Articles Tagged with: King Cycle

Wave 9 – Niall of the Nine Hostages

The Embracing of the Shadow (Kissing the Crone)

Niall is a King of Tara.  This is a story of a moment where mythology meets history.  The precise date of his death is felt to have been around 450 AD. His name Noígíallach means nine hostages which meant that he had hostages from nine septs in the kingdom.  He was the first of a long dynasty of kings, the Uí Néill as we move into the historical period.

Niall’s father was Eochaid by Caireann.  But the legal wife was Mongfind who had four more sons by the King.  Mongfind treated Caireann like a slave and in the pattern of ‘hero’ stories the baby Niall was born in the open and then abandoned.  The poet Torna, picked him up and reared him.  He could see Niall’s future role as a great King.

Torna brought Niall to Tara when the time was right.  Niall saw to it that Caireann, his mother, was treated honourably.  He clothed her in a purple robe.  From slave to queen was what he ensured happened!

The Niall story is highlighted by two tests.  One is the fire at the forge of the druid smith, Sithchenn.   He sets the place on fire.  The four brothers emerge with what they could grab.  But it is Niall who emerges with the anvil – an object on which many other objects can be made.  He then is proclaimed the greatest.  The second dramatic test is the encounter with the ugly hag/crone as the brothers seek water.  It is only Niall who is willing to kiss the hag, embace her and be with her.  She is sovereignty and transforms into a beautiful girl.  This again reaffirms the Kingship ideology of King sleeping with sovereignty – the land.

The Connections and insights from Participants

The Bard team collected some of the most significant connections and insights from participants at the immersion.  They are from the breakout groups and the large group discussions.

Connection 1 – Eochaid’s Passivity

Niall’s father is extremely passive in the light of Mongfind’s treatment of Caireann.  She treats her like a slave!  The comments made were in the context that with her vicious behaviour of which he could not have been ignorant.  But he did nothing!  Did he feel guilty on his encounter with Caireann.

Connection 2 – The Test at the Forge

The symbolism of the fire at the forge was a source of rich debate.  Clearly the anvil represented the King as a creator of things with an enduring prosperity.  In contrast the kindling from the forge (representing fire) represented the impotence of the transient.  The other items selected were human made instruments whereas the kindling was not.  Was this a penalty for seizing that which is property gifted by the land.  This has echoes in the Cormac MacAirt story with the thatched cottage where the roof is blown away by the wind.

Connection 3 – The Beer and its Symbolism
One of the items/objects selected by one of the brothers was  beer.   Participants speculated on the symbolism and meaning of beer from the forge.  Did it symbolise science, beauty or fun and relaxation?    It was suggested that there was as broader, deeper and more complex relationship with beer than in the present day (health and hygiene, economy and artisanship, a mead/beer hall!).

Connection 4 – Symbolism of Water
Water plays a very important symbolic role in the story.   Niall’s mother Caireann, is tasked with carrying water, and then later water is what the brothers are searching for when they encounter the hag/crone and it becomes a symbol and medium of choice of Niall as the King.  The water symbolism is contrasted with the fire symbolism – the fire at the forge.

Connection 5 – Kissing the Hag
The encounter with the hag in the pursuit of water is a central moment in the story.  This reflected, for the group, the concept of sovereignty as “marrying the land”.  The hag as a Triple Goddess figure and Kingship as being a contract with the other world.  Niall’s engagement with the hag suggesting he fully grasps this role in its wholeness.

Also important in this story is the idea of “journeying through the shadow” with echoes of the psychology of Jung and Freud and of the writings of Dante.  The shadow for Jung was those aspects of ourselves that we deny and then project out on to others.  Individualism for Jung was in part about re-owning the shadow.

Connection 6 – Kingship – Treating People Well
One of the notable characteristics of Niall is how he treats the marginalised, the rejected, the outcast.  This is firstly in the case of his mother, Caireann, who Mongfind has treated as a slave.

