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.

stones
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.

shotme
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.”

animorphs
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:

blood
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.

necessary
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.

Homage-o-meter or The Literary Sources in The Tatooine Cycle

This is a discussion of the medieval source texts used in the Tatooine Cycle. The numbers can be matched to the original post. I was going to just append this to the bottom of it, but it was getting a bit out of hand. So you’ve got another blog post to compare and contrast. I hope you find this useful and that it takes you to all the awesome corners of medieval Irish literature.

ref


 

(1) This is a typical opening line to many medieval Irish tales. The two titles, the tragic death (aided) and destruction of a hostel (togail bruidne), are titles that appear in medieval Irish tale lists. The name Da Theféider is also a reference to hostellers commonly having Da at the beginning of their names. See Da Derga, Da Choca, Da Thó.

(2) The hero who knows all languages is a common companion in the Seven Companions tales model. In this instance I was thinking of Gwrhyr Gwalstawd Ieithoedd from Culwch ac Olwen. Middle Welsh, instead of Irish, but I hope you’ll forgive that.

(3) “Oh twisted sprite!” (a sirite síabairthi) is a common insult used against Cú Chulainn. It possibly draws attention to his warp-spasm or riastrad.

(4) Finn, as the name for Luke, is just a calque. Luke comes from Greek leukos meaning ‘white’, Finn also means ‘white, bright’ in Irish. It also helps that Finn is the name of the hero of the Fenian Cycle, Finn mac Cumaill.

(5) The character of Cenn Obi here is closely modeled on Suibne from Buile Suibhne. This wild man of the woods was driven mad at the cursing of a saint and recites poetry in the wilderness. Hence all the poems.

(6) This is an attempt at the intertextual nature of medieval Irish literature. Most of the tales were aware of the wider tradition and would reference them. The Caladbolg was Fergus’s sword that he used on the Táin before it was stolen by jealous Aillil.

(7) The epithet Aenfer is taken from Art mac Conn. He was called Aenfer (literally one man) because in Echtra Chondla his brother, Connla, was taken away to the Otherworld. So he was left alone, or aenfer, or “solo”.

(8) The mistaken messenger motif is common in medieval Irish literature. Some of the images here are taken from Táin Bó Cúailgne, p. 153.

(9) The great, many doored hostel is common in the togala texts, mentioned above. This particular description comes from Scéla Mucce Meic Da Thó.

(10) The lifting up of the hostel wall is taken from Fled Bricrenn. In this text Cú Chulainn lifts up the side of the wall so that his wife will be first back in. It’s always fun to reverse the gender roles.

(11) Da Thféider’s immense height is similar to the way that the Fenian giants are described in Acallam na Senórach.

(12) Much of the description of his arms and armour is taken from Cú Chulainn’s arming in the Scythed Chariot epidose, TBC p. 200.

(13) The flight to Alba (whether that means Scotland, the Otherworld, or the Alps) is a common feature. Here I was drawing on Cath Maige Mucrama.

(14) Heroes often have special feats. Cú Chulainn and his son could stun birds with their “thunder feat”. In one combat during the Táin Cú Chulainn threw his darts in the air and then leaped nimbly on them so that he could catch birds.

(15) The presentation of armies is usually accompanied by the mistaken messenger motif, mentioned above. They are heavy in physical description, both of the men and their equipment.

(16) The evil eye of Da Thféider, not only represents the power of a fully operational Death Star (*evil cackle*), but is based on Balor from Cath Maige Tuired. This beastly Fomorian had his one evil eye put out by Lug.

(17) This image of slaughter is taken from the Middle Irish preface to Cáin Adomnáin. This was a clerical law protecting non-combatants but at some point in the twelfth century it picked up a narrative introduction. It is good to bear in mind the cleric origin of all the tales cited here.

(18) In the togala texts the hostel usually ends up burning down. Here I am thinking of Togail Bruidne Da Derga and the triple death by fire, drowning, and wounds suffered by Conaire.

(19) The colophon is based on the famous bilingual colophon to Táin Bó Cúailgne found in the Book of Leinster. In the Irish colophon the tale, and whoever recites it, are praised. However the Latin one casts doubt on the veracity of the tale and suggests that it is only entertainment for fools. You can decide for yourself.

The Tatooine Cycle.

This retelling of Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope as a medieval Irish epic began as a series of tweets, made on a whim in the middle of November. They can be found with the hashtag #TatooineCycle. I hope that now I have gathered them all together the story still makes sense.

The numbers refer to my discussion of the sources used for this parody, which can be found here.


 

What was the reason for the Tragic Death of Cenn Obi and the Destruction of Da Thféider’s Hostel? (1) Not difficult that.

tatooine cycle

There was once a great queen of Alt Da Rann and Leia was her name. War had sprung up between her people and those of Da Thféider. She sent messengers to ask for aid from the wildman, Cenn Obi. He lived in the wilderness far to the west. These were the messengers she sent: Síd Tríphe Óg, who knew all the languages of man and beast,(2) and the dwarf, Artú.

The messengers became lost on their journey and before long they did not know what land or territory or province they were in “What is this desolate place?” said Tríphe Óg. “We have been cursed to suffer now”. Artú goes to a steep & rocky area. “This is not right” he said. “Before the day is over you will surely perish, oh twisted sprite! (3) No more adventures!”

