Tuesday, February 15, 2011


The heroic age of Ireland was not, however, the mere orgy of battle which one might assume from the previous chapter. It had room for its Helen and its Andromache as well as for its Achilles and its Hector. Its champions could find time to make love as well as war. More than this, the legends of their courtships often have a romantic beauty found in no other early literature. The women have free scope of choice, and claim the respect of their wooers. Indeed, it has been pointed out that the mythical stories of the Celts must have created the chivalrous romances of mediæval Europe. In them, and in no other previous literature, do we find such knightly treatment of an enemy as we see in the story of Cuchulainn and Ferdiad, or such poetic delicacy towards a woman as is displayed in the wooing of Emer. 1 The talk between man and maid when Cuchulainn comes in his chariot to pay his suit to Emer at Forgall's dún might, save for its strangeness, almost have come out of some quite modern romance.

p. 185

"Emer lifted up her lovely face and recognised Cuchulainn, and she said, 'May God make smooth the path before you!'

"'And you,' he said, 'may you be safe from every harm.'"

She asks him whence he has come, and he tells her. Then he questions her about herself.

"I am a Tara of women," she replies, "the whitest of maidens, one who is gazed at but who gazes not back, a rush too far to be reached, an untrodden way. . . . I was brought up in ancient virtues, in lawful behaviour, in the keeping of chastity, in rank equal to a queen, in stateliness of form, so that to me is attributed every noble grace among the hosts of Erin's women." In more boastful strain Cuchulainn tells of his own birth and deeds. Not like the son of a peasant had he been reared at Conchobar's court, but among heroes and champions, jesters and druids. When he is weakest his strength is that of twenty; alone he will fight against forty; a hundred men would feel safe under his protection. One can imagine Emer's smile as she listens to these braggings. "Truly," she says, "they are goodly feats for a tender boy, but they are not yet those of chariot-chiefs." Very modern, too, is the way in which she coyly reminds her wooer that she has an elder sister as yet unwed. But, when at last he drives her to the point, she answers him with gentle, but proud decision. Not by words, but by deeds is she to be won. The man she will marry must have his name mentioned wherever the exploits of heroes are spoken of.

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"Even as thou hast commanded, so shall all by me be done," said Cuchulainn.

"And by me your offer is accepted, it is taken, it is granted," replied Emer.

It seems a pity that, after so fine a wooing, Cuchulainn could not have kept faithful to the bride he won. Yet such is not the way of heroes whom goddesses as well as mortal women conspire to tempt from their loyalty. Fand, the wife of Manannán son of Lêr, deserted by the sea-god, sent her sister Liban to Cuchulainn as an ambassador of love. At first he refused to visit her, but ordered Laeg, his charioteer, to go with Liban to the "Happy Plain" to spy out the land. Laeg returned enraptured. "If all Ireland were mine," he assured his master, "with supreme rule over its fair inhabitants, I would give it up without regret to go and live in the place that I have seen."

So Cuchulainn himself went and stayed a month in the Celtic Paradise with Fand, the fairest woman of the Sídhe. Returning to the land of mortals, he made a tryst with the goddess to meet him again in his own country by the yew-tree at the head of Baile's strand.

But Emer came to hear of it, and went to the meeting-place herself, with fifty of her maidens, each armed with a knife to kill her rival. There she found Cuchulainn, Laeg, and Fand.

"What has led you, Cuchulainn," said Emer, "to shame me before the women of Erin and all honour-able people? I came under your shelter, trusting

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in your faithfulness, and now you seek a cause of quarrel with me."

But Cuchulainn, hero-like, could not understand why his wife should not be content to take her turn with this other woman--surely no unworthy rival, for she was beautiful, and came of the lofty race of gods. We see Emer yield at last, with queenly pathos.

"I will not refuse this woman to you, if you long for her," she said, for I know that everything that is new seems fair, and everything that is common seems bitter, and everything we have not seems desirable to us, and everything we have we think little of. And yet, Cuchulainn, I was once pleasing to you, and I would wish to be so again."

Her grief touched him. "By my word," he said, "you are pleasing to me, and will be as long as I live."

"Then let me be given up," said Fand. "It is better that I should be," replied Emer. "No," said Fand; "it is I who must be given up in the end.

"It is I who will go, though I go with great sorrow. I would rather stay with Cuchulainn than live in the sunny home of the gods.

