Cuchulain of Muirthemne
I. Birth of Cuchulain
In the time long ago, Conchubar, son of Ness, was King of Ulster, and he held his court in the palace of Emain Macha. And this is the way he came to be king. He was but a young lad, and his father was not living, and Fergus, son of Rogh, who was at that time King of Ulster, asked his mother Ness in marriage.
Now Ness, that was at one time the quietest and kindest of the women of Ireland, had got to be unkind and treacherous because of an unkindness that had been done to her, and she planned to get the kingdom away from Fergus for her own son. So she said to Fergus: “Let Conchubar hold the kingdom for a year, so that his children after him may be called the children of a king; and that is the marriage portion I will ask of you.”
“You may do that,” the men of Ulster said to him; “for even though Conchubar gets the name of being king, it is yourself that will be our king all the time.” So Fergus agreed to it, and he took Ness as his wife, and her son Conchubar was made king in his place.
But all through the year, Ness was working to keep the kingdom for him, and she gave great presents to the chief men of Ulster to get them on her side. And though Conchubar was but a young lad at that time, he was wise in his judgments, and brave in battle, and good in shape and inform, and they liked him well. And at the end of the year, when Fergus asked to have the kingship back again, they consulted together; and it is what they agreed, that Conchubar was to keep it. And they said: “It is little Fergus thinks about us, when he was so ready to give up his rule over us for a year; and let Conchubar keep the kingship,” they said, “and let Fergus keep the wife he has got.”
Now it happened one day that Conchubar was making a feast at Emain Macha for the marriage of his sister Dechtire with Sualtim son of Roig. And at the feast Dechtire was thirsty, and they gave her a cup of wine, and as she was drinking it, a mayfly flew into the cup, and she drank it down with the wine. And presently she went into her sunny parlour, and her fifty maidens along with her, and she fell into a deep sleep. And in her sleep, Lugh of the Long Hand appeared to her, and he said: “It is I myself was the mayfly that came to you in the cup, and it is with me you must come away now, and your fifty maidens along with you.” And he put on them the appearance of a flock of birds, and they went with him southward till they came to Brugh na Boinne, the dwelling-place of the Sidhe. And no one at Emain Macha could get tale or tidings of them, or know where they had gone, or what had happened them.
It was about a year after that time, there was another feast in Emain, and Conchubar and his chief men were sitting at the feast. And suddenly they saw from the window a great flock of birds, that lit on the ground and began to eat up everything before them, so that not so much as a blade of grass was left.
The men of Ulster were vexed when they saw the birds destroying all before them, and they yoked nine of their chariots to follow after them. Conchubar was in his own chariot, and there were following with him Fergus son of Rogh, and Laegaire Buadach, the Battle-Winner, and Celthair son of Uithecar, and many others, and Bricriu of the bitter tongue was along with them.
They followed after the birds across the whole country southward, across Slieve Fuad, by Ath Lethan, by Ath Garach and Magh Gossa, between Fir Rois and Fir Ardae; and the birds before them always. They were the most beautiful that had ever been seen; nine flocks of them there were, linked together two and two with a chain of silver, and at the head of every flock there were two birds of different colours, linked together with a chain of gold; and there were three birds that flew by themselves, and they all went before the chariots, to the far end of the country, until the fall of night, and then there was no more seen of them.
And when the dark night was coming on, Conchubar said to his people: “It is best for us to unyoke the chariots now, and to look for some place where we can spend the night.”
Then Fergus went forward to look for some place, and what he came to was a very small poor-looking house. A man and a woman were in it, and when they saw him they said: “Bring your companions here along with you, and they will be welcome.” Fergus went back to his companions and told them what be had seen. But Bricriu said: “Where is the use of going into a house like that, with neither room nor provisions nor coverings in it; it is not worth our while to be going there.”
