Category: Irish Stories

The Champion’s Portion 3

Part 3 – Cu Roi Mac Dara and the Beheading Test


Cu Roi Mac Dara was a great magician, who often travelled around the world in search of knowledge and wonders. No matter where he was in the world, he could keep a link to his home to know what was going on.

Sencha, the steward of Emain Macha, sent Laoighre Buadach, Conall Cearnach, and Cuchulainn to Cu Roi for him to judge which of them was the greatest warrior in Ulster, and deserving of the Champion’s Portion. Cu Roi was away on his travels at the time, but the three warriors were welcomed in by his daughter, Blathnaid, who had been left instructions by her father as to what she was to do with them.

Cu Roi Mac Dara had a way of keeping his fort safe no matter where he was in the world, by use of an enchantment. Every night, at nightfall, the fort would spin around like a mill wheel, and all the entrances would be hidden until daylight. There was a seat at the top of the fort where a single man could stand guard, and Blathnaid told the warriors that their test would be to each stand guard over Cu Roi’s fort for one night.

Laoighre took the first night, and after the fort spun itself around and all the entrances were hidden, he settled in on the seat to watch. Everything was quiet at first, and then a giant strode up out of the sea. He was carrying a sheaf of stripped oak trunks in his arms, and he started to throw them at Laoighre. Laoighre was able to doge out of their way, and he threw his spear back at the giant, but could not hit him. They exchanged missiles, neither one able to land a blow on the other, until the giant reached out with his great long arm, and though Laoighre was a large man, the giant picked him up in one hand as if he’d been an infant, and threw him over the top of Cu Roi’s fort to land in a heap on the other side.

The people inside the fort could see nothing with the walls sealed up by Cu Roi’s magic, but they heard the sound of Laoighre landing, and they thought he had leaped over the fort to show his prowess, as a challenge to the other two. When daylight came and the doors reappeared, Laoighre did not contradict them.

The next night Conall Cearnach watched, and met the same giant, and met the same fate. He said nothing about his encounter, but let the people of the fort believe that he had leaped over the fort like Laoighre.

When Cuchulainn’s turn came, he had no rest. Nine lights came over the hill, carried by nine warriors. Cuchulainn called out to them: “If you are friends, stop. If you are foes, come and be killed by me.” They attacked him, and he made a pile out of their heads. This happened three times, and only then did the same giant come striding out of the sea. He threw his oaks at Cuchulainn, and Cuchulainn threw his spears, but when the giant reached out to pick him up, Cuchulainn ran up his arm, up to his shoulder, and hacked off his head.

Not satisfied with the pile of heads, topped by the giant’s head, Cuchulainn decided that to show he was the equal of the other two warriors, he was going to have to jump over the fort, as they had done. He ran at it, and managed to jump half way up the wall, but he hit his head and bounced back down again. He tried again and again, but no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t quite jump high enough. He tried and tried, and eventually got so frustrated that he became furious. The hero light shone around his head, and he gave his hero’s salmon-leap and flung himself over the fort.

In the morning, Blathnaid declared that Cuchulainn was the victor, and should have the champion’s portion. But Laoighre Buadhach and Conall Cearnach complained that Cuchulainn must have had help from his friends in the Otherworld, and they refused to accept her judgement.

Not long after this, there was a feast at Emain Macha. Conall Cearnach was away guarding the border, and Cuchulainn was in Dun Dealgan with his wife, but all the other warriors of the Red Branch were present. Into the feast strode a tall, strange-looking man with a cow-hide tied around his waist, carrying a great big axe. He greeted the men of Ulster, and said his name was Uabh, the Stranger, and that he had been searching the length and breadth of Ireland for a man of honour, which he had not found yet. He had come to Ulster because he had heard that this was the province where the men were the bravest, and where honour was held in the highest esteem. “All I want,” Uabh said, “Is for a man to submit to my test. One man to agree to cut my head off with this axe, and then tomorrow, to let me cut his head off.”

Laoighre Buadhach volunteered, and Uabh laid his head down on the block. Laoighre brought up the great heavy axe, and swung it down on his head so hard that it went into the wood behind him. A great fountain of blood rushed out, and then to everyone’s horror, Uabh the Stranger stood up, picked up his head, pulled his axe out of the wood, and walked out the door.

Now Laoighre was terrified to face this supernatural foe the following day, and so he ran away and hid. When Uabh returned, there was no sign of Laoighre Buadhach. Uabh started to mock the men of Ulster, and say they were all cowards, and their word was worth nothing. Conall Cearnach couldn’t stand to hear his home maligned in this way, so he stepped up to take Uabh’s test. He cut off Uabh’s head, and then chopped the head in half. But Uabh stood up anyway, and picked up the pieces of his head before walking away.

The next day, Conall Cearnach was nowhere to be found. Uabh turned up and mocked the men of Ulster, calling them cowards to a man. At this, Cuchulainn leaped up and said he’d cut Uabh’s head off without any agreement. Uabh laid his head down on the block, and Cuchulainn chopped his head off, and threw it up into the rafters. As before, Uabh stood up and retrieved his head, before going on his way. The next day, Cuchulainn was terrified, and terribly sad. He did not want to die, but he could see no other option. The people of Ulster were so upset they started keening him. They tried to persuade him to run away, but Cuchulainn said that though he had no wish to die, he would rather that than break his word. Uabh arrived, and asked Cuchulainn if he was going to keep up his end of the bargain. Cuchulainn put his head onto the block. Uabh told him to stretch his neck out a little bit more, but Cuchulainn snapped at him to stop tormenting him and get it over with. Uabh lifted his great axe up, and brought it down as hard as he could, but he brought it down blunt side down, onto the ground beside Cuchulainn’s head. When Cuchulainn looked around, he saw that Uabh had transformed, and Cu Roi Mac Dara stood before him.

Cu Roi said that this had been his final test. He said that Cuchulainn was the champion of Ulster from this day forward, with the rights to the Champion’s Portion, and that his wife was the first woman in Ulster, above all the other women. Anyone who disputed this would have him to answer to, and he vowed to kill anyone who kept Cuchulainn from what was rightfully his.

And that was how the Champion’s Portion of Ulster was decided.

The Champion’s Portion 2

Part 2 – The Tests at Cruachan

After the commotion that Bicriu had stirred up at his feast, it was still left to be decided who was the rightful champion of Ulster, and who had claim to the Champion’s portion: Laoighre Buadach, Conall Cearnach, or Cuchulainn. Conchubar and his steward, Sencha, decided between them that they would take the question to the king of Connaught, Aillil, and his wife Queen Maeve, in their stronghold at Cruachan, and let them decide which of the warriors was deserving.

So they made their preparations and readied themselves to set off for Connaught. Cuchulainn told Conall Cearnach that he ought to go first, because his chariot was so lopsided that it would leave a track behind that any man could follow for a year. Conall and Laoighre were cross with him, but they got into their chariots and set out on the road. Cuchulainn stayed behind to entertain the women of Emain Macha. He took their needles off them and threw them in the air, so that the tip of each needle went through the eye of the next, joining them all together in a row, and then he gave each woman back her own needle.

Laeg, Cuchulainn’s charioteer, got very annoyed at Cuchulainn for wasting time. He called out to him; “You squinting idiot, they’ll both be at Cruachan already and the contest will be decided if you don’t get a move on!” So Cuchulainn climbed onto his chariot, and away they went. Cuchulainn had the two swiftest horses in the land: the Grey of Macha, who he had only just tamed, and the Black of Seanglan, and the two horses were so well-matched and so swift and tireless, and Laeg was so skilful in his handling of them, that they caught up to Laoighre and Conall before long, even though the other two were half way to Connaught by then.

Now, Maeve, Queen of Cruachan, was sitting with her ladies and sewing when they heard what sounded like thunder coming towards them. She had her daughter, Finnavir of the Fair Eyebrows, look out of the window and tell her who was coming. Finnavir described a man with red hair, and a forked beard, who Maeve realized must be Laoighre Buadhach. Maeve recongized Conall Cearnach, too, from the way he wore his long wavy hair about his face, but when Finnavir said that there was dark sad man coming, with a seven-folded red cloak, and that he was the most beautiful man in Ireland, with seven hero-lights in his eyes, Maeve was very worried indeed. “That is Cuchulainn,” she said, “and if he is coming to make war on us, we will be like flour ground against a millstone.”