It was not long before they saw bandits before them in the road. The messengers were captured as slaves. The bandits sold the messengers to a farmer, Eogan his name. He gave them to his nephew, Finn Aiércoisige, (4) to look after. Artú told Finn why they had come to the region: to seek Cenn Obi, the wild man. Their lands and people were being destroyed. Finn knew the holy man who lived in the woods. The geilt would fly from treetop to mountain peak and lived on brook lime & fresh water.(5) The next day Finn and Artú set out into the wilderness to find the wild man. They see him on a hill and he recites this poem:

Come not near to me Finn
Though I knew your father
The wilderness is sweet to me
Who has not heard your name in a long time

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Finn replied, “We have a message for you. Come out of the wilderness!” Cenn Obi, then, took them to his dwelling. Cenn Obi fought alongside Finn’s father in Cath na Cóipe. Cenn Obi’s mind was driven from him there and he became a wildman. Finn’s father left Cenn Obi with a sword, the Caladbolg, to pass on to his son. This is same sword Fergus used in the Táin. (6)

“This is a powerful weapon from a better age. Do not point it at your face” said Cenn Obi. With his senses returned Cenn Obi agreed to help the princess and journey east with the messengers. Finn will not leave. Da Thféider’s warriors came to Eogan’s farm. They burned it down and killed Eogan, his wife and his livestock. This is an ill omen for the hospitaller. With right on his side Finn decides to journey with Cenn Obi to Mag Eisleigh.

When they came to the plain of Mag Eisleigh, Cenn Obi recited this poem:

Bees swarm in the evil hive
Scum & villainy, no untrue speech,
In the plain of Eisleigh
Are these the messengers you seek?

In Mag Eisleigh there lived a famous warrior, Eogan Aenfer.(7) He knew the secret paths and possessed a great hound, Cú Bhacca. At that time Aenfer’s people were harassed by bandits and raiders. Finn and his people came to him during his single combats. Aenfer was in the ford against Grí Dó, champion An Botha Mór. “A lucky day for me, Aenfer,” he said, “Meeting you in the ford. You are like a frightened boy, who flees at the first sight of trouble. We will take your lands, horses, and nerf herds!” Before Grí Dó could draw his weapon, Aenfer cast his spear so that it went clean through the other’s chest. With their champion dead the bandit forces melted away. Aenfer hosted Finn, Cenn Obi and the messengers in his hall.

Cenn Obi told him the strife between Leia and Da Thféider. “You know the hidden paths. Can you guide us eastwards quickly?” “I can guide you through the Kestrel’s Run in less than half a day. I am quick enough for a wildman and a beardless boy.” Early on the next day they set out to Alt Da Rann. When they came to the place in which the princess’s army should have been they saw nothing. They wondered what became of them. In the sky they saw a flock of birds, rising over clouds of mist and the shining moon in the middle of the sky.(8)

“Tell me, Eogan”, said Finn, “what are those birds and clouds and moon? For the sun is shining and it is not yet dark.” Cenn Obi replied, “They are not birds but the clods of earth thrown up by the horses of Da Thféider’s army. They are not clouds but the fierce and manly breathing and exhaling of Da Thféider’s men”, he said “That’s no moon. It’s the shining eye of Da Thféider himself that can destroy an army with a single glare.” Before they could flee they were beset by men from Da Thféider’s army and brought as prisoners into the camp.

The captives were brought to the hostel of Da Theféider. The hostel was a great round building famed throughout Erin. The hostel had seven doors, facing all the sides.(9) At night they would be shut tight to protect everyone inside. There was one window that could not be shut, but it was small, not much larger than a child’s ball. The window was opposite the great central fire. Over the fire was a vat from which Da Thféider’s men took their food. These men were known as Láeich Sín. They stood a head taller than other men and were covered in shining armour.

hostels

Cenn Obi, Finn, Eogan and his wolfhound were put in one of the rooms of Da Thféider’s hostel. As night fell the seven doors were closed. When his warriors came to address the captives Eogan and Finn threw them on their backs and took their armour from them. Cenn Obi leaves to find a key to one of the doors. Though Finn would go with him but Cenn Obi recites this poem:

Oh boys, you must stay
My path is a different one
Who is more foolish, the fool or the one following?
God’s grace be with you.

After Cenn Obi left, Artú pressed his ear to the wall of the room. He could hear noises in the hostel and the voice of Leia. Finn decided to rescue Leia. He and Aenfer put on the captured armour and took the dog, Cú Bhacca, on a lead into the hall. When they were stopped by other Láeich Sín, they said “This dog has escaped from the kennels. We are returning him.” As Finn and Aenfer passed through the many doors of the hostel, they found a room guarded by many warriors. Aenfer then loosed his hound, one of the three wondrous hounds of Ireland. It could tear a grown man’s arm from its socket.

After Cú Bhacca killed the guards, Finn entered the room. The princess was inside. “A small Láeich Sín this”, she said. “This is not my armour,” said Finn. “I am Finn Aiércoisige. I am here to rescue you. I came with the geilt, Cenn Obi.” Hearing the destruction of their warriors, other Láeich Sín had come. Finn, Leia and Aenfer were trapped in the corridor. None could prevail against the steel-sided warriors. But Leia seized the corner of the wall & heaved it up.(10) Her companions could pass under the wall. “Pass through, flighty youth”, she said to Aenfer who would not go.

On the other side of the wall was a pit. In the pit were all the remains of the feasts along with the excrement of warriors. They stood up to their haunches in water and bones. The pit was infested with snakes and venomous worms and a great stench. “You have ruined us, princess”, said Aenfer. “I was in control of every action until now, lead astray by a woman!” Then a snake seized Finn’s leg and pulled him into the waste. He was under water up to the point of drowning. Of a sudden he was released from its grasp. The ground began to shake all them. The walls of the pit began to fall and close in on them. As Da Thféider searched for Finn in his hostel, his great steps shook the very earth. With every resounding shake the walls of the pit collapsed and began to fall in on the champions stuck in it. They could not escape up the sides or out in anyway. In their panic they cried out to Artú and Triphe Óg. The two messengers rushed to their aid and were able to free the heroes from the stinking pit. They all ran out to one of the doors but the seven doors of the hostel were still shut firmly against them.

