You are currently viewing “The High King of Ireland” (Part II)

“The High King of Ireland” (Part II)

The following is part II of a chapter in the forthcoming book Irish Folklore: Cú Chulainn and the Ulster Cycle (3,400 words). Read part I here.

While he and his people were on the road of Cualu going toward the Inn, Ingcél and the outlaws of Ireland were arriving by ship on the coast of Magh Breá against Éadair. The sons of Donn Désa said, “Strike the sails and let a light-footed messenger go ashore and see we keep our bargain with Ingcél, spoil for spoil.”

“Let a man go,” said Ingcél, “with the gift of hearing, of far sight, and of sound judgment.”

“I have the gift of hearing,” said Maine Mílscotach.

“I have the gift of far sight and of judgment,” said Maine Andoe.

“It is well for you to go then,” said the others.

They landed and went on till they came to Binn Éadair, and stopped there to see and hear what they may.

“Quiet now,” said Maine Mílscotach, “listen.”

“What do you hear?” said Maine Andoe.

“I hear the coming of a king,” he said, “look now and tell of what you see.”

“I see a great company of men, traveling over hills and rivers. Clothes of every color they have and gray their spears over their chariots, swords with ivory hilts beside them, silver shields, and I swear by the oath my people swear by, the horses they have are the horses of a good lord. It is my opinion that Conaire son of Eterscél, and a good share of the men of Ireland with him, is traveling the road.”

They went back and told the others what they had heard and seen, and with the news the boats were brought ashore and landed on the strand of Furbuithe. It was at that moment Mac Cécht was striking a spark to kindle a fire at the Inn for the High King. Conaire came to the lawn of the Inn, went in with his people, and took a seat, the three Red Men and the Man of the Woods, a swineherd of the Áesid with his squealing pig, sitting with them.

Dá Derga came to them with three-times-fifty fighting men, every one of them having a long head of hair, a short cloak, and a blackthorn stick with bands of iron in his hand.

“Welcome, master Conaire,” said Dá Derga. “If you were to bring the whole of Ireland with you there would be a welcome for all.”

After the fall of evening they saw a lone woman at the door of the Inn, long hair she had, a gray-woollen cloak, her mouth drawn to one side of her head. She leaned against the doorpost and threw an evil eye on the king and the young men about him.

“Well, woman,” said Conaire, “you have the Druid eyes, so speak of what do you see in us?”

“It is what I see for you,” she said, “that nothing of your skin or flesh will escape from the place you are in, except what the birds will bring away in their claws. Let me come into the house now.”

“There are bonds on me,” said Conaire, “not to let a woman come by herself into the house after the setting of the sun. Bring her out a good share of food from my table, but let her stop for the night in some other place.”

“If the king’s hospitality is gone,” she said, “and if it is the way not to have room in his house for one lone woman to be fed and lodged, I will go and get food and lodging from a better man.”

“Let her in, in spite of my bonds,” said Conaire when he heard that.

They let her in, but none felt easy after what she had said. All this time the outlaws were en route to the Inn, stopping finally at Leccaibcend Slébe, where they saw the light shining inside through the wheels of the chariots out front.

“What is that light beyond?” Ingcél said to Ferogain.

“It is what I think,” said Ferogain, “that is the fire of Conaire, the High King. I would be glad he not to be there tonight, for it would be a pity if harm should come on him or his life be shortened, he that is a branch in its blossom.”

“Good luck for me,” said Ingcél, “if he is there. Spoil for spoil. It is no worse for you than it was for me when I gave up my father and mother and my seven brothers and the king of my country into your hands.”

“That is true,” said the others, and every man with a stone from the strand made a cairn as they used to before an attack to know by it afterward how many men they had lost. Every man that came from the fight would take his stone from the cairn, and the stones of those killed would be left.

They held council and agreed that one man should go and spy on the Inn. It was Ingcél who went and was gone a good while, looking in the seven doors of the house until one of the men inside caught sight of him, then he made his way back to his comrades, sitting where they were, the leaders in the middle, waiting for his news.

“Did you see the house, Ingcél?” asked Ferogain.

“I did,” said lngcel, “and whether or not there is a king inside, it is a royal house indeed, and I will take it as my share when the time comes.”

“You may do that,” said Conaire’s foster brothers. “But we will not go until we know who is in it.”