So Maeve instructed her people to open the gates, and had all her women go into the courtyard, some of them dressed, and some of them undressed, waiting with drink and food to welcome the heroes of Ulster. If they were coming with violence in mind, meeting them with gentleness and hospitality would be the wisest course.

So Cuchulainn and the other warriors arrived to a warm welcome, bathed and given their fill of meat and drink.  Queen Maeve asked if they would prefer to stay in one house together, or to have a house each, and they replied that they would rather stay apart. King Conchubar and the rest of the Red Branch arrived soon after them, and Queen Maeve and King Aillil gave them a magnificent feast. For three days and three nights they were entertained lavishly, and at the end of the third night, King Aillil asked King Conchubar what had brought him to Cruachan.

Conchubar told them that he trusted no one but Aillil to make the judgement as to which of his three fine warriors should receive the champion’s portion of Ulster. Aillil grumbled that it was no favour to give this task to him, but he agreed all the same, saying it would take him three days and three nights to make his decision. The men of Ulster returned home, except for Cuchulainn, Laoighre Buadhach and Conall Cearnach, who each went to sleep in their separate houses.

Queen Maeve set out from Cruachan and opened the side of a faery mound nearby, letting out three cat-shaped monsters, who went straight for the houses the Ulstermen were staying in. When Laoighre and Conall saw the monstrous cats come in, they jumped up into the rafters, and there they perched all night long, leaving the monster cats to eat all their food and destroy the rooms they were given. When Cuchulainn saw the cat-shaped monster, he struck it on the head with his sword, but the sword bounced off as if it had struck stone. Then Cuchulainn looked the cat-shaped monster in the eye, and the cat looked back at him, and they stayed that way, unblinking, until the morning came and the cats returned to the mound from where they came. Laoighre and Conall protested that this was not the sort of contest they were expecting: they were used to fighting men, and not monsters, so this did not count!

Maeve said to Aillil that the difference between Laoighre and Conall was the difference between bronze and silver, but the difference between Conall and Cuchulainn was the difference between silver and red-gold. There was no contest in it at all. But Aillil was reluctant to make a judgement: whoever they picked, he said, the other two would be sure to turn on them. So Maeve told him to leave it to her.

She sent for Laoighre first, and praised all his feats, told him what a wonderful warrior he was and how impressed by him she was. She gave him a cup of bronze with a little silver bird raised up at the bottom of it, and told him to say nothing to the others, but that when the Champion’s portion was given out in Ulster, to produce this cup as a token of his victory. Laoighre went away, very pleased. Then Maeve sent for Conall, and gave him a cup of silver with a bird of red-gold at the bottom to keep hidden till the time came in Ulster to claim the Champion’s Portion. Then Maeve called Cuchulainn and gave him a cup of red gold with a jewelled bird at the bottom.

As the three champions were preparing to leave, they saw the local youths in Cruachan were performing the wheel-feat. They had a chariot-wheel, and were taking it in turns to throw it into the air as high as they could. Laoighre took a turn, and threw the wheel up half as high as the wall. The youths let out a shout of laughter, but Laoighre thought they were cheering in approval. Conall managed to throw the wheel as high as the roof beam of a house, and the youths let out a jeering shout, which Conall took for applause. Then Cuchulainn stood up and flung the wheel high into the sky, catching it again as it came down. The youths gave a great roar of approval, but to Cuchulainn it sounded as thought they were mocking him.

The three warriors returned to Ulster, and at the next feast, Laoighre presented his bronze cup, saying Maeve had declared him the champion, but of course Conall had his silver cup ready. The two began to argue, and then Cuchulainn showed his red gold cup, with the jewelled bird on the bottom, and declared that the champion’s portion was his. But Laoighre said that cup wasn’t won, but bought, and they almost came to blows again.

Sencha had to separate them yet again, and this time he sent them to the house of a wise man called Cu Roi Mac Dara for judgement, first making them solemnly swear that they would abide by whatever judgement was given.

Cuchulainn and the Champion’s Portion

Part 1 – Bicriu’s feast

There was once a warrior of the Red Branch in Ulster whose name was Bicriu of the bitter tongue. He had a terribly sour disposition, because in his youth he had taken a wound from a javelin thrown into his kidneys. The injury stayed with him, and never fully healed, and it meant that he had to eat only the plainest food: porridge and eggs, and could never eat anything rich or fine, nor drink anything stronger than buttermilk. So Bicriu could take no pleasure in feasting, and this, it was felt, was what soured him. For Bicriu’s greatest pleasure in life became the stirring up of trouble and strife between other people.

Eventually, Bicriu got to be such a problem that Conchubar Mac Neasa, the king of Ulster, had to ask him to leave Emain Macha, and stay in his own holding. And there it was that Bicriu had to stay, and there it was that Bicriu built for Conchubar Mac Neasa and the Red Branch warriors, the finest feasting hall that had ever been seen in Ireland. This hall had twelve different houses for the twelve houses of the Red Branch, a high seat in the middle for Conchubar Mac Neasa, and a little balcony overhanging it all for Bicriu himself and his wife to sit in. It was built of the finest materials, furnished and decorated, gilded and bronzed and every inch of it covered in carvings and decorations, beautiful to see. And when it was finished to the highest standards of the finest craftsmen in Ireland, Bicriu started to furnish it with tapestries and cushions and all of the most comfortable things.

And when the hall was built, and was in readiness for his great feast, Bicriu set off for Emain Macha to invite Conchubar Mac Neasa and all his warriors, and all their families and retainers, to come to his feast. Conchubar was happy enough to go, but Fergus Mac Roigh said no, if we go there will be more of us left dead than alive! He will stir up such fighting among us. Seeing that they were hesitant to accept his invitation, Bicriu said that if they did not go, he would stir up strife between every man and his son in Ulster, till they came to death blows. And if that wasn’t enough, he would stir up strife between every woman and her daughter in Ulster, and then he would stir up all the women of Ulster to fight among themselves, till they beat their breasts against each other and turned their milk sour.

So at that terrible threat, the men of Ulster called a meeting. The steward, Sencha, a very wise man, suggested that they go to Bicriu’s feast, but that they put some conditions on him, to limit the trouble he could cause. Sencha counselled that they put Bicriu under a guard of eight men, and as soon as the fest began, have him leave the hall and not return until the feast was done. Bicriu agreed to these terms, and went off to his home to get everything in order, but unbeknownst to the men of Uslter, he had been hard at work while they were discussing what to do.

First, he had sought out Laoighre Budhach, a young warrior of the Red Branch. He met Laoighre and began to praise him and butter him up. He reminded him of all his accomplishments, and said “Do you know, Laoighre, it’s a mystery to me why, after all your great deeds, the champion’s portion of Ulster is not give to you at every feast.” And Laoighre conceded that he had a point there, that maybe he should claim the champion’s portion. And Biciriu told him then that at his own feast the champion’s portion would be a prize indeed: a boar that had been fed nothing but milk and sweet herbs since it had been born, a bullock fed nothing but milk and sweet grass, a vat of wine big enough to fit three men into it, and honey cakes made of oats, and all kinds of delicious things. “So be sure, Laoighre, that when you’re at the feast you have your charioteer claim the champion’s portion for you,” said Bicriu, and Laoighre promised that he would.

Next Biciriu sought out Conall Cearneach. He sidled up to him and said “Conall, I don’t understand why such a warrior as you doesn’t claim the champion’s portion at every feast, since you are the man who guards the border, and keeps us all safe, and clearly the greatest warrior in all of Ulster.” And by the time he was finished with his flattery, Conall Cearnach was resolved to claim the champion’s portion at Bicriu’s feast for his own.

Then Bicriu went to find Cuchulainn, and when he told Cuchulainn what the champion’s portion was going to be at his feast, Cuchulainn swore that if anyone tried to keep him from it, he would leave their head on the floor.

So Bicriu was not a bit put out by the restrictions Sencha put on him, and he went home in very good cheer to put the final touches to his great feast.

On the day of the feast, Conchubar arrived with all his family, his servants and retainers, and all the warriors of the Red Branch arrived, likewise accompanied. It took some time for them all to settle in, but there was room for everyone in Bicriu’s magnificent feasting hall. When they were all seated according to their positions, Bicriu stood up under his guard of eight men and cried out “Let the Champion’s Portion be claimed!” and off he went to his balcony, laughing all the way.

