The following is part I of a chapter in the forthcoming book Irish Folklore: Cú Chulainn and the Ulster Cycle (3,000 words). Read part II here.
There was once a king of Ireland whose name was Eochaid Feidlech, and he was the grandfather of Conaire the Great.
He was traveling one time over the fair greens of Brí Léith when he saw at the side of a well a woman, with a bright comb, washing in a basin with four golden birds on it and bright purple stones set about the rim. A beautiful purple cloak she had, silver fringes on it, a gold brooch, and a dress of green silk with a long hood embroidered in red gold, wonderful clasps of gold and silver on her breasts and shoulders. The sunlight was falling on her so that the gold and the green were shining out. Two plaits of hair she had, four locks in each, a bead at the point of every lock, the color of her hair like yellow flags in summer.
There she was, letting down her hair to wash it, her arms out through the sleeve holes of her shift. Her soft hands were white as the snow of a single night, her eyes blue as a flower, her lips as red as the berries of a rowan tree, and her body as white as the foam of a wave. The highness of pride in her eyebrows, a dimple of delight in each of her cheeks, the light of wooing in her eyes, and when she walked she had a step that was steady and even, like a queen. Of all the women of the world she was nicest and the most beautiful that had ever been seen, and King Eochaid and his people thought she was from the hills of the Áesid.
Of her it was said, “All are dear and shapely till they are beside Étaín.”
Eochaid sent his people to bring her to him, and when she came, he said, “Who are you and where do you come from?”
“It is easy to say,” she said, “I am Étaín, daughter of Étar, king of the Riders of the Áesid. I have been in this place ever since I was born twenty years ago in a hill of the Áesid, and kings and great men among them have been asking for my love, but they got nothing from me, for from the time I could speak I have loved you, with a child’s love, because of the great talk I heard of your grandeur. When I saw you now I knew you by all I had heard, and so I have reached you at last.”
“It is no bad friend you have been looking for,” said Eochaid, “and there will be a welcome for you, as I will leave every other woman for you, and it is with yourself I will live from this day out, so long as you behave well.”
He made her his bride and she lived with him till he died, but one time she was taken away from him by Midir, and Eochaid brought her back by force, and the Áesid had illwill toward him after that, and sought revenge on his house and on his grandson, Conaire. They had one daughter, called the same name as her mother, Étaín, that was married to Cormac king of Ulster. Like her mother, she had but one daughter, and vexation came upon Cormac when she had no sons, so he ordered two of his servicemen to take the child away out of his sight and to do away with her. They took her to a pit, but when they were putting her in, she smiled and laughed at them and they had not the heart to harm her, so they carried her to a calf shed belonging to the herds that minded the cattle of Eterscél great-grandson of Íar, king of Teamhair, who cared for her. They made a little house of wicker work for her with no door but only a window high up.
King Eterscél’s people thought provisions for the herds were kept in that house, but one day a man climbed up and looked in the window and what he saw was the most beautiful young girl in the world. When King Eterscél heard this, he sent his people to break into the house and take her away and ask no leave of the cowherds, for he had no child, but as his Druids had foretold, a woman of mysterious origin would bear him a son, and he was sure this was her. Before the king’s messengers reached the house in the morning, Étaín saw a bird at the window, and when it came in, it left its birdskin on the floor, and then a man stood before her.
“The king is sending men to bring you to him and bear him a son,” he said. “But it is my son you will bear, and no bird will be killed. His name will be Conaire son of Mess Búacalla, that is, son of the cowherd’s foster child.”
She was taken to the king, and the herds that fostered her followed, and all received good treatment. It is what she asked, when her son Conaire was born, that he may be brought up between three households, those of her fosterers, of the two honey-worded Maines, and her own. She said that if any men of Ireland had a mind to help in his upbringing, they should give it to those three households. So it was that the boy was reared, and five other boys with him: Ferger, Fergel, Ferogain, Ferobain, and Lomna Druth the Fool, of the house of Donn Désa, the champion of the army from Muclesi. They ate the same food, and their clothing and armor and the color of their horses were the same.
