Category: Irish Stories

Parthalon

Ireland lay deserted and empty for 300 years, until on a Tuesday the 14th May a new group of people arrived landing in the estuary of the river Shannon.  These were the followers and family of Parthalon, a giant of a man who had travelled to Ireland all the way from Sicily.

His journey began when he committed a terrible crime in his homeland.  In order to ensure his brother ascended to the throne Parthalon killed his own mother and father.  This invoked a terrible curse that nothing he did would ever succeed.

Parthalon and his people travelled from Sicily to Greece and then on to Cappadocia, through Gothia, and finally to Ireland via Spain, a journey of just over a year.  The land that they found was not empty.  Parthalon was challenged by the shape shifting magical people known as the Formorians for dominion over the land.  They fought a magical battle standing on one leg , with one arm behind their backs and one eye closed. Though no one was killed on either side, Parthalon and his people won and the Formorians departed.

Lakes burst forth from Ireland at the moment of their victory.  The people of Parthalon were industrious and set about clearing plains for agriculture.  He had brought four oxen with him, the first cattle in Ireland and a man named Breigha built the first dwelling in Ireland and was the first to cook food in a cauldron hung over the fire.  Somalia was the first to brew ale and to start the tradition of stewardship and Beur was the first person in Ireland to have a guest stay in his house.

Parthalon’s sons were the first to make a division of Ireland and they divided it into four parts.   The Parthalonian skill was in crafting something out of nothing.  They created sources of prosperity that were to last.  The main industries and means of providing for family and community and started traditions of hospitality and generosity that endure to this day.

Parthalon then made a tour of this new land to see all that had been created. He left his wife, Delgnat alone with a servant called Topa.  While he was away Delgnat seduced Topa and after they had slept together, the two of them drank ale from Parthalon’s own cup.  When he returned Parthalon drank from the same cup and tasted his wife’s lips and the servant’s lips on it and knew at once what had happened.  He flew into a rage, killing Topa, and striking Delgnat’s hound so hard he killed it too.  This was the first jealousy in Ireland.

When he turned on Delgnat, she said she was the innocent party and that the fault was his and not hers, ‘honey with a woman, milk with a cat, food with one generous, meat with a child, a craftsman with an edged tool, one before one earns great risk, the woman will take the honey, the cat will drink the milk, the generous one will give away all the food, the child will eat the meat, the craftsman will lay hold of the tool, the one with the one will always go together’.

It was agreed by all those who heard that Delgnat was in the right and this was the first judgement in Ireland and was later called the right of his wife against Parthalon.

Parthalon’s great efforts to ensure prosperity didn’t swing things in any way.  The woman’s rights were paramount.  Parthalon’s people thrived in Ireland was many years until they numbered nine thousand and then in the space of only one week Parthalon’s curse caught up with them and a plague wiped out everyone.

Nemed

The land of Ireland lay empty after Parthalon’s passing for thirty years before another group of people arrived, led by Nemed, who was a distant relative of Parthalon’s.  These people made huge change to the landscape clearing twelve plains and firmly marking their presence on the land.  Nemed had set out with thirty four ships, each crewed by thirty over a year previously.

Near the start of their voyage, the Nemedians came upon a tower of gold jutting up out of the sea, covered by sea water at high tide and laid bare by the sun’s rays at a low ebb, they were inflamed by greed at the sight of it and assaulted the Tower of Gold.  So intent were the Nemedians in taking the tower they did not notice as the sea began to rise around them sweeping their boats away and through their greed and inattention all but one ship was lost and most of Nemed’s men were drowned.   he managed to get all of the women on to the remaining ship however and arrived in Ireland with his four sons and a good host.  When they arrived four new lakes burst forth as a sign of their welcome.  Nemed’s wife, Macha, was the first of his company to die in Ireland and was buried in a place called Ard Macha, after her.  Nemed and his people had to fight against the Formorians just as Parthalon had but these were not bloodless, magical battles.  The Nemedians fought fiercely and slaughtered two great Formorian kings, Gann and Sengannn.  The Formorians were so enraged by this that they attacked the Nemedians on two later occasions and though Nemed and his people won both battles, the losses were heavy and the hatred on both sides only grew.

As well as the great work of clearing twelve plains, the Nemedians’ built two royal forts, setting in place foundations and structures that were vital for the enduring wellbeing of the people. One fort was built by Nemed’s people and the other by four Formorian brothers who dug the whole royal fort in one day but before the sun rose the next day, Nemed killed the four brothers so that they would not improve upon the fort that they had built for him.

Nemed’s people thrived in Ireland for many years but a plague came upon them and killed two thousand of their number with Nemed himself among the dead.  The Formorians saw their chance to strike at the Nemedians while they were weakened by this tragedy and took over Ireland making it a vassal state and imposing huge taxes on the people.  Two thirds of their corn, their milk and their children had to be delivered every year on Samhain to the Formorians, who were led by two kings, Morc and Conand.   The anger and sorrow grew in the hearts of the Nemedians until they could bear it no longer and gathered together to attack the Formorians.  With thirty thousand at sea and thirty thousand in ships they assaulted the Tower of Conand  on Tory Island and took it by force.   But Morc arrived with reinforcements and the magic of the Formorians caused the sea to rise.  Distracted by their battle fury the Nemedians did not notice the water rising and almost all of them were swept away and drowned.    A few survivors managed to escape on the last ship.  They split up going their separate ways.  A few returned to Ireland but the plague finished them off.  Though the women lived on a few decades longer than  the men.  A small group of them went into the north of the World where they found great wonders.  A second group led by Nemed’s son, Fergus Redside and his son, Britton Wayle went to Scotland and Britton Waye faired so well there, that the whole island was named after him.  The final group, led by Nemed’s grandson, Simeon, went to Greece where they were captured and enslaved, living under great hardship for many years.

Fir Bolg

Ireland was left empty for 200 years after the Nemedians were scattered.  The survivors of the Nemedian attack on Conand’s Tower who fled to Greece following Semeon, faired very badly there.  There were enslaved for 200 years and made to labour long hours under the hot sun, carrying heavy sacks of clay on their backs.  Their task was to carry the clay to rough mountain peaks until the mountains had such a covering that they became as flowery and fertile as the plains.  They became known as the Fir Bolg, which means the men of the sacks because of these sacks of clay that they were always hauling.