But it is also in regard to the old hag/crone.  He is the only one of the five sons willing to kiss her.

Connection 7 – The Substance of Kingship
The contrast was made between the present day dominance of appearances and stereotypes in politics.  The qualities of Niall are looking beyond to more complex and subtle truths.  The depths of King wisdom suggested here, were to provide the political justification for the power of the Uí Néill kings who were to last into the next six centuries.


Finally the comment was made that myth as something that never actually happened yet is always happening!


Áine was the wife of Laoghaire Lorc, the high king of Ireland. When her husband was killed by his jealous brother, Áine protected her young son, and raised him to be a great king.

Stories of Áine: 
Laoghaire Lorc was high king of Ireland. His brother Cobhthach was jealous, and killed him. He then poisoned Laoghaire’s son, Aillil. He saw Aillil’s young son Labhraidh as being no threat, and showed his control over the child by gruesomely feeding him the heart of his father and his grandfather. Labhraidh’s mother, Áine, was made to watch while this occurred, held by two strong men to prevent her from doing anything to help her son. She was broken hearted, and the child was so traumatised by this incident that he was struck dumb.

She then cherished her dumb child, making sure that he received an education fit for a king, and also making sure that nobody discounted him as a person because of his affliction. He became so learned under her attentions that he became known as “Labhraidh Ollamh”. Eventually, as he grew older, he got over the trauma and began to speak again.

Cobhthach was jealous of Labhraidh, as he was perceived to be more generous than Cobhthach. And now that speech had returned to him, and that he was an educated man, Cobhthach began to realise that Labhraidh might be a threat to him. Áine advised him to go into exile until he was ready to come back.

When he was old enough to seek revenge, he attacked Lenister and won. He then sent a message to Cobhthach telling him that he would be satisfied with the kingship of Leinster, and invited Cobhthach to a feast. The feast was to be held in a magnificent building made entirely of iron. Cobhthach did not trust Labhraidh and decided to bring with him his entire armed retinue. When he arrived for the feast he was suspicious, and refused to enter. He sent in half his men, and when nothing happened to them, he was somewhat mollified. Áine saw that he was still reluctant to enter the building, and realized that her son’s plan was about to fall apart. She decided to take matters into her own hands.

She whispered to her son “I am nearly dead anyway, regain your honour though me”, and walked straight into the building before he could stop her. Seeing this, Cobhthach believed it was safe to enter. As soon as the last man stepped inside Labhraidh closed the great iron doors, fastened great chains around the entire building and, weeping for his mother, placed faggots all around the building to be set alight. The burning faggots transformed the building into a giant oven. Áine died exultantly, knowing that her husband had been avenged, and that her son had achieved the birthright of which he had been robbed.

Áine was an extraordinarily strong figure, who survived the death of her husband, protected and raised her son to be a formidable and worthy king, and ultimately had her revenge on the man who had devastated her family.

Labhraidh Loingseach

There was once a High King in Ireland called Laoghaire Lorc. He had a brother named Cobhthach, who was the King of Leinster. Now, although he was a king in his own right, Cobhthach became intensely jealous of Laoghaire. Everything Laoghaire did, he saw as a sleight against him, and every victory of Laoghaire‘s felt like a blow to Cobhthach. His jealousy grew and festered so much that he fell sick from it, and his flesh wasted away, and he became thin and gaunt. And people began to call him Cobhthach Caol, which meant miserable.

Laoghaire came to visit Cobhthach Caol one day, knowing only that his brother was sick. When he was coming into Cobhthach Caol’s house, he accidentally stepped on a little chicken that was scratching in the dirt by the doorway, and killed it. Now, when Cobhthach saw this, he took it as proof that all his jealousy was justified, that Laoghaire really was out to get him, and that he was cruelly tormenting Cobhthach. And after Laoghaire left, he began to plot and scheme how he might kill his brother.

