Tuesday, February 15, 2011


The preparations for this war are said to have lasted seven years. It was during the interval that there befel an episode which might almost be called the "Argonautica" of the Gaelic mythology. 1

In spite of the dethronement of Bress, the Fomors still claimed their annual tribute from the tribe of the goddess Danu, and sent their tax-gatherers, nine times nine in number, to "Balor's Hill" to collect it. But, while they waited for the gods to come to tender their submission and their subsidy, they saw a young man approaching them. He was riding upon "Splendid Mane", the horse of Manannán son of Lêr, and was dressed in Manannán's breast-plate and helmet, through which no weapon could wound their wearer, and he was armed with sword and shield and poisoned darts. "Like to the setting sun", says the story, "was the splendour of his countenance and his forehead, and they were not able to look in his face for the greatness of his splendour." And no wonder! for he was Lugh the Far-shooter, the new-come sun-god of the Gaels. He fell upon

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the Fomorian tax-gatherers, killing all but nine of them, and these he only spared that they might go back to their kinsmen and tell how the gods had received them.

There was consternation in the under-sea country. "Who can this terrible warrior be?" asked Balor. "I know," said Balor's wife; "he must be the son of our daughter Ethniu; and I foretell that, since he has cast in his lot with his father's people, we shall never bear rule in Erin again."

The chiefs of the Fomors saw that this slaughter of their tax-gatherers signified that the Tuatha Dé Danann meant fighting. They held a council to debate on it. There came to it Elathan and Tethra and Indech, kings of the Fomors; Bress himself, and Balor of the stout blows; Cethlenn the crooked tooth, Balor's wife; Balor's twelve white-mouthed sons; and all the chief Fomorian warriors and druids.

Meanwhile, upon earth, Lugh was sending messengers all over Erin to assemble the Tuatha Dé Danann. Upon this errand went Lugh's father Cian, who seems to have been a kind of lesser solar deity, 1 son of Diancecht, the god of medicine. As Cian was going over the plain of Muirthemne, 2 he saw three armed warriors approaching him, and, when they got nearer, he recognized them as the three sons of Tuirenn, son of Ogma, whose names were Brian, Iuchar, and Iucharba. Between these three and Cian, with his brothers Cethé and Cu,

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there was, for some reason, a private enmity. Cian saw that he was now at a disadvantage. "If my brothers were with me," he said to himself, "what a fight we would make; but, as I am alone, it will be best for me to conceal myself." Looking round, he saw a herd of pigs feeding on the plain. Like all the gods, he had the faculty of shape-shifting; so, striking himself with a magic wand, he changed himself into a pig, joined the herd, and began feeding with them.

But he had been seen by the sons of Tuirenn. "What has become of the warrior who was walking on the plain a moment ago?" said Brian to his brothers. "We saw him then," they replied, "but we do not know where he is now." "Then you have not used the proper vigilance which is needed in time of war," said the elder brother. "However, I know what has become of him. He has struck himself with a druidical wand, and changed himself into a pig, and there he is, in that herd, rooting up the ground, just like all the other pigs. I can also tell you who he is. His name is Cian, and you know that he is no friend of ours."

"It is a pity that he has taken refuge among the pigs," they replied, "for they belong to some one of the Tuatha Dé Danann, and, even if we were to kill them all, Cian might still escape us."

Again Brian reproached his brothers. "You are very ignorant," he said, "if you cannot distinguish a magical beast from a natural beast. However, I will show you." And thereupon he struck his two brothers with his own wand of shape-changing, and

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turned them into two swift, slender hounds, and set them upon the pigs.

The magic hounds soon found the magic pig, and drove it out of the herd on to the open plain. Then Brian threw his spear, and hit it. The wounded pig came to a stop. "It was an evil deed of yours, casting that spear," it cried, in a human voice, "for I am not a pig, but Cian, son of Diancecht. So give me quarter."

Iuchar and Iucharba would have granted it, and let him go; but their fiercer brother swore that Cian should be put an end to, even if he came back to life seven times. So Cian tried a fresh ruse. "Give me leave", he asked, "only to return to my own shape before you slay me." "Gladly," replied Brian, "for I would much rather kill a man than a pig."

So Cian spoke the befitting spell, cast off his pig's disguise, and stood before them in his own shape. "You will be obliged to spare my life now," he said. "We will not," replied Brian. "Then it will be the worst day's work for all of you that you ever did in your lives," he answered; "for, if you had killed me in the shape of a pig, you would only have had to pay the value of a pig, but if you kill me now, I tell you that there never has been, and there never will be, anyone killed in this world for whose death a greater blood-fine will be exacted than for mine."