But the Fir Bolgs kept their spirits up by telling each other stories of Ireland, their birth right.  And at last the day came when they were able to escape.  They used the very same sacks that had been their burden to build canoes and coracles and fled from Greece.

The Fir Bolg fleet, such as it was, did not hold together on the voyage and the people landed at different times.  One group, led by the Chieftain Slanga, and his wife Etair, landed first on Saturday the 1st August and then the Chieftains, Gann and Segann, landed on Tuesday with their wives and Oist and Fuath and all their followers and on Friday the last of the Fir Bolg arrived led by the Chieftains, Genann and Rudraige and their wives Liebar and Connacha.  They met together and decided that since they were all kin they would consider this the one taking of Ireland and not fight among themselves.  No lakes burst forth when they landed and they cleared no new plains nor had they to fight against the Formorians for dominion over Ireland.  They did decide to divide Ireland between these five chieftains and that was the first division of the provinces we still know today.

They named the Southern most province, Munster, and it became the land of poetry and music.  Leinster, in the East, was the land of prosperity and Connacht the land of wisdom, while in the North, the stony soil of Ulster bred strong men and women and became the land of warfare and strife.  In the centre, Meath was the province of the High King, which unified all the others with the seat of the Kings at Tara and the seat of the Druids at Uisneach.

The Fir Bolg ruled Ireland for thirty seven years and had nine kings in all that time. Their first high king of Ireland, Slainge, was the first person ever to be the King of all Ireland. But he only ruled for a year before dying of the plague.  The last king, Eochy, ruled for ten years and during his reign there was no wet except for the dew which fell at night and no year without harvest.  Falsehoods were expelled from Ireland and the law of justice was enacted for the first time, but at the end of thirty seven years, King Eochy was brought news, a new group of people had come to Ireland and they had burned their ships behind them on the beach.

The Tuatha de Danann had arrived.

Brigid the Saint

Daughter of a wealthy landowner Dubthach and a slave woman, Brigid was born on the 1st day of February at the instant the sun came over the horizon. When she was born a light shone out from her forehead so brightly that all the neighbours came running fearing that the house was on fire. Dubthach, a devout pagan, named his daughter Brigid in honour of the pagan goddess and the young girl grew up very beautiful.

Though her father feared she might be half a fool she gave away everything to those in need. She gave meat meant for her father’s table to a starving dog, but when she realised that she would get in trouble and said a prayer the joint became whole again. She gave a pail of milk to an old beggar woman but when she tried to milk the cow again, it gave her three more pails of milk. Most troubling of all when her father brought her before the High King to see if anything could be done with her, she gave away his jewelled dagger to a beggar while he and the king where talking. Luckily the High King convinced him that this girl was special.

The girl Brigid heard the sermons of St. Patrick and she decided that she wanted to dedicate her life to this Christian God. But there was no place for women in the Church at the time. Her mother invited the Bishop to come to their house and meet her daughter sure that he would see her potential. When the girl was called in from the fields where she had been working she hung up her cloak and went to shake the Bishop’s hand only to find that he was gaping at her. She had hung her cloak up on a sun beam and had not even noticed.

With this and the other miracles she had performed, Brigid was welcomed into the early Church but her father was not at all happy about this. He did not want anything to do with this new religion and he tried to force her to marry. She was very beautiful and he was able to find a suitor for her without too much trouble. The night before her wedding Brigid prayed to God for help and in the morning when her bridegroom saw her he was horrified. His lovely bride had transformed into a hideous crone. Brigid said that if he released her he would go to a certain spot in the woods and would find there a lovely maiden and everything he said would be pleasing to her. The young man readily agreed and both he and Brigid were happy. Her new hideous appearance remained until the day she took her vows as a nun when her beauty was restored to her. It was because of this beauty that a man tried to entrap her thinking that if he seduced her once she would have to leave the Church and become his wife. He gave her a precious brooch and charged her with keeping it safe knowing that if she failed in this he would have a claim over her. He stole the brooch from her and cast it into the sea. When he went and asked her for the brooch back, of course Brigid could not find it. She asked him to stay for dinner while it was searched for and she blessed the fish she was about to carve for the meal. When she cut into the fish, she found the same gold brooch in its belly. The man bowed to St. Brigid in remorse.

St. Brigid attracted many followers, women who wanted to join her on this path. She started to look for a place to build her Abbey. She went to the King of Leinster and asked for a piece of land from him. He laughed at her, but when she smiled at him and asked for only the land that her cloak could cover, he agreed to that. So St. Brigid spread her cloak out on the ground and it grew and grew until it covered the whole province. When the King cried out that he was ruined, St. Brigid told him that she would only take what she needed provided he learnt his lesson and not be so tight fisted in the future.

She built a great Abbey in Kildare on the same site as the Grove of the Goddess, Brigid. For centuries to follow, the Abbess of Kildare would be regarded as the superior general over all the monasteries of Ireland, equal in authority to any bishop.

St. Brigid became famous for her healing, her kindness and the abundance that seemed to follow her wherever she went. One day a woman gave her a gift of apples and saw her go only a short way down the road where she gave them to a bunch of lepers. The woman was angry and thereafter her orchard did not bare any fruit. Another woman gave her the same gift but did not object when Brigid gave the fruit away to beggars but asked instead for her garden to be blessed. St. Brigid told her to cut shoots from a certain tree in her garden and that all the trees that grew from that one would bare twice as much fruit as an ordinary one.

On her father’s deathbed, Dubthach’s daughter returned to tend him and spoke to him of the faith of Christ but the staunch old pagan refused to convert. Picking up rushes from the floor, St. Brigid wove a cross with four equal arms and told him the story of the crucifixion, whereupon Dubthach agreed to convert to Christianity. To this day, the same cross is woven from rushes on the 1st February and hung in houses to protect against fire and to bring good luck. One day on a journey, she met a man carrying a sack of salt and asked him for a little to season her porridge. He refused, claiming that he was carrying stones. St. Brigid replied, “stones be they so” and the man was crushed under the sudden weight of his sack. Once she visited the halls of a king who was absent. His sons welcomed her in but they were terribly ashamed that their father was gone and taken all of the musicians and entertainers with him. So they could not offer her any music at all. She noticed that there were harps hanging on the walls and asked if the King’s sons would play those for her. But they were sad to say that none of them had any musical talent. She touched each of them lightly on the fingers and asked again that they play for her. To their astonishment, when they took the harps down to play they were able to play the most beautiful music. St. Brigid passed a fine night with the best of entertainment in the world and thereafter those king’s sons became famous harpers.