Cobhthach Caol came up with a plan. He told his servants to put the word out that he was dead from his wasting disease, and to lay him out on a bier as if he were dead, and to put a knife in his hand, and to say nothing to his brother Laoghaire when he came to grieve. Cobhthach Caol waited there, till Laoghaire approached, and, grief-stricken, threw himself on his brother’s body to weep. Then Cobhthach Caol stabbed Laoghaire with the knife, killing him.

After that Cobhthach Caol won the kingship of Ireland. He was worried that his brother’s son might oppose him, so he invited Laoghaire’s son and daughter-in-law, Áine, along with their young son, to visit. There he killed Laoghaire’s son, and forced the little boy to eat his father’s heart, and to swallow a mouse with its tail. The poor child was so overcome with disgust that he lost the power of speech, and he became known as Maol, which means mute. And Cobhthach was satisfied with this, because no man with such a defect as muteness could ever be a king in Ireland.

Áine brought Maol Loingseach to Corca Duibhne where he grew up into manhood. Then one day, while he was watching a game of hurling, Maol grew so excited that the let out a shout! All the people watching said “Labhraidh!” which means “He speaks!” and from that day on, Maol Loingseach was known as Labhraidh Loingseach. Knowing that he was at risk if his uncle, Cobhthach Caol ever heard that his speech was restored, Áine advised Labhraidh and some of his companions to go to France. There, Labhraidh’s friends told the King of France that Labhraidh was the grandson of the High King of Ireland. The French people put great stock in this, and the King of France put Labhraidh in charge of an army. He did so well at this, and won such great renown, that the King’s Daughter of Munster, Moiriath, fell in love with him from afar. Moiriath got the great poet and bard Craiftine to help her to win Labhraidh Loingseach’s heart. She composed a love-lay for Craiftine to sing, and sent him over to France with love-presents for Labhraidh Loingseach.

Labhraidh was delighted by Craiftine’s playing, and when he heard that the love-lay had been composed by Moiriath, he was very impressed. He decided to leave France and sail back to Ireland to meet this woman.

Now, Moiriath’s mother was well aware of what a talented and beautiful daughter she had, and she was determined that she would not be seduced by any man, before she had the chance to make the best possible marriage. So, each night, she sat herself outside her daughter’s bedroom to keep watch. This she did by letting her left eye sleep for one half of the night, and keeping the right eye open, and then letting her right eye sleep the second half of the night, with her left eye always open.

When Labhraidh arrived in the King of Munster’s hall, he was given a great welcome, and a wonderful feast was laid out, but the King of Munster did not give Moiriath and Labhraidh a moment alone together, being just as over-protective as his wife. Labhraidh didn’t know how he was going to get to be alone with Moiriath, though, having seen her, he was as in love with her as she was with him.

The poet Craiftine offered to help the lovers again. When the feast was over, and everyone had gone to their beds, he told Labhraidh to block his ears. Then Craiftine played the Music of Sleep on his harp, sweetly and softly. All those still awake fell asleep, and all those asleep slept deeper, and Labhraidh was able to sneak past the sleeping Queen of Munster, into Moiriath’s room.

The next morning, Moiriath’s mother knew at once that her daughter had spent the night with a man. She brought her before the king, and they both demanded to know who it was so they might kill him, but Moiriath said nothing. Labhraidh stepped up and admitted that it was he, and that he and Moiriath loved each other. When they heard this, the King and Queen of Munster were mollified. If she had to be with a man, they reasoned, at least she was with such a fine young man as this. And so they gave their permission for Labhraidh and Moiriath to be married.

After they were married, Labhraidh realized that he had amassed so many followers, from France and from Munster, that he need have no fear of Cobhthach Caol any more. So, he and his men returned to Leinster, where he claimed the throne. Cobhthach Caol was none too pleased by this: he was still High King of Ireland, but there was no way of going against Labhraidh Loingseach but to go to war, so he kept his peace for the time being.