After a while King Eterscél died, and there was a bull feast at Teamhair, as the custom was, to find the best man for the kingship. It is this way the bull feast was made: a white bull was killed, one man would eat his fill of meat and broth, and in his sleep after that meal, a charm of truth would be spoken over him by four Druids. Whoever he saw in his sleep would be king, and he would tell of his appearance, and if he told of what was not true, his lips would perish. What the dreamer saw this time was a young man, naked with a stone in his sling, passing the road to Teamhair. Conaire was playing near the Life River with his foster brothers, and the cowherds that reared him came and bid him go to Teamhair to attend the bull feast. He left his foster brothers to their games, and turned his chariot and went on till he came to Átha Cliath, and there he saw white speckled birds, the best in size and appearance he had ever seen, and he followed them till his horses were tired, but could not catch up to them; they were always just out of reach. He got down from his chariot and took his sling and followed them to the strand, and they went into the sea and were swimming on the waves, so he went after them to catch them. They shed their birdskins, and it was men he saw now before him, who turned to face him with spears and swords.
One took him under his arm and said, “I am Nemglan, king of your father’s birds, and there was a command put on you to never cast a stone at birds, for they should be dear to you.”
“I never knew of that command till this day,” said Conaire.
“What you must do is to go to Teamhair tonight,” Nemglan said, “to the bull feast, and it is through it that you will be made king, for it is a man found naked with a sling and a stone in his hand along the roads to Teamhair, toward the end of the night, that will be king. Your bird reign will be great, but there is geasa—bonds on you—not to do this: do not go righthandwise round Teamhair and lefthandwise round Magh Breá, do not hunt the evil beasts of Cerna, do not go beyond Teamhair every ninth night, do not settle the quarrel of two of your own people, let no robbery be done under your reign, do not sleep in a house you can see the firelight shining from after sunset, do not let one woman or one man into the house where you are after sunset, and do not let three Reds go before you to the House of Red.”
Conaire set out for Teamhair, naked with a stone in his sling. On the four roads to Teamhair were three kings waiting with clothing for the king who had been foretold. When the three kings on Conaire’s road saw him coming, they met him, put royal clothes on him, and brought him in a chariot to Teamhair. But the people of Teamhair said: “Our bull feast and our charm of truth were not worth much if it is but a young, beardless lad they bring us!”
“That is no matter,” said Conaire, “for it is no disgrace for you to have a young king when my father and my grandfather held the same place.”
“That is true,” they said, and gave him the kingship.
“I will learn from wise men,” he said, “so that I may be wise myself.”
There was great plenty in Ireland throughout his reign, seven ships coming at the one time to Inver Colpa, corn and nuts up to the knees in every harvest, the trees bending from the weight of fruit, the Buais and the Boinne full of fish every summer, and law and peace and goodwill among the people that each thought the other’s voice as sweet as the strings of harps. The wolves were held back to kill no more than one calf in every pen, there was no thunder or storm, and from spring to harvest not the wind to stir a cow’s tail, or cattle without keepers, because of the greatness of peace. In King Conaire’s reign there were three crowns in Ireland, the crown of flowers, the crown of acorns, and the crown of wheatears.
But in time there was discontent among the sons of Donn Désa, who were hindered from robbing and killing like they had in old times. To anger the king and see what he would do, they stole three things: a pig, a bull, and a cow from the same man every year for three years. Every year the countryman would come to the king to make his complaint, and every year the king would say, “It is to the sons of Donn Désa you should go, for they took the beasts.” But when he tried to speak to them, they would try to kill him, so he would not go forth to the king any longer out of fear.
The sons of Donn Désa went on robbing, and three-times-fifty young men joined them, sons of the great men of Ireland. But one time they took their bad work to Connacht and followed a swineherd that ran from them and called out for help until the people gathered and the robbers were taken and brought to Teamhair.
King Conaire was asked to give judgment, and said, “Let every father of a robber put his own son to death, but let my foster brothers be spared.”
“Give us word,” said the people, “and we will put them to death for you.”
“I will not consent to that,” said Conaire. “Their life must be spared, but if they must rob, let them go across the sea, and rob the men of Alban.”
So the sons of Donn Désa and their men were driven out of the country, and some of the Maines went with them, the sons of Ailill and Medb, and three great fighting men of Leinster, the Three Red Hounds of Cualu, who brought a troop of wild and restless men. They set out then in their ships, and when they were out on the rough sea, they met with the ship of Ingcél, the One-Eyed grandson of Cormac of England. They were going to attack him, but Ingcél said, “It would be best for us to come to an agreement, for you have been driven out of Ireland and I myself have been driven out of England. Let us agree to spoil the people of my country and then I will go with you and spoil the people of your own.”