But the sons of Tuirenn would not listen to him. They slew him, and pounded his body with stones until it was a crushed mass. Six times they tried

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to bury him, and the earth cast him back in horror; but, the seventh time, the mould held him, and they put stones upon him to keep him down. They left him buried there, and went to Tara.

Meanwhile Lugh had been expecting his father's return. As he did not come, he determined to go and look for him. He traced him to the Plain of Muirthemne, and there he was at fault. But the indignant earth itself, which had witnessed the murder, spoke to Lugh, and told him everything. So Lugh dug up his father's corpse, and made certain how he had come to his death; then he mourned over him, and laid him back in the earth, and heaped a barrow over him, and set up a pillar with his name on it in "ogam". 1

He went back to Tara, and entered the great hall. It was filled with the people of the goddess Danu, and among them Lugh saw the three sons of Tuirenn. So he shook the "chiefs' chain", with which the Gaels used to ask for a hearing in an assembly, and when all were silent, he said:

"People of the goddess Danu, I ask you a question. What would be the vengeance that any of you would take upon one who had murdered his father?"

A great astonishment fell upon them, and Nuada, their king, said: "Surely it is not your father that has been murdered?"

"It is," replied Lugh. "And I am looking at

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those who murdered him; and they know how they did it better than I do."

"Then Nuada declared that nothing short of hewing the murderer of his father limb from limb would satisfy him, and all the others said the same, including the sons of Tuirenn.

"The very ones who did the deed say that," cried Lugh. "Then let them not leave the hall till they have settled with me about the blood-fine to be paid for it."

"If it was I who had killed your father," said the king, "I should think myself lucky if you were willing to accept a fine instead of vengeance."

The sons of Tuirenn took counsel together in whispers. Iuchar and Iucharba were in favour of admitting their guilt, but Brian was afraid that, if they confessed, Lugh would withdraw his offer to accept a fine, and would demand their deaths. So he stood out, and said that, though it was not they who had killed Cian, yet, sooner than remain under Lugh's anger, as he suspected them, they would pay the same fine as if they had.

"Certainly you shall pay the fine," said Lugh, "and I will tell you what it shall be. It is this: three apples; and a pig's-skin; and a spear; and two horses and a chariot; and seven pigs; and a hound-whelp; and a cooking-spit; and three shouts on a hill: that is the fine, and, if you think it is too much, I will remit some of it, but, if you do not think it is too much, then pay it."

"If it were a hundred times that," replied Brian, "we should not think it too much. Indeed, it

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seems so little that I fear there must be some treachery concealed in it."

"I do not think it too little," replied Lugh. "Give me your pledge before the people of the goddess Danu that you will pay it faithfully, and I will give you mine that I will ask no more."

So the sons of Tuirenn bound themselves before the Tuatha Dé Danann to pay the fine to Lugh.

When they had sworn, and given sureties, Lugh turned to them again. "I will now", he said, "explain to you the nature of the fine you have pledged yourselves to pay me, so that you may know whether it is too little or not." And, with foreboding hearts, the sons of Tuirenn set themselves to listen.

"The three apples that I have demanded," he began, "are three apples from the Garden of the Hesperides, in the east of the world. You will know them by three signs. They are the size of the head of a month-old child, they are of the colour of burnished gold, and they taste of honey. Wounds are healed and diseases cured by eating them, and they do not diminish in any way by being eaten. Whoever casts one of them hits anything he wishes, and then it comes back into his hand. I will accept no other apples instead of these. Their owners keep them perpetually guarded because of a prophecy that three young warriors from the west of the world will come to take them by force, and, brave as you may be, I do not think that you will ever get them.

"The pig's-skin that I have demanded is the

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pig's-skin of Tuis, King of Greece. It has two virtues: its touch perfectly cures all wounded or sick persons if only there is any life still left in them; and every stream of water through which it passes is turned into wine for nine days. I do not think that you will get it from the King of Greece, either with his consent or without it.

"And can you guess what spear it is that I have demanded?" asked Lugh. "We cannot," they said. "It is the poisoned spear of Pisear 1, King of Persia; it is irresistible in battle; it is so fiery that its blade must always be held under water, lest it destroy the city in which it is kept. You will find it very difficult to obtain.

"And the two horses and the chariot are the two wonderful horses of Dobhar 2, King of Sicily, which run equally well over land and sea; there are no other horses in the world like them, and no other vehicle equal to the chariot.