Thereupon Cenn Obi appeared. He lifted the bar over the door & unlocked it with a key. Before they could all flee, they heard a voice: “We meet again, old man”, said Da Thféider. He was so tall a full-grown man would only come to his knee and his voice was like the thunder of waves.(11) This was the armour he wore: twenty-seven waxed tunics next to his skin. Over that an apron of black leather made of the choicest hides. He was bound with a battle belt of cow-hide. Over all he placed his silk cloak, black with a dark border. On his head he placed his warlike battle-helmet. From within it his voice sounded like a roaring lion’s. In his hand he held his battle weapon. The red-flashing, ivory-hilted sword with which he destroyed battalions and armies.(12)

“We meet again, Cenn Obi. The circle is complete. You fostered me and taught me skill in battle. Now I am the master.” Turning from the others Cenn Obi approached and drew his blue-grey sword. Then he recited this poem:

Cold is the snow tonight
My former strength has left me.
Though I be a weak old man
It is only a master of evil thou art.

You will have no victory
Truth of battle against you.
Strike me down now – red the sword-
I shall have power beyond imagining.

Then they began to work their feats on one another. Hacking and slashing, sword blow for sword blow, fiercely contending. At the height of the conflict Cenn Obi put his sword aside. Da Thféider raised his own sharp-striking sword and struck him down. Instead of a corpse, only the wild man’s rags were found on the ground. Lamenting sorely the others fled into the night.

Royal 13 B VIII f.28

They fled out of Erin and took refuge in Alba.(13) It was here the rest of Leia’s people had gone after the massacre at Alt Da Rann. They spent a while lamenting the death of Cenn Obi. It is from this that the poets say:

The tomb of Cenn Obi!
Though none believes he has gone.
After the fight in the hostel,
There is great grief in Alba.

Leia told the others about the hostel and its layout. They began gathering a host to avenge their injuries on Da Thféider. The hostel was well protected on all sides with thick wood and iron bars. The spears and swords would not prevail against it. But if a spear could be thrown through the small window and strike the cauldron, it would spill into the fire and burn the house down. “That is an impossible cast!” cried the warriors. “We will surely die, following a woman over the border!” “It’s not difficult” said Finn. “I used to shoot sparrows in flight with my darts when I was a boy. It can’t be much bigger.”(14)
As the host gathered in the ships to cross the sea, Eogan Aenfer left with his wolfhound. He had to pay tribute to An Botha Mór. This was the disposition of the host as they marched on the hostel of Da Thféider. A company came over the hill of the smooth yew. Three thousand their number with blue cloaks and scallop-edged shields. Another company, no smaller than the last. Green-hooded tunics covered them to their knees. Fierce swords in their hands. A third company on the hill of Eó Mhín. Gold were their cloaks fastened with silver brooches. Broad were their spear heads. The final company approached with Finn at their head. Their swords were ivory hilted and red cloaks covered their shoulders.(15)

As he saw the companies of his enemy arrayed on the hills around him, Da Thféider turned to his steward and said: “This will be a day long remembered. It has seen the end of Cenn Obi. It will soon see the end of all our foes.” Thereafter the Láeich Sín sallied forth from the hostel and met the companies on the field of battle. The warriors began each of them to strike & smite, to hew & cut, to slay & slaughter the others for a long space of time. Abundant was the stream of blood over the white skin of warriors mangled by eager hands. Then Da Thféider came to the field. He had an evil eye. If an army looked at that eye, though they were many thousands in number they would be overcome.(16) Three times Finn’s company surged to the hostel and three times they were driven back by the poisonous power of his eye. Thick were the corpses on that battlefield, so that the feet of the warriors rested on the bloody necks of others.(17)

The red company of Finn prepared a final attack on the hostel. Da Thféider took his place in the van to drive them off. As he opened his baleful eye, Aenfer returned over the hill wooping his war-cry. He took up a sling and cast a stone at Da Thféider. His eye was closed and forced away from the attack. Before he fled the field Da Thféider made a cast at Finn. Artú placed himself before Finn and the spear struck his chest. The company came up to the hostel and Finn prepared to make his cast.Finn readied his own spear. As he threw it, he heard the voice of Cenn Obi “Use your force, Finn”.

hall on fire

The cast flew true towards the hostel. The spear went through the small window and overturned the cauldron over the fire. From this the fire was kindled in the hostel. No water could be found to quench it.(18) So that it spread throughout the walls and doors and burned the hostel to the ground. Of the people of Da Thféider only five out of every hundred survived. He himself fled from the country.

All the people of medicine employed their skill and herbs to seal up the wounds of Artú. A great cheering and rejoicing arose from Leia’s people, celebrating the heroic deeds of the warriors. Aenfer, Cú Bhacca and Finn were honoured in front of the assembled hosts. So far this is the Destruction of Da Thféider’s Hostel and the Tragic Death of Cenn Obi.
Finit. Amen.

A blessing on everyone who will rehearse this tale exactly as it is here and will not add any other form on it.

Sed ego qui scripsi hanc historiam aut uerius fabulam quibusdam fidem in hac historia aut fabula non accommodo. Quaedam enim ibi sunt praestrigia prequelarum, quaedam autem figmenta Lucas, quaedam ad delectationem stultorum. (19)

Echtra Nerai – The Strange Adventure of Nera, part 2.

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.

