The Great Defeat on the Plain of Muirthemne before Cuchulainn's Death

Brislech Mór Maige Murthemne
Egerton 132
Version B

Trans. S. H. O'Grady

18. As regards Conchobar : on the morrow's morn Cathbad and Genann of the bright cheek, with the other magicians, were brought before him ; Forgall Monach's daughter Emer, as well, and Celtchar mac Uitechair's daughter Niamh, and all the womankind and womanfolk. Of whom Conchobar sought to know what ward that day they would keep over Cuchulainn. "We know not," answered all. Conchobar said, "I know : take him this day into Glenn na mbodhar" (i.e. the Glen of the Deaf, so called for the reason that were all Erin's men round about it and loudly uttering their cries of war, yet might none in that glen hear either shout or halloo). " Thither, then, to take Cuchulainn is your duty ; there let him this day be well and prudently and cunningly and craftily kept by you until the spell be spent, and to his succour Conall come out of Pictland1." "Monarch," said Niamh, "albeit for the fair day's length we interceded with him and besought him, yet not for me nor for the women all yielded he yesterday to enter that same glen. Let Cathbad go to him ; and Genann ; the poets and the women and thyself, with Emer, lead him into that glen. There make for him festival and pleasure, with diverse artifice distracting him ; so shall he not to his great perturbation hear Calatin's children with their shouts and cries provocative." "I indeed will not go with him," said Emer ; "rather let Niamh with our blessing go, for she it is whom to refuse most irks him."

19. This now being so resolved among them, together come women and maids, wise men and poets, reciters and all various professors that were in the fort, and into the house where Cuchulainn was they entered. Cathbad also, with Conchobar's harper and foster-brother, Cobhtach of the sweet strains, making melody and music ; Ferchertne, too, being on the couch beside Cuchulainn, guarding and beguiling him. Then Cathbad, standing over against him, fell to beseech him and to intercede with him, and Niamh, going to him upon the couch gave him three kisses, fondly, lovingly. "Dear son," pleaded Cathbad, "come with me this day to share my banquet, and with us will come all the women and the poets. And verily to shun or to decline a feast also is geis to thee." "Alas for that," Cuchulainn cried; "now is it no becoming time for me to feast and to make merry : while Erin's four great quarters burn and destroy the province, while Ulster are in the Pains, and Conall in foreign parts ; so that the men of Erin reviling me the while, and reproaching me, say that I am put to flight. But were it not thou and Conchobar, Genann and Ferchertne, the women and the bards as well, upon the men I would fall and sternly execute a cattering of enemies, so that their dead should be more than their living." Then Emer and all the women pleaded with him, and the queen2 addressed herself to him saying : "Little Cu, never until this hour have I hindered thee of exploit or of expedition that thou mightst desire. For my sake, then, O my first love and first darling of the earth's men, my only chosen sweetheart, thou one favourite of Erin's poets, go now with Cathbad and with Genann, with Celtchar's daughter Niamh and all the poets, to share the feast which for thee Cathbad hath prepared." Discreetly, and with sweet syllables, Niamh too intreated him and, they all rising, he sorrowful and heavy bore them company, and so entered into Glenn na mbodhar. "Alas for this," Cuchulainn said ; "I have ever shunned entering into this glen, nor ever have come into a spot that more misliked me ; for the men of Erin will say that to escape from them I now am here." Into the regal mansion of vast size, by Cathbad fashioned to receive Cuchulainn, now they repaired ; in the midst of the glen Liath Macha and the Dubhsaighlenn3 were unyoked. At the king's side of the mansion sat Cuchulainn, upon whose one hand were Cathbad, Genann, and the poets ; upon the other, Niamh daughter of Celtchar, with the women. Opposite were the musicians and the reciters, performing for them. Thus with melody and play they betook them to drink and to be merry, making brave and wondrous show of joy and joviality before him there. So far their doings.