“The first I saw,” said lngcel, “was a large man of good race, with bright eyes, hair like flax, face open, wide above and narrow below, modest looks and no beard. A five-barbed spear in his hand, a shield with five gold circles on it. Nine men he had about him, all beautiful and alike, so that you would think they had one father and mother. Who were those men, Ferogain?”

“It is easy to say,” said Ferogain. “That was Cormac Conn Llong son of Conchobar, the best fighter behind a shield in all of Ireland, but modest in that. Those were his nine fellows about him, who have never put men to death for their poverty or spared them for their riches. A good leader they have, and I swear by the gods my people swear by, no small slaughter will they make at that Inn tonight.”

“A pity for he that will attack,” said Lomna Druth the Fool, “because of that man only, Cormac Conn Llong. If I had my way, the attack would not be made for the sake of that man alone for his beauty and his goodness.”

“You will not hinder it, Lomna,” said Ingcél. “You are no good as a fighter, I know you well. There are clouds of weakness upon you—no one, old man or storyteller, will say I drew back from the fight before I went through with it.”

“It is well enough for you, Ingcél,” said Lomna, “you will escape after the fight, and you will bring away the head of a foreign king with you, but as for myself, it is my head that will first be tossed to and fro tonight.”

“What did you see after that?” asked Ferogain.

“I saw a room with three soft young boys in it, cloaks of silk with gold brooches they wore, long yellow hair they had, as curly as a ram’s head, a golden shield and a candle of a king’s house over each, and everyone in the house humors them. Who were those, Ferogain?”

But Ferogain was crying. The front of his cloak was wet and it was a time before he could speak. “O little ones,” he said, “I have reason to cry. Those are the three sons of the king, Oball, Obline, and Corpre Findmor.”

“There is grief on us if that is true,” said the other sons of Donn Désa, “for it is good those three are. Mannerly as young girls, hearts of brothers, courage of lions. Whoever parts from them will sleep and eat little till the end of nine days, fretting for their company. Pity on he that will destroy them.”

“I saw after that,” said Ingcél, “a fair man with a golden bush of hair the size of a reaping basket. A long, heavy three-edged sword in his hand, a red shield speckled with rivets of white bronze between plates of gold.”

“That man is known to all of Ireland,” said Ferogain. “Conall Cernac son of Amergin, the man Conaire thinks most of in the world, and that shield in his hand is the Lamtapaid. There are seven doorways in that inn, and when the attack is made, Conall Cernac will be at every one of them. What did you see after that, Ingcél?”

“I saw,” he said, “a big brown man with short brown hair, a red-speckled cloak and a black shield with clasps of gold, and with him two chief men in their first grayness, black swords at their sides, one with a spear in his hand, fifty rivets through it. He shook it over his head, struck the haft against the palm of his hand three times, and plunged it into a great pot that stood before them with some black thing in it. And when he put it in there were flames on the shaft. Who were those men, Ferogain?”

“That brown man is Muinremar son of Geirgind, one of the champions of the Red Branch. Another is Sencha, the handsome son of Ailill. And the man with the spear is Dubthach the Beetle of Ulster, Celtaire’s Luin his spear, from the battle of Magh Tuired, brought from the east by the three children of Tuirenn. When a battle is near, it flames up by itself and must be kept quenched in a vessel or it will go through whoever has it in his hand.”

“I saw after that,” said Ingcél, “a room with nine men in it, of fair-hair and good looks, in speckled cloaks, and above them were nine bagpipes and light shining from the ornaments.”

“Those are the nine pipers that came to Conaire from the hill of the Áesid in Magh Breá,” said Ferogain, “because of the great stories told of him. The best pipers they are in the world, and good fighters, but to fight them is to fight a shadow that kills but cannot be killed, as they are of the Áesid.”

“I saw after that,” said Ingcél, “three big men with terrible looks. A dress of rough hair they had and clubs of iron with chains in their hands. There was sadness on them, they stood alone, and everyone in the house avoided them. Who were those, Ferogain?”

Ferogain was silent for a while, then said, “I do not know of any such men unless they be the three giants Cúlculann spared the time he took them from the men of Fir Fálgae. He would not let them be killed out of their strangeness, Conaire bought them from Cúlculann after, so along with him they are.”

“I saw nine men in the north side of the house,” said Ingcél, “with yellow manes of hair, short linen dresses, purple cloaks without brooches, broad spears, and red curved shields.”

