The Tragic Death of Derbforgaill.

Yes, it’s been a while. I was going to have some great excuses but they ran out on me. But you seem to have been enjoying the Tatooine Cycle while I’ve been away anyway. So, 2016 starts off with a somewhat wintry tale of mutilation.


Derbforgaill was the daughter of the king of Lochlann. Lochlann might be Scandinavia, but we’re not sure – either way it’s far from Ireland. She had heard some of the famous stories about Cú Chulainn and fell in love with him. You remember this, it happened in Othello. So she decided to journey to Ireland to seek him out, maybe get his autograph, maybe sleep with him. She flew across the sea in the form of a swan with her handmaid, a golden chain linking them in case of emergencies.

The eventually reached Loch Cuan in Ulster – better known as Strangford Loch. Luckily, on the day they arrived Cú Chulainn was there with his foster son, Lugaid, the son of the three Finn Emna. They were skimming stones on the lake when they saw the birds, flying towards them linked by a golden chain.

Look, foster son, it’s an Otherworldy encounter
“Foster father,” said Luagid. “I think you should shoot those birds down. You’ve done it before.”

Cú Chluainn threw the stone that was in his hand at the birds and it struck Derbforgaill in the side, so that it was lodged in her belly. The birds immediately transformed back into women, who collapsed on the side of the lake.

“That you, of all people, have been evil to me,” said Derbforgaill, “is bloody ironic. I came here to seek you out, Cú Chulainn.” She coughed up some blood, no one likes having a stone in their belly.

It’s not a nice way to say “hi”.
“You speak the truth”, said Cú Chulainn. “Let me help you.” With that he bent down to the woman and sucked the stone from her. It came out into his mouth in a gush of blood. Unpleasant for Cú Chulainn but it eased her pain.

“I have come to seek you, Cú Chulainn”, Derbforgaill said. At this stage, we can assume she took her golden necklace off and did something with the maid. In either case, they do not figure any more in our story.

“You are on a hopeless errand now,” Cú Chulainn replied. “I will not sleep with the side I have sucked.”

“Well, this is a wasted trip then. If you can think of anyone like you, that you could introduce me to, that’d be great. It doesn’t look as if I’ll be doing any Animorphing for a while.”

Fun fact: medieval Irish literature is hella nineties.
“Let me introduce you to the noblest man in Ireland, my foster son, Lugaid of the Red Stripes”, said Cú Chulainn conveniently.

“As long as I can always see you, that’s fine with me”, said Derbforgaill creepily.

This all turned out great and she married Lugaid and bore him a son. You would have thought this was a step-down for a princess but he was a good man and set to inherit a lot of land. I can’t get into it now, but Lugaid’s parentage is very complicated but landed.

One day towards the end of winter, on a day not so very different from this (if you’re reading this towards the end of winter), there was a particularly heavy snow. The men of Ulster went out and started making big pillars of the snow – the first step in the evolution of the snowman. When the men had finished, the women of Ulster looked at the pillars and came up with an exciting game to pass the late winter afternoon.

“Let’s each go up onto the pillars and piss down them. Get on the top and piss straight down. Then we’ll know whose piss will go the furthest.”

“But why would we want to know that?”

“Because, obviously, whoever’s piss goes down furthest will be the most desirable woman in Ireland. Sometimes you ask the stupidest questions.”

However, the women of Ulster didn’t manage to make much of an impression on the pillars of ice. As they were running out of contestants, they summon Derbforgaill. However, the maiden from Lochlann was not willing to go, because she was not an idiot and she knew what would happen. The other women made her go up onto the pillar and when she unleashed, her piss slashed all the way to the ground.

snow pillar
I’m not Googling “sexy weeing” for you. It’s not happening.
This greatly disconcerted the other women. “If men ever found out about this skill of Derbforgaill’s none of us would be loved again. They’d all be pining for her.”

“Are you sure that having a big bladder is that desirable. I mean I just don’t –”

“Of course it is! We’ll have to do something about this urine hussy.” So all the women conspired together. They decided to mutilate Derbforgaill so that no one would ever find her attractive. They cut out her eyes, plucked off her nose, shaved off her ears, and pulled out her hair. When this had been done they left her in her house.