20. Of Calatin's children we now will tell expressly. His three maimed misshapen daughters, lightly fluttering, swiftly swooping, gained Emania's green, and sought the spot where the day before they had descried Cuchulainn. Whom, when they found not, without avail they searched out all Emania, then marvelled whither he might be gone, he not being with Conchobar and with his heroes of the Red Hall. Straightway these apparitions knew that from them Cathbad's powers concealed him. Up then they rose birdlike, airily soaring with the moaning magic wind of their own making, and vehemently borne away to scrutinise the entire province ; so that nor wood nor sloping glen nor dark recess nor path impracticable they left unsearched, until at length they came over Glenn na mbodhar, and in mid-glen saw the Liath Macha and Dubhsaighlenn, with Riangabar's son Laegh that tended them. Then they were aware that Cuchulainn must be in the glen ; and they heard the poets' noise and music, as joyously they banqueted with resonant mirth of woman-kind and woman-folk and maidens [seeking] to cheer Cuchulainn's heart and soul. Calatin's offspring therefore gathering hooded sharp-spiked thistles, the light wee puff-balls and the wood's withered fluttering leaves, made of them [phantasms of] numerous warriors armour-clad, and of fighting-men4 bearing battle-weapons, so that around the glen was no hill nor hillock nor whole district but was filled with battalions, with companies of an hundred, and with marshalled bands. Up to the clouds of heaven and to the vault of the firmament ascended the cries, loud and wailing, the hoarse bellowings, the hideous chattering laughter, which these uttered round [the glen]. Also the land was full of preyings, of burnings, of women's tears and lamentation, of goblins and all eldritch things that gibbered, of trumpets and of horns that brayed. By which great prodigies of Calatin's descendants, both men and women, both hounds and [all other] dogs throughout all the region were error-stricken. But when the women [in the glen] heard these continued cries, they answering shouted back ; yet had Cuchulainn and more readily than they) caught the great uproar's sound. "Alas !" he said, "loud cries I hear from the men of Erin that harry all the province ; now is my triumph's end at hand, no more shall I be as of old esteemed, Ulster lies low for ever !" "Let that pass," Cathbad said, "these be but idle and fairy noises of fleeting motley hosts, by Calatin's children framed with design to hurt thee. Heed them not, but bide here yet a while ; banquet with us, and be merry." Thus did Cuhulainn, but still they heard the din of Calatin's children raised about the glen ; answering which the women then would cry aloud, and raise debate, and join in sports around Cuchulainn. Calatin's children, perceiving that against Cathbad's cunning and the womankind these spells of theirs availed them nought, they wearied in the end.

21. "Here stay ye," Calatin's daughter Badb5 said to her two sisters, 'and maintain the fight that I may enter into the glen and, though my death come of it, accost Cuchulainn." Then she going forth careered shamelessly and madly to the palace, where she assumed a woman's form of the women of Celtchar's daughter Niamh, and beckoned out the queen to speak with her. Out through the palace-door, a great company of the women being with her, Niamh came then ; whom every one the witch by her power and magic wiles led far from the mansion and, having confounded and confused them quite, sent them wandering through the glen, then betwixt them and the palace behind them cast a spell. This done she departed, as knowing that from Cuchulainn Niamh had exacted troth that, until she should license him, he would not fall on the men of Erin. Now then she took on her Niamh's shape and, being come where Cuchulainn was, bade him attack the hosts, saying : "My soul, my hero, and my warrior! dun Delgan is burnt, the plain of Conaille, Muirthemne's plain and the whole province, ravaged ; all which Ulster will lay to my charge, for that in place of letting thee out to avenge the preys and to check this army I e'en have hindered and withheld thee. Further, I know that I must die ; and that surely 'tis Conchobar shall slay me, who suffered thee not to avenge the province." Then she pronounced a lay ***

Cuchulainn said : "Alas, after that 'tis hard to trust in woman ! I thought that for all gold of the globe and for the whole world's wealth never wouldst thou have granted me this leave. Yet since 'tis thou that sufferest me to affront battle and dire combat with all Erin's men, verily I will go to it."

22. Thereupon Cuchulainn, being thus enjoined rose presently, but heavy with grief, and as he raised himself to stand upright, his mantle's border chanced under his feet, or [to be special] under his left foot, so that he unwittingly was put sitting. He from that misadventure upspringing rose again, red for shame, and the gold bodkin in his mantle flew up to the palace roof-tree, then downwards falling, pierced his foot through to the earth. "True," said Cuchulainn, "the bodkin is a foe, the cloak a friend, it warns me."

23. He came out of the palace and bade Laegh mac Riangabra harness the horses and make ready the chariot. Cathbad and Genann and the women-folk in general following him put forth their hands to lay hold on him, but might not stay or stop him of going from the glen. Then they gazed on the province as it lay stretched before them on all sides. The witch now being departed from them, loudly and terribly they raised the same cries as before ; which when Cuchulainn heard, much that he never yet had seen was shown him. Then was he certified that his gessa were destroyed, and his endowments perished; but Cathbad sought to quiet him, saying "Dear son, for this day only abide by my counsel : which is that thou assail not the men of Erin; and thenceforth from all magic of Calatin's children I will save thee." "Dear Master," he answered, "henceforth there is no more cause to guard my life : my span is ended, my gessa done away with, and Niamh hath licensed me to go meet the men of Erin." Next, Niamh overtook him and, "Alas, my little Cu," she cried, "not for the globe's gold, not for the whole world's wealth, had I e'er given thee that leave ; neither was it I that licensed thee, but Calatin's daughter Badb in my shape taken upon her to deceive thee. Abide with me then, my friend, my gentle loving darling !" But he believing nought of that which she said commanded Laegh to harness the horses, to prepare the chariot, and to set his fighting gear in order.