Meanwhile, Labhraidh employed all the men and women of Leinster in a great undertaking. He had some of them make iron nails, and others make iron roof-tiles, and others make iron bricks and iron timbers, still others to make iron doors and iron hinges. And it was said that the people of Leinster at that time were so close-lipped, that none of them ever said to their friends or families what it was that they were employed in the making of. And so in this way, Labhraidh Loingseach was able to build a great house all out of iron, with no word of it getting out.

When the house of iron was ready, and all clad in wood to disguise it, Labhraidh Loingseach sent an invitation to Cobhthach Caol. He invited him to come to a feast, to make peace and settle things between the two of them. He told Cobhthach to bring as many men as he needed to feel secure, and promised that he would not attack them. Cobhthach Caol was suspicious, but after many reassurances, he finally agreed. He brought his whole army with him to Labhraidh’s iron house, and when they got there, they saw the feast laid out inside, but none of Labhraidh’s people in there. At that, Cobhthach Caol’s suspicions all came back, and he refused to go inside the iron house.

Then Áine stepped forward, and she went into the iron house ahead of them, knowing full well what her son had planned. She nodded to Labhraidh as she went inside, to tell him that she understood and agreed with what he was about to do. Reassured, Cobhthach Caol led his whole army into the iron house. As soon as the last man was inside, Labhraidh Loingseach bolted the doors. He had his men pile wood up outside the iron house, and he lit the wood on fire. The walls of the iron house heated up like an oven, cooking all the men inside, giving them a gruesome death, and avenging the terrible wrong that Cobhthach Caol had done to him, a vengeance that Áine bought with her own life.

After this, Labhraidh Loingseach was made High King of Ireland, and ruled well and wisely for many years.


Niall was the youngest son of the king. He himself reigned as king, and so did his descendants for 26 generations.

The Story of Niall:
The high king of Ireland, Eochaidh Mugmedon, had four sons by his first wife by Mongfind, and a fifth son by his second wife, Caireann Chasdubh. While Caireann was pregnant Mongfind was jealous and forced her to do heavy work, hoping that she would lose her baby. Caireann gave birth to Niall as she was drawing water from the well. Out of fear of Mongfind she left the baby on the ground. The baby was found by a poet called Torna, who taught him his skill. When Niall grew up he returned to Tara, was accepted as the son of the king, and rescued his mother from her imposed labour.

Niall grew popular among the nobles. Mongfind, afraid that Niall would get more and more popular and would overshadow her sons, demanded that Eochaidh Mugmedon name a successor. The king, unwilling to choose between his sons, gave the job to a druid. The druid trapped all the boys in a burning forge, telling them to save what they could. He then judged them on the objects they chose to save. Brión chose a sledgehammer, Fiachra chose a bellows and a pail of beer, Ailill chose a chest of weapons, Fergus chose a bundle of wood, Niall chose the anvil. Niall was deemed to be greater then the others. Mongfind refused to accept this.

The druid took the brothers to have weapons made for them. He then sent them out hunting. When they had successfully taken down a stag, Fiachra was sent to fetch water. He found a well guarded by a hideous hag. He asked could he draw water. She answered that he could if he slept with her. He have her a kiss, with a look of disgust on his face, but this did not satisfy her. He returned empty handed. The other brothers each went one by one, and each returned empty handed. Finally Niall went in search of water. He lay with her, and afterwards she revealed herself as a beautiful maiden. She granted Niall the right to draw water as well as the right to rule Ireland for many generations. Niall succeeded as king, and Bríon became his second in command.

Niall proved himself to be the rightful king by his choice of the anvil (stability and creation) over weapons (war), a sledgehammer (destruction), Beer (feasting), and wood (lack of masculinity), and then again by embracing the goddess and enlisting her help.

Meas Buachalla

Daughter of King Cormac of Ulster and Etain, who was daughter of a fairy-woman, she was abandoned because her father had wanted a son and was furious that the only child his wife bore him was a girl-child.