This is the only spooky, cow-related gif I could find.
This is the only spooky, cow-related gif I could find.

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.

Obligatory Game of Thrones reference.
Obligatory Game of Thrones reference.

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.”

Why has time stopped in Connacht?
Why has time stopped in Connacht?

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.

For God's sake let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings.
For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings.

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.

Nera doesn't give a shit.
Nera doesn’t give a shit.

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.”

Rulers of Connacht and dogs have a lot in common.
Rulers of Connacht and dogs have a lot in common.

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.

This is good advice for Bricriu. I don't know why no one told him.
This is good advice for Bricriu. I don’t know why no one told him.

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.

Echtra Nerai – The Strange Adventure of Nera.

It’s Halloween later this month so I’m doing a bit of pandering with a spooky-scary story set at Halloween. This is Echtra Nerai or The Strange Adventure of Nera. Probably a two parter. Enjoy.

This is my translation dance.
This is my translation dance.

One Halloween Ailill and Medb (you remember them, right? King and queen of Connacht) were in their fort, Rath Cruachan, along with their whole household having a feast. When the meal was winding down, Ailill remembered that they had hanged two prisoners the day before and he got a notion. “Whoever manages to go out to the gallows, right now, and tie a withy round the foot of either of the bodies hanging there, will get a prize from me … You know what a withy is … Yes, it’s a bendy twig … With warriors like this it’s no wonder we lost the Táin.”

Tying things can be a challenge.
Tying things can be a challenge.
The only problem was that it was Halloween and the night was dark and full of terrors. You could always rely on a few demons or spirits lurking the dark places. So as each man went out with a withy in his hand, he wouldn’t get halfway before running back to the fort in terror. Then Nera stepped up and said, “I’ll go out and tie the withy, Ailill.” “If you do”, replied the king, “you’ll get my very own gold-hilted sword.”

Somethings are too spooky
Somethings are too spooky
So Nera went out towards the gallows where two bodies were hanging. Before he went out he put his best armour on, just in case anything nasty appeared (by the way, is this foreshadowing doing anything for you?). He came to the two hanged men and put a withy round the foot of the one nearest him. As he turned to leave, it sprang off. He tied it again. Again it sprang off. Whispering “Third time’s a charm”, he tied it on. For a third time it sprang off.
“You’re doing it all wrong”, said a voice. Nera looked up and the dead man, whose foot he was holding, was looking down at him. “It’ll never stay on like that,” said the dead man. “You need to put a proper peg through it. If you don’t put a proper peg through it, you’ll be tying and retying that withy until morning.” Nera used a peg and the withy stayed on the dead man’s foot.
“See, now I’ve done you a favour, I think it’s only polite that you do the same for me,” continued the dead man. “Could you take me on your back to go and get a drink. I was powerful thirsty the other day when they hanged me.” Nera thought he couldn’t well refuse a talking corpse. Not on Halloween. “Get on my back then. Where do you want to go for a drink?” The dead man said that they should just go to the nearest house.

Even when you're dead all you want is a drink and a shmoke.
Even when you’re dead all you want is a drink and a shmoke.
When they arrived at the house they saw a lake of fire around it. “We’ll never get a drink in that house,” said the dead man. “They always damp down their fires at night. That’s a terrible sign. We should try the next house.” Nera carried the dead man to the next nearest house. As they approached the house they realised that it was surrounded by a lake of water. “Don’t go to that house!” said the dead man. “They never have a wash-tub, bath-tub or even slop pail in that house at night. No good.” So they ended up in the third house. That was fine. Nera put the dead body on the floor. In that house were tubs for washing and bathing and lovely fire. The dead body takes a drink from one of the washing tubs. Before he finally swallows it, he spits the last of the drink over the people who were in the house and they all died. Dead man spit. Stay away, kids. From then on it is a bad thing to keep a wash-tub, bath-tub, fire, or slop-pail in the house after going to sleep. So now you know.

He's dead now.
He’s dead now.
After that Nera returned the man to his gallows and turned back to Cruachan. But when he turned for home a strange site greeted him. The whole fort was burned to the ground and there was great pile made of the warriors’ head in front of the burned husk. A host of other warriors were marching away, taking the heads of the Irishmen with them. Sensing there was little left for him here, Nera followed in the path of the mysterious people. “There’s a man on our trail!” said the last man in the column of warriors. “The trail’s the heavier for it,” replied the man walking next to him. In this way word was passed to all the warriors about Nera. Eventually the men came to the sid of Cruachan and they went in.

Nera is pretty good at blending in.
Nera is pretty good at blending in.
As an editorial aside, convention says that we translate sid as fairy mound. But I hate that phrase and don’t even think it quite works. For the visual we are probably talking about a mound. But you’ve got to stop thinking about space as actually existing in it and around it. For these reasons I am leaving sid as sid.

Anyway, back to the story: the returning warriors piled all the heads they had taken before their king as he sat on his throne. When the last head was thrown onto the pile one of the warriors asked the king what they should do with the man who had followed them. “Bring him here,” said the king, “so that I can speak to him”. Nera was brought out of the mass of warriors to stand in front of the throne. “Why have you come to my fort with my warriors?” “I was caught up with the host,” said Nera. “Go to a house outside the fort,” said the king. “There is a woman there who will make you welcome. Be sure to tell her that I sent you, though. All I want is for you to come to my court everyday with a bundle of firewood.”

"I said FIRE wood not Elijah wood. Idiot".
“I said FIRE wood not Elijah wood. Idiot”.
Will Nera serve the mystery king? Why does he need firewood? What happened to the talking corpse? Is everyone in Connacht dead? All these questions and less answered next week (or there abouts).