Sure enough, Laoighre Buadhach’s charioteer stood up, and claimed the portion for Laoighre, at the same time as Conall Cearnach’s charioteer claimed it for him, and then Laeg, Cuchulainn’s charioteer shouted them both down and said it was clear that Cuchulainn was the greatest warrior in Ulster! The three champions leaped to their feet and flung themselves at each other, Laoighre and Conall attacking Cuchulainn. They fought so fiercely the sparks flew from their blades, making it look like half of the hall was on fire. Sencha told Conchubar he had to put a stop to this fight, it wasn’t fair, two against one! And, any moment now, the other warriors would pick a side. So Conchubar stood up, unarmed, and walked into the midst of the whirling blades so that none of them could strike at each other without striking their king. They dropped their swords rather than harm their king, and Sencha declared that this was a question for another day.

They divided the champion’s portion evenly among everyone there in attendance, and the three warriors gave their oath that they would not fight over this again, but that they would wait for a judge to be found, and abide by the judgement forevermore.

They took their places at the feast with a bad grace, and Bicriu was very disappointed to see the matter settled for now. But then he spied another opportunity. He saw that the women were going out to take a walk, and ran downstairs to catch up with Laoighre’s wife. He called her aside and whispered to her that the first woman to come in from the walk would be counted the first woman in Ulster, Queen before all the other women, and that he thought she should be the one, on account of her great beauty and her husband’s great prowess. He said the same thing to Conall Cearnach’s wife, and to Emer, the wife of Cuchulainn. The women went out for their walk, and met some distance away from the hall. They started to walk back at a stately pace, but each of them was trying to make sure she stayed ahead of the others, so they walked faster and faster, and before long they had their skirts hiked up around their waists and were sprinting as fast as they could go.

The men inside the hall heard a noise like thunder and thought there must be an army coming to destroy them, but Sencha realized that Bicriu had stirred up the women. He called out to the warriors to close the door, or there would surely be bloodshed! They slammed the front doors closed just as Emer put her hand on the door frame. The women called in from outside, demanding to know why they had been locked out. Sencha suggested that, to avoid bringing things to a fight, they should have a war of words: each of them made her case for why she was the best woman in Ulster, and worthy of entering Bicriu’s hall first.

Laoighre’s wife spoke of her own beauty, Conall’s wife spoke of her own virtues, and then Emer had her turn and said “Shaped like cows and led by cows are the women of Ulster, when set beside Cuchulainn’s wife.” And Emer’s words had everyone ready to come to blows again.

Laoighre and Conall punched beams out of the walls of the feasting-hall to let their wives come in, but when Cuchulainn went to let Emer in, he lifted the whole side of the house up, so that she and all her fifty waiting-women could enter, and when they were inside, he let it drop. Such was the force of the drop that the side of the hall sank seven feet into the ground, and Bicriu and his wife were flung from their seats on the balcony, into the stable where the hounds were kept. Bicriu was furious when he saw what had become of his wonderful feasting hall, and he stormed in. Covered in dog-muck as he was, his guards did not recognize him, so he stood up in front of all the assembly and put a geasa on every man of Ulster that they were neither to eat nor drink nor rest till they had set his feasting-hall to rights, just as it had been.

The warriors of Ulster set to tugging at the walls, but no matter how hard they tried, they could not get the feasting hall to sit straight. They begged Cuchulainn to help them, but he told them he was too tired: he had spent that day taming a magical horse that came up out of a lake. That horse was the Grey of Macha, and it served him well and bravely for many years after that. After much persuasion, he got up at last and strained and pulled at the wall to try and set it straight. N o matter how hard he tried, he could not lift the hall, and he became frustrated, and the hero light shone around his head, and all his hair pulled into his skull. He pulled at the wall so hard that a warrior could have fit his foot between any two of his ribs, and at last he yanked the hall upright and settled it back onto its foundations.

After all the commotion, Cuchulainn declared that he was far too tired to fight anyone that day, until he had had his fill of food and rest, and the other warriors agreed to postpone the deciding of the champion’s portion to another day.

Ferdia at the Ford

When Connaught invaded Ulster so that Maeve could try to steal the Brown Bull of Cooley, Cuchulainn was the only man able to stand against him. All the great warriors of the Red Branch were writhing in birth pains, brought about by the curse of Macha.

Cuchulainn harried the army for many days, raiding their supply lines and ambushing the Connaught men by night, and this was wreaking havoc and costing far too many lives. So Maeve negotiated with Cuchulainn: she would halt the army by the ford over the river, if he would agree to fight one champion of Connaught each day.

Cuchulainn agreed, as this would be far less work for him, too, and he knew he only had to hold Maeve’s army there long enough for the Curse of Macha to end, and his friends of the Red Branch to join him, and beat back the invaders.

He fought against the champions of Connaught, and killed them one by one, tossing them aside as if they were no more than children. Maeve knew that there was only one man in her army who was a match for Cuchulainn, and that was Ferdia Mac Daman, Cuchulainn’s best friend and brother in arms, who had trained with him on Scathach’s isle. She knew, too, that she would have a hard time convincing Ferdia to challenge his friend.

So she invited him to a feast, and sat him down next to her beautiful daughter, Finnavir of the Fair Eyebrows. Finnavir fed him wine and spoke sweet words to Ferdia all night long. When he was drunk, and very happy, Queen Maeve asked him why he thought he had been invited that night. And Ferdia said “Why? Because I am the greatest warrior in Ireland!”

And Mave said “Yes, but more than that, you have been invited here so I can offer you all the best lands of Connaught, vast herds of cattle, a life without taxes or tithes, this golden ring from my own finger, my daughter’s hand in marriage, and my own love.”

When he heard this offer, Ferdia knew what was coming next; that she was going to ask him to take on his best friend and blood-brother, Cuchulainn. Even though they were on opposing sides, the bond they shared was one he would never break, so he refused Maeve’s offer out of hand.

Maeve only looked away and said to herself “Ah, so he spoke the truth.”

Ferdia demanded to know what she meant by that? Who spoke the what? And Queen Maeve told him that Cuchulainn had bragged that Ferdia was too cowardly to ever challenge him, for they both knew that Ferdia was the weaker of the two, and would surely lose the fight.

Ferdia could not stand to have his courage impugned like this, especially in front of the lovely Finnavir, and, enraged, he made a sacred vow that he would challenge Cuchulainn the very next day.

The next morning, he went down to the ford, where Cuchulainn was guarding the border of Ulster. Cuchulainn was shocked and dismayed when he saw who was coming to fight him. So overcome with grief was he, at the thought of having to fight his best friend, that his feet stuck to the ground and he could not move.

He stood there and spoke with beautiful words about the friendship he and Ferdia had shared; the time they had spent with Scathach, learning the same warrior’s arts, and learning each other’s ways so well. He tried to move Ferdia’s heart so that he would not come and fight him, but Ferdia was bound by his vow, and still stung by what he had heard the night before. Though he was moved by his friend’s plea, he flung Cuchulainn’s words back in his face and insulted him, and Cuchulainn’s own anger awoke, letting him move forward to the fight.

They fought in the ford for four days, equally skilled, equally matched. They knew each other’s way of fighting inside and out, so that no matter what attack one of them tried, the other knew what he was going to do before he knew it himself. And their hearts were not quite in it.

Each day they would fight each other from morning light to dusk, and at the end of each day they would bind each other’s wounds, share the same food, and sleep back to back.

The only difference between them as fighters was that Cuchulainn had a dreadful weapon: the Gae Bolga, a terrible spear made from the bones of a sea monster. Once it was thrown, it would find the vulnerable point on the body, and enter there, and then it would spread out and exit through fifty points on the body. Cuchulainn decided not to use this spear against Ferdia, because he did not want his death on his hands.

After the third day of fighting, something changed. Ferdia and Cuchulainn did not eat together, or bind each other’s wounds, or sleep back to back. On the fourth day, when they resumed, there was grimness to their fighting. Ferdia was afraid that night that Cuchulainn might use the Gae Bolga against him, so he tied a stone between his legs to block his most vulnerable point.

Cuchulainn was no longer able to hold back, and his battle fury came on him. He leapt onto the edge of Ferida’s shield, and Ferdia knew that he was going to give his salmon-leap up into the air, and come down with the point of his sword onto Ferdia’s skull. So Ferdia threw his shield aside, dropping Cuchulainn into the water, and cooling him off for a little while. But the battle fury came on him again, and again Ferdia dunked him in the water. The battle fury came on him a third time, and this time, when Ferdia dropped him in the river, the fury did not leave him.