"O Emer, he is yours, and you are worthy of him! What my hand cannot have, my heart may yet wish well to.

"A sorrowful thing it is to love without return. Better to renounce than not to receive a love equal to one's own.

"It was not well of you, O fair-haired Emer, to come to kill Fand in her misery."

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It was while the goddess and the human woman were contending with one another in self-sacrifice that Manannán, Son of the Sea, heard of Fand's trouble, and was sorry that he had forsaken her. So he came, invisible to all but her alone. He asked her pardon, and she herself could not forget that she had once been happy with the "horseman of the crested waves", and still might be happy with him again. The god asked her to make her choice between them, and, when she went to him, he shook his mantle between her and Cuchulainn. It was one of the magic properties of Manannán's mantle that those between whom it was shaken could never meet again. Then Fand returned with her divine husband to the country of the immortals; and the druids of Emain Macha gave Cuchulainn and Emer each a drink of oblivion, so that Cuchulainn forgot his love and Emer her jealousy. 1

The scene of this story takes its name from another, and hardly less beautiful love-tale. The "yew-tree at the head of Baile's strand" had grown out of the grave of Baile of the Honeyed Speech, and it bore the appearance of Baile's love, Ailinn. This Gaelic Romeo and Juliet were of royal birth: Baile was heir to Ulster, and Ailinn was daughter of the King of Leinster's son. Not by any feud of Montague and Capulet were they parted, however, but by the craft of a ghostly enemy. They had appointed to meet one another at Dundealgan,

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and Baile, who arrived there first, was greeted by a stranger. "What news do you bring?" asked Baile. "None," replied the stranger, "except that Ailinn of Leinster was setting out to meet her lover, but the men of Leinster kept her back, and her heart broke then and there from grief." When Baile heard this, his own heart broke, and he fell dead on the strand, while the messenger went on the wings of the wind to the home of Ailinn, who had not yet started. "Whence come you?" she asked him. "From Ulster, by the shore of Dundealgan, where I saw men raising a stone over one who had just died, and on the stone I read the name of Baile. He had come to meet some woman he was in love with, but it was destined that they should never see one another again in life." At this news Ailinn, too, fell dead, and was buried; and we are told that an apple-tree grew out of her grave, the apples of which bore the likeness of the face of Baile, while a yew-tree sprung from Baile's grave, and took the appearance of Ailinn. This legend, which is probably a part of the common heritage of the Aryans, is found in folk-lore over an area which stretches from Ireland to India. The Gaelic version has, however, an ending unknown to the others. The two trees, it relates, were cut down, and made into wands upon which the poets of Ulster and of Leinster cut the songs of the love-tragedies of their two provinces, in ogam. But even these mute memorials of Baile and Ailinn were destined not to be divided. After two hundred years, Art the "Lonely", High-King of Ireland, ordered them to be brought to the hall of Tara,

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and, as soon as the wands found themselves under the same roof, they all sprang together, and no force or skill could part them again. So the king commanded them to be "kept, like any other jewel, in the treasury of Tara." 1

Neither of these stories, however, has as yet attained the fame of one now to be retold. 2 To many, no doubt, Gaelic romance is summed up in the one word Deirdre. It is the legend of this Gaelic Helen that the poets of the modern Celtic school most love to elaborate, while old men still tell it round the peat-fires of Ireland and the Highlands. Scholar and peasant alike combine to preserve a tradition no one knows how many hundred years old, for it was written down in the twelfth-century Book of Leinster as one of the "prime stories'' which every bard was bound to be able to recite It takes rank with the "Fate of the Sons of Tuirenn", and with the "Fate of the Children of Lêr", as one of the "Three Sorrowful Stories of Erin".

So favourite a tale has naturally been much altered and added to in its passage down the generations. But its essential story is as follows:--

King Conchobar of Ulster was holding festival in the house of one of his bards, called Fedlimid, when Fedlimid's wife gave birth to a daughter, concerning whom Cathbad the Druid uttered a prophecy. He

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foretold that the new-born child would grow up to be the most lovely woman the world had ever seen, but that her beauty would bring death to many heroes, and much peril and sorrow to Ulster. On hearing this, the Red Branch warriors demanded that she should be killed, but Conchobar refused, and gave the infant to a trusted serving-woman, to be hidden in a secret place in the solitude of the mountains, until she was of an age to be his own wife.