"And the seven pigs are the pigs of Easal 3, King of the Golden Pillars; though they may be killed every night, they are found alive again the next day, and every person that eats part of them can never be afflicted with any disease.

"And the hound-whelp I claim is the hound-whelp of the King of Ioruaidhe 4; her name is Failinis; every wild beast she sees she catches at once. It will not be easy for you to secure her.

"The cooking-spit which you must get for me is one of the cooking-spits of the women of the Island

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of Fianchuivél 1, which is at the bottom of the sea, between Erin and Alba.

"You have also pledged yourselves to give three shouts upon a hill. The hill upon which they must be given is the hill called Cnoc Miodhchaoin 2, in the north of Lochlann 3. Miodhchaoin and his sons do not allow shouts to be given on that hill; besides this, it was they who gave my father his military education, and, even if I were to forgive you, they would not; so that, though you achieve all the other adventures, I think that you will fail in this one.

"Now you know what sort of a fine it is that you have bargained to pay me," said Lugh.

And fear and astonishment fell upon the sons of Tuirenn.

This tale is evidently the work of some ancient Irish story-teller who wished to compile from various sources a more or less complete account of how the Gaelic gods obtained their legendary possessions. The spear of Pisear, King of Persia, is obviously the same weapon as the lance of Lugh, which another tradition describes as having been brought by the Tuatha Dé Danann from their original home in the city of Gorias; 4 Failinis, the whelp of the King of Ioruaidhe, is Lugh's "hound of mightiest deeds", which was irresistible in battle, and which turned any running water it bathed in into wine, 5 a property here transferred to the magic pig's-skin of King Tuis: the seven swine of the King of the

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[paragraph continues] Golden Pillars must be the same undying porkers from whose flesh Manannán mac Lir made the "Feast of Age" which preserved the eternal youth of the gods; 1 it was with horses and chariot that ran along the surface of the sea that Manannán used to journey to and fro between Erin and the Celtic Elysium in the West; 2 the apples that grew in the Garden of the Hesperides were surely of the same celestial growth as those that fed the inhabit-ants of that immortal country; 3 while the cooking-spit reminds us of three such implements at Tara, made by Goibniu and associated with the names of the Dagda and the Morrígú. 4

The burden of collecting all these treasures was placed upon the shoulders of the three sons of Tuirenn.

They consulted together, and agreed that they could never hope to succeed unless they had Manannán's magic horse, "Splendid Mane", and Manannán's magic coracle, "Wave-sweeper". But both these had been lent by Manannán to Lugh himself. So the sons of Tuirenn were obliged to humble themselves to beg them from Lugh. The sun-god would not lend them the horse, for fear of making their task too easy, but he let them have the boat, because he knew how much the spear of Pisear and the horses of Dobhar would be needed in the coming war with the Fomors. They bade farewell to their father, and went down to the shore and put out to sea, taking their sister with them.

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"Which portion of the fine shall we seek first?" said the others to Brian. "We will seek them in the order in which they were demanded," he replied. So they directed the magic boat to sail to the Garden of the Hesperides, and presently they arrived there.

They landed at a harbour, and held a council of war. It was decided that their best chance of obtaining three of the apples would be by taking the shapes of hawks. Thus they would have strength enough in their claws to carry the apples away, together with sufficient quickness upon the wing to hope to escape the arrows, darts, and sling-stones which would be shot and hurled at them by the warders of the garden.

They swooped down upon the orchard from above. It was done so swiftly that they carried off the three apples, unhit either by shaft or stone. But their difficulties were not yet over. The king of the country had three daughters who were well skilled in witchcraft. By sorcery they changed themselves into three ospreys, and pursued the three hawks. But the sons of Tuirenn reached the shore first, and, changing themselves into swans, dived into the sea. They came up close to their coracle, and got into it, and sailed swiftly away with the spoil.

Thus their first quest was finished, and they voyaged on to Greece, to seek the pig's-skin of King Tuis. No one could go without some excuse into a king's court, so they decided to disguise themselves as poets, and to tell the door-keeper that they were professional bards from Erin, seeking largess at the hands of kings. The porter let them

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into the great hall, where the poets of Greece were singing before the king.

When those had all finished, Brian rose, and asked permission to show his art. This was ac-corded; and he sang:

"O Tuis, we conceal not thy fame.
We praise thee as the oak above the kings;
The skin of a pig, bounty without hardness!
This is the reward which I ask for it.
"A stormy host and raging sea
Are a dangerous power, should one oppose it.
The skin of a pig, bounty without hardness!
This is the reward I ask, O Tuis."

"That is a good poem," said the king, "only I do not understand it."