24. Laegh went about the task, nor ever at any time had been more loath than now he was to execute the same. As he was wont to do, so now he shook the bridles at the horses, but they fled before him ; the Liath Macha evading him and shewing him obstinacy, with restiveness. "Ah, true it is," said Laegh ; "to me 'tis presage of great evil. O my soul [i.e. the Liath] seldom indeed before this day would ye not come to meet the bridle and to meet myself." And he proceeded to discourse the Liath Macha, inditing of his merits and of his fame, and saying to him : ***

Yet even so the horse stayed not for Laegh, who coming to Cuchulainn told him that the Liath Macha stayed not for him. Cuchulainn himself rose to catch him, but neither for him stayed he ; while down the Liath Macha's cheeks coursed tears of dusky blood, large as clenched fist of warrior. Laegh coming on the horse's other side said : "This day Liath Macha, above any former day, 'tis urgent on thee to prove that thou art good," and he pronounced a lay ***

Then the Liath Macha stood for Laegh ; the Dubhsaighlenn also he harnessed, and on them both imposed the chariot ; which done, he fell to set in order and array Cuchulainn's varied implements and edged weapons. About his skin Cuchulainn took his battle-suit and, all leave-taking omitted, leaped into his chariot ; but from their appointed places when they were set ready to his hand, his weapons in the chariot fell away from him and down beneath his feet : to him a mighty foreshadowing of evil.

25. He set his face the way he had to go, and reached Emania ; nor far had they progressed when it seemed to him that on Emania's green stood strong battalions, the plain he saw as it were filled with great ranks and troops of battle, with companies of an hundred and marshalled lines, with horses arms and armour in great plenty. He deemed moreover that he heard shouts more and more terribly increase, saw burnings throughout the city spread and extend, whilst around Emania nor hill nor hillock but was full of plunderers. It appeared to him that men slew Emer, and out over Emania's rampart tossed her ; that the Red Hall was all aglow, and Emania, as it had been a firebrand, blazing in murky black and crimson-flecked vapour of great smoke. "Cathbad," he said, "alas for this ! though ye would hinder me and stay me, how great are these preyings, these burnings, and incursions, throughout the plain of Emania's level land and over the whole province !" ' Cathbad answering said, "Dear son, these be but great delusions : temptations which these shadowy hosts, feeble and empty, these vague and misty crowds all magic-begotten, bring to bear upon thee ; for saving only grass and leaves, nought else is there." But of all this, from Cathbad he believed nothing, rather saying:

"Cathbad son of Maelcroch, from Carn maighe***"

26. In the meantime, the women-folk weeping before them, and behind them wailing, they came to Emania, and he sought the bower where Emer lay ; who coming forth to meet them, bade him alight and enter. Cuchulainn answered : "I will not, until I shall have gone to Muirthemne : there to attack Erin's four great provinces, and to avenge the preys, the evils and the wrongs, by them inflicted on me and on Ulster generally ; for it hath been shown me that this place was filled with hostings and with gatherings of the men of Erin burning it up and scorching it." "Verily," the young woman said, "these are all but magic phantasms ; heed them not nor regard them." "Girl," said Cuchulainn, "my word I pledge thee that, until I shall assault the men of Erin's camp, from this my task I never will hold back." At this hearing, the womankind raised piercing cries of lamentation ; but of the queen and of them all he took his leave.