So Deirdre (as Cathbad named her) was taken away to a hut so remote from the paths of men that none knew of it save Conchobar. Here she was brought up by a nurse, a fosterer, and a teacher, and saw no other living creatures save the beasts and birds of the hills. Nevertheless, woman-like, she aspired to be loved.

One day, her fosterer was killing a calf for their food, and its blood ran out upon the snowy ground, which brought a black raven swooping to the spot. "If there were a man," said Deirdre, "who had hair of the blackness of that raven, skin of the whiteness of the snow, and cheeks as red as the calf's blood, that is the man whom I would wish to marry me."

"Indeed there is such a man," replied her teacher thoughtlessly. "Naoise 1, one of the sons of Usnach 2, heroes of the same race as Conchobar the King.

The curious Deirdre prevailed upon her teacher to bring Naoise to speak with her. When they met she made good use of her time, for she offered

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[paragraph continues] Naoise her love, and begged him to take her away from King Conchobar.

Naoise, bewitched by her beauty, consented. Accompanied by his two brothers, Ardan and Ainle, and their followers, he fled with Deirdre to Alba, where they made alliance with one of its kings, and wandered over the land, living by following the deer, and by helping the king in his battles.

The revengeful Conchobar bided his time. One day, as the heroes of the Red Branch feasted together at Emain Macha, he asked them if they had ever heard of a nobler company than their own. They replied that the world could not hold such another. "Yet", said the king, "we lack our full tale. The three sons of Usnach could defend the province of Ulster against any other province of Ireland by themselves, and it is a pity that they should still be exiles, for the sake of any woman in the world. Gladly would I welcome them back!"

"We ourselves", replied the Ultonians, "would have counselled this long ago had we dared, O King!"

"Then I will send one of my three best champions to fetch them," said Conchobar. "Either Conall the Victorious, or Cuchulainn, the son of Sualtam, or Fergus, the son of Roy; and I will find out which of those three loves me best."

First he called Conall to him secretly.

"What would you do, O Conall," he asked, "if you were sent to fetch the sons of Usnach, and they were killed here, in spite of your safe-conduct?"

"There is not a man in Ulster," answered Conall,

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[paragraph continues] "who had hand in it that would escape his own death from me."

"I see that I am not dearest of all men to you," replied Conchobar, and, dismissing Conall, he called Cuchulainn, and put the same question to him.

"By my sworn word," replied Cuchulainn, "if such a thing happened with your consent, no bribe or blood-fine would I accept in lieu of your own head, O Conchobar."

"Truly," said the king, "it is not you I will send."

The king then asked Fergus, and he replied that, if the sons of Usnach were slain while under his protection, he would revenge the deed upon anyone who was party to it, save only the king himself.

"Then it is you who shall go," said Conchobar. "Set forth to-morrow, and rest not by the way, and when you put foot again in Ireland at the Dún of Borrach, whatever may happen to you yourself, send the sons of Usnach forward without delay."

The next morning, Fergus, with his two sons, Illann the Fair and Buinne the Ruthless Red, set out for Alba in their galley, and reached Loch Etive, by whose shores the sons of Usnach were then living. Naoise, Ainle, and Ardan were sitting at chess when they heard Fergus's shout.

"That is the cry of a man of Erin," said Naoise.

"Nay," replied Deirdre, who had forebodings of trouble. "Do not heed it; it is only the shout of a man of Alba." But the sons of Usnach knew better,

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and sent Ardan down to the sea-shore, where he found Fergus and his sons, and gave them greeting, and heard their message, and brought them back with him.

That night Fergus persuaded the sons of Usnach to return with him to Emain Macha. Deirdre, with her "second sight", implored them to remain in Alba. But the exiles were weary for the sight of their own country, and did not share their companion's fears. As they put out to sea, Deirdre uttered her beautiful "Farewell to Alba", that land she was never to behold again.

"A lovable land is yon eastern land,
Alba, with its marvels.
I would not have come hither out of it,
Had I not come with Naoise.
"Lovable are Dún-fidga and Duún-finn,
Lovable the fortress over them;
Dear to the heart Inis Draigende,
And very dear is Dún Suibni.

"Caill Cuan!
Unto which Ainle would wend, alas!
Short the time seemed to me,
With Naoise in the region of Alba.