Then Bricriu went on himself to the place where the house was. But when he came to it, what he saw was a grand, new, well-lighted house; and at the door there was a young man wearing armour, very tall and handsome and shining. And he said: “Come into the house, Bricriu; why are you looking about you?” And there was a young woman beside him, fine and noble, and with curled hair, and she said: “Surely there is a welcome before you from me.” “Why does she welcome me?” said Bricriu. “It is on account of her that I myself welcome you,” said the young man. “And is there no one missing from you at Emain?” he said. “There is surely,” said Bricriu. “We are missing fifty young girls for the length of a year.” “Would you know them again if you saw them?” said the young man. “If I would not know them,” said Bricriu, “it is because a year might make a change in them, so that I would not be sure.” “Try and know them again,” said the man, “for the fifty young girls are in this house, and this woman beside me is their mistress, Dechtire. It was they themselves, changed into birds, that went to Emain Macha to bring you here.” Then Dechtire gave Bricriu a purple cloak with gold fringes; and be went back to find his companions. But while he was going he thought to himself: “Conchubar would give great treasure to find these fifty young girls again, and his sister along with them. I will not tell him I have found them. I will only say I have found a house with beautiful women in it, and no more than that.”
When Conchubar saw Bricriu, he asked news of him. “What news do you bring back with you, Bricriu?” he said. “I came to a fine well-lighted house,” said Bricriu; “I saw a queen, noble, kind, with royal looks, with curled hair; I saw a troop of women, beautiful, well-dressed; I saw the man of the house, tall and open-handed and shining.” “Let us go there for the night,” said Conchubar. So they brought their chariots and their horses and their arms; and they were hardly in the house when every sort of food and of drink, some they knew and some they did not know, was put before them, so that they never spent a better night And when they had eaten and drunk and began to be satisfied, Conchubar said to the young man: “Where is the mistress of the house that she does not come to bid us welcome?” “You cannot see her to-night,” said he, “for she is in the pains of childbirth.”
So they rested there that night, and in the morning Conchubar was the first to rise up; but he saw no more of the man of the house, and what he heard was the cry of a child. And he went to the room it came from, and there he saw Dechtire, and her maidens about her, and a young child beside her. And she bade Conchubar welcome, and she told him all that had happened her, and that she had called him there to bring herself and the child back to Emain Macha. And Conchubar said: “It is well you have done by me, Dechtire; you gave shelter to me and to my chariots; you kept the cold from my horses; you gave food to me and my people, and now you have given us this good gift. And let our sister, Finchoem, bring up the child,” he said. “No, it is not for her to bring him up, it is for me,” said Sencha son of Ailell, chief judge and chief poet of Ulster. “For I am skilled; I am good in disputes; I am not forgetful; I speak before any one at all in the presence of the king; I watch over what he says; I give judgment in the quarrels of kings; I am judge of the men of Ulster; no one has a right to dispute my claim, but only Conchubar.”
“If the child is given tome to bring up,” said Blai, the distributor, “he will not suffer from want of care or from forgetfulness. It is my messages that do the will of Conchubar; I call up the fighting men from all Ireland; I am well able to provide for them for a week, or even for ten days; I settle their business and their disputes; I support their honour; I get satisfaction for their insults.”
“You think too much of yourself,” said Fergus. “It is I that will bring up the child; I am strong; I have knowledge; I am the king’s messenger; no one can stand up against me in honour or riches; I am hardened to war and battles; I am a good craftsman; I am worthy to bring up a child. I am the protector of all the unhappy; the strong are afraid of me; I am the helper of the weak.”
“If you will listen to me at last, now you are quiet,” said Amergin, “I am able to bring up a child like a king. The people praise my honour, my bravery, my courage, my wisdom; they praise my good luck, my age, my speaking, my name, my courage, and my race. Though I am a fighter, I am a poet; I am worthy of the king’s favour; I overcome all the men who fight from their chariots; I owe thanks to no one except Conchubar; I obey no one but the king.”
Then Sencha said: “Let Finchoem keep the child until we come to Emain, and Morann, the judge, will settle the question when we are there.”
So the men of Ulster set out for Emain, Finchoem having the child with her. And when they came there Morann gave his judgment. “It is for Conchubar,” he said, “to help the child to a good name, for he is next of kin to him; let Sencha teach him words and speaking; let Fergus hold him on his knees; let Amergin be his tutor.” And he said: “This child will be praised by all, by chariot drivers and fighters, by kings and by wise men; he shall be loved by many men; he will avenge all your wrongs; he will defend your fords; he will fight all your battles.”
And so it was settled. And the child was left until he should come to sensible years, with his mother Dechtire and with her husband Sualtim. And they brought him up upon the plain of Muirthemne, and the name he was known by was Setanta, son of Sualtim.