Cú Chulainn, Lugaid and the rest of the men of Ulster were on a hillock, looking down on the houses below.

“Why do you think there’s snow still on Derbforgaill’s house, Lugaid?” asked Cú Chulainn.

“It can only be one thing. She is dying”, Lugaid replied.
They both sped to the house to find out what had happened. When Derbforgaill heard them both approach she barred the house from the inside.

“Open the door”, said Cú Chulainn.

“I will not. Lovely was the bloom under which we parted”, said Derbforgaill.

Then she recited a poem:

Let me just cough up some blood, sing this song then I’ll die.
Cú Chulainn bids me farewell,
I came to him from my homeland,
Lugaid too, active and vigorous,
I gave him a love that he didn’t take away.

I must go far,
though it is not a good journey.
I don’t know what’s worse
Separation from them or death and destruction.

Our union has no regret
with Cú Chulainn, with Lugaid,
-though there is soon terror and fear-
if it were not for the reproach.

Parting from my union with Riab nDerg
it is a thorn in the heart, blood in the breast.
Cú Chulainn is deprived
and I am unlucky, were it not for the hillside.

Were it not for the hillside of Lugaid’s fort
where every obstruction is reddened.
It was too soon our vain thing,
with the son of three Finn Emnas.

That I will not see Cú Chulainn,
has made me tearful in sadness.
Feeble my people, wretched wailing,
and parting from Lugaid.

My warrior-friend has not betrayed me,
Cú Chulainn, he loved boasting.
I had a noble, joyous companion,
Lugaid son of Clothrann of Cruachu.

Gift of valour, gift of feat surpassing everyone,
for Cú Chulainn, whose form was famed,
Gift of weapons for valorous Lugaid,
Gift of my shape beyond every woman.

Every victory is a defeat afterwards,
for the person you envy.
Every treasure will be wholly unlawful,
every strong man will be sorrowful, or will be doomed.

Full of longing a tryst in this world,
it does not make a path to heaven.
A tryst with death has destroyed, beyond every treasure,
a fair face, though beautiful its lustre.

Not happy is a hard heart,
which trusts other people.
Frequently its shape changes,
its face in time of misery.

When we used to go around Emain,
from Tara, it was not a bad exploit.
Cú Chulainn was joyful there,
and Lugaid son of Clothru.

Cú Chulainn conversing with me,
with deeds, daring, dark.
It is that which was the fullness of my heart,
and laying with Lugaid.

We have parted from our playing,
at which we might have been forever.
Perhaps we may not meet afterwards,
I have been destined to go to my death.

By the time the two men had barged into the house, Derbforgaill’s soul was no longer in her body. Some say that Lugaid died immediately on seeing her corpse. Cú Chulainn was taken by a murderous rage and went to the house of the women. He knocked it down so that it collapsed on the women and not one of them came out of the wreckage alive. Three fifties of the queens of Ulster he killed that day.

A question that can be asked of Cú Chulainn so many times.
Then he said:

Derbforgaill, bright white breast,
she came to me over the waves’ crest.
She gave me a friend’s grace,
the daughter of the king of Lochlann, the best.

Know, it is between two graves,
my bloodied heart grieves.
Derbforgaill’s face hidden by stone
Lugaid Riab nDerg, too, leaves.

Lugaid was greatly renowned,
he brought about a great slaughter.
That is what he chose,
That is what Derbforgaill intended.

Lugaid was greatly renowned,
he carried bright spearshafts.
At the light of every full moon,
he would behead fifty enemies.

Derbforgaill, famed with beauty,
with purity and modesty.
She did not fall into vanity,
her face over her companion’s shoulder.

Three fifties of women in Emain,
it is I who slaughtered them.
Though I had to pledge it before kings,
Derbforgaill was always more valuable than they.

That is the tragic death of Derbforgaill. Her mound and grave were raised by Cú Chulainn.


Lots going on here. Misogyny, sexual taboos, physiological discussions on what makes a woman desirable. This is a very interesting little text. For the poetry (and, indeed, for the prose) I am working very closely with Kicki Ingridsdotter’s edition and translation.
I have given a few talks on this tale myself, commenting on the sexual taboos referenced in the text. Maybe one day I will expand on those thoughts here. Until then just know that I am thinking about it. Always thinking.