"Glenn Láid!
Often I slept there under the cliff;
Fish and venison and the fat of the badger
Was my portion in Glenn Láid.

"Glenn Masáin!
Its garlic was tall, its branches white;
We slept a rocking sleep,
Over the grassy estuary of Masáin. p. 195

"Glenn Etive!
Where my first house I raised;
Beauteous its wood:--upon rising
A cattle-fold for the sun was Glenn Etive.
. . . . . . . . . .

"Glenn Dá-Rúad!
My love to every man who hath it as an heritage!
Sweet the cuckoos' note on bending bough,
On the peak over Glenn Dá-Rúad.

"Beloved is Draigen,
Dear the white sand beneath its waves;
I would not have come from it, from the East,
Had I not come with my beloved."

They crossed the sea, and arrived at the Dún of Borrach, who bade them welcome to Ireland. Now King Conchobar had sent Borrach a secret command, that he should offer a feast to Fergus on his landing. Strange taboos called geasa are laid upon the various heroes of ancient Ireland in the stories; there are certain things that each one of them may not do without forfeiting life or honour; and it was a geis upon Fergus to refuse a feast.

Fergus, we are told, "reddened with anger from crown to sole" at the invitation. Yet he could not avoid the feast. He asked Naoise what he should do, and Deirdre broke in with: "Do what is asked of you if you prefer to forsake the sons of Usnach for a feast. Yet forsaking them is a good price to pay for."

Fergus, however, perceived a possible compromise. Though he himself could not refuse to stop to partake of Borrach's hospitality, he could send

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[paragraph continues] Deirdre and the sons of Usnach on to Emain Macha at once, under the safeguard of his two sons, Illann the Fair and Buinne the Ruthless Red. So this was done, albeit to the annoyance of the sons of Usnach and the terror of Deirdre. Visions came to the sorrowful woman; she saw the three sons of Usnach and Illann, the son of Fergus, without their heads; she saw a cloud of blood always hanging over them. She begged them to wait in some safe place until Fergus had finished the feast. But Naoise, Ainle, and Ardan laughed at her fears. They arrived at Emain Macha, and Conchobar ordered the "Red Branch" palace to be placed at their disposal.

In the evening Conchobar called Levarcham, Deirdre's old teacher, to him. "Go", he said, "to the 'Red Branch', and see Deirdre, And bring me back news of her appearance, whether she still keeps her former beauty, or whether it has left her."

So Levarcham came to the "Red Branch", and kissed Deirdre and the three sons of Usnach, and warned them that Conchobar was preparing treachery. Then she went back to the king, and reported to him that Deirdre's hard life upon the mountains of Alba had ruined her form and face, so that she was no longer worthy of his regard.

At this, Conchobar's jealousy was partly allayed, and he began to doubt whether it would be wise to attack the sons of Usnach. But later on, when he had drunk well of wine, he sent a second messenger to see if what Levarcham had reported about Deirdre was truth.

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The messenger, this time a man, went and looked in through a window. Deirdre saw him and pointed him out to Naoise, who flung a chessman at the peering face, and put out one of its eyes. But the man went back to Conchobar, and told him that, though one of his eyes had been struck out, he would gladly have stayed looking with the other, so great was Deirdre's loveliness.

Then Conchobar, in his wrath, ordered the men of Ulster to set fire to the Red Branch House and slay all within it except Deirdre. They flung fire-brands upon it, but Buinne the Ruthless Red came out and quenched them, and drove the assailants back with slaughter. But Conchobar called to him to parley, and offered him a "hundred" of land and his friendship to desert the sons of Usnach. Buinne was tempted, and fell; but the land given him turned barren that very night in indignation at being owned by such a traitor.

The other of Fergus's sons was of different make. He charged out, torch in hand, and cut down the Ultonians, so that they hesitated to come near the house again. Conchobar dared not offer him a bribe. But he armed his own son, Fiacha, with his own magic weapons, including his shield, the "Moaner", which roared when its owner was in danger, and sent him to fight Illann.

The duel was a fierce one, and Illann got the better of Fiacha, so that the son of Conchobar had to crouch down beneath his shield, which roared for help. Conall the Victorious heard the roar from far off, and thought that his king must be in peril. He

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came to the place, and, without asking questions, thrust his spear "Blue-green" through Illann. The dying son of Fergus explained the situation to Conall, who, by way of making some amends, at once killed Fiacha as well.