They agreed, and cast lots as together, going first to England with Ingcél. When they got there it chanced that the father and mother and the seven brothers of Ingcél had been sent to the house of the king of the district, so Ingcél and his comrades attacked them and killed them all in the one night. They then made for Alban, and there caused every sort of destruction before turning back to Ireland so that Ingcél may spoil their people the same as they had his.
At that time peace was ending in Ireland as the two Carbres were at war with one another in Tuathmumain of Munster, and no one was able to put an end to their feud till Conaire himself went to make peace. He did, but in doing so he broke two of the bonds put on him by the Man of the Waves. On his way back to Teamhair, while passing Uisneach in Mide, he and his men saw war breaking out from east to west and north to south, armies of naked men, and the land of the Uí Néill in a cloud of fire.
“What is that?” asked Conaire.
“It is easy to know,” said his people. “The king’s law has broken down, and the country is on fire.”
“What way should we go?” said Conaire.
“To the northwest,” said his people.
They went righthandwise round Teamhair, and lefthandwise round Magh Breá, breaking two more of his bonds, then meeting with beasts they killed, only to find out later they were the evil beasts of Cerna. The Áesid brought that Druid mist of smoke down on him as he continued to break his bonds, and fear arose in Conaire, not knowing which way was best to go, so they went on by the coast toward the south by the road of Cualu.
“Where will we spend the night?” Conaire asked.
“I cannot say,” said Mac Cécht, one of his fighting men, “as oftener now are the men of Ireland waring over you in your house than you are straying about seeking lodging in their own.”
“I have a friend not far from here,” said Conaire, “if we only knew the way to his house.”
“What is his name?” asked Mac Cécht.
“Dá Derga of Leinster, he keeps an Inn,” said Conaire. “He asked a favor of me and it is not a refusal he met with. I gave him a hundred head of cattle, a hundred fat swine, a hundred cloaks of fine cloth, a hundred swords and spears, a hundred red-gilded brooches, ten vats of good brown ale, three-times-nine white hounds in silver chains, and a hundred swift horses. I would give him the same if he came again, too, and he will return the favor tonight.”
“From what I recall of his house,” said Mac Cécht, “the road we are on leads right to it. Seven doorways there are and seven bedrooms between every two.”
“We will go to the house with our people then,” said Conaire.
“If so,” said Mac Cécht, “I will go first and light a fire inside for you.”
They went on toward Átha Cliath, and then a man with hair cut short, dreadful in appearance, with one hand, one foot, and one eye, overtook them. A forked pole of black iron he held in his hand, on his back was a black-bristled singed pig that squealed, and a woman was following him, ugly and big-mouthed.
“Welcome to you, my master, Conaire,” he said. “Long we have known of your coming.”
“Who gives that welcome?” asked Conaire.
“Fer Coille, the Man of the Woods,” he said, “and his black pig with him, so that you may not fast on this eve, you the best king that ever was.”
“Leave me for tonight,” said Conaire, “and I will accompany you on any other.”
“You will not,” said he, “but go to the place you will stay tonight, O fair little master, Conaire.”
They went on toward the Inn, Fer Coille and his wife behind them with the black pig squealing on his back. Conaire saw before them three horsemen going toward the Inn. Red cloaks they had, red shields, red spears, riding on red horses.
“What men are these?” asked Conaire. “It is in my bonds not to let them go before me, three Reds to the House of Red, that is, of Derga. Who will follow them and bid them to come back and follow after me?”
“I will follow them,” said Lefriflaith, Conaire’s son.
He struck his horse and went after them, but could not catch up. He called them to turn back and not to go before the king, and this he said three times until the third man turned his head.
“That is great news, my son,” he said, “wetting of swords, destroying of life, shields of broken bosses, after the fall of night. Our horses are tired, these horses of the Áesid, and though we are alive, we are dead.”
With that they broke away and he went back to his father.
“You did not hold back the men,” Conaire said.
“It was not my fault,” said Lefriflaith, repeating the answer they gave him, unpleasing for Conaire and his men to hear, as uneasiness came upon them.
“All my bonds have been broken tonight,” said Conaire, “and those three Reds before me were sent by the Áesid.”