The Conception of Conchobar

Compert Conchobuir
Stowe 992
Version B

Trans. Kuno Meyer

There exist two entirely different versions of this tale, a shorter one preserved in the Yellow Book of Lecan and in T.C.D., H.3.18, according to which Conchobur was the son of Cathbad, and a longer one which makes him the son of Fachtna Fathach. Of this latter version the most complete and elaborate copy I have seen is that printed here from fo. 47a. 2 — 48a. 1 of our Ms. The copies in the Book of Leinster, in Egerton 1782, and another in the Y ellow Book of Lecan (cf. Jubainville, Catalogue, p. 92) are in the main identical with it, but leave out two interesting poems. I add the principal variants from Eg. and Lec, passing over those of the LL. copy which will be in the hands of most readers of this Review. Of the poems contained in our text, the first is composed in the same metre as five poems in the Comrac Firdiad (LL. 81b, 82b, 83a,83b) viz. 6a — 6a — 6a — 5b — 6c — 6c — 6c — 5b. There is a poem in the Cath Ruis na Rig LL. p. 174b, which has almost the same metre, leaving out one of the 6a lines. The rhymes a and c are dissyllabic, b is monosyllabic. As Mr Hennessy points out to me, there is in Hardiman's Irish Minstrelsy a poem on Seaghan O'Duibhir an Ghleanna, the metre of which bears a striking resemblance to that of these ancient poems. The second poem in our text has the following System :5a — 5b — 5c — 5b, the rhyme b being monosyllabic '. Here again, the same metre is employed in two poems in the Comrac Firdiad LL. 87a and 88a, and in the poem beginning A maccain na ci LL. 147a. It is noteworthy that in the latter poem as well as in that of our text every new rann begins with the last line of the foregoing rann.

Coimpert Concobuir in so.

There was a king over Ulster, called Eochu Salbuide mac Loich. A daughter was born to him, called Ness, daughter of Eochu Salbuide, and twelve tutors took her in fostership. Assa was her name at first, for she was of good manners and gentle to educate. This was the time that a certain Fenian knight from the southern part of Ulster went on a Fenian expedition through Erinn, with three times nine men. Cathbad, the illustrious druid, was the name of that knight. Thus was he, endowed with great knowledge and druidical skill and bodily strength, and his origin was from Ulster, though he was absent from there. Now, Cathbad came into a wilderness with his three times nine men. They then begin to fight, until they grow weary, and at last they make a covenant, for they would all have fallen together unless they made it, as they had equal numbers. Thereupon Cathbad with his people and the other Fenian knight with his people went into Ulster, and killed the twelve tutors of the maiden ; for they were all in one house feasting. And none of them escaped but the maiden only, and it was not known who had wrought the slaughter. The maiden then went with great wailing to her father. The father said it was not possible to avenge her, as it was not known who wrought the slaughter. Now the maiden was angry and wroth at this. She then went on a Fenian expedition with three times nine men to avenge her tutors. She destroyed and plundered every single district. Till then her name was Assa, for she was gentle. But Nihassa was her name after that, because of the greatness of her prowess and valour. It was her custom to ask news of Fenian knights from every stranger that she met, to see whether she would find out the name of the man that wrought the slaughter. Once upon a time, she was in a wilderness, and her people were preparing their food. Then she went forth alone on quest into the wilderness as she was wont to go on quest in every wilderness that she came into. As she was there, she saw a clear beautiful spring in the midst of the wilderness. Thereupon she went into the spring to bathe, and left her weapon and her dress on the land. Now Cathbad came on quest to the same wilderness, and he reached the spring where the maiden was bathing. Cathbad then went between the maiden and her dress and her weapon, and he bared his sword over the head of the maiden. « Now spare me, » cried the maiden. « Grant my three requests, » said Cathbad. « Thou shalt have them » said the maiden. « For this I have determined, » said Cathbad « that thou must be under my protection, and there must be peace and covenant between us, and thou must be my only wife as long as thou livest. » « It is better for me than to be killed by thee, and my weapons gone, » said the maiden. Then they and their people unite in one place. At a propitious hour Cathbad then proceeds to Ulster and to the father of the maiden who makes them welcome and gives them land, namely Raith Cathbaid in the country of the Picts, near the river called Conchobur in Crich Rois. Now, at a certain hour in the night, a prodigious thirst fell upon Cathbad. Then Ness went through the whole fort to seek a drink for him, but found no drink for him. She went to the river Conchobur and strained the water in the cup through her veil, and then brought it to Cathbad. « Let a light be kindled, » said Cathbad « that we may see the water. » Then there were two worms in the water. Cathhad bared his sword over the head of the woman with intent to kill her. « Drink thyself, then, » said Cathbad « what thou wouldst have me drink, or thou wilt be killed, if thou drink not the water. » Then the woman drinks of the water twice, and she drinks a worm at either draught. Thereupon the woman grew pregnant for as long a time as every woman is pregnant, and some say that it was by the worms that she was pregnant1. But Fachtna Fathach was the leman of the maiden, and he caused this pregnancy instead of Cathbad, the noble druid. Now Cathbad on a time went to talk with the king Fachtna Fathach, the son of Rudraige, and they came to Mag Inis. The pangs of childbirth came upon the woman on her journey. « would it were be in thy power, » said Cathbad, « wife, not to bring forth the child that is in thy womb till to-morrow, for thy son would then be king of Ulster, or of all Erinn, and his name will last in Erinn for ever, for it is *** of the same day that the illustrious child will be born whose glory and power has spread over the world, namely Jesus Christ, the son of God everlasting. » « I will do so, » said Ness. « If it do not com out through my side, it shall not come out any other way until that time arrive. » Thereupon Ness went to the meadow that was on the bank of the river Conchobur. There she sat her down on a flagstone that was on the brink of the river. So there came the pangs of childbirth upon her. Then Cathbad spoke this poem prophesying the birth of Conchobur, and he said this here below :