He went into a battle spasm, and grew twice the size. His skin became mottled and black, and his vision grew clouded with blood, and he towered menacingly over Ferdia and ran at him. Ferdia stood ready to meet his charge, and they wrestled, pushing against each other, equally matched, and neither one giving an inch. Cuchulainn got more and more enraged, and his battle fury lent him a strength that Ferdia did not have. He got the upper hand, and drew his arm back to deal a death blow, but then a look passed between them, and for a second the battle fury died in Cuchulainn, and he hesitated.

Ferdia did not. The moment Cuchulainn wavered, he plunged his sword into Cuchulainn’s chest, again and again, till it was red with Cuchulainn’s blood and slippery with it, and he was covered, head to toe, in Cuchulainn’s blood. Cuchulainn shrieked, and his charioteer Laeg, who was standing by, got the Gae Boga and threw it into the water, so it floated down the stream to Cuchulainn. Ferdia was terrified to see the spear coming, and instinctively he dropped his shield to protect his nether regions, but the moment he did this, Cuchulainn plunged a javelin into Ferida’s chest. Ferdia raised his shield, Cuchulainn grabbed the Gae Bolga with his toes and flung it up through Ferdia’s groin, smashing through the stone he had put there to protect himself.

The Gae Bolga’s point broke into a million pieces, splintering into every crevice in his body, and Ferdia collapsed, with Cuchulainn beside him. They cried together, and Ferdia cried out the treachery of Queen Maeve that had brought him here, and his own treachery in coming against his friend. They mingled as many tears as drops of blood together, and then Cuchulainn gathered the last of his strength and carried Ferdia over to the Ulster side of the ford, so that he could take his last breath in a land not occupied by Queen Maeve’s armies. He held him, and cradled him, till Ferdia drew his last breath, and then Cuchulainn sank down in a faint beside him.

Cuchulainn’s Training With Scathach

When Cuculainn set out to court his wife, Emer, her father, Forgall the Wily, was dead set against it. He knew Cuchulainn by reputation, and believed his wonderful daughter would have a terrible life with him, so he set out to do everything he could to keep the pair. He disguised himself as a merchant from France, and went to King Conchubar’s court at Emain Macha with wares to trade. At the feast that evening, he praised Conchubar’s brave Red Branch warriors, and then wondered aloud why the king did not think highly enough of them to send them to train with Scathach? Did they not know that she was the greatest trainer of warriors in all the world?

Now Cuchulainn was never satisfied with his skills, and when he heard mention of this incredible trainer, nothing would do but he set off at once, which of course, was Forgall’s plan. Two of the greatest warriors of the Red Branch, Laoighre Budhach and Conall Cearnach, said that they would go with him and keep him company. Now, Scathach lived across the sea and on the other side of Alba, far to the north, on an island that bore her own name. The three set out on their long journey, but no sooner had their boat landed on the shores of Alba, than Forgall the Wily sent a vision of Emain Macha. Laoighre and Conall were so overcome by homesickness that they couldn’t bear to go on, and they turned back to Ireland there and then, leaving Cuchulainn alone in the wilderness.

He journeyed onwards, determined to find Scathach’s island, even though he didn’t know the way. On the road, he met a great beast that looked like a lion. It came bounding across the plains towards him, but it didn’t attack. Every direction that Cuchulainn tried to go in, the beast would jump in front of him, barring his way. At last, he understood that it wanted to help him, and he leaped up onto its back, and away the lion beast raced across the plains of Alba. Four days and four nights it carried him, and then they passed by some youths, who laughed to see a man riding on the back of such a strange creature. Unable to bear their ridicule, Cuchulainn bade farewell to the beast, and went on his way on foot.

He came to a house, and the woman of the house called him by name, and gave him a warm welcome welcome. She was a king’s daughter, who had stayed with Cuchulainn’s family when she was younger, and she was delighted to see him. When he was well fed and well rested, she told him the road that he needed to take to get to Scathach’s island, and she warned him that Forgall the Wily had left traps in his way, filling valleys with monsters and putting obstacles in Cuchulainn’s path. She told him how to avoid all these dangers, and arrive safely at Scathach’s island.

So Cuchulainn was able to avoid Forgall’s traps, and in this way he arrived at last at Scathach’s island. His joy at seeing the end of his journey was nothing to the joy he felt when he saw four men of Ulster; friends from Emain Macha, who were staying nearby. One was his best friend, Ferdia Mac Daman, who had arrived some time before to train with Scathach. The others were the sons of Uisneach, Naoise, Ainnle and Ardan, the sons of Uisneach who were in exile with Naoise’s wife Deirdre. They were delighted to see another Ulsterman, they welcomed him with hugs and kisses, and asked him for all the news of home.

After their reunion, Ferdia told Cuchulainn that in order to get to Scathach’s house, he would have to cross over a chasm on an enchanted bridge. The bridge was low at each end, and high in the middle, and whenever someone stepped on it, it would buck like a wild horse, trying to shake them off. It could narrow itself to the width of a hair or shorten itself to the length of an inch, and it would do all it could to shake a newcomer off.

Now, it was great entertainment among the people of Scathach’s island to gather and watch strangers try to get across the bridge – for they often fell to their deaths – and a crowd had gathered while Cuchulainn and his friends had talked. In front of them all, Cuchulainn was determined to get across in one go. So he ran at the bridge, but the bridge narrowed itself and became slippery, so that he skidded back down to the bottom, and all the gathered people laughed and jeered. Twice more he ran, and each time the bridge bucked him off, and each time the crowd laughed at him. Then Cuchulainn became enraged, and the hero-light shone around his head, and he gave his salmon leap onto the middle of the bridge, and another great leap off the other end of the bridge.

Now, Scathach’s daughter was watching from the house, and when she saw this man coming, she thought he was the most beautiful man she had ever seen: dark haired and melancholy, with seven hero-lights in each eye, and a seven-pleated crimson cloak held in place with a brooch of gold. She welcomed him with food and drink, and she told him exactly what he should do to make sure Scathach took him on as a pupil. She sent him to where Scathach was training her own sons. Cuchulainn ambushed her, and put his sword between her breasts and demanded that she be his teacher. Impressed, Scathach readily agreed to take him on as her pupil.

Cuchulainn was an apt pupil. All the skills and arts of the warrior Scathach taught him, till he had learned all that she had to teach him.

Now, at this time, Scathach was at war with another warrior woman, a former pupil of hers named Aoife. One day, Scathach’s three sons met Aoife’s three greatest champions on the road, and from afar, Scathach could see that a fight was going to break out. She was terribly afraid for her sons, and so she sent Cuchulainn to help them. He ran to their aid, and rushed out ahead of Scathach’s sons, striking the heads off of each one of Aoife’s three champions, and making a pile of their heads on the ground.

When Aoife heard what this foreign warrior had done to her champions, she was furious, and she challenged Scathach to single combat, to settle things between them once and for all. Aoife decided that she would be her own champion, and Cuchulainn asked Scathach for the honour of fighting as her champion. Scathach agreed to this, but before he went into battle, Cuchulainn asked her what in all the world did Aoife value the most? Scathach told that Aoife’s pride and joy was her chariot, her horses and her charioteer.

Aoife and Cuchulainn met with their swords drawn, ready to do battle, when Cuchulainn cried out “Aoife’s chariot is going over the edge of the cliff!” Aoife turned to look, and Cuchulainn grabbed her, threw her over his shoulder, and carried her back to Scathach’s fort. He threw her to the floor and put his sword between her breasts, demanding that she surrender. Then Scathach and Aoife made peace between them, and agreed that they would no longer make war on each other, and there was feasting and merry-making to celebrate.

Aoife gave her love to Cuchulainn, and they became lovers for the rest of the time that he studied with Scathach. When he was ready to go back home to Ireland, Aoife told him that she was with child. She was sure it would be a boy, and that he would grow up to be as great a warrior as his father.

Cuchulainn was thrilled with this news, and he gave Aoife a red-gold ring. He told her to name his son Connla and raise him as a warrior, and when he was old enough to wear that ring on his thumb without it slipping off, she should send him to Ireland to find his father. And so Cuchulainn returned to Ireland, a better warrior than he had ever been, and in spite of all Forgall the Wily’s tricks, the very first thing he did was to go and find Emer, and make her his wife.

Cuchulainn: The Wooing of Emer

After the deeds of his boyhood, and his taking up of arms, Cuchulainn became a warrior of great renown. But the men of Emain Macha had one problem with him. He had grown into a beautiful young man, and all their wives and daughters sighed when he walked past. It was said that he was perfect in every way, but for three faults: that he was too young, too daring, and too beautiful.