One of St. Brigid’s young nuns failed in her vows of chastity and gave in to youthful desire. She became pregnant. When she confessed to St. Brigid, sobbing, St. Brigid forgave her. St. Brigid laid her hands on the woman’s womb and prayed. Without pain and without delivery the child disappeared from her womb and the nun’s chastity was restored to her so she was able to resume her good work in St. Brigid’s Order. Her convent became a beacon for young women in particular who wanted to learn and she kept a flame burning in a sacred grove that only could be attended by women. St. Brigid’s flame burned as late as the 16th Century when it was extinguished by a Vatican priest as a pagan relic. However, the Brigidine Order relit St. Brigid’s flame in 1993 and it burns to this day in the town of Kildare.

Brigid the Goddess

Daughter of the Daghda and the Morrigan the Goddess Brigid was born on the 1st day of February which became her sacred day of Imbolg. She was born with flames around her forehead just as the sun came over the horizon. Now the Morrigan not being the most nurturing of goddesses, the infant Brigid was suckled by another worldly cow, white, with red ears and grew up in the other world tending to an apple orchard whose bees moved between this world and the other world. Brigid loved learning, knowledge and inspiration and she set up a school of sorts in Kildare where she tended to a sacred grove. Her followers were instructed for ten years and she taught them how to gather healing herbs and tend to livestock, how to forge iron into tools. They would spend thirty years in service to her, the first ten years in learning, the second ten years in tending to her sacred grove and working and the final ten years in teaching.

There was an ancient oak tree in her grove in Kildare as well as a healing well and a sacred flame. Nineteen of her followers, all women, tended this flame. Each one had to watch over it for a day not letting it go out and on the 20th day, Brigid herself would tend to this everlasting flame. She was said to reward any offering to her so people started the custom of throwing coins into wells to honour her. She lit the fire of inspiration in the hearts of poets and musicians and is said to have been married to Senchán Torpéist, the author of the Tain Bo Cuainge.

One day two lepers came to her for healing and she told them to bathe each other in her sacred well until their sores were gone. The first leper bathed his companion faithfully and the sores fell away from his skin until he was completely healed. But when the healed man looked at his fellow, he felt such revulsion that he could not bring himself to touch the other even to bathe him. When Brigid found out that he hadn’t held up his end of the bargain, she was furious and she struck him down with leprosy again. She then wrapped the other leper in her mantle and his disease was gone from him in an instant.

She was said to have consorted with Breas, the handsome young king whose misrule lead to the second battle of Moytura. They had a son together called Ruadhan who grew up to be a great warrior and fought with his father’s Formorians against his mother’s people in the battle. Ruadhan tried to kill his uncle, Gobniu, the Smyth, but the craftsman struck a blow against Ruadhan who died instead. When her son fell, Brigid made the first keening over his body, the sound was so loud and so sorrowful that it took the battle fury out of all that were still fighting and they lay down their arms at the sound of it.

Brigid was worshipped as the Goddess of Leinster and invoked by Leinster men when they went into Battle. She was especially invoked by midwives, being associated with women, healing and childbirth. Her healing cloak could expand in size as needed and she could spread it all over Ireland in times of need. She was said to spread her cloak over Ireland at her festival day of Imbolg on the 1st February to usher in the change of seasons and turn winter into spring. Solar crosses with four arms equal in length were woven on Imbolg to honour Brigid’s role in changing the four seasons and were kept in people’s houses to invoke the goddess’s protection. The first dew of the morning fell from her cloak on that day and any rag left out to catch it would be infused with Brigid’s healing and could be laid on a sick person for the curing of sore throats and other ailments.

The Children of Lir

When the Tuatha de Dannan ruled over Ireland, there once arose a conflict over who the next High King would be. Two chieftains emerged as the strongest candidates: Lir of Derravaragh and Bobh Dearg of Munster. They were evenly matched in almost all ways, but when it came to choose between them, one thing swayed the people to Bobh Dearg’s side. Bobh Dearg was married to a woman who was his equal, and Lir was alone. So Bobh Dearg was made King, and Lir returned home empty handed and angry.

Bobh Dearg was worried that Lir might be angry enough at his defeat to start trouble, or even rise up against him, so to make peace between them, he invited Lir to visit. After feasting for three days and three nights, he asked Lir which of his three beautiful daughters he liked best. Lir replied that though they were all fine women, he loved Bobh Dearg’s daughter Aobh the best. Now, this had of course been Bobh Dearg’s plan all along: to make Lir a part of his family through marriage so that the other man would be bound to him by ties of love and friendship.

Aobh and Lir were married, and returned to his home, where they were very happy together. Their joy only increased when Aobh had a child, a daughter named Fionnoula, and again they were delighted when Aobh bore a son named Aodh. When Aobh became pregnant a third time, they eagerly awaited the new addition to their family; twin boys named Conn and Fiachra. But the strain of giving birth to twins was too much, and shortly after they were born, Aobh died.

Lir was distraught. He missed his wife terribly, but he consoled himself with his children, delighting in them, keeping them close by him all day, and all of them sleeping together in one big bed by night. His favourite thing was to hear the children singing, their sweet voices twining in beautiful harmonies. Bobh Dearg was sorely grieved when he heard of his daughter’s death, and he asked his other two daughters if one of them would be wiling to go to Lir, and be his new wife, and help to take care of the children.

Aoife agreed to the match. She married Lir, and was well pleased with the day, and she set herself to be a mother to her sister’s children. But Aoife found that there was no room for her in that house. Lir barely paid attention to her; all his focus was on his children, who did not need or want a mother, when their father already doted on them so. Shut out of his happy family, Aoife began to grow bitter. She thought long and hard about her situation, and saw no way out for her, but one.

One day, she went to Lir and asked him if she could take the children to visit her father Bobh Dearg. Lir was very reluctant to let the children leave his side – they had never been apart from him since the day they each were born – but Aoife had the children so excited to go and see their grandfather that they began to beg him to let them go, and at last he relented.

