A King with remarkable gifts
Mongan’s story begins before he was born. His father, Fiachra Finn, joint King of Ulster with Fiachra Dubh is at war with the King of Scandinavia over a deal with an old hag that the King has failed to honour. As he arrives in Scandinavia a herd of venomous sheep meet him at the sea shore. They have giant heads, gnashing teeth and rasping tongues. It appears Fiachra Finn and his army are doomed.
A beautiful man in a cloak of green and covered in jewellery appears and tells him he will ward off the sheep if he can have a night with his wife. Fiachra Finn reluctantly agrees. This enables him to win in battle. Belatedly the deal with the hag is now honoured. The man who appeared reveals himself to be Manannan Mac Lir. When Fiachra Finn returns to Ulster he finds his wife is pregnant. Mongan is born. He is covered in hair which is how he got his name. Manannan takes Mongan off to the Land of Promise where he learns all sort of skills; shape shifting, poetry, magical knowledge and the ability to tell the future.
When Mongan grows up he takes a tour of Ireland. When staying with Brandubh, the King of Leinster, he sees the King has a herd of white cows with red ears. Brandubh says he can have the cows in a friendship ‘without refusal’.
The deal has a catch. Brandubh insists he wants Mongan’s wife, Dubhlacha. Like his father, with honour at stake he has to agree. Dubhlacha gets him to agree not to trick her nor marry her for a year. But how will Mongan get his beloved wife back? He, like his father, meets an old hag on the way to the wedding. He puts a spell on her and she becomes a beautiful woman. They go to the wedding. Brandubh on seeing her only has eyes for her. So Mongan gets his wife back. Brandubh lies with his new wife only to wake in the morning to find she has turned into a hag again … poetic justice.
The Connections and insights from Participants
Here is some of the feedback from participants from breakout groups following the telling of the Mongan story.
Connection 1 – Fighting for the Poorest
Fiachra Finn does a deal with the impoverished old hag to get her to give him the only thing that will heal the illness of the King of Scandinavia, a white cow with red ears. When one year later, the King fails to honour the deal, Fiachra Finn goes to war with the King. What we have here is the most powerful in the land willing to go to war to honour an arrangement made with one of the poorest and most marginal members of society.
Connection 2 – The Importance of Trust
The first half of the story is clearly about the consequences of the breakdown of trust. If one deal or agreement fails, especially one that is so visible, that essentially means any deal could fail. Fiachra Finn is fighting for a principle, an invisible bond that would hold a society together …. or not.
Connection 3 – The Prominence of Cattle
One of the insights was as to the prominence and significance of the cattle. They have an importance both to the livelihood of people but also on a more symbolic level in terms of healing and peace. They also played an important role in matters of honour, values and pride.
Connection 4 – Why Revenge?
In the Mongan story, Fiachra Finn goes to war for the honour of the deal with the old woman. Yes to respecting the arrangement even with the poor, the old and the ugly, but why does war have to be the ultimate act of revenge. For many politics and the powerful seem to favour the rich and powerful rather than the poor and vulnerable.
Connection 5 – The Poisonous Sheep
Compare the terrible poisonous sheep! Contract with present notion of sheep as symbol of docility and unquestioning submission. But also compare with fearsome image of sheep as engine of Enclosure in England much later (e.g. Thomas More: your sheep, that were … so meek and tame, and so small eaters, now, as I hear it said, have become so great devourers and so wild that they eat up and shallow down the very men themselves. They consume, destroy, and devour whole fields, houses and cities).
Connection 6 – The Women’s Role: Dubhlacha
Dubhlacha is barely visible in terms of narrative agency and is almost objectified. The story has a problem in terms of gender. The only time we hear Dubhlacha’s voice is when she seems to be articulating the core problem in terms of kingship in the story, i.e. the honouring of one’s word.
Connection 7 – The Women’s role: Old Hag that Mongan encounters
She is positioned around the idea of her erotic and aesthetic undesirability but Mongan with a magic wand gave to the hag the appearance of a beautiful princess of Munster. He also put a love charm on her cheek. But what was in it for her? Was she merely the vehicle for a trick to be played on Brandubh and all she got was a night with the King of Leinster, and possibly being the mother of his heir. In the morning the illusion has disappeared and she was a shrivelled old hag to Brandubh.
Connection 8 – King as Trickster
What we see is a form of Kingship in which the King, Mongan, is able to get what he wants not through force of arms, or even the power/status of the role, but rather through being a trickster. Is this part of being a good leader, especially when combined with good vision/prophecy or is this behaviour to be seen as questionable /dodgy? After all an innocent monk passer-by lost his life!
Connection 9 – Accepting a Promise, but what about the Consequences
Like the story of Cormac we have a High King accepting something they value but without any regard to the consequences. In the case of Cormac it was the life of the silver branch and its powers. In the case of Mongan it was his desire (is it agreed) for Brandubh’s cattle. Is this the naivete of the young king? In both cases though the result is that they are forced into new territory through great loss. And from that which is learned.
Connection 10 – Arthurian Myth
Here we have a reference at the end of the story to Arthurian Myth. Does this suggest a common mythic heritage between Ireland and Britain? And in the case of the early part of the story, with Scandinavia.