Meas Buachalla’s Story:
Rejected from the time of her birth, Meas Buachalla was cast aside by her father. He ordered his servants to cast the girl-child into a pit, but the baby smiled up at them with such love and trust that they could not bear to harm her. Against the king’s orders, they took her to the cowherds of Tara, who fostered her and loved her dearly. (Meas Buachalla means “the cowherds’ fosterchild”

However, Mess Buachalla’s life was still in danger. If her father ever found out that she was still alive, he might kill her. Her foster family built a house for her to keep her safe and hidden. The walls were high wicker, and there were no doors, only a window and a skylight. One day, one of King Eterscel’s people looked in the window, expecting to see some food or stores that the cowherders kept. Instead he saw the most beautiful maiden he had ever laid eyes on! When the king heard of her, he was determined to make Mess Buachalla his wife. He sent his men to break down her house and carry her off without asking the cowherds. It had been prophesized to King Eterscel that a woman of unknown race would bear him a son, and he was sure that the woman in the prophecy was this beautiful and mysterious maiden.

Mess Buachalla knew nothing of this, safe within her little home. Before the king ever arrived, a bird flew through her skylight, and when he landed on the floor, he cast off his birdskin. This beautiful otherworldly man made love to Mess Buachalla. He told her that King Eterscel’s peple were coming for her, but that the son she bore would be his, and she was to call him Conaire and instruct him to never kill birds.

Meas Buachalla was brought to the King, and he gave her every kind of luxury and sign of respect. Even her fosterers were raised up and made chieftains. When her son was born, she named him Conaire son of Meas Buachalla, and sent him to be fostered among three households so that he could be loved and cared for three times over, and learn all that he could.

In due course, Conaire met with his true father and became the High King of Ireland.

Meas Buachalla was the daughter of a king and the granddaughter of a fairy woman. Her connection to the Otherworld was strengthened when she met her lover, the bird-man. Thanks to her wisdom and guidance, Conaire received more love, and more perspective, by being fostered by three families.

Labhraidh Loingseach

Labhraidh Loingseach was a king of Leinster, famed for his generosity.

The story of Labhraidh Loingseach: Cobhthach was jealous of his brother Laoghaire, the king of Leinster. He feigned illness, and Laoghaire visited him. As Laoghaire bent over him, Cobhthach stabbed him in the stomach, killing him. He then poisoned Laoghaire’s son Ailill and took over as king. Ailill had a young son whom Cobhthach forced to eat the hearts of his father and grandfather. So disgusted was the boy that from that moment he ceased to speak, and was known as Maon (dumb). Cobhthach, desiring to be flattered as the new king, asked his bard to identify the most generous nobleman in Ireland. He was horrified when it was found to be Maon. Cobhthach instantly banished him from Ireland, along with the bard. Maon was now known as Maon Loingseach (exiled).

They set out to France, on their way taking refuge with the king of Munster. The king had a beautiful daughter, Moriath, who was well guarded by her mother. The bard played soothing music on his harp so that her mother fell asleep, and Maon went in to the daughter. The next day, Maon set off to France. When her mother heard Moriath sigh, she realised that that was the sigh of a married woman. Moriath admitted that she was in love with Labhraidh, and so she and her mother hatched a plan to get him back. They sent Craiftine, the talented bard, to play a love lay to Maon. Maon was so delighted with it that he started to talk again, and was now called Labhraidh Loingseach. He was determined to return and claim his right to the throne of Leinster.

Labhraidh and his men set out to take Dinn Rig, a fortress of Cobhthach. Craiftine played his magical music so that the men within the fortress all fell asleep, enabling Labhraidh and his men to take the fort. He then set his men to work building a great banqueting hall, entirely out of iron. When it was nearly completed, he set an invitation to Cobhthach to come to a great feast. Cobhthach accepted, and arrived with a great entourage. Fearing for his safety he refused to enter until Labhraidh’s mother went in. A giant chain was then fastened around the building, so the doors would not open. Labhraidh ordered his men to bank great faggots of wood around the iron building, and set fire to them, baking everyone inside. Labhraidh then realised his mother was inside, and was in great consternation. His mother, from the inside of the building, exhorted him to continue in his endeavour to achieve vengeance for his father and grandfather, and so Cobhthach and all his followers were destroyed.