Aoife set out with the four children, and on the way she stopped by Lake Derravaragh, not far from their father’s castle. There she got down from her chariot and told the children to go swimming. It was a hot day, so the boys ran straight into the water, throwing off their clothes. But Fionnoula paused, full of misgivings. She asked her stepmother was she going to come with them? But Aoife did not reply. When the four children were in the water, Aoife pulled out a wand and transformed the children into swans. At the last minute, seeing the look in Fionnoula’s eyes, she amended her curse, leaving the children their human voices and their human reason.

Transformed, the children wept. They begged their stepmother to undo the curse, but Aoife was unable to change them back, so powerful was the spell she had created. Instead, she put an ending to it. She told the children that they would have to spend three hundred years on that very lake, three hundred years on the stormy sea of Moyle between Ireland and Scotland, and three hundred years on another lake, and would regain their human forms when a king’s son from the north married a king’s daughter from the south.

Then Aoife got back into her chariot, and went to visit her father. She spent a moth in Bobh Dearg’s house, and told him the children were still with their father. When the time came for her to return, she told Lir that the children had decided to stay with their grandfather. But her deception could not go unnoticed forever. At length, Lir set out to fetch his children back, and both he and Bobh Dearg were shocked when each realized the other did not have the children. Both men raced back to Lir’s castle to confront Aoife, but on the way they heard the sound of children’s voices coming from the lake.

Lir searched high and low for his children along the lakeshore, but he could not find him; the only living things on the lake were four beautiful swans. But then the swans swam over to him, and he heard his children’s voices speaking out of the birds’ beaks.

They told him what their stepmother had done to them. In retaliation for her crime, Bobh Dearg transformed Aoife into a demon of the air, and she went shrieking off into the sky to be buffeted and blown about. And when the wind blows hard, sometimes you can hear her shrieking still.

Lir did everything he could to ease the children’s transformation. He brought his whole household to the lakeshore, and he held feasts and games and entertainments all day long for his children, so that they could almost forget that they were swans. At night, they would swim out over the lake and sing together for their father’s people on the shore.

Three hundred years passed quickly. Then the day came when the four children were compelled to fly away. They took their leave of their father and his people, promising to come and find them after the three hundred years on the Sea of Moyle were past, and then they took to the air.

The Sea of Moyle was a vicious, stormy place, and the four swans were buffeted by the high waves, and shivered in the cold winds. Fionnoula found a jagged rock for them to perch on, and they agreed that if they were ever separated by the rough waves and weather, they would look for each other there. The first time a storm blew in, they were scattered from each other. Fionnoula came first to the rock, and waited long for her brothers. One by one, bedraggled and exhausted, they made their weary way to the meeting-place. Fionnoula placed her brother Aodh beneath the feathers of her breast to warm him, and took Conn and Fiachra each under one wing, and she sang to them to keep their spirits up.

Every time a storm came, the swans were scattered, and Fionnoula held her brothers in its aftermath. In summer, the sea was stormy and rough, but in winter conditions were even worse. The icy water was so cold it froze their feathers, and broke them away, leaving their raw skin exposed to the sting of salt water.

Three hundred years passed slowly. At last the day came when the swans could fly back to Ireland, to go to the last of the lakes. They detoured on their way, flying over Lough Derravaragh, hoping to call out to their father. But they flew over tumbled stone, with grass growing through the cracks, and saw no sign of their father or his people. The time of the Tuatha de Dannan had passed while they were gone, and their father was gone. Sadly they settled on the lake, and though they grieved that they would never see their father or their people again, they were relieved to be on so gentle a lake after enduring such hardship on the Sea of Moyle.

The years passed. A long time later, a monk named Malachi came to live on an island in the middle of the lake, and began to build a monastery there. He saw the four beautiful swans swimming stately by, but he was shocked when he heard them sing and speak in human voices! Malachi spoke to the swans, and they told him their sad story. He told them in turn of his god, stories of the Bible and Jesus Christ. Fionnoula and her brothers were very interested in the new faith, and asked if they could convert, but Malachi explained that as they were swans, they could not. He did, however, continue to teach them the new faith, and the five of them had many spirited conversations. The swans would sing for Malachi in the evenings, glorious melodies and sad songs of loss for their old life.

One day, messengers came to the lake from the king’s son of Munster. They told Malachi that their master was going to get married that very day to the king’s daughter of Ulster, and for a wedding gift, the bride had asked for four swans from her betrothed. They had heard that the swans of this lake were magical, and sang, and they had come to bring the swans away with them, to give to the bride as a gift.

No sooner had they caught the four swans and pulled them from the lake, however, than the feathers melted off their bodies, and they turned back into their human forms! The wedding had fulfilled the final condition of Aoife’s curse, and they were restored. But when they looked at each other, they could see that these were not the bright children of Lir any longer. Nine hundred years old, each of them was wizened, white-haired and ancient.

Knowing they would not live long now that the magic was not sustaining them, Fionnoula begged Malachi to baptize them all so that they might go together to Heaven. He did this, and with her last breath, Fionnoula told him her last wish: that her brother Aodh be buried at her breast, Conn under her right arm and Fiachra under her left, the way that she had held them when they were swans.

The Pillow Talk of Maeve and Aillil

One morning Queen Maeve of Cruachan Ai was lying in bed with her husband and consort, Aillil, and he began to tease her.

“Isn’t it true what they say,” Aillil said, “That it’s luck the woman who marries a wealthy man.”

“True enough,” said Maeve, “But I don’t see what that has to do with us – I was wealthy long before I met you.”

“Ah, but your wealth was a woman’s wealth,” Aillil said, “And any warrior could have come and taken it from you.”

The humour went out of Maeve’s voice, then. “Are you forgetting,” said she, “That I am a warrior also, and a leader of warriors. I was well able to defend my kingdom before I married you.”

But Aillil protested that her status had been greatly increased by marrying him: he was, after all, the son of the King of Leinster. Maeve grew angry. She was the daughter of the High King of All Ireland! Moreover, Connaught was traditionally ruled by a Queen, and not a King, and so she held a greater status in Connaught as Queen than Aillil did as her consort. She had wealth in abundance, was famed for her generosity, courted by kings and the sons of kings, and it was Aillil that should be grateful to have married her!

Now Aillil’s pride was up, and he insisted that he was the higher ranking of the two, that he was wealthier than she was.

Maeve pointed out that he had pursued her, and she had only agreed to marry him because he was as generous as she (she could not be with a man less generous than she was), as brave as she (she could not be married to a man who hid behind her), and had promised to be without jealousy (for Queen Maeve never had a lover without another one waiting outside the door).

