This is the second and final part of Echtra Nerai. When we last left our hero, he had gone into the síd of Cruachan after all the Connachtmen had been killed. The king there gave him lodgings in a house run by a lone woman on the condition that he bring a bundle of firewood to the king everyday.
Is it spooky? Less than part one. But there are more cows.
Nera did as he was told and went off to the house. The woman inside greeted him, as the king had said she would. “Welcome, sir,” she said. “I assume that the king has sent you”. She arranged his sleeping quarters and fed him for the night. On the next day Nera gathered his bundle of firewood and took it to the king’s palace. As he approached the palace he saw a most unusual thing – it’s not called the strange adventure of Nera for nothing. He saw a blind man carrying a lame man on his back coming out of the palace. The pair walked past him to a well that stood outside of the fortress. Leaning over the well so that the lame man could look down inside it, the blind man asked “Is it there?”. The lame man replied, “It is, indeed. Let’s go back to the palace”. At that the blind man would carry his companion back inside. Nera saw this on the first day and every day he carried the firewood in after that.
After a while Nera couldn’t contain his curiosity any longer. Before he set out with the firewood, he asked the woman about the two men. “Why does a blind man carry a lame man to the well outside the fortress everyday? Seems like a lot of effort to stare at some muddy water”. “That’s rich, coming from the man who gave a dead man an ankle bracelet”, the woman replied. “But since you ask, they go to check on the crown which is kept in the well. It’s the same diadem that the king wears from time to time”. “Why is it just a blind man and a lame man then?” asked Nera. “That’s easy enough to say, Nera. They are the only men the king trusts. The blind man cannot find the crown and lame man cannot run off with it.”
As he was getting some good answers about his strange adventures, Nera decided to ask the woman about the odd sight that brought him to this land in the first place. “What did you see, Nera?” she asked. “The strangest thing, it was: after I had replaced the dead man, I thought I saw the whole of Cruachan on fire and all the people of Connacht killed.” “What you saw wasn’t true then,” the woman said. “It was only a vision from the people of the síd of what was to come. Connacht and Cruachan will be destroyed unless you go and warn them.” “How can I go and warn them? I’m stuck here delivering firewood and I’ve no idea where they are,” complained Nera. “Leave here the way you came. Your people are still sitting around that same cauldron as when you left them on Halloween. Indeed, the log they threw on the fire as you went out hasn’t even burned down.” This was quite shocking news, as it had seemed to Nera that he had been almost half a year in the house of the mysterious woman. The woman herself continued, “Tell them to be on their guard against the síd. If Ailill and Medb come to destroy it, they will also carry off the crown in the well; the crown of Briun.”
Nera liked to complain so he didn’t go immediately. Instead he said, “How will they believe that I’ve been away in the síd all this time?”. The woman advised him to take the fruits of summer with him back to Connacht in autumn. As a final gift, she added this “Before you go, I’ll become pregnant by you and bear you a son”. Nera looked shocked. “Be sure to send us a warning when Ailill and Medb come to destroy the síd so that we can escape, along with your cattle.” This was all too much for Nera, who began the evening fulfilling a Halloween dare.
He returned the fort at Cruachan and found all the people there around the cauldron, just as he had left them. After he was seated back at the feast, he showed them the wild garlic and primrose that he brought back with him and told the assembled host the story of his adventures. He got the sword as a reward for tying the withy around the corpse’s foot (I bet you’d forgotten about that) and the people of Connacht swore to invade the síd in a year’s time. During that year Fergus mac Roich came to Connacht in exile from Ulster – a long story that and full of sadness.
The next Halloween Ailill and Medb told Nera to go into the síd to rescue his family and cattle before the people of Connacht began their destruction. When he returned to his house in the síd the woman bade him welcome and thrust a bundle of firewood into his hands, “Quickly take this to the palace of the king. For a whole year I’ve been taking the firewood to the palace and I told everyone there you’ve been dreadful sick. Oh, by the way, that’s your son in the corner.”
So Nera went off to palace carrying the firewood. The king was excessively pleased to see him. “I’m glad you’ve come back alive from your sickness!” he said, “Although I’m not too happy that you’ve fathered a son while staying at my hospitality.” “I’m terribly sorry,” said Nera, “I will, of course, bow to your wishes on that matter.” The king told him not worry, that what was done was done and sent him back to his house.
During the time Nera had been away the mysterious woman had given her new-born son a gift: one of the cows from Nera’s herd. Perfectly fair, if you ask me. That night, before he escaped back to Connacht, the Morrigan took this cow east to Ulster and had the Donn Cuailgne, that famous Ulster bull cover it. On her way back, she had a brief run in with Cú Chulainn but this story already has too many characters, so we’ll just move on.
Nera returned to his house and noticed that his son’s cow was missing. He was greatly berated by his wife because of this – in another example of the hen-pecked husband trope. When the cow finally returned his new wife, perspicacious as ever, recognised that it had been with the Bull of Cuailgne. They were going to have to wait another year, for the cow to calf, before they could leave the síd. Nera returned to Connacht empty handed.When he arrived Ailill and Medb asked him where he had been. “I have been in fair lands”, replied Nera, “where there are great treasures and precious things; many fabulous clothes and food and wonderful artifacts. Those who own these things will come to destroy you in a year’s time, unless you do something about it.” “You told us that last year, Nera.”
Next Halloween it all goes down. The army of Ailill and Medb is drawn up in front of the síd. “Be sure to go now and get whatever you’ve left in the síd, Nera. We’re not waiting another year.” Nera went into the síd then, to get his family and, arguably more importantly, his cattle. While he was away his son’s cow had had a bull calf. As it was being driven out of the síd to Connacht, it gave three loud bellows. They were so loud that they were heard throughout the province. Ailill and the exile Fergus mac Roích heard them as they were playing fidchell. Fergus’s usually morose countenance looked even more dark then. He knew that bull calf meant trouble.
When the calf came to Connacht he immediately sought out Aillil’s prize bull, the Finnbennach. They fought in the plain before the fort for a day and a night, until finally the calf was beaten. No real surprise there. As the calf was dying it let out a final, piteous bellow. “Why did the calf bellow like that?” Medb asked her cowherd. Before he could answer Bricriu, famous dick, turned to his Ulster compatriot Fergus: “You let out a cry like that this morning, didn’t you, mate?” Fergus was so enraged by this jibe that he didn’t even put down the fidchell pieces that were in his hand before he hit Bricriu right upside his head. For this reason Bricriu has five fidchell pieces still lodged in his skull. When this commotion had died down, the cow herd replied to his queen, “It gave a cry because it knew it was beaten. If only that calf’s father, the Donn Cuailgne, were here. You’d have a real fight for Finnbennach then.” With that Medb resolved to see Finnbennach and Donn Cuailgne fight if it was the last thing she did. It nearly was.
With the excitement over the army could finally invade the síd. This they did and destroyed everything they found. Everything except the crown in the well, the Crown of Briun. It is now one of the three wonderful gifts in Ireland and this is the end of Nera’s strange adventure.
I’m sorry that I haven’t much time for analysis. But I still have time for links.