After this, the sons of Usnach held their fort till dawn against all Conchobar's host. But, with day, they saw that they must either escape or resign themselves to perish. Putting Deirdre in their centre, protected by their shields, they opened the door suddenly and fled out.

They would have broken through and escaped, had not Conchobar asked Cathbad the Druid to put a spell upon them, promising to spare their lives. So Cathbad raised the illusion of a stormy sea before and all around the sons of Usnach. Naoise lifted Deirdre upon his shoulder, but the magic waves rose higher, until they were all obliged to fling away their weapons and swim.

Then was seen the strange sight of men swimming upon dry land. And, before the glamour passed away, the sons of Usnach were seized from behind, and brought to Conchobar.

In spite of his promise to the druid, the king condemned them to death. None of the men of Ulster would, however, deal the blow. In the end, a foreigner from Norway, whose father Naoise had slain, offered to behead them. Each of the brothers begged to die first, that he might not witness the deaths of the others. But Naoise ended this noble rivalry by lending their executioner the sword called "The Retaliator", which had been given

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him by Manannán son of Lêr. They knelt down side by side, and one blow of the sword of the god shore off all their heads.

As for Deirdre, there are varying stories of her death, but most of them agree that she did not survive the sons of Usnach many hours. But, before she died, she made an elegy over them. That it is of a singular pathos and beauty the few verses which there is space to give will show. 1

"Long the day without Usnach's children!
It was not mournful to be in their company!
Sons of a king by whom sojourners were entertained,
Three lions from the Hill of the Cave.
. . . . . . . . . .
"Three darlings of the women of Britain,
Three hawks of Slieve Gullion,
Sons of a king whom valour served,
To whom soldiers used to give homage!
. . . . . . . . . .

"That I should remain after Naoise
Let no one in the world suppose:
After Ardan and Ainle
My time would not be long.

"Ulster's over-king, my first husband,
I forsook for Naoise's love.
Short my life after them:
I will perform their funeral game.

"After them I shall not be alive--
Three that would go into every conflict, p. 200
Three who liked to endure hardships,
Three heroes who refused not combats.
. . . . . . . . . .

"O man, that diggest the tomb
And puttest my darling from me,
Make not the grave too narrow:
I shall be beside the noble ones."

It was a poor triumph for Conchobar. Deirdre in all her beauty had escaped him by death. His own chief followers never forgave it. Fergus, when he returned from Borrach's feast, and found out what had been done, gathered his own people, slew Conchobar's son and many of his warriors, and fled to Ulster's bitterest enemies, Ailill and Medb of Connaught. And Cathbad the Druid cursed both king and kingdom, praying that none of Conchobar's race might ever reign in Emain Macha again.

So it came to pass. The capital of Ulster was only kept from ruin by Cuchulainn's prowess. When he perished, it also fell, and soon became what it is now--a grassy hill.


184:1 The romance of the Wooing of Emer, a fragment of which is contained in the Book of the Dun Cow, has been translated by Dr. Kuno Meyer, and published by him in the Archæological Review, Vol. I, 1888. Miss Hull has included this translation in her Cuchullin Saga. Another version of it from a Bodleian MS., translated by the same scholar, will be found in the Revue Celtique, Vol. XI.

188:1 This story, known as the Sick-Bed of Cuchulainn, translated into French by M. d’Arbois de Jubainville, will be found in his L’Épopée Celtique en Irlande, the fifth volume of Cour de Littérature Celtique. Another translation, into English, by Eugene O’Curry is in Atlantis, Vols. I and II.

190:1 For the full story of Baile and Ailinn see Dr. Kuno Meyer's translation in Vol. XIII of the Revue Celtique.

190:2 There are not only numerous translations of this romance, but also many Gaelic versions. The oldest of the latter is in the Book of Leinster, while the fullest are in two MSS. in the Advocates' Library at Edinburgh. The version followed here is from one of these, the so-called Glenn Masáin MS., translated by Dr, Whitley Stokes, and contained in Miss Hull's Cuchullin Saga.

191:1 Pronounced Naisi.

191:2 Pronounced Usna.

199:1 It will be found in full in Miss Hull's Cuchullin Saga. The version there given was first translated into French by M. Ponsinet from the Book of Leinster.