Their argument turned bitter, and the two of them decided that the only way to settle the matter was to make a tally of all of their possessions, count them all up and see which one of them had the most wealth.

So they counted. First they counted gold and silver and bronze, ornaments and rings and precious stones, bracelets and bangles. All was piled up before them, and for every gem of Maeve’s, there was an equal one of Aillil’s. Then they had their clothes counted up: linens and silks and wools, and for every fine cloak of Aillil’s, Maeve had its equal.

They counted up the men who owed them loyalty. They counted up the serfs who worked for them, they counted up the grain in the storehouses, and at last they began to count up their livestock. Pigs and sheep and dogs were counted, and there was no single creature owned by Maeve that Aillil had not the equal of. And so at last they turned to the greatest source of their wealth; their cattle.

And there, at last, they found a difference.

In all things they were equal, every cow and calf, except for one great white-horned bull in Aillil’s herd. Fionnbanach, the white-horned bull of Cruachan Ai, was a magnificent creature, no one had seen the like of him before. And Aillil took great delight in pointing out to Maeve that Fionnbanach had been born to a cow in her herds, but had run away to join Aillil’s herd when he learned that he was owned by a woman. And Maeve had generously given him to Aillil.

Now if Aillil considered the matter settled to his advantage, then he did not know his wife. Maeve consulted with her herald, Mac Roth, to know if there was any bull as good as the White-Horned Bull of Cruachan Ai in all of Ireland. Mac Roth was able to tell her that there was a bull even more magnificent in Ulster, in Cooley, owned by a man named Daire. He was called Donn Cualigne, the Brown Bull of Cooley.

So Maeve bade Mac Roth go with messengers to the house of Daire in Cooley. “Ask him for the loan of his bull for a year,” Maeve said, “And as a fee for the loan, I will give him fifty heifers. And if there is any objection to him sending his magnificent bull away, let him come with his bull, and I will give him the equal of his lands in Cooley on the plains of Ai, and a chariot, and my own close friendship.”

Mac Roth set out on his journey, taking nine men with him on the road, and when he relayed Maeve’s message to Daire, Daire was only too delighted to agree. The friendship of Maeve and the fabulous price she had offered was more than generous. So he offered the messengers of Connaught a great feast to celebrate.

After Daire and his wife had gone to bed, the men of Connaught stayed up drinking, and some of them grew careless with their words, boasting about the might of their Queen, until one said “It’s a good thing Daire is giving us this bull by choice; if he did not, Queen Maeve would surely take it by force!”

A servant overheard this, and reported to Daire, who was furious at the insult. In the morning, when the messengers asked Daire to show them to the bull, he told them to get out, and go back to their Queen empty-handed. It was only the law of hospitality that kept him from taking revenge on them for their insolence! He told them that if their Queen thought she could take his bull by force, she was welcome to try. He put his faith in his King, Connor Mac Nessa, and Warriors of the Red Branch to protect him from her.

When Maeve heard this, she sent messengers out to her six sons (all named Maine), to her loyal friends throughout Ireland, and Aillil send messengers too to all those in Ireland who owed friendship to him, and the great host of the men of Ireland assembled on the plain of Cruachan Ai, and prepared to invade Ulster and take the Donn Cualigne by force.

The Manor of Tara

Every three years, the High King of Tara had to throw a feast for all the people of Ireland, lasting seven days and seven nights. One High King, Diarmait son of Cerball, was finding it hard to cover the expense of this feast, and he looked out at the great plain of Tara, with seven views on every side, and he wondered if he might cultivate some of that good green land, and put it to profit, to offset the costs of the feast.

All the people of Ireland began to arrive for the great feast in Tara: kings and queens, chieftains and chieftainesses, youths and their loves, maidens and their lovers, people of all degree and class arrived, and were seated according to their station: the kings and ollaves (that is the highest rank of bard) sat around the High King, the warriors and fighting men were all put together, and the youths and maidens and proud foolish folk were put in the chambers around the doors, and everyone was given their proper portion of the feast, and though the best of the fine fruit and oxen and boars went to the kings and ollaves, nobody at all would go hungry.

But when the High King Diarmait mentioned that he was considering reappointing the Manor of Tara, all the people said that they would wait and not eat a bit until such an important matter as this was decided. But Diarmait was uneasy about making such a huge decision on his own, so he sent for the wisest man he could think of: Fiachra, son of the embroideress, who was Saint Patrick’s successor in Ireland. But when the question was put to Fiachra, he refused to answer it. “There is another man, wiser and older than myself,” he said, “and that is Cennfaelad, who got a wound to the head in the Battle of Moy Rath, that took the brain of forgetfullness out of his head, so the remembers everything, and can forget nothing.”

But Cennfaelad, too, refused to answer the question of what to do with the Manor of Tara. He insisted they ask his five seniors, the oldest and wisest people in Ireland. But when the five elders arrived, they wouldn’t partition Tara and its manor unless their senior said it was alright.

At this stage, Diarmait was getting frustrated, and the feast was growing cold, so he sent at once for the man named by the five seniors of Ireland. That man was called Fintan Mac Bochra, and he had lived for so long that his legend had grown and fallen again into obscurity, until only the oldest and wisest people had ever heard of him.

Fintan had his home in Tulcha in Kerry at that time, and the people in Tara had to wait until he was sent for, and brought before them. Fintan was given a great welcome in the banqueting house, and everyone was keen to hear his words and his stories, they knew this was a rare thing to have such a sage in their company. They asked him to sit in the judge’s seat, but Fintan refused until he knew what question they had to put to him. He said they shouldn’t make a fuss over him, because he knew he was welcome anywhere in Ireland: Ireland was his fostermother, and Tara was her knee that he rested on, and Ireland had sustained him throughout all the long years of his life, from the time of the Deluge until that time.

He told them of all the Invasions of Ireland, an eyewitness account of their ancient history, and told them how, when Saint Patrick came to Ireland, Fintan converted to the Faith of the King of the cloudy heaven.

Someone in the crowd wanted to know how good Fintan’s memory might be, since he had lived for so long and it might be starting to go. “Well,” said Fintan, “One day I was walking the in the woods of West Munster, and I picked a berry from a yew tree.” He told them where he’d planted the berry, described how it grew, into a magnificent tree. And when the yew tree died of old age, he cut it down and made into churns and pitchers and useful wooden tools. And those vessels served him well, until they began to decay. So he cut out the bad wood, and salvaged the good, and made new vessels (but from every churn, he got only a pitcher, and from every barrel, not more than a plank). “And where are those pitchers that I re-made?” said Fintan, “Gone to dust now, on account of their great age.”

