. The pile of prone bodies and corpses reached the rafters. The brawl was forced out of the house into the courtyard where they could really let loose on one another. Blows and punches, bites and gouges, all rained down on the people there. Fergus got so carried away he uprooted an oak tree and started laying about himself.
In an attempt to stop the fighting Mac Da Thó came out with Ailbe the dog. Bet you’d forgotten about these two? He unleashed the dog to see which side it would choose. The dog sided with the Ulstermen and attacked the others, forcing the Connachtmen to flee. During the rout the dog launched itself at the chariot of Ailill and Medb. It fell short but bit into the chariot board. Seeing the dog incapacitated Fer Loga, the charioteer, took up a sword and cut its head off. The plain in which this happened was thereafter known as Ailbe’s Plain.
As the Connachta fled westwards Fer Loga decided to push his luck further. He leapt off the chariot and hid himself in the heather, waiting for the pursuing Ulstermen. As Conchobur’s chariot passed Fer Loga burst out of hiding, jumped into the chariot and took the king of Ulster by the throat. “I have you now, Conchobur!” crowed the charioteer.
“I’ll give you anything you want, if you let me go,” said Conchobur.
“I’m not an unreasonable man, my king. All I want is for you to take me to Emain Macha with you. Every night that I am there I want the beautiful women of Ulster and their most nubile daughters to come to my chamber. All night long the women will do whatever I want. That is, sing the song Fer Loga Is My Darling. I wrote it myself”.
This all fell out as Fer Loga wished and he was serenaded every night for a year. Then he went west with two horses and golden bridles.
That’s a hell of a way to end a story, right? Now that you’ve the whole text in front of you, it’s time to decide where on the literary criticism spectrum you fall. Do you think this is funny? If so, why? Is it because it is ridiculous to modern ears, or would a medieval audience find it foolish? Could it even be a deliberate parody of that famous epic Táin Bó Cúailgne?
As ever you can check out the Irish text and a translation. I’d still point you to the Penguin Classics version too.