The warriors of the Red Branch in Emain Macha wanted Cuchulainn to marry, so that their wives would stop looking at him, but also so that he would have a son who would inherit his great talents. But Cuchulainn wasn’t interested in any of the women they introduced him to. He refused to take a wife, no matter how lovely she was or how big a dowry her family offered, because he said he would not marry a woman who was not his equal.

At last, Cuchulainn heard of a woman named Emer, who he thought might meet his standards. She was the daughter of Forgall the Wily, and he was very protective of her. Emer possessed the six gifts that made her ideal for her time. They were beauty, voice, sweet speech, needlework, wisdom and chastity. Cuchulainn took his friend and charioteer, Laeg, with him, and they set out to pay Emer a visit.

Emer was instructing the women of the area in needlework and craft, when her sister saw a chariot approaching. She described to Emer the beautiful chariot on its way towards them, richly decorated with gold and silver and bronze. She described the two men in the chariot: one red-haired a wiry, and the other dark-haired and melancholy: the most beautiful man in Ireland.

Cuchulainn, when he arrived, spoke to Emer in code words and phrases; complicated riddles and puns that made no sense to the other listeners. While Laeg looked at him aghast (that was not how he thought one should talk to a beautiful woman), Emer smiled at him, and replied in the same vein of seeming nonsense, incomprehensible to all the others. They went on in that way for some time, and then Cuchulainn peeked down the top of her shirt and said “I see a fine country there with a sweet resting place.”

Emer replied, “No man shall rest there unless he can leap over three walls, kill three groups of nine men with one blow, leaving one man in each group alive, and slay one hundred men at each of the fords between here and Emain Macha.”

Cuchulainn and Laeg then went back to Emain Macha, and Laeg started to console his friend: from what he could gather, Cuchulainn had been nervous and had made a mess of it. But Cuchulainn explained to him that they had spoken in riddles, and that Emer had not only been quick enough to figure out what he was saying, she was clever enough to play the game with him. They both knew her over-protective father would not approve of him seeking her out, but he had wooed her, and she had accepted. She had set him certain tasks that he had to complete before they could be married.

Now, a servant who was present for the meeting brought an account of it to Forgall the Wily. Forgall managed to figure out what had happened, and he was furious that his precious daughter had fallen for that madman from Ulster! He thought Cuchulainn a dangerous lunatic, and he was determined to put a stop to this before it could go any further. He disguised himself as a trader from Gaul and visited Emain Macha in disguise.

When the time came for the guest to hear the stories of the heroes of Ulster, Forgall expressed great surprise to King Conor Mac Neasa. “It’s such a shame,” he said, “that with such great warriors, you don’t think enough of them to send them to train with the warrior-woman, Scathach, the greatest trainer of heroes in the world.” Cuchulainn, Conal Cearnach, and a few of the other warriors heard this and decided that nothing would do but they go at once to seek out this Scathach, who lived on the remote Island of Skye in Scotland.

Now, of course, this had been Forgall’s plan all along. The journey to Scathach’s home was long and dangerous, and with luck, Cuchulainn would be killed along the way. Even if he did get there, Scathach’s training was harsh and many did not survive it, and she was fighting a war against a neighbouring warrior-woman named Aoife, and that war claimed the lives of many students.

At best, then, Forgall thought Cuchulainn would die, but at worst, he would be away for several years, and Forgall could ensure that his Emer was safely married to a more suitable man before he returned. So he made the most of Cuchulainn’s absence, and quickly arranged for Emer to marry the King of Munster, a man named Lugaid. The wedding feast was arranged, and all was ready, but when Emer came out to meet her bridegroom, she took his face between her two hands and said to him “I love Cuchulainn, and Cuchulainn loves me. He will come back for me, and if you take me against my will, it will mean you have no honour, and he will take his revenge on you for it.”

Over Forgall’s protests, Lugaid left.

As Emer predicted, as soon as Cuchulain finished his training with Scathach and came home to Ulster, his first act was to come back for Emer.

But while he was away, Forgall the Wily had made preparations. He had fortified his stronghold with three walls, and gathered his best warriors in the courtyard. The strongest were in three groups of nine, each one commanded by one of his own sons. Cuchulainn was not daunted by these preparations: he simply leaped over the wall, and struck down each of the three groups of men with one blow of his sword, leaving Emer’s brothers unharmed. When Forgall saw this, he was sure Cuchulainn would kill him for trying to keep his daughter away from him. He climbed over the walls to try and escape, but he slipped and fell to his death. Cuchulainn picked up Emer, and her weight in gold, and leaped back over the three walls as easily as he had arrived.

He and Emer were pursued by Forgall the Wily’s followers, and at each ford between her house and Emain Macha, Cuchulainn had to stop his chariot and hold them off. At each ford, he killed a hundred men, fulfilling the last of the conditions she had set for him.

Emer grieved for her father, but she told Cuchulainn she did not hold him responsible, as he had not actually killed her father: his death had been an accident, and his own fault. So the two of them were married, and proved to be well-suited. They were each other’s equal it wit and wisdom, and though Cuchulainn was often away with battles and feats of arms, and often spent time with other women, Emer was without jealousy, because she knew he would always return to her.

How Cuchulainn took up Arms

About a year after Cuchulainn won his name, by killing Cullen’s hound and guarding Cullen’s lands, he was with the boy’s troop in Emain Macha. These were the sons of the warriors of King Conor Mac Nessa’s Red Branch, and they trained together to become the next generation of warriors and heroes. They received instruction on arms and fighting feats, and learned chess-playing and other strategic arts, and they also had to have some education in poetry and the druidic arts. King Conor’s chief druid was called Cathbad, and he used to instruct his own class of druidic students. Now, one day, Cathbad was instructing his students, and the Boy’s Troop, on the arts of prophecy: how to read the signs and omens to be able to see what the future would hold, and how different days could be propitious for different things. To demonstrate, he read the signs for them in the flights of birds, and threw a bundle of sticks into the air to read which way they landed, and he said that this day was an important day. That any young man who took up arms for the first time on this day would have a brief life, but a glorious one. And though he would die while still in his youth, his name would live on forever and his glory would never be surpassed!

Now, Cuchulainn and all of the other young men in the Boy’s Troop heard this, and though a few of them were almost at the age to take up arms, they mostly decided that it didn’t sound worth it. But Cuchulainn made his choice immediately. He ran inside to his uncle Conor Mac Nessa and demanded to be given a set of arms immediately. Conor tried to talk him out of it; “You’re far too young,” he said, “Who put this idea into your head?” And Cuchulainn answered him truthfully, if not honestly, that Cathbad had. So Conor thought that was alright, if the Druid had given his blessing. He sent his servant to get the set of weapons he had had when he was seventeen and took up arms for the first time. Cuchulainn shook the weapons to test their strength, but he splintered them into pieces. Conor sent for stronger and stronger swords and spears and shields, but Cuchulainn destroyed them all, until in the end Conor lent Cuchulainn his own weapons. These were of such fine quality and craftsmanship that they withstood the battering Cuchulainn put them through.

At this point, Cathbad came in and exclaimed, “What on earth is this little boy doing, taking up arms?” And Conor turned around and said, “He told me you told him to!” Cathbad was aghast; he had thought his prophecy would be interpreted as a warning, not taken as encouragement. Conor was furious when he heard the full wording of the prophecy, but Cuchulainn was unrepentant, he said he didn’t care if he died tomorrow, as long as his name would never be forgotten; and besides, it was too late now.

Knowing that there was no turning back now, Conor tried to equip Cuchulainn with a chariot and a charioteer, but he used the chariots as hard as he’d used the weapons, and the king lent him his own chariot before he could destroy too many of them. Cuchulainn asked for his friend Laeg from the Boy’s Troop to be his charioteer. Laeg was gifted with horses, and he and Cuchulainn were fast friends. But Conor said that he wasn’t going to send out two hot-headed youths to make trouble together, and Ibar the charioteer with Cuchulainn, to keep an eye on him. Now, Ibar was skilful, but he was also cautious and careful, and Conor thought he might be able to keep Cuchulainn from getting into any trouble.

So Ibar and Cuchulainn set out from Emain Macha, as was the custom when a warrior took up arms, but they were hardly out of the stables before Ibar said “Time to turn back!”