Dairmait was very impressed with Fintan’s great age and great wisdom, and explained to Fintan that he thought the manor of Tara was going to waste, and he thought it would be best to partition it and use it for something profitable. And he asked Fintan if he had any knowledge from history that would help them in the settling of the manor of Tara.

Fintan said that he had, and he told them this story:

“Once, long, long ago, we were holding a great assembly of the men of Ireland, the king at that time was Conaing Bec-eclach. On a day in that assembly, we saw a great hero coming towards us from the west. He was huge. The top of his shoulders were as high as a wood, you could see the sun and the sky between his legs. He was comely as well as tall, and wore a shining crystal veil about him as if it were linen, and had sandals on his feet, and even I don’t know what wonderful material they were made of. His hair was golden-yellow, and fell in curls to the level of his thighs. And in his left hand he was carrying stone tablets, and in his right hand, he was carrying a branch with three fruits on it: nuts, and apples and acorns. He strode past us and around the assembly, with is great branch of wood, and someone called out to him to come and speak with the king, Conaing Bec-eclach. He answered then, and said “What do you desire of me?”

“”To know where you come from, and where you’re going, and to know your name,” we answered.

“The giant said, “I come from the setting of the sun and I am going into the rising of the sun, and my name is Trefuilngid Tre-eochair.”

“”And what has brought you to the setting, if you were at its rising?” we asked.

“”A man who has been tortured,” said he, “A man in Palestine has been tortured today, and crucified to death, and the sun could not bear to look down on them, so I came to find out what ailed the sun.” And then he asked us, “What is your race?” he asked, “and whence have you come to this island?”

“”From the Children of Mil of Spain and from the Greeks are our people sprung,” we said, and told him all of the comings of the people to Ireland, and the history of the Sons of Mil before they came to Spain, the same story I told to all of you.

“What land is Spain?” asked Trefuilngid.

“You can just about see it in the distance in the south, for our people came here when Ith son of Breogan saw the mountains of Ireland from the top of the tower of Breogan in Spain, and following him the sons of MIl came.”

“And how many of you are in this island?” asked Trefuilngid, “I would like to see you assembled in one place.”

“Conaing said he’d assemble all the people of Ireland for Trefuilngid to see if he wanted, but he thought it would distress the people to feed such a great man as Trefuilngid. But Trefuilngid assured him that the branch in his hand would serve him for food and drink as long as he lived. So, for forty days and nights, Trefuilngid stayed with us all, until all the men of Ireland were assembled for him at Tara. And when he saw them all in one place, he asked them for the chronicles of the men of Ireland in the royal house of Tara. But the people replied that they had no real storytellers to entrust the chronicles to.

“Then Trefuilngid said that he would establish the progression of the stories and chronicles of the hearth of Tara with the four quarters of Ireland all about, because he was the most learned witness among them. And he asked them to bring to Tara from each quarter, the seven wisest, most prudent and most cunning people, and the shanachies, to represent the four quarters of Ireland, and so that each of the seven could take their share of the chronicles of the hearth of Tara back to his home province.

“He took those shanachies aside, and told them the chronicles of every part of Ireland, and then he took the king, Conaing, aside, to tell him how they had partitioned Ireland. Then Trefuilngid asked me, Fintan Mac Bochra to explain the partitioning of Ireland, since I was the oldest one at that assembly. I told him that Ireland was divided into five provinces: “Knowledge in the west, battle in the north, prosperity in the east, music in the south, and kingship in the centre.”

“”True indeed,” said Trefuilngid, “That is how it is, and will be forever.” And he told us where to fix the borders of all the provinces, and all the attributes of the different provinces, and marked the borders of the manor of Tara. And then Trefuilngid gave some of the berries and nuts and acorns from his branch to me and told me to plant them in the places I thought they would grow best in Ireland. Great trees sprang from each of the berries, and I watched them all grow from saplings, and watched them all wither and die with age in the end.”

After this great story, Fintan sang of his great age, and his duty as a shanachie, to bring clear testimony to the sons of Mil. He went on telling stories of Ireland to the men of Ireland, as they sat and listened with wide and wondering eyes, right up until his summoning by Diarmait son of Cerball that very day. And Fintan’s judgement was: “Let it be as we have found it, and not go against the arrangement that Trefuilngid Tre-eochair left us, because he was either an angel of God, or he was God Himself.”

Then the nobles of Ireland came with Fintan to Uisneach, and they took leave of each other from the top of Uisneach. And Fintan set up a pillar-stone with five ridges on the summit of Uisneach, and assigned a ridge of it to every province in Ireland, showing that Tara and Uisneach are in Ireland as two kidneys are in an animal, and he marked out the portion of each province in Uisneach, and arranged the pillar stone.

And that is the story of the Settling of the Manor of Tara

The Hostel of the Quicken Trees

At one time, the Fianna were called to defend Ireland’s shores from the invading King of Lochlann. They won the battle when their leader, Finn Mac Cumhaill killed the King of Lochlann and his sons, breaking the will of the invading army. Finn spared the youngest son, Miadach, who was just a boy, and brought him back to his home as a hostage and fosterling.

Finn treated all his fosterlings well, and held no grudge against Miadach for his father’s enmity. The same could not be said for Miadach. He took all Finn’s generosity with a smile, but he nursed a secret hatred all through the years. When he came of age, Finn gave Miadach lands on the coast, and Miadach left without a backward glance.

Some time later, the Fianna were hunting. Finn and a few of his companions followed the tracks of a giant boar, and were separated from the main part of the Fianna, and there on the road, who did they meet but Miadach!

Finn greeted him warmly, and Miadach seemed delighted to see them. He invited Finn and his friends to come with him to the Hostel of the Quicken Trees for a drink. Conan Maol Mac Morna, who was known for his blunt speech as much as his bald head, protested that Miadach had never been so friendly to Finn Mac Cumhaill before, so perhaps they shouldn’t trust him! But Finn reprimanded him for his bad manners.