This is the first story that I have done with explicit references to the sid or fairy mounds. While they are a common feature of medieval Irish literature, they are an aspect of it that has possibly been most misrepresented in the modern era. The difficulty comes, I suppose, in separating the medieval literature’s view of the aes side, the people of the sid, and the more folkloric versions of them. Maybe one day I’ll try and write something about this. However for now, this has talking dead bodies in so pretty suitable for Halloween. I’m not above being driven by the seasons.

As always an edition of the Irish and another translation can be found here.

The Death of Cet mac Mágach

So we saw over the last two weeks that Cet mac Mágach is a pretty badass fella. So let’s see how he dies. Also this gives me the chance to add to the list of death tales. One day I’ll do them all!


Once upon a time Cet mac Mágach traveled into Ulster in order to slay an Ulsterman. Best place for him to go, really. This was because Cet was a very unimaginative man and he never had a day, since his childhood, when he wouldn’t try and kill an Ulsterman. I suppose you have to have a hobby. After a fine old time in Ulster he turned his chariot westwards, the three clumps of nine heads banging on the side of his chariot as he went. The Ulstermen set Conall Cernach on his trail (you remember him as the one who killed Cet’s brother in Scéla Mucce, right? Cool.) The trail was pretty easy to follow as it was winter and the snow lay thick on the ground.

Cet mac Mágach really loved the work of "Rowdy" Roddy Piper.
Cet mac Mágach really loved the work of “Rowdy” Roddy Piper.

Conall and his charioteer had only driven as far as Breifne when they came upon an abandoned house, half buried in the snow. On further investigation the house turned out not to be as empty as they first assumed. The smoke from a cooking fire rising out of the top, the hobbled horses and chariot with “I AM CET MAC MAGACH” written in blood on the side should have really given it away. On seeing the Cet evidence, Conall pulled grimaced and started to get back in his chariot.
“Yeah, this is Cet. I think we’d better just go back home. He’s a real badass, you know. Savage and fierce.”
“Seriously?” replied his charioteer. “We’ve come all this way to find Cet and now that we’ve got him, you’re just going to go home? One, he’s an enemy of Ulster so you should get all up in his business. Two, even if he does beat you, there’s no shame in dying by his hand. As you said he’s a badass.”
“Look, you know my policy, unnamed charioteer. I will not die by just one man’s hand. There’s no honour in that. I tell you what I will do, if it’ll make you happy. I’ll mess these horses up a bit.”
Then Conall cut locks out of the manes of the horses and stuck them on the front of Cet’s chariot. Then he went back eastwards, his heroic duty having been fulfilled.

Was Conall Cernach the first brony? We have our best researchers on the case.
Was Conall Cernach the first brony? We have our best researchers on the case.

Cet’s charioteer came out of the house and seeing the horses slightly shorn, called out to his master. “Woe, Cet! Something’s happened, although I am not entirely sure what. But in these stories it’s usually bad.”
“There’s no need to be crying out,” said Cet. “This is a sign from Conall. It’s a good thing that he spared the horse, since now we can reconcile each other and strike up a great friendship.” (I know by now you’re used to it, but there’s a lot in these tales that rests on assertions or knowledge of customs and semiotics that seem a bit obscure now. As always the advice is ‘just go with it’.)
“This is no good, Cet. You can’t be friends with a man who has so consistently made a laughing stock out of the men of Connacht. It just won’t do. You’ll have to take the fight to him. Do him in for messing about with your horses.”
So they set off after Conall and caught up with him at Cet’s Ford (Wonder how it got that name?).

“Now I’ve found you, Conall,” said Cet. “You won’t escape alive from this day.”
“Funny,” said Conall, “I was going to say the same thing to you.”
The two heroes met in the ford – classic location for a show-down in medieval Ireland. The clash of their swords, the striking of their spears on the shields, the whinnying of the horses and the encouraging shouts of the charioteers filled the land for miles around. Some people in the region went deaf. Eventually the two heroes parted and collapsed on either side of the ford. Cet was dead before he hit the ground but Conall was only mortally wounded.

Every time I read about single combats in Irish I mentally do "Ready, Set, FIGHT!"
Every time I read about single combats in Irish I mentally do “Ready, Set, FIGHT!”

He cried out to his charioteer, as he lay bleeding on the side of the river. Conall asked that he be taken back to Ulster before the men of Connacht could find him in such a state. The hero was so big though, that his charioteer could not lift from where he lay, his feet trailing in the river.
“This is a disaster,” said Conall. “That I should be killed by a man in single combat. How many times have I said that I will not let just one man have the honour of killing me? I would rather someone comes to finish me off now, than to have the kingship of the whole world.”

His charioteer thought that this last was a bit melodramatic but he did not have a chance to say anything before Bélchú of Breifne chanced upon the dying hero. Surveying the tragic scene he said “This is Cet and this is Conall, dead in the ford. The whole of Ireland will rejoice now that these two nightmares are dead. Good riddance to a pair of ruinous psychopaths.” As he was saying this he rested the butt of his spear on what he thought was the corpse of Conall.

It's the only way to know if something's dead.
It’s the only way to know if something’s dead.

“Get that bloody spear off me, you oaf,” said Conall as he knocked the offending implement away. “I’m not dead yet.”
“You’re alive?”
“No thanks to you.”
“Oh I see. You want me to finish you off so that you can maintain your stupid promise not to be killed by one man alone. Well, I’ll not do it. You’re already dead as it is. Your body just doesn’t know it yet.”
“You’re such an old woman, Bélchú. You wouldn’t dare cut my cloak.”
“Alright, Conall great hero of Ulster,” Bélchú kneeled down next to the body. “I’ll not kill you now, but here’s what I will do: I’ll take you back to my house and heal you up. When you’re whole again, then I’ll fight and kill you.” So saying Bélchú took Conall on his back and started for his house. Conall was so large, however, that his legs were dragging along the ground all the way.