«O Ness, thou art in peril.
Let everyone rise at thy birth-giving,
Not *** to soothe thee.
Beautiful is the colour of thy hands,
O daughter of Eochu Buide.
Be not sorrowful, O wife,
A head of hundreds and of the hosts
Of the world will he be. thy son.

The same propitious hour
To him and to the king of the world.
Everyone will praise him
For ever to the day of judgment.
The same night he will be born,
Heroes will not defy him,
As hostage he will not be taken, He and Christ.

In the plain of Inis thou wilt bear him.
Upon the flagstone in the meadow.
Glorious will be his story,
He will be the king of grace,
He will be the hound of Ulster,
Who will take pledges of knights.
Awful will be the disgrace
When he falls ****

Conchobur his name,
Whoso will call him.
His weapons will be red,
He will excel in many routs.
There he will find his death,
In avenging the pitiable god.
Clear will be the track of his sword
Over the slanting plain of Laim.

He will be no son to Cathbad,
The beautiful active man.
Yet by me he is beloved
Because *** useful to me.
He will be a son of Fachtna Fathach,
As Scathach knows,
He will often take hostages
From the north and from the south.»

Then the maiden gave birth to the child that was in her womb, namely the glorious illustrious child and the promised son whose fame spread over Erinn, and the stone still remains on which he was born, to wit, to the west of Airgdig. Thus the boy was born, with a worm in either of his hands. Then he went head over heels towards the river Conchobur, and the river went over his back, until Cathbad seized him, and he was called after the name of the river, namely Conchobur mac Fachtna. Cathbad took the boy in his bosom, and gave thanks for him and prophesied to him, so that it was then he uttered this song :

« Welcome the stranger that has come here,
As they have told you,
He will be the gracious lord,
The son of noble Cathbad.

The son of noble Cathbad,
And of Ness, the strong,
Above ***
My son and my grandson.

My son and my grandson,
The ornament of the world ***
He will be a king of grace ***
He will be a poet, he will be just.

He will be a poet, he will be just,
He will be the head of warriors over the sea,
My beloved bird from the ***
My kitten, my head. »

The boy was then reared by Cathbad, so that therefore he was called Conchobur the son of Cathbad. Afterwards Conchobur assumed the kingship of Ulster in right of his mother and his father, for Fachtna Fathach the son of Rudraige, the king of Erinn, was his father, and it is he that begat Conchobur in Cathbad's stead. And through the strength of the valour and of the druidical knowledge of that man Cathbad was the battle of Forgarach and Ilgarach gained upon Ailill and Medb at the cattlespoil of Cualnge from the province of Ulster.

Notes :

1. In the Cophur na muccide LL. 240b, this engendering power is in the same way attributed to two worms 'di dorbhi) that are swallowed by two cows, and thus beget the famous bull, called the Dond Cualngi, and the cow called Findbennach Ai.

Sources : Kuno Meyer, Revue Celtique, 6