All the same, just to be on the safe side, Finn split up his company. Taking Conan Maol and his brother Goll with him to the Hostel, he told his own son Oisín to wait for the rest of the hunt, along with Diarmuid O’Duibhne, Caoilte Mac Ronán, and three young warriors; Fodla, Caoilte’s son Fiachna, and Fiachna’s foster-brother Innsa, to wait on the hunt, while he went with Goll Mac Morna and his brother Conan Maol to share this drink with Miadach.

Miadach led them to a lovely hostel, with Quicken-Trees all around. They could see the walls of every colour, the coverings on the floor, and the fires giving off sweet smoke through the many windows and doors. Miadach ushered them in ahead of him, and the warriors were so busy admiring their surroundings and settling in that it took them a moment to realize that he hadn’t followed them at all. He was nowhere to be seen.

Goll spoke up. “Finn. Wasn’t there a window there just a moment ago?”

Finn agreed that there was.

“Then why is it only bare planks that I see now?”

Said Conan Maol, “And weren’t there rich tapestries on those walls a moment ago? And they bare now? And wasn’t there a fire in that grate, that’s cold now? And furthermore, weren’t we sitting on grand fine couches a moment ago, when there’s bare dirt under us now!?”
In fact, all the loveliness on the hostel had vanished, and now it was a mean, bare hut, with no windows and only one door, and a dirt floor under them.

At this the warriors realized that something uncanny was afoot. They tried, each one, to leap to their feet, but found that they were stuck fast to the cold earth floor! The more that they struggled, the faster they were stuck, till soon only Finn had so much as a hand free.

Conan Maol started to curse Miadach, and curse Finn for accepting his invitation to this treacherous place!

“There’s little use in you carrying on like that,” said Finn, “Oisin and the others are only a little way off. We’ll sound the Dord Fiann, and they’ll come running and help us.”

“And get themselves just as stuck as we are!” snarled Conan Maol.

That was a fair point, so Finn put his thumb between his teeth, that he had burnt long ago on the Salmon of Knowledge, and he could straightaway see the treacherous plans of Miadach.

“It’s worse than we thought,” said Finn.

“Worse!?” cried Conan Maol, “How could it be worse?”

“Miadach has brought over the armies of the King of Torrents to destroy us. This enchantment that’s on us is wrought by that king, and only his blood can wash it away, but there are armies on the plains over the river, and they’ll be here before long to kill us, and there’s little we can do to stop them when we’re fixed to the floor like this!”

The three men then sounded the Dord Fiann, the great battle cry of the Fianna, but only Fiachna and Innsa heard, and they came running.

“Don’t come in, you eejits!” Conan Maol cried, and Finn and Goll told them all that had happened.

The two young warriors took it upon themselves to find the armies of the King of Torrents. At the bottom of the hill, they found a ford that anyone coming to the Hostel of the Quicken Trees would have to cross, and they decided to make their stand there.

That night, one chieftain under the command of the King of Torrents decided that he would take his part of the army on ahead, and kill the famous Finn Mac Cumhaill himself, and win all of the glory, but when he got to the ford, Fiachna and Innsa were waiting for him. They fought long and hard, and when dawn broke, the ford was choked with the bodies of the dead, but Innsa too had died of his terrible wounds. Fiachna had to tell Finn, and Finn wept, for Innsa had been another of his foster-sons.

The brother of the chieftain who had hoped to steal all that glory came next to the ford, and found Fiachna waiting, desperately tired, but grim with purpose. They were too frightened to attack the young man who had clearly laid waste to all the chieftain’s followers, but Miadach came then, and challenged Fiachna to combat.

Now Oisin and the others had heard nothing of all of this, so when they came to find Fiacha and Innsa, they had a terrible shock. Oisin and Caoilte, being the fastest runners, went straight away to find the rest of the Fianna, leaving Diarmuid and Folda to follow the sounds of battle till they came upon Fiachna, fighting with Miadach. Diarmuid waded in and killed Miadach, but Fiachna did not long survive his wounds.

Fodla held the ford while Dirmuid brought Miadach’s head back to the Hostel, to show Finn that the two young warriors had been avenged, and promised to hold the ford till the rest of the Fianna could come.

As soon as Diarmuid came back to the ford, Fodla fell into an exhausted sleep, even that brief amount of time was too much for any ordinary warrior of the Fianna. Bur Diarmuid was no ordinary hero. He held the ford against all the armies of the King of Torrent’s sons, and as soon as Fodla woke up, the two of them were able to work together to drive the armies back! They hunted down the three sons of the King of Torrent and cut off their heads.

Leaving Fodla to hold the line at the ford once more, Diarmuid rushed to the Hostel of the Quicken Trees, with the blood running out of the heads all the while. He went first to Finn, and had to bathe him in blood before he was able to pull himself up off the floor. Then he wen to Goll Mac Morna, and poured blood all over him, and at last to Conan Maol. But by that time, almost all the blood had run out. He was able to get Conan’s arms and legs unstuck, but his back stayed firmly tethered.
Now Conan was not known for his fine manners at the best of times, but this was too much altogether. He was never overly fond of Diarmuid in the first place, judging him far too good-looking to be a proper warrior, and he roared abuse at him, “You wouldn’t leave me till last if I was a pretty woman, you useless preener!”

Finn and Goll staggered to their feet: the enchantment had taken the strength out of them. But what was to be done with Conan Maol. He was stuck to the ground, waving his arms and legs in the air like a beetle. “If you can’t break the spell,” cried Conan, “get me up anyway.”

They grabbed hold of his arms and legs and pulled. Finn and Goll had been struck by the same enchantment, so they knew how fast it held. Conan should have been in agony, but he only roared at them to pull harder, and braced with his legs against the floor of the hostel. At last, with a terrible tearing sound, Conan Maol was pulled to his feet, but he had left all the skin of his back behind him!

Bleeding terribly, they realized they would have to do something to help him. Finn sent Diarmiud back to the ford, as there was still an army on the other side, and he could see that the King of the World had arrived with his armies to help the King of Torrents! They were still in terrible danger. Finn and Goll were too weak from the enchantment to fight, and Conan would bleed to death if they didn’t find a way to help him. Then, Finn saw a black sheep grazing nearby. He felt about a match for a sheep at that moment, so he killed the sheep and took the skin off its back and put it over the wounded Conan Maol.

There must have been some magic of adhesion still left on Conan’s back, because the skin of the sheep stuck fast to him, and before long it grew in place of his old skin, as good as new, and warmer in the winter!