This is just part of my workout before I beat your ass.
This is just part of my workout before I beat your ass.

The doctors came and patched Conall up. After they had left, promising that the Ulster warrior would be right as rain in no time, Bélchú started having second thoughts. When Conall returned to full strength, could he really take him in single combat? So he devised a ruse – and we all know how well ruses tend to go. He gathered his sons around him and told them of his plan “We need to do away with Conall before he fully heals. Tomorrow night I will leave the house open. You all should sneak in and kill Conall in his bed.”

Healing an immensely powerful Ulster hero. I've made a huge mistake.
Healing an immensely powerful Ulster hero. I’ve made a huge mistake.

With this piece of expert cunning put in motion, the sons went away. On the next night Bélchú got up to open the house.
“Where are you going, Bélchú?” asked Conall from the bed. “You’ve been such a good host I wouldn’t want you sleeping outside on my behalf. Come and share this bed with me.”
Bélchú knew the rules of hospitality as well as anyone and so could not refuse his guest. He closed up the house and thought how he would spring his plan the next day. After Bélchú had fallen asleep, Conall himself got up. He opened up the house and hid himself in a corner. As the night wore on the sons of Bélchú came in the open house and stabbed the man sleeping in Conall’s bed. Little did they know that they had killed their own father. Luckily they were not left with much chance to mourn as Conall sprung on them from the shadows, hacking at their heads until the walls of the house were covered with their blood. Conall eventually returned to Ulster in triumph, carrying their four heads with him.


Another classic mix of comedy and death. Plans often go awry and sometimes the reasons given for heroes’ actions are hard to determine. As with all death tales there is much more than the advertised death. Indeed this raises a question about titling tales: is this really the death tale of Cet or is it rather another triumphant episode in the life of Conall?

As ever why not look at some Irish or a more literal translation.

The Story of Mac Da Thó’s Pig – part 2

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?

This is very definitely the wrong crowd.
This is very definitely the wrong crowd.

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.

We know what can happen to the sons of men who get their hands cut off.
We know what can happen to the sons of men who get their hands cut off.

“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.”
“Who’s this?”
“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.

Tis not even a real eye-patch!
Tis not even a real eye-patch!

“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.

I know. I wouldn't be able to take his son seriously either.
I know. I wouldn’t be able to take his son seriously either.

“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?)

To be fair to Cet, this is hilarious.
To be fair to Cet, this is hilarious.

“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.

If only there'd been Lionel Logue knocking about medieval Ireland.
If only there’d been Lionel Logue knocking about medieval Ireland.

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.

It's a great way to make an entrance.
It’s a great way to make an entrance.

“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.

“You may have read about it, sir, but throwing a severed head onto the desk is no way to end a board meeting.”

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.

Probably get your head cut off.
Probably get your head cut off.

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.

The Story of Mac Da Thó’s Pig – part 1

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.

An accurate depiction of my feelings on beginning this.
An accurate depiction of my feelings on beginning this.

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.

This is you, Ailill, Medb and Conchobur. This is how you sound.
This is you, Ailill, Medb and Conchobur. This is how you sound.
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.

I said
I said “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.

We're cool here, you know?
We’re cool here, you know?
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.”

You see how I'm setting this advice up for failure?
You see how I’m setting this advice up for failure?
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.

He's not wrong.
He’s not wrong.
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.”

You're singing it in your head now, aren't you?
You’re singing it in your head now, aren’t you?

“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.

Everyone gets a slam in medieval Irish literature.
Everyone gets a slam in medieval Irish literature.
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.

As ever the Irish is here and a slightly older translation. This is one of the tales to feature in the Penguin Early Irish Myths and Sagas too, so you should probably get your hands on that.

The Tragic Death of Celtchar mac Uthechair

Because it was National Dog Day this week and because I bored people on holiday the week before that with tales of the Luch Donn, I have to decided to tell you The Tragic Death of Celtchar or Aided Cheltchair maic Uthechair. These aren’t flimsy reasons. You’re flimsy reasons!

If you keep this image in your head as we go on it'll be more tragic.
If you keep this image in your head as we go on it’ll be more tragic.

It begins, as these stories tend to do, with a rich hospitaller named Blái. Not only did he have the most cows for miles around but he was also under a geis. In case you were wondering, a geis is a supernatural command which, if you don’t follow it, will lead to your death. Intense responsibility. Blái’s geis was to sleep with every woman who came to his house without her husband. As a hospitaller this was a fair few women. He didn’t complain much until Brig Brethach, Celtchar’s wife, came to his house unaccompanied. Blái was pretty dismayed at this because he was an old man at this stage and he knew what Celtchar’s reaction would be if he slept with his wife. But Brig, the saucy minx, incites Blái to sleep with her, which he does. Once more medieval literature portrays women in a realistic and sympathetic light.

Look at her. With those
Look at her. With those “uphold your geis” eyes.
When Celtchar finds out he chases Blái to the royal court of Ulster. At the court Cú Chulainn, the most famous hero of Ulster, and Conchobur, the king, are playing a game of fidchell, which is sort of medieval Irish chess or backgammon. Blái runs behind the two Ulster grandees, presumably seeking their aid. However we’ll never know because at that moment Celtchar throws his spear which goes through the hospitaller, pinning him to the wall. A drop of blood runs down to the spear and falls onto the fidchell board between Cú Chulainn and Conchobur.