"I will explain it," said Brian. "'We praise thee as the oak above the kings'; this means that, as the oak excels all other trees, so do you excel all other kings in nobility and generosity. 'The skin of a pig, bounty without hardness'; that is a pig's-skin which you have, O Tuis, and which I should like to receive as the reward of my poem. 'A stormy host and raging sea are a dangerous power, should one oppose it'; this means to say, that we are not used to going without anything on which we have set our hearts, O Tuis."

"I should have liked your poem better," replied the king, "if my pig's-skin had not been mentioned in it. It was not a wise thing for you to have done, O poet. But I will measure three fills of red gold out of the skin, and you shall have those."

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"May all good be thine, O King!" answered Brian. "I knew that I should get a noble reward."

So the king sent for the pig's-skin to measure out the gold with. But, as soon as Brian saw it, he seized it with his left hand, and slew the man who was holding it, and Iuchar and Iucharba also hacked about them; and they cut their way down to the boat, leaving the King of Greece among the dead behind them.

"And now we will go and get King Pisear's spear," said Brian. So, leaving Greece, they sailed in their coracle to Persia.

Their plan of disguising themselves as poets had served them so well that they decided to make use of it again. So they went into the King of Persia's hall in the same way as they had entered that of the King of Greece. Brian first listened to the poets of Persia singing; then he sang his own song:

"Small the esteem of any spear with Pisear;
The battles of foes are broken;
No oppression to Pisear;
Everyone whom he wounds.
"A yew-tree, the finest of the wood,
It is called King without opposition.
May that splendid shaft drive on
Yon crowd into their wounds of death."

"That is a good poem, O man of Erin," said the king, "but why is my spear mentioned in it?"

"The meaning is this," replied Brian: "I should like to receive that spear as a reward for my poem."

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"You make a rash request," said the king. "If I spare your life after having heard it, it will be a sufficient reward for your poem."

Brian had one of the magic apples in his hand, and he remembered its boomerang-like quality. He hurled it full in the King of Persia's face, dashing out his brains. The Persians flew to arms, but the three sons of Tuirenn conquered them, and made them yield up the spear.

They had now to travel to Sicily, to obtain the horses and chariot of King Dobhar. But they were afraid to go as poets this time, for fear the fame of their deeds might have got abroad. They therefore decided to pretend to be mercenary soldiers from Erin, and offer the King of Sicily their service. This, they thought, would be the easiest way of finding out where the horses and the chariot were kept. So they went and stood on the green before the royal court.

When the King of Sicily heard that there had come mercenaries from Erin, seeking wages from the kings of the world, he invited them to take service with him. They agreed; but, though they stayed with him a fortnight and a month, they never saw the horses, or even found out where they were kept. So they went to the king, and announced that they wished to leave him.

"Why?" he asked, for he did not want them to go.

"We will tell you, O King!" replied Brian. "It is because we have not been honoured with your confidence, as we have been accustomed with other

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kings. You have two horses and a chariot, the best in the world, and we have not even been allowed to see them."

"I would have shown them to you on the first day if you had asked me," said the king; "and you shall see them at once, for I have seldom had warriors with me so good as you are, and I do not wish you to leave me."

So he sent for the steeds, and had them yoked to the chariot, and the sons of Tuirenn were witnesses of their marvellous speed, and how they could run equally well over land or water.

Brian made a sign to his brothers, and they watched their opportunity carefully, and, as the chariot passed close beside them, Brian leaped into it, hurling its driver over the side. Then, turning the horses, he struck King Dobhar with Pisear's spear, and killed him. He took his two brothers up into the chariot and they drove away.

By the time the sons of Tuirenn reached the country of Easal, King of the Pillars of Gold, rumour had gone before them. The king came down to the harbour to meet them, and asked them if it were really true that so many kings had fallen at their hands. They replied that it was true, but that they had no quarrel with any of them; only they must obtain at all costs the fine demanded by Lugh. Then Easal asked them why they had come to his land, and they told him that they needed his seven pigs to add to the tribute. So Easal thought it better to give them up, and to make friends with the three sons of Tuirenn, than to fight with such

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warriors. The sons of Tuirenn were very glad at this, for they were growing weary of battles.

It happened that the King of Ioruaidhe, who had the hound-whelp that Lugh had demanded, was the husband of King Easal's daughter. Therefore King Easal did not wish that there should be fighting between him and the three sons of Tuirenn. He proposed to Brian and his brothers that he should sail with them to Ioruaidhe, and try to persuade the king of the country to give up the hound-whelp peacefully. They consented, and all set foot safely on the "delightful, wonderful shores of Ioruaidhe ", 1 as the manuscript calls them. But King Easal's son-in-law would not listen to reason. He assembled his warriors, and fought; but the sons of Tuirenn defeated them, and compelled their king to yield up the hound-whelp as the ransom for his life.