Cuchulainn asked him to go past the Boy’s Troop first, so they could salute him. He had a great time driving up and down in front of them in his new chariot, showing off his fine weapons. The boys said they were sorry they wouldn’t get to play hurling with him nay more, but they all wished him well and cheered him on.

After that, Ibar said “Time to turn back.” But Cuchulainn said, “Let’s just go on a little bit to the border, and visit my foster-brother, Conal Cearnach.” Conal Cearnach was guarding a particular pass out of Ulster territory. It was his duty to meet any foreign warrior in single combat, to escort any poet to Emain Macha safely, and to make sure that any guests leaving Ulster were pleased with the hospitality they’d received there, and to make reparations if they weren’t.

Conal Cearnach was very surprised to see Cuchulainn with his kingly weapons in his borrowed chariot. Cuchulainn announced that he had taken up arms that day, and was going on an adventure to draw first blood, and prove himself as a warrior. Conal Cearnach bade Ibar wait while he got his own chariot ready: he would come with them, past Ulster’s borders, because if anything happened to Cuchulainn, it would be on his head. Cuchulainn knew that Conal would get in the way of him fighting anyone they met, and he wouldn’t be able to prove himself a warrior, so his taking up of arms would only be a symbol, that wouldn’t make him a true warrior in anyone’s eyes, so he waited till they were underway, and then cast a stone from his slingshot that broke the shaft of Conal Cearnach’s chariot. Conal Cearnach was thrown out, and broke his arm, and roared after Cuchulainn “What did you do that for!?” Cuchulainn claimed he was only testing his aim, and persuaded Ibar to take him on a little further.

He asked Ibar about every landmark they passed, and Ibar told him the names of the hills and valleys. Then he pointed out that they were coming into the country of the Sons of Nechtain. Hoping to persuade Cuchulainn to return to Emain Macha, Ibar told him all about these fearsome warriors; three brothers, who had killed as many Ulstermen as were alive today. The eldest, Foill Mac Nechtain, could not be pierced by any blade; the second, Tuachell Mac Nechtain was so swift that he would overcome any attack that failed to kill him instantly; the youngest, Fannall Mac Nechtain, was the greatest swimmer in Ireland, and always fought his battles in the ford, and always used his skill to win.

To Ibar’s dismay, Cuchulainn decided that these were the perfect foes to challenge to single combat, to make a name for himself. He announced to Ibar that this was a fine place for a rest, and lay down on the grass to sleep, leaving Ibar to stand watch over him.

As he was sleeping, Foill Mac Nechtain came to investigate. He told Ibar that there was a geasa, that anyone who came into that field could not leave it without facing the brothers in single combat. Thinking Cuchulainn too deeply asleep to hear him, Ibar said that he was just a boy, playing at being a warrior, and the sons of Nechtain should take pity on him and let him go. Hearing these words, Cuchulainn sprang to his feet and challenged Foill Mac Nechtain to single combat.

Ibar tried to stop him, but Cuchulainn, remembering that Foill could not be pierced by a blade, threw a stone from his slingshot and dashed out Foill’s brains. Tuachell Mac Nechtain, the swift one, came running out of the house to see what had happened, and he attacked with a bellow. Cuchulainn took Conor’s spear and threw it with such force that it went through Tuachell’s ribcage and out the other side. The third brother, Fannall, challenged Cuchulainn to fight him in the river, where he was strongest, and Cuchulainn wrestled him under the water, held him down, and chopped off his head with Conor’s sword. He took the heads off all three brothers, tied them to the rim of his chariot, and finally let Ibar take him back to Emain Macha.

On the way, still full of energy and battle-fury, Cuchulainn ran down two stags and tied them to the back of the chariot, where they galloped behind. They passed a flock of swans in flight, and he threw his sword, knocked them out of the sky, and then tied them by their necks to the chariot, so they were flying overhead in a great white cloud.

The people of Emain Macha saw this chariot approaching, with wild birds flying over it, wild stags galloping behind, and heads tied to the rim, with Cuchulainn, still blazing from the battle, standing at the front, and they were terrified. They knew that, with the battle fury on him, Cuchulainn would not know friend from foe. The men were caught in a bind: if they fought him and won, they’d lose their most promising warrior, but if they let him in unchallenged, he might do untold damage. So the women of Emain Macha stepped outside the walls. They lifted their skirts and put them over their heads, and walked half-naked towards Cuchulainn in his chariot. As soon as he saw them, Cuchulainn squeezed his eyes shut, and hid his face. They seized him and threw him into a vat of cold water, which turned into steam from the heat of his fury. They threw him in a second vat, which boiled, and then a third, which warmed but did not boil, and after that he was able to calm himself again.

And that is how Cuchulainn took up arms on a day no one else would, choosing death and glory over long life and happiness.

How Cuchulainn Got His Name

Now, when Setanta had been in the Boy’s Troop for about a year, a smith called Cullan came to Emain Macha and invited Conchubar to a feast at his house.  Cullan was a great smith and a skilled craftsman who lived some way outside of Emain Macha. When he gave his invitation, Cullen begged Conchubar not to bring along a great number of guests, because he was not wealthy enough to entertain all of Conchubar’s men properly, but he was eager to give a wonderful feast to his king and a few of his companions. Conchubar agreed not to abuse Cullan’s hospitality, and set off with a small retinue. On the way to Cullan’s house, he passed by a field where the Boy’s Troop were at play. They played the game of snatching cloaks: each boy would try and tear the cloak off another boy’s back, and the winner would be the one who had the most cloaks by the end. Setanta was able to grab the cloaks off all the other boys, and had a great heap of them at his feet, but they weren’t even able to take his brooch. Then they played the knock-down game, where each would try and knock the others off their feet, and Setanta left all the other boys on the ground, till he was the only one standing. Then they set up a game of hurling, and it was clear from where Conchubar was watching that the game was to be played with Setanta on one side and all of the other boys playing against him. Conchubar called out to Setanta and asked him if he would come to the feast at Cullan’s house with him. The boy replied that he wasn’t finished playing yet, which Conchubar could understand. He asked him did he know the road so that he could follow when he’d finished. Setanta said he did not, but Conchubar’s chariots would make such a track that he would be able to follow it easily. Conchubar and his company went on to Cullan’s house, where they were well received and started to enjoy the lavish feast and entertainment that Cullan had arranged. When they were settled in, Cullan asked if Conchubar was expecting anyone else to join them. He explained that as he had a small household, with very little land, all of his income came from his craft, and so he didn’t have any warriors to protect him. He was too far outside of Emain Macha for Conchubar’s men to come to his aid in an emergency, so what he had, and all he had, to protect his household, was his guard dog: the greatest guard dog anyone had ever seen. The hound was the size of a pony, and it had the strength of a hundred men, and Cullan had trained it so carefully from the time it was a pup that it knew no man but he, and would tear anyone else it saw to pieces. Conchubar, forgetting all about the little boy he had invited, said that they were all here and told Cullan to go ahead and release his hound. Cullan left the hound off its leash, and it made a circuit all around his household, and when it was satisfied that all was safe, it lay down in front of the door with its great head resting on its great paws, with its red eyes looking out unblinking into the night. Now, Setanta finished his playing, and he set to follow the tracks of the king’s chariot to Cullan’s house, playing his own game to make the way pass quicker. He threw his ball up in the air, and hit it with his hurley, and ran after it and caught it before it could hit the ground. When Cullan’s hound saw the boy approaching, it let out a ferocious roar that was heard for miles around. All the guests at the feast fell silent when they heard the hound, for they knew it meant that the beast must be about to kill someone, and Conchubar suddenly remembered his little nephew, following his trail. Setanta saw the hound coming at him, and all he was armed with was his hurley stick, which seemed flimsy as a toothpick in front of that great beast, and his ball. Thinking quickly, he threw the ball as hard as he could, down the hound’s open mouth. He threw it hard enough that it stuck in the great hound’s throat and the dog started to choke. Setanta picked the hound up by its hind legs, and swung it around, dashing its brains out against a rock. The king and all his company came rushing out, expecting to see the hound standing over the boy’s body, and their joy was great when they found Setanta alive and well, and there was great celebration among the people of Emain Macha. But poor Cullan wept to see his faithful hound killed, and he turned to Setanta and said that though all his family were welcome in Cullan’s house, Setanta was not. Conchubar was ready to take offence at this, but Cullan lamented the death of his hound, his faithful servant that had protected him for so long, and said that without this dog his livelihood was worth nothing, because anyone could come and take it all away, and he had no way to defend himself now that his hound was gone. Setanta felt terrible when he heard what he had done, and so he spoke up and said that he would make it right. “Is there a pup of that hound anywhere in Ireland?” he asked. Cullan said there was, but it would take time to train the pup to take the old hound’s place, and what was he to do in the meantime? So Setanta told Cullan to get the pup, and train it as he had the other dog, and while the pup was growing, he himself would do the duty of the dog every night. Now the druid, Cathbad was listening, and he said that from now on, that was to be Setanta’s name: Cú Chulainn, meaning Cullan’s hound. Setanta said “I’d rather be Setanta,” but Cathbad prophesysed that one day, every man in the world would have the name Cuchulainn in his mouth. So Setanta accepted the change, and became Cuchulainn. And for the next year, every evening when night began to fall, he left Emain Macha and walked out to Cullan’s house, made a circle around the edge of Cullan’s land, and lay down in front of the door to sleep like a dog, with one eye open, guarding Cullan’s property from whatever threats might come.