Conchobur sucks his teeth and looks meaningfully at Cú Chulainn.

“Well, Conchobur” says Cú Chulainn, raising his eyebrows.

“One of us should do something about this”

“You’re right. Who’s been most insulted by this vicious murder?”

“Probably you, Cú Chulainn. The drop of blood is closer to you after all.”

“I beg to differ, my king. I think you’ll find it’s closer to you. And you’re the king.”

In the end they measure the board to see who the drop of blood is closest to. Turns out it was Conchobur all along. However in this delay Celtchar escapes to Munster.

K-9 represents Cú Chulainn.
K-9 represents Cú Chulainn.
The people of Ulster are very upset. Not only has their hospitaller been killed but one of their best champions is hiding out down south. So that they don’t end up losing two heroes they ask Conchobur to bring Celtchar back to them. The king sends Celtchar’s own son to Munster to ask him to come back. The son is also to act as Celtchar’s surety if any treachery is being planned. This is a medieval Irish legal slam. Trust me on that.

“What brings you here, son?” asks Celtchar seeing his boy arrive from the north.

“I’ve been sent by the men of Ulster to take you home, dad”.

“What if they’re up to something? Look what they did to Noísiu and his brothers”, Celtchar said, metatextually.

Didn't think I'd break the fourth wall, did you?
Didn’t think I’d break the fourth wall, did you?
“I am to be your surety”.

“This is a subtle slam, my boy. My own son as my surety and guarantee.! What next!?”

“You’ve hit the nail on the head there”, said a druid who happened to be nearby. “Let his name be ‘Subtle’ from now on”. So from then on Celtchar’s son was called Semon, which sounds like the diminutive of one of the Irish words for ‘subtle’. This was a very common way in which people were named in medieval Irish literature and one that I’ll use on my own child.

“I’ll go back. You stay here”, said Celtchar.

The reparations that Celtchar had to make for killing Blái were to rid the Ulstermen of the three worst pests devastating their lands. The first pest was Conganchness, who was (probably justifiably) wreaking his revenge for the Ulstermen’s killing of his brother Cú Roí. That’s quite a cool story in itself.

The problem with Conganchness was that no weapons could pierce his skin. His name is literally ‘Horny-skin’. Celtchar’s plan began with marrying his daughter, Niamh, to this worst pest in Ulster. Maybe treachery’s afoot but Conganchness doesn’t seem to realise it. Indeed, as the story goes on you’ll see that he’s not really a Mensa candidate. Niamh, using her wicked womanly wiles, one day asks Conganchness, subtle-like, how he can be killed. He replies that the only way of doing it is to drive red-hot iron spikes through the soles of his feet. And then went on with his day, wondering at his wife’s odd question.

Conganchness was the only person who could actually pull this off.
Conganchness was the only person who could actually pull this off.
So Celtchar prepares a great feast for his new son-in-law with two huge spits roasting over two huge fires. When everyone has had their fill a sleeping spell is put over the host. While they sleep Celtchar takes the two spits and rams them up the soles of Conganchness’s feet with a sledgehammer. This does the trick and in a final act Celtchar cuts his head off and buries it in a cairn.

The second pest was the Luch Donn, the Brown Mouse. This terror was found by the son of a widow in a hollow oak and the widow reared it there until it was big. In a fit of ingratitude, once it was big the Luch Donn killed the sheep of the widow, her son, and finally the widow herself. From then on it would destroy an enclosure in Ulster every night.

Terrifying.
Terrifying.
To deal with this Celtchar took an alder log as long as his arm. He hollowed it out and then boiled it in a bath of herbs, honey, and grease. This made it soft and tough (don’t try this with a real alder log). He then went to the Mouse’s cave. The Mouse came out, snout in the air, sniffing at the smell of the fragrant log. Our hero waved the log in front of the beast’s face until it snapped at the log and took it in its jaws. Because of the herbal treatment, the log was sticky and tough so the Mouse’s teeth stuck in it. Celtchar then shoved his arm down the hollow into the Mouse’s throat and ripped out its heart. Metal.

Now it had been a year since Celtchar buried Conganchness’s head in a cairn and the people who lived nearby started to hear yelps and whimpers from the pile of stones. When they shifted the stones they found three puppies in the cairn: a brown one, a spotted one and black one. The brown dog was given to Culann the smith and we all know what happened there; the spotted one to Mac Dá Thó and it caused much trouble; and finally the black dog was given to Celtchar who named him Dóelchú.

I know. Sometimes this blog is too realistic.
I know. Sometimes this blog is too realistic.
Dóelchú was a fierce old thing and would only let Celtchar control him. One day he broke free and started to slaughter the herds and flocks near where Celtchar lived. As the hero was away at the time, nothing could be done to stop Dóelchú ravaging the land and becoming the third pest Celtchar had to deal with. He gathers some men and goes to the copse where Dóelchú was hiding.

Celtchar calls the hound three times and he eventually comes out of the undergrowth to his master. He begins to lick Celtchar’s feet.

“It’s a real shame,” say the people who have come with Celtchar. “A real Old Yeller moment. We’re choking up.”

“I’ll not be shamed for this dog’s sake!” cries the hero and stabs the hound with his spear.

The people start crying and Celtchar is similarly moved. As he is raising his spear out of the dead dog a drop of its blood runs down the shaft. At this stage I’m going to have to rely on a literal translation because this makes little sense: The drop of blood ran down the length of the spear and went through him to the ground so that he died of it. Celtchar was then buried and his lament was sung.

Totes emosh.
Totes emosh.