By this time, Oisin had found the rest of the Fianna, and as dawn broke, Finn, Goll and Conan felt their strength coming back to them. They raced down the hill to the ford, and the whole of the Fianna together made such a slaughter of the armies of the King of the World that there were few survivors left to tell the tale.

But every year after that, in the springtime, someone in the Fianna had to sheer the wool off Conan Maol’s back.

The Gobán Saor

The Gobán Saor was the greatest craftsman and builder who ever lived in Ireland. He built mighty castles for all the lords, and for each of Ireland’s five kings. Though he was most famous for his skill as a builder, he could fashion a spear-shaft in the time it would take you to count to five, and make a spear-head with only three strokes of the hammer.

When he wanted to hammer nails into a high beam, he would fling them into the air and throw his hammer after them, catching it as it came down after driving the nails into the beam. In this way, he was able to get through the work of ten men in short order.

His fame spread all over Ireland, and after a time, his reputation reached the ears of the King of England. Now, the King of England decided that he wanted the Gobán Saor to build his castle for him, a bigger and a finer one than any other king had at that time, but he fretted that some other king could wait until his was built and then hire the Gobán Saor to build an even better one. The King of England decided that the only way to make sure this didn’t happen was to wait till his castle was built, and then do away with the Gobán Saor.

Knowing nothing of his treacherous intent, the Gobán Saor set out for England with his son. They hadn’t been on the road long when he told his son to “Shorten the road for me.” Perplexed, the lad hadn’t a clue what his father was asking him, and so the two turned around and went home again. The same thing happened on the second day, and the Gobán Saor’s wife took her son aside and asked him what was going on. When he told her, she explained the riddle to him, and sent them on their way for the third time the next morning. This time, when the Gobán Saor asked his son to “Shorten the road,” the son took his mother’s advice and told his father a story to entertain him, and make the road seem shorter!

The first house they stayed in on their journey had two daughters living in it: one dark-haired and hardworking, who didn’t sit still all evening, and the other fair-haired and charming, who preferred to sit with her hands crossed, talking by the fire than to do any work at all. The Gobán Saor saw that these girls were about the same age as his own son, and told his son he had a mind to ask for one of them for his wife. “But,” he said, “We must find out which is the better match for you.” So he called both daughters to him and gave them three pieces of advice, if they wanted to get a husband. The first: to always keep an old woman’s head by the range; the second: to warm themselves on cold mornings with their work; and the third: to take a sheep’s skin to market and come home again with the skin and it’s price.

The rest of their journey was long, and on their way they helped out anyone they could. The Gobán Saor helped a poor man who was trying to roof a circular building using only three joists, none of them long enough to span the whole breadth. He made two grooves in one end of each stick and fitted them together so that they made a triangle in the centre, with the arms of the joists resting on the edge of the roof. Later, he met a group of carpenters who were struggling to build a bridge with neither peg nor nail in any part, and showed them how to construct a brilliant bridge out of posts and crossbars that got stronger the more weight was put on it.

At last they came to the King of England’s site, and the Gobán Saor and his son set to work building the castle. It rose up out of the ground like a mushroom, so quickly and skilfully did they work, and people came from miles around to watch the Gobán Saor build.

It was not many days before the castle was almost complete. That night, a serving girl came to visit the Gobán Saor and his son. She spoke both Irish and English, and she had overheard the King of England’s plan. She warned the Gobán Saor that when he climbed the scaffold to put the final capstone in place, the King had arranged it so that the scaffold would collapse, and the Gobán Saor would be killed.

The Gobán Saor thanked her, and thought how best to get out of this. He went to the King the next day and told him that he always finished a building with a particular charm, and there was a bit of magic in it, but that he’d forgotten his tool for it. “Can my son go back and get it?” he asked. But the King refused. He didn’t want the Gobán Saor’s son to go free either, in case he might one day be his father’s match! He offered to send someone else instead.

But the Gobán Saor explained to the King that his wife would not trust just anyone with this special tool: if it wasn’t to be him or his son, it would have to be someone with royal blood. So the King of England agreed to send his own son to get the tool. The Gobán Saor told him to ask his wife for “cor in aghaidh an caim”, an Irish phrase, which meant “crooked against crooked”.

Some time later, the servants who had gone with the King of England’s son returned, downcast. They reported that the prince was having the best of times with the Gobán Saor’s wife, enjoying great hospitality and games, but that she refused to let him out of her sight, and all the Gobán Saor’s people were preventing him from leaving and said they would not let him go until her husband and son were back home safe and sound. She of course had understood her husband’s riddle at once!

The King of England was furious, but there wasn’t a thing he could do about it but to let the Gobán Saor and his son go. For their part, they held no grudge, and finished his castle to perfection before they left.

On the way home, they stopped in again at the house of the two daughters to find out how they’d fared with the Gobán Saor’s advice. The fair-haired girl spoke first. “I did exactly as you said,” she said, “And it was a disaster! First, I dug up an old woman’s skull from the churchyard and hung it up over the hob, but it frightened everyone so much I had to get rid of it. Then, on a cold morning my mother told me to card flax, so I threw it in the fire to keep myself warm and got into terrible trouble. And the worst was when I took the sheepskin to market! I asked all around to find out how to get the price of the sheepskin and be able to take it home with me, but all the merchants laughed at me, except one man who offered to give me the price of it if I followed him into a tavern, and that upset me so much I left!”

“Well, at least it shows some sense that you left,” said the Gobán Saor, “Now, your dark-haired sister, how did she get on?”

The second girl started to answer, but an old woman sitting close by the fire spoke up first. “I was destitute,” she said, “Until this girl came and found me. She’s a distant relative of mine, and she’s made sure I’ve been sitting in the warmest place in the house since she got me, right here by the fire.” That was what served the girl for “an old woman’s head by the range.” When he asked her about cold mornings, the girl replied that she had so much to do and was always keeping her hands and feet moving so she didn’t really feel the cold. Then he asked her how she had fared with the sheepskin. “I took one to market,” the girl replied, “And then stretched it and plucked off all the wool. I sold the wool, and brought the skin home with me!”

The Gobán Saor was delighted with this, and asked the man and woman of the house there and then if they would consent to her marrying his son. “And if her husband ever mistreats her, he’ll have me to answer to!” he said.

The match was made, and the Gobán Saor sent for his wife to bring the Prince of England to the wedding feast on his way back home to his father.

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