Long ago in Ireland, Ulster was ruled by two kings. Their names were Fiachra Finn and Fiachra Dubh, and they were cousins. Each one took a turn to rule Ulster for one year, while the other had a year of leisure, to travel and see the world, or to spend their time as they pleased, and in this way they shared the kingship.

One year, when his cousin was on the throne, Fiachra Finn went travelling. He visited the King of Scandinavia, and while he was a guest there, the king fell sick under a curse. So bad was this sickness that no doctor in Scandinavia was able to cure their king. At last, a seer came forth and said that the only cure for the King of Scandinavia was the meat of a white cow with red ears.

Fiachra Finn decided that, as a good guest, it would be fitting for him to go in search of this beast. So he searched the length and breadth of the country, and at last found a white cow with red ears, owned by a black hag, a widow who had no one to support her. Now this black hag had nothing at all in the world except for that one cow. All the food she had was the milk and butter from the cow, and what she could barter with the extra. She lived in a tiny hovel, and she wore a garment made out of a single piece of cloth, and owned nothing of value in the world, save for her white cow with red ears.

Fiachra offered her another cow in exchange for her cow, but she was not well pleased with this exchange. So he made her a promise. He said that the king of Scandinavia would give her one cow for each hoof of her cow. The black hag had to think about this for a moment, for she was very attached to her beast, but in the end she agreed, on condition that Fiachra Finn vouched for the honesty of the Scandinavian king. Fiachra Finn was sure he would make good on the bargain, and he brought back the white cow with red ears. After eating the meat of it, the King of Scandinavia was restored to his former health and vigour, and Fiachra Finn went home again to take his turn at ruling over Ulster.

Now one year later, who came to his door but the black hag, and what had she to say but that the King of Scandinavia had not delivered her promised four cows. She had been left destitute for the entire year. Fiachra Finn felt dreadfully responsible for her plight, so he offered her a herd of forty cattle to take home with her. She refused this: what she wanted now was not cattle or riches, but satisfaction. So Fiachra Finn gathered an army of Ulstermen and set out to invade Scandinavia. Unfortunately for him, Scandinavia was a rich and prosperous country, so when he arrived on the shore, he was met with a host of warriors, much stronger than he had prepared for. Worse than that, the King of Scandinavia had sent his herd of sheep to defend the country. These were no ordinary sheep: they were venomous sheep with giant heads, gnashing teeth and rasping tongues. They surrounded Fiachra Finn’s army, and Fiachra Finn knew that they were doomed.

Then suddenly, the fearsome sheep parted to let through a tall, beautiful man in a cloak of green with a circlet of gold around his head, a circlet of silver around his wrist, and gold brooches holding up his cloak. He told Fiachra Finn that he would ward off the sheep if Fiachra Finn would allow him to spend the night with his wife. Now Fiachra Finn did not want to agree to this, but he knew he had a duty to the men he’d led into battle, so he agreed to the stranger’s conditions. The stranger revealed that he was Mananan Mac Lir, god of the sea, and that Fiachra Finn’s wife would conceive a child by him. In order to protect her feelings, he promised that he would disguise himself as Fiachra Finn when he visited her, and he would be sure to make Fiachra Finn proud. So with a wink, he reached under his cloak and pulled out a giant dog, which chased away all the sheep and killed a thousand Scandinavian men. With the odds levelled, and the armies now of equal size, Fiachra Finn and his army won the day, and Fiachra Finn gave the black hag seven castles and 200 head of cattle.

He went back home to Ulster to find his wife already pregnant. When she gave birth to the child, he was born covered in hair, so they could give him no other name but Mongan, which means “hairy beast”. On the same night that Mongan was born, two other babies were born as well: one was the son of Fiachra Finn’s manservant, and the other was the daughter of Fiachra Dubh. The two boy-children were baptized together to bind them forever as brothers, and at the same ceremony, the daughter of Fiachra Dubh, called Dubhlacha, was betrothed to Mongan the hairy beast.

Soon after this, Mananan Mac Lir came out from the waves and announced that he was going to take his son to the Land of Promise and raise him there, giving him all the knowledge and wisdom of the other world. Growing up in Tir na nOg, Mongan learned all sorts of skills: shape shifting, poetry, magical knowledge, and the ability to foretell the future.

When he was sixteen years old, Mongan returned to Ulster to join his family, but when he arrived he found that Fiachra Dubh had grown tired of sharing the kingship, and had treacherously killed Fiachra Finn, seizing the whole throne for himself. Now, when Mongan turned up Fiachra Dubh was on the spot: he hadn’t considered that Fiachra Finn’s son might come back some day. He apologized to Mongan for what he had done, and offered to share the throne with him.

Mongan accepted, and they became kings together, sharing the throne in the same way as before. To make amends for killing Mongan’s father, Fiachra Dubh gave him Dubhlacha to marry, and the two were very happy together. Mongan’s foster-brother, who had been baptized with him all those years ago, became Mongan’s loyal manservant, and married Dubhlacha’s handmaiden, so the four of them were very happy together.

One day, Mananan Mac Lir came to visit, and when he saw the way things were, he chastised Mongan for failing to avenge his father’s death, and letting his uncle away with this murder with no real consequences. With this advice, Mongan took action at last: he killed Fiachra Dubh and became the sole King of Ulster.

Some time later, Mongan and his mother went walking on the beach one day and picked up a stone. The minute he picked up the stone, he had a vision. He told his mother that this was the stone that was going to kill him. She snatched the stone out of his hand and jumped in a boat. She went far out to sea and cast the stone as far away from her as she could, hoping the waves would swallow it and keep it from harming her son.

Soon after he became King, Mongan decided to take a tour of Ireland and get to know the land a little better. He went and stayed with Brandubh, the King of Leinster. Now Brandubh had a whole herd of white cattle with red ears, and each heifer had a calf by her side. Mongan was struck by the beauty of this herd, and he felt a great desire to own them himself. Brandubh said that he could have the cattle if Mongan agreed that they would have a friendship without refusal. Mongan agreed to give Brandubh whatever he asked for in the future, and went away back to Ulster with his fabulous herd.

Some time later, Brandubh came for a visit and announced that he’d decided what he wanted in exchange for his wonderful herd, and what he wanted was Mongan’s wife, Dubhlacha. Mongan was taken aback, and didn’t want to agree, but Dubhlacha told him his honour was at stake, and honour lasted longer than anything that happened in life. He had to keep his word. She made Brandubh promise that he would not touch her or marry her for an entire year, and after she had his word on this, she went to Leinster with him.

Now when Dubhlacha went to Leinster, she took her handmaiden with her, the wife of Mongan’s foster-brother and manservant. Very soon after they were separated from their wives, Mongan’s manservant became very lonely. He missed the comforts of his wife, and complained incessantly to Mongan for swapping their wives for a herd of cattle. The more time went by, the more frustrated he became, and the more he complained and missed his wife. He scoffed at Mongan’s fabulous education in the Land of Promise, and said all he’d learned to do was to eat and drink and enjoy himself, and none of his skills were any use.

Mongan decided he was going to have to do something about this, so the two of them set out for Leinster to see what could be done. On the way, they ran into a pair of monks from Leinster. They waylaid the monks, directing them into the river, and Mongan used magic to shapeshift himself and his manservant into the likeness of the monks.

They arrived in Brandubh’s house with the appearance of two monks of Leinster, who were known to Brandubh’s household, and they said they had come to hear Dubhlacha’s confession. They were given privacy with Dubhlacha and her handmaiden, and as soon as the four of them were alone, Mongan took the shapes of the monks off them, so they could spend time together.