Once more we have some classic misogynist presentations of women. The one of the widow, suckling the great pest Luch Donn, is particularly interesting.
As a death tale we have the geis which often appears in these types of story, as well as the air of the ridiculous, which appears more often. The motif of the drop of blood on the spear neatly ties the thing up, as does the idea of destruction falling back on itself.

As always here are the translation and the Irish.

The Head of Donn Bó

You may be wondering why this site is called ‘The Head of Donn Bó’. Well, I don’t have to explain myself to you. However, I will. It comes from the tale known as Cath Almaine, The Battle of Allen, which is written in Old Irish.

Once upon a time there was great warfare between the north and the south of Ireland. Plus ça change. The king in the north was trying to gather his army but no one would come to him until he had Donn Bó in the host. Donn Bó was awesome. He was the best man in Ireland for plaiting hair, training horses and setting spears. He was the best looking man in Ireland as well. But more than this he was the best at telling stories, both tales of kings and hilarious jokes. (I know, this reminded me of me too.) However Donn Bó’s mother is very protective of him since her husband died and he has never left her house since then. Fergal, the king of the north gives her all sorts of guarantees that her son will be safe and so he gets his army.

Controlling mother. Son in the army. We've seen this before.
Controlling mother. Son in the army. We’ve seen this before.

The army of the north is led astray, taking a rambling and difficult route south to Leinster. They finally make camp in Allen beside a church. A poor leper lives nearby and sadly for him the army decide to steal his only cow. Not only that but they stab the leper with a spear. The dying leper stumbles to Fergal’s tent and curses all the men there. All except Cú Bretan who gets up to help the dying leper. This’ll become relevant later on.

With a long day’s march behind them and a dead leper in front of them Fergal decides that everyone could do with a bit of a distraction. So he turns to Donn Bó, the best story-teller in Ireland, and asks him to entertain them. The muse is not with Donn Bó that evening, however, but he promises to tell Fergal whatever story he wants the next evening, wherever he may be. In Donn Bó’s stead Hua Maiglinni, the chief buffoon of Ireland, entertains the host. He tells them all stories of the great victories of the southern Irish and the Leinstermen – foreboding! These tales put such fear into the northern Irish that they could not sleep. The massive storm that also struck that night didn’t help.

A fool and a storm from a much more famous story.
A fool and a storm from a much more famous story.

Battle is joined the next day in Duncannon. The slaughter was great, of kings and princes, lords and nobles. The bloody-mouthed goddess of death rejoiced over the number of the slain that day. Even the supernatural powers were on the Leinstermen’s side. St Colm Cille abandoned the northerners when he saw St Brigit floating over the host from Leinster. Hua Maiglinni, the royal fool, was captured. He gave a great “fool’s shout”. It was so loud that it echoed all around Ireland. Even when his throat was slit, the cry still remained in the air for three days and nights. Aed Laighen was killed while his sons were carrying his wounded body off on a litter made of their spears. Donn Bó himself was slain defending king Fergal, who was slain not long after. All the nobles who accompanied Fergal were killed. All except Cú Bretan because of the care he showed to the leper.

At the Leinster victory feast Murchad son of Bran stood up and said that he would give 21 cows to anyone who would go and fetch a man’s head from the battlefield. Baethgalach said he would go out. He strode over the bodies until he came to the place where Fergal lay. All at once a voice cried out from heaven “The Kingdom of Heaven commands you to make music and tell stories for your lord, king Fergal. Although every poet has been killed and every story-teller lies dead here, do not fear to make music tonight!”. Then Baethgalach heard the most beautiful music he had ever heard coming from heaven and the most beautiful singing and poetry coming from behind a clump of rushes.

Medieval Ireland did it first. Just saying.
Medieval Ireland did it first. Just saying.

He approached the reeds but was stopped by a voice.

“Don’t come any closer!”

“What? Who said that?” said the warrior.

“I am Donn Bó,” said the voice. “I vowed to make music and tell tales to my lord, Fergal, tonight. I will not perform any task for Murchad, so go away!”

“Where is Fergal?” asked Baethgalach.

“His is the shining body, lying just over there”, said the head of Donn Bó.

“I have to take a head from the battlefield tonight. I would prefer to take yours but if not whose should I take?”

“If it pleases Christ, you can take my head. But if you do, be sure to return me to my body after.”

So Baethgalach returned to celebrating Leinstermen with the head of Donn Bó. They all recognised the beautiful story teller and bemoaned his death. Baethgalach put the head on a pillar in the corner of the hall and asked him, in the name of Jesus, to entertain the Leinstermen as he had entertained his former lord. He does so despite his earlier protests because  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. The head turns itself to the wall and begins singing a melody sweeter than any before heard on earth. The celebrating hosts of Leinster are moved to weeping and wailing at the piteousness of the song.

See, it all makes sense now.
See, it all makes sense now.

On the next day Baethgalach returned the head to its body, as he had promised. Through the miracle of Colm Cille the head stuck on its body and Donn Bó was returned to life. He was able to return to his mother safe and sound as the only other survivor of the battle of Allen.

Fergal’s head was taken away to be buried in the west, but that is the beginning of a whole other thing and I’m not getting into that.


An old edition and translation of Cath Almaine can be found here. There is a more modern edition here, but this is only the Irish.

Obviously heads are very important in this tale, what with all the decapitations. As is the semi-magical power of poetry – it can deeply effect the emotions of all who hear it and its obligations can extend beyond the grave. This tale leans quite heavily on dramatic foreshadowing and the disastrous nature of the battle is repeatedly emphasised. There is a long list of the dead which I missed out here.

However, the disembodied head on a pole is a good image for me to use to tell tales, not just of the Leinstermen but of all medieval Ireland, to the celebrating hosts of the internet.