Labhraidh was the rightful king of Leinster, and succeeded in retrieving it from his cruel granduncle. His period of dumbness hints at a blemish that might have prevented him from becoming king, but one that he managed to overcome. His close association with the harp as well as with celebrated poets and harpists denote his wisdom.

Fergus MacRoich

Fergus MacRoich was the original king of Ulster, and later the patron of Conor MacNessa. The story has it that Fergus married the beautiful woman Neas, who was the mother of Conor, on condition that he allow Conor to rule the province for one year. When the year was up, the people claimed to prefer the rule of Conor, and so Fergus was sidelined to the role of patron of the king. He is supposed to have possessed great virility and strength.

Stories of Fergus MacRoich:
Deirdre and the son of Ushna had been exiled for a number of years when Fergus began to plead their case to Conor MacNessa. He won a promise out of the king that they would be allowed to return to Ulster under Fergus’ own protection, unharmed. He thus placed himself as guarantor for the safe keeping of the exiles. Naoise and his brothers were eager to return to their homeland, in spite of the suspicions of Deirdre. When they landed on the shores of Ireland they were met by a Knight of the Red Branch who invited Fergus to a feast in his fortress that night. Fergus tried to explain that he had a mission to conduct the Sons of Ushna safely to the court of Conor MacNessa, but he was under a geis, a sacred oath, never to refuse a feast given in his name. He was therefore obliged to remain behind, while Naoise and his companions travelled on. Fergus’ two sons took charge of them in his place, and when Conor sent armed men to arrest them, these sons drove them back. Conor then bribed one of the sons of Fergus to desert the sons of Ushna, while Conor’s own sons killed the other brother. Then Naoise and his brothers fought against the army of Ulster and were killed. Fergus returned to find that treachery had been practised, and that one of his own sons lay dead, while the other was a traitor. He then swore to be avenged on Conor MacNessa for thus abusing him, and he departed from Ulster to Connacht. He was then welcomed in to the court of Medbh and Ailill and even had an affair with Medbh. Together they plotted to bring destruction on Ulster in the course of the Cattle Raid at Cooley.

Fergus Mac Roich was a good leader and advisor of men. His name and his word inspired trust, and he was fair in his dealing with all people. His honourable behaviour can be seen in the way in which he would not break a geis, although this unfortunately led to the loss of his own sons and the death of the sons of Ushna. His tragedy was that the less scrupulous Conor MacNessa tricked him on two separate occasions, and this eventually led to his loss of patience. He therefore deserted Ulster and vowed vengeance on it, feeling let down and betrayed by its king.

Cormac Mac Airt

Cormac Mac Airt was a mythical high king of Ireland and one of the most celebrated kings in Irish tradition. He was sometimes given the epithet Ulfhada (longbearded), which denoted his great wisdom. He was portrayed as an ideal king whose power brought good fortune and prosperity to the whole country. “In his reign the rivers of Ireland were overflowing with fish, forests were difficult to travel due to the amount of fruit on the trees, and the plains were difficult to travel because of all the honey. Peace reigned supreme, crops grew copiously and cows had a massive milk yield”.

