This blog post is another experiment. Aided Meidbe, the death of Medb, is a confusing tale. Even in terms of dating the linguistic evidence vacillates, but the version we have surviving seems to be a mid-twelfth century compilation. If you have access to JSTOR, there is an edition and translation in Speculum 13. The text is confusing because it is a tale about death, whose driving action comes from the life of a family. It also makes many references to other Ulster Cycle tales.
For this reason I have prepared, for your delectation, a more literal translation and a much looser one, that tries to fill in some of the gaps. The literal translation comes first, so you can see what I have changed. The second version is much further removed from the Irish and as such I have made some interpretative choices that may be controversial. I’d like to see your reactions in the comments. So enjoy!
Version I: Literal.
What is the cause of the tragic death of Medb, the daughter of Eochaid Feidlech from Tara?
Finn had three sons, Conall Anglonnach, Eochaid Find, and Eochaid Feidlech. Of these Eochaid Feidlech had three sons and three daughters. His three sons were Bres, Nár and Lothur, the Three Finns of Emain. His three daughters were Eithne Uathach, Medb of Cruachu and Clothru of Cruachu. Eithne Uathach, Eithne the Terrifying, was called that because she used to feast on the flesh of children. For this reason children always fled from her. The poets had a line about these three sisters:
The three daughters of Eochaid Feidlech
A cry throughout the North
Eithne Uathach, Medb of Cruachu
This last, Clothru, was queen in Cruachu before Medb took the sovereignty by force from Eochaid. One day his three sons were trying to take the kingship away from their father. Clothru came to stop them and restrain them. In spite of this, they went to battle against Eochaid. Clothru came to them and said, “Do you really want to insult your father like this?” she said. “What you do is a great injustice!”
“It is done, all the same”, the young men said.
“Do you have any children to follow you?” their sister asked.
“None at all”, they replied.
“You will likely die, if you go to battle with a cause as unjust as yours. Come to me, each of you, and see if you can leave a child with me. It is my time of conception, after all.”
They did this, and each man went with her. The union was not wholly bad, as Lugaid Riab n-Derg was born of this union, the son of the Three Finns of Emain.
“Don’t go against your father now”, Clothru said. “It’s bad enough that you have slept with your sister, without going into battle against your father.” They were not victorious in their battle because of their injustice.
Clothru used to spend the tributes she received from Connacht in Inis Clothrand, Clothru’s Island, on Loch Rí. It is said that Medb killed her while she was pregnant with another child. The babe that was cut from her sides by swords was Furbaide mac Conchobuir. After this, Medb took the rule of Connacht and brought Ailill with her, to enjoy the sovereignty. She used to spend the tributes of Connach in Inis Clothrand. It was geis for her not to bathe in a well before the island.
At one time, Furbaide came to Inis Clothrand and he stuck a stake into the flagstone where Medb used to wash herself. He tied a rope to the top of the stake at the height Medb would have been at, since the stake was the same height as her. He then stretched the rope across Loch Rí and then took it back to his house.
Whenever the youths of Ulster would play a game, this is the game Furbaide would play. He would stretch the rope between two stakes and then cast a stone at either end, until he struck an apple he placed there off the top of the stake.
One day there was a great assembly of the men of Connacht and the men of Ulster around Loch Rí. Early in the morning Medb was bathing herself in the well above the loch, in accordance with her geis.
“That’s a beautiful body”, said everyone who saw her.
“Who is that?” asked Furbaide.
“The sister of your mother”, everyone replied.
At that moment Furbaide was eating a piece of cheese. He didn’t wait to look for a stone but put the piece of cheese he was eating in the sling. When Medb turned her head towards him, he let fly with his sling and the cheese struck her on the top of her head. He killed her in one cast, in vengeance for his mother.
That is the death of Medb.
Version II: Alternative Translation.
Do you want to hear about the death of Medb of Cruachu, the haughty queen of Connacht, the face that launched a thousand chariots when she sought the Bull of Cuailgne?
This story is not about that cattle raid or its aftermath. This is a story about family. Medb was one of three daughters of Eochaid Feidlech, king in Tara. There was Eithne Uathach, called the Terrible. Children used to flee from her because she ate their flesh. There was Medb of Cruachu herself and there was Clothru of Cruachu, so called because she reigned there before Medb.