27. Then Cathbad and the poets with loving zeal attending him went on to Dechtire's dun, there to bid his mother farewell. Dechtire when he came upon the green stepped forth to meet him, the while knowing well that it was to fall upon the men of Erin he was fain to go. Then she proffered him that vat from which to take a draught before journey or expedition undertaken was to him a certitude of victory ; but [this time] what should be in the great vessel but crimson blood alone. "Dechtire, alas !" he said, "that all else forsake me surely is no wonder, when in this state thou tenderest me the vat." A second time she took and filled it, then gave it to him ; and a second time it was full of blood. Thrice she filled up the vat, and each time it was full of blood. Anger against the vat seized on Cuchulainn now, whereby he hurling it against a rock shattered it ; hence to this day Tulach an bhallain, "Hill of the Vat," is that hill's name. "Lady, 'tis true, and as regards myself thou art not in fault ; but 'tis my gessa that are all destroyed, and that my life's end is near: from the men of Erin this time I shall not return alive." Then he said this lay:

"O Dechtire, thy vat is empty ***"

Dechtire and Cathbad now besought him that he would refrain and await Conall ; but he said, "By no means will I wait, for my span and my triumphs are determined ; yet will I not for the world's lying vanities forsake my fame and battle-virtues, seeing that from the day when first I took [a full-grown] warrior's weapons in my hand I never have shirked fight or fray. Now therefore still less will I do so, for fame will outlive life6."

28. Again he was on Emania's green, where Ulster's chiefs' and chieftains' daughters dolefully waiting for him raised piteous cries of grief. Last of all, Cathbad alone followed him ; nor as yet were they a great way from the fort when at the entrance into the Ford of Washing on Emania's plain they chanced upon a maiden7, slender and white of her body, yellow of her hair. In grief and tribulation she on the ford's extreme brink ever washed and wrung crimson bloody spoils. "Little Cu," Cathbad asked, "seest thou not yonder sight? She is Badb's daughter that with woe and mourning washes thy gear, because she signifies thy fall and thy destruction by Meave's great hosting and by incantations of Calatin's children. Hence it is, my gentle foster-son, that thou shouldst refrain." But : "Dear guardian, it is well," he answered ; "follow me now no farther, for from avenging on the men of Erin this their coming to burn up my country, to ravage and to consume my stronghold, I may not stay. What though the fairy woman wash my spoils ? great spoil of arms, of armour and of gear, is that which by my sword and by my spear shall shortly lie there drenched in blood, in streams and pools of curdled gore. Moreover, loath as ye be to dismiss me into danger and against my foes, there to encounter death and dissolution, even so cheerful am I that now go to have my side bored and my body mangled ; neither knowest thou better than I myself know that in this onset I must fall. No more then hinder my path and course ; for whether I stay I am devoted to death, or whether I go my life's span is run out. From me to Ulster, to Conchobar also and to Emer, carry life and health ; to meet whom no more for ever I shall go. Pity that we should part ! a sad and a lamentable rending is our rending away from you ! For as now in gloom and grief, O Laegh, we get us gone from Emer, even so out of far countries and from foreign tribes many a day in gallant glee we came home to her." Then he uttered a lay ****.

29. Herewith Cuchulainn turned his face to Emania, and gazing on the town hearkened to the lamentation made by the womankind. Then it seemed to him that over rath Sailenn, which to-day is called Ard Macha, (Armagh), he saw the angels in their watches8 ; he was aware that over the rath from heaven to earth the space was full of splendour and of light, of all things excellent, of organs' music, of canticles and minstrelsy. To this which he beheld he gave his mind intently, and into his heart with influence of love the melody which he heard sank. These revelations he told to Cathbad, saying: "These be not like the wonders which, as I would return to Emania, used to be shown me terrible or hideous. The one Almighty God whom they that are up there adore, Him I do worship, and in the King Supreme that made Heaven and Earth I do believe. Now, henceforth and for evermore welcome Death!" and he took leave of Cathbad. So he turned his back on Emania, and in joy and gladness, cheerful and void of care, went on his way ; his weariness also, his delusion and his gloom passed from him.

Notes :

1. Conall cernach is represented as a great wanderer. He was often absent at critical moments. See Battle of Ros na righ.

2. i.e. "Lady", damsel of high degree.

3. i.e. the Grey of Macha and the Black Saiglenn, Cuchulainn's two chariot steeds. For the account of the capture of these marvellous steeds see the tale entitled Feast of Briccriu.

4. Comp. a similar sort of incantation in the Welsh tale of Math, son of Mathonwy, Lady Guest's Mab., p. 416, and in the old Welsh poem of Kat Godeu, Skene's Four Ancient Books of Wales.

5. One of the three war-goddesses. Her name means 'rage' or 'fury.' She was wife of Tethra or Neit.

6. An Irish proverb.

7. The "Washer of the Ford" was a banshee, who foretold the death of heroes. In the Bruidhen da Choga, she appears to Cormac conloingias as a spectre.

8. The whole of the following passage is plainly a Christian interpolation.

Sources : S. H. O'Grady Cuchullin Saga