Stories of Manannan:
Art was the son of the high king of Ireland. On the night before he was to fight in a battle, Art slept with Achtan. In the battle the next day he was slain, and Lugaidh usurped the throne. After Cormac was born Achtan feared hostility from Lugaidh and took him to the North of Ireland to live with his foster-father, Fiachna. On reaching the age of thirty, his grandfather, a druid, advised him to take the kingship as it was rightfully his. Cormac set out for Tara. Arriving in Tara he met a woman crying because her herd of sheep had been confiscated because they had been caught grazing in the queen’s field of woad. “One shearing for another would have been more just” Cormac wisely answered. Lugaidh heard of this and recognised the truth of this judgement. He accepted the supremacy of Cormac without trouble and handed over the kingship. Cormac restored Tara as it had never been before and built the great fortress of the kings there. One day in Tara Cormac met a stranger who carried a branch bearing three golden apples. These gave out beautiful music when the branch was shaken. Cormac desired the branch and the stranger promised to give it to him in return for the granting of three requests. Cormac agreed. One year later the stranger turned up and asked for Ailbhe, Cormac’s daughter. The next year he asked for Cairbre, his son. Next year he asked for Eithne, his wife. Cormac was disconsolate without this wife and set off after the stranger. He arrived in a strange land where the stranger showed him a pig on a spit and told him that the pig could not be roasted unless four truths were told in its presence. He told Cormac that Ailbhe, Cairbre and Eithne had been untouched while being in his land and asked Cormac to tell a truth. Cormac told him how he had lost his family. The pig was cooked through. The stranger revealed that he was Manannan, the sea deity and that he had brought Cormac to the Land of Promise in order to show him the nature of true wisdom. His family was returned to him and he received the gift of a goblet, which broke into three pieces when a lie was spoken, and which mended when a truth was.

Cormac is always portrayed as the Solomon of the Irish, making wise decisions and counsels. His accession to sovereignty of Tara is portrayed in terms which emphasise his wisdom and justice. He is a hero, not of martial prowess, but of kingship. He commanded huge loyalty from his followers, and was always a man of his word.

Conaire Mór

When Eochaid married Etain, Etain produced one child, a daughter. The king was furious at this and ordered that she be taken to a pit and killed. The men who were to carry out the king’s wishes set her free and she fled to the cow sheds of the King of Tara. There her name became Mes Buachalla “the cowherds fosterling”. One day a bird appeared and declared that she would become pregnant by him, and that the child was never to kill birds. He also said the child’s name was to be Conaire. Thus Conaire was born, the son of a bird man. This link between hero and birds is quite common in Irish Mythology, the Children of Lir being another example.

Stories of Conaire:
After the death of King Eterscel, a “bull-feast” was set up to decide the successor. This involved killing a bull and a man would eat his fill and drink its broth. He would then fall asleep and an incantation would be sung over him. In his dream he would see a man and this man would be declared king. The result of this was the sleeper saw “a naked man carrying a stone in a sling coming after nightfall along the road to Tara”. Conaire had gone to the bull-feast but had left early and had pursued a flock of great white speckled birds along Merrion Strand, trying to kill them with his sling. One of the birds changed shape to the warrior Nemglan, and warned him not to attack birds, as this was one of his geasa. He then told the young man to venture back to Tara naked. Conaire followed the instructions and arrived at Tara where he was welcomed in and accepted as king.

But Conaire’s demise came due to his breaking of the geasa one by one. One geis broken was his following of three red warriors to a dwelling. Another concerned a woman he met, a beanscal, and despite the fact that a geis stated that he should not admit a woman inside after midnight, he allowed her in and she spent the night with him.
Conaire’s death came in a battle with a group of marauders from Britain. Conaire had excited a group of such men from Ireland but with the help of Ingcel, a British pirate, they attacked a hostel where Conaire was staying. Three times they set fire to the dwelling and three times the inhabitants put it out. But now Conaire was consumed with thirst and with no water left MacCecht went out to search for some. When he returned he saw that the raiders had returned and had severed Conaire’s head. In revenge, Mac Cecht lifted a pillar and drove it through a marauder’s spine. He then gave the head a drink of water and it spoke to him, praising him for his kindness in quenching his thirst.

Conaire was a brave young hero who became king but was a victim of fate, unable to escape the breaking of his geasa.


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:

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