All these quests had been upon the earth, but the next was harder. No coracle, not even Manannán's "Wave-sweeper", could penetrate to the Island of Fianchuivé, in the depths of the sea that severs Erin from Alba. So Brian left his brothers, and put on his "water-dress, with his transparency of glass upon his head"--evidently an ancient Irish anticipation of the modern diver's dress. Thus equipped, he explored the bottom of the sea for fourteen days before he found the island. But when at last he reached it, and entered the hall of its queen, she and her sea-maidens were so amazed at Brian's hardihood in having penetrated

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to their kingdom that they presented him with the cooking-spit, and sent him back safe.

By this time, Lugh had found out by his magic arts that the sons of Tuirenn had obtained all the treasures he had demanded as the blood-fine. He desired to get them safely into his own custody before his victims went to give their three shouts upon Miodhchaoin's Hill. He therefore wove a druidical spell round them, so that they forgot the rest of their task altogether, and sailed back to Erin. They searched for Lugh, to give him the things, but he had gone away, leaving word that they were to be handed over to Nuada, the Tuatha Dé Danann king. As soon as they were in safe-keeping, Lugh came back to Tara and found the sons of Tuirenn there. And he said to them:

"Do you not know that it is unlawful to keep back any part of a blood-fine? So have you given those three shouts upon Miodhchaoin's Hill?"

Then the magic mist of forgetfulness fell from them, and they remembered. Sorrowfully they went back to complete their task.

Miodhchaoin 1 himself was watching for them, and, when he saw them land, he came down to the beach. Brian attacked him, and they fought with the swiftness of two bears and the ferocity of two lions until Miodhchaoin fell.

Then Miodhchaoin's three sons--Corc, Conn, and Aedh--came out to avenge their father, and they drove their spears through the bodies of the three sons of Tuirenn. But the three sons of Tuirenn

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also drove their spears through the bodies of the three sons of Miodhchaoin.

The three sons of Miodhchaoin were killed, and the three sons of Tuirenn were so sorely wounded that birds might have flown through their bodies from one side to the other. Nevertheless Brian was still able to stand upright, and he held his two brothers, one in each hand, and kept them on their feet, and, all together, they gave three faint, feeble shouts.

Their coracle bore them, still living, to Erin. They sent their father Tuirenn as a suppliant to Lugh, begging him to lend them the magic pig's-skin to heal their wounds.

But Lugh would not, for he had counted upon their fight with the sons of Miodhchaoin to avenge his father Cian's death. So the children of Tuirenn resigned themselves to die, and their father made a farewell song over them and over himself, and died with them.

Thus ends that famous tale--"The Fate of the Sons of Tuirenn", known as one of the "Three Sorrowful Stories of Erin". 1


89:1 This story of the Fate of the Children of Tuirenn is mentioned in the ninth-century "Cormac's Glossary". It is found in various Irish and Scottish MSS., including the Book of Lecan. The present retelling is from Eugene O’Curry's translation, published in Atlantis, Vol. IV.

90:1 Rhys: Hibbert Lectures, pp. 390-396.

90:2 A part of County Louth, between the Boyne and Dundalk. The heroic cycle connects it especially with Cuchulainn. Pronounced M\ŭrthemna or M\ŭrhevna.

93:1 There is known to have been a hill called Ard Chein (Cian's Mound) in the district of Muirthemne, and O’Curry identifies it tentatively with one now called Dromslian.

96:1 Pronounced Pēzar.

96:2 Pronounced Dobar.

96:3 Pronounced Asal.

96:4 Pronounced Irōda.

97:1 Pronounced Fincāra.

97:2 The Hill (cnoc) of Midkēna.

97:3 A mythical country inhabited by Fomors.

97:4 See chap. VI--"The Gods Arrive".

97:5 Ibid.

98:1 See chap. VI--"The Gods Arrive".

98:2 See chap. XI--"The Gods in Exile"

98:3 Ibid.

98:4 Petrie: Hist. and Antiq. of Tara Hill.

104:1 The country seems to have been identified with Norway or Iceland.

105:1 Pronounced Midkēna.

106:1 The other two are "The Fate of the Children of Lêr", told in chap. XI, and "The Fate of the Sons of Usnach", an episode of the Heroic Cycle, related in chap XIII.