The king did not only have daughters, he had sons. And like a good, mythical king he had a triad of sons, triplets so close that their own names are often forgotten in the tales. Bres, Nár and Lothur were better known as the Three Beautiful Ones of Emain. Though their form was fair, their deeds were foul and it all started when they tried to seize the kingship of Connacht from their own father by force.
They had their battalions arranged before the fort of Cruachu. Their sister, Clothru came out of the fort to parlay with them and to stop them trying to take the kingship from their father. You must remember that in Ireland at this time fingal, or kin-slaying, was one of the worst crimes imaginable. Of course, that didn’t stop many people trying to do it.
When Clothru came in front of her brothers, she began to shout at them. “You idiots! Do you really intend to go into battle against your father? There is no way this isn’t a great injustice. You are in the wrong and you know what happens when you go into battle without right on your side?”
“Nevertheless, we must do it,” her brothers replied.
“Since you’re going off to certain death, do you at least have any children? Or is this the end of our family?”
“We have no one to succeed us”, the brothers admitted.
“If you are still dead-set on going to battle tomorrow, then you will die”, said Clothru. “In that case, you’re in luck. It is the time of my conception. If you sleep with me, maybe you’ll leave a child behind and this foolish battle won’t totally destroy us.” Clothru was still right, though, all the Three Beautiful Ones of Emain died in battle the next day.
From this union Lugaid of the Red Stripes was born. He was called Lugaid of the Red Stripes because of his unusual conception. He had all the Three Beautiful Ones of Emain as his father. From his head to his shoulders he looked like Bres. Then there was a red stripe across his body. His torso was that of Nár’s and was separated from his legs, which looked like Lothur’s, by a red stripe. He was a good hero, but his story cannot be told here.
As queen of Connacht, Clothru used to distribute the tributes of that province. She would do this by Loch Rí, so that the island in the lake became known as Inis Clothrand, or Clothru’s island. Sadly, for her, she was not be queen for long. While she was pregnant with her second son, Furbaide, her sister Medb heard a prophecy. This prophecy said something about her sister’s son bringing about Medb’s destruction. So Medb had her sister drowned in a river and the child who was still in Clothru’s womb was violently cut out. That, incidentally, is where Furbaide got his name from. It means, ‘Cut out’. The child, however, survived this violent birth and was taken to be raised in Ulster.
Meanwhile, Medb had assumed the queenship that her sister had held until now. As queen Medb still had to distribute the tributes of the province at Inis Clothrand. On the island named after the sister she had murdered, she had to come and try to claim the queenship of Connacht for herself. A difficult and morbid task. A task, which was mad all the more difficult because Medb had a geis. This geis meant that she had to bathe in the well on Inis Clothrand every morning.
Furbaide grew up, knowing of the death of the mother and so he harboured a great hatred for his aunt. One day, as a young child, he went to Inis Clothrand and to the well in which murderous Medb had to bathe every morning. Young Furbaide took a stick, roughly the same height as Medb, and drove it into the ground by the well. Then he took a rope and began to make measurements of the land. He measured how far it was between the stick and the shores of the lake, how high the stick was out of the ground. Then he threw the stick away and took his measuring ropes back to Ulster.
From that day on, whenever the boys of Ulster would play, Furbaide would refuse their offers to come and play hurling. Instead he would take his measuring ropes and recreate the shores of Loch Rí. In the distance he would place an apple, at head height, on a post. Then he would stand, as if he were on the shore and make casts with his sling, until he struck the apple off the post. This was the only game he would play and he wouldn’t stop until he knocked the apple off.
Years later, there happened to be an assembly of the men of Connacht and the men of Ulster by Loch Rí. The warrior Furbaide had come along with all the other young warriors of the province. He was up early one morning, sitting outside his tent, eating a bit of cheese for breakfast. There was a group of his fellow warriors, gathered all together, not far away. Furbaide got up and approached them. The group were excitedly nudging one another and furtively whispering. They could not take their eyes off a sight in the distance. Furbaide came and asked them what they were looking at.
“Your aunt”, one of the lads replied, “and she is absolutely stunning.”
“She’s just washing. Bare-arse naked for all to see”, another chipped in.
Furbaide was silent. He was over-come with rage and excitement at his chance to avenge his mother. But mostly rage. Without thinking, without stopping to stoop down to the lake side to pick up a stone, Furbaide put the cheese he was eating in his sling and cast at Medb.
The hard cheese struck the queen of Connacht on the top of her head. She fell, dead to the ground, killed with one shot. That is the story of the death of Medb.