In the meantime, the monks had managed to get out of the river, and they made their way back to Brandubh’s house. When they knocked on the door, the doorman greeted them with some confusion, for he’d let in two men with just the same faces not long ago. Mongan overheard, and put his disguise back on. He told the doorman “That monk must be Mongan in disguise.” The Leinstermen, convinced that this was a plot, killed one of the monks and chased away the other, and Mongan and his manservant finished up their visit and went on their way in safety.

Three more times over the course of the year, Mongan and his manservant visited their wives in the guise of monks. But as the year came to a close, Brandubh began to make arrangements. He was going to force Dubhlacha to have to marry him.

The wedding day dawned, and the guests began to arrive, and at his manservant’s insistence, Mongan was among them, disguised in another shape, to see if there was anything he could to do put a stop to the proceedings. On the way there, Mongan met an old hag, hideous and toothless. He asked her would she come to the wedding with them, and he put a magic spell on her that transformed her into the most beautiful girl in Ireland. The hag was well pleased with her disguise, and delighted with the prospect of a wedding feast.

Now, when the got to the wedding, and Brandubh saw this beautiful young woman, he forgot all about Dubhlacha. He asked the girl there and then to marry him. The beautiful young girl was well pleased with this flattery, but Mongan said that she was his daughter, and as he was a king, he would not consent to let her be married so abruptly. Brandubh begged and pleaded with him, offering riches and finery, but to no avail. He offered him a spell that could cure any illness or ailment, but again Mongan refused. Then Brandubh offered him Dubhlacha. “I don’t want her any more,” he said, “I want this girl to be my wife.” Mongan agreed at once, with feigned reluctance, and took Dubhlacha and her handmaiden home, leaving Brandubh to marry the transformed hag in a lavish wedding feast.

The next morning, Brandubh woke up next to a hideous old woman, in place of the beautiful young bride he’d lain down with the night before, and lamented the trick that had been played on him.

But Mongan and Dubhlacha, and their servants, were delighted to be reunited and ruled Ulster in peace and prosperity for many years.

The stone that Mongan’s mother had cast into the sea killed him in the end, and this is the way that it happened:

Niall of the Nine Hostages

There was once a High King of Ireland called Eochaid. His wife was a beautiful dark-haired woman called Mong Find. She had four sons with King Eochaid: Brian, Aillil, Fergus and Fiachra. But Eochaid was in love with someone else. He had a hostage he’d taken from the King of the Saxons. She was named Caireann, and he fell completely in love with her, but Mongfind hated her. She made Caireann carry the water from the well for the whole household, all by herself and everyone was so afraid of the Queen that they were afraid to look at her or talk to her, so they all turned their faces away when they saw her.

Caireann found out that she was pregnant with the king’s child, and Mongfind made her work even harder in the hopes that she would not be able to carry the baby to term. But she was strong and she was able, and one day on the way to the well, the baby pains came over her, and she gave birth to a son onto the grass. But she was so afraid of Mongfind and what she would do to the baby that she didn’t pick him up. She didn’t even touch him. She picked up the water buckets and carried the water back into the house. No one would pick up the child, everyone was too afraid of the Queen.

That is until a poet called Torna came along. He saw the baby in the grass, and picked him up, and he had a vision. He suddenly knew who this child was and he knew that it would grow up to be the greatest king. He was going to be the King who held Kingship unopposed and all his descendants after him would be kings of Ireland. So Torna decided that no matter what the Queen had to say about it, he was going to take this boy and raise him in secret. He named the baby Niall and raised him and educated him, and he didn’t let him near Tara until he was fully grown and of an age to take the throne.

On that day, Torna and Niall travelled back to Tara. The first person Niall saw was his mother, still carrying buckets of water to and fro from the well. He went over to her and told her to put the buckets down. “What are you doing dressed in rags,” he said “when you are my mother, and I am the King of Ireland’s son?” She protested that the Queen would object to him elevating her, but he took her inside and dressed her in purple robes and gave her a high seat. The Queen was indeed furious. But Eochaid was delighted to see his long-lost son. Everyone in Tara was thrilled with this new arrival, he was beautiful and wise and athletic and noble, so Mongfind realized she could do nothing direct against him.

So instead, Mongfind demanded that Eochaid choose an heir from among his sons. She was sure that he would choose Brian, or one of her sons, because after all, this young man Niall was a stranger, and he had known her sons all their lives and had raised them. But Eochaid really didn’t want to choose. He didn’t want to play favourites, so he asked his druid Sithchean to give them a test to find out which one was suitable to be the next king. Sighchean told the five sons of Eochaid to go into the forge and make weapons for themselves, and that they would be judged accordingly. But as soon as they were in the forge, he closed the door and set it on fire. The real test was to see what they would save from the burning forge.  Brian came out first, carrying the hammers, and Sithcheann pronounced that this meant Brian was a strong man, and he would be a fighter. Fiachra carried out a cask of beer, this meant that he would hold the beauty and the science of the people. Aillil carried out a chest of weapons, which meant Ailliil would be the man to take vengeance for the people, and then Fergus came out with a bundle of kindling, which mean that he was withered, or impotent, and he would have no children. Niall came out last, carrying the anvil. Sithchean announced that this meant that he was a solid anvil for all the people, and he was the one who should be King.

Mongfind would not accept this judgement. She told her sons to fight among themselves, and when Niall tried to come between them, to kill him and make out that it was an accident and done in the heat of the moment. They started to quarrel and then to fight, and Niall was about to go over and see if he could make peace between them, but Torna stopped him and said “Let the sons of Eochaid be at peace”. Let them settle their own quarrel, in other words.

Now, even though the druid had pronounced which of the sons of Eochaid should be king, Mongfind would not let this be publicized. Some time after that, the five sons of Eochaid went out hunting. They ranged far away from home, and hunted through a part of the country that none of them had seen before. They caught some game and made a fire to cook what they had killed, but they had brought no water with them. After they had eaten, they were struck with a powerful thirst.

They sent the youngest, Fergus, to go out for water, and he looked high and low and could find nothing. At last he found a well, but barring his way was a woman. She was no ordinary woman, she was a hag. She had long, skinny limbs that were crooked and her skin was spotted with disease and black with dirt. She had fingernails so long they curled and dirt underneath them, mossy teeth that stuck out at all angles like gravestones and hair that was greasy and coarse as a horse’s mane. Fergus plucked up the courage to ask this fearsome creature if he could have a drink of water from the well. She said “Yes, you may. If you give me a kiss.” Fergus declared that he would rather die of thirst and away he ran. He told his brothers that he had found nothing.

Each of the brothers in turn went looking for water, and each in turn found the well, and the hag. Aillil and Brian refused her. Fiachra managed to bring himself to give her a peck on the cheek, and she was quite pleased with this. She told him that two of his descendants would one day be kings, but she wouldn’t give him any water. Each one of the brothers reported that they had found no water at all. At last Niall went looking, and when he found the hag and she told him her price, she said “Not only will I kiss you, I will lie down with you”, and he took her in his arms and he laid her down on the grass, and lo and behold she was transformed into the most beautiful woman, with long straight limbs and white soft skin and golden hair and beautiful rosy lips. She told him that he was going to be King, and all his descendants after him. She told him to take water from the well, and to bring it back to his brothers, but not to let them have any until they swore to give him dominion over them forever and never to challenge him.

He took his time at the well before he came back to his brothers. By now, they were dying of thirst, but Niall refused to give them a drop of water until they had given up their rights to kingship, and renounced their claim to be king. Then they all journeyed back to Tara together.

When they hung up their weapons, Niall hung his weapon up a hand’s span above theirs, to show that he was first among them, and when they sat down, Niall sat at the head of the table. Eochaid and Mongfind came over to ask them how their hunting had gone, and Niall was the one who answered. Now Mongfind stopped him and said it was not appropriate for him to answer, when Brian was his elder and the one who should speak for them. And that is when the brothers told her that they had given Niall dominion over them, and he was the one who would be king. So all Mongfind’s machinations came to nothing.

Niall became the King and to ensure peace in his reign, he conquered all the provinces of Ireland and provinces in Britain and Scotland. Rather than rule over these lands, he took a hostage from each province, nine in total, to ensure that they would not cause any trouble. And all the kings of Ireland after that were descended from Niall of the Nine hostages.

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