“I know those men,” said Ferogain, “three royal princes of England that are with the king, Oswald and his two foster brothers, Osbrit the Long Hand and Lindas.”

“Three red men I saw after that,” said Ingcél, “red shields above them, red spears in their hands, their three red horses in their bridles in front of the Inn.”

“Those are the three champions that did deceived the Áesid,” said Ferogain, “and it is the punishment put on them by the king of the Áesid to be three times destroyed by the King of Teamhair, and Conaire is the last king who will destroy them, yet they will not be killed, nor will they kill. It is to work out their own destruction that they are come.”

“I saw after that,” said Ingcél, “a big man, his hair white, the shame of baldness on him, gold earrings his ears had, nine swords he had in his hand, nine silver shields, and nine golden apples. He was throwing each up and not one would fall on the ground, but rise and fall past each other like bees on a sunny day. But as I looked at him, he let all fall, and the people about him cried out, and the king that was sitting there said to him, ‘We have been together since I was a little boy and your tricks never failed till tonight.’”

“‘My grief!’ he said. ‘Fair master, Conaire, I have good cause for it, as an unfriendly eye looks at me. A bad man is in front of the Inn.’

“And when the king heard that, he said: ‘I had a dream in my sleep a while ago of the howling of my dog Ossar, of wounded men, of a wind of terror, of keening that overcame laughter.’”

“That was Taulchinne, Conaire’s juggler,” said Ferogain. “Tell me now, what was the appearance of the king?”

“Of all the men I ever saw,” said Ingcél, “he is the best in form and the most refined in look—young he is and wise and kingly, the color of his hair like the shine of pure gold, the cloak about him like the mist of a May morning, changing from color to color, every color more beautiful than before, a wheeled brooch of gold reaching from his chin to his waist, gold-hilted sword within his reach.”

“That was Conaire, the High King, indeed,” said Ferogain, “and it is he, the greatest and comeliest of all kings, who has no fault in him as to wisdom or bravery or words or worthiness. Tender he is, a sleepy, simple man, till he chances on some brave thing to do, but when his anger is awoken, the champions of Ireland and Scotland will not win a battle so long as he is against them. And I swear by the oath my people swear by, unless drink should fail him or the like, that man alone would hold the Inn till help gathered from the Wave of Clíona in the south to the Wave of Eas Aoidh Ruadh in the north.”

“It is time for us to rise up,” said Ingcél, “and to get on to the house.”

With that the outlaws rose and went to the Inn, where their voices were heard around it.

“Be quiet now and listen,” said Conaire.

“What is that we hear?”

“Fighting men about the house,” said Conall Cernac.

“There are fighting men to meet them here,” said Conaire.

“They will be wanted tonight,” said Conall.

Lomna Druth the Fool broke in first and the doorkeepers struck off his head, which was tossed three times in and out of the Inn as he had foretold. Then they all attacked. Conaire went out with his people, and they killed a great many of the outlaws. Three times the Inn was set on fire, and three times it was put out. Conaire then got to his arms, having none in the first attack, and went out again with a great slaughter, so that the outlaws were driven back.

“I told you,” said Ferogain, “that all the men of Ireland and of Alban could not take that house till Conaire’s rage was quenched.”

“Short his time will be,” said the Druids, who were along with the outlaws.

They put in him by their enchantments a great thirst, so that he went back in the house and called for a drink.

“A drink to me, Mac Cécht,” he said.

“That is not the order you give me!” said Mac Cécht. “What I do is keep these men from attacking you—ask a drink of the steward or your cup bearers.”

Conaire called to his cup bearers for a drink.

“None is here,” they said, “every drop in the house was thrown on the fire.”

“Get me a drink, Mac Cécht,” he said again, “for if I am to die, and by what cause is all the same to me.”

Mac Cécht gave a choice to the champions of Ireland: go out and look for a drink for Conaire or stay in the house and defend him.

Conall Cernac called out: “Leave the defense of the king to us and go and look for the drink, for it was asked of you,” upset with Mac Cécht for putting the choice on them, and there was never a friendly feeling between them afterward.

Mac Cécht went to look for a drink and brought Conaire’s golden cup and an iron spit, the cauldron spit in his other hand. He burst out on the outlaws and attacked them with blows from the spit, many meeting death, then he took his shield and made a round with his sword over his head, cutting a whole above the band.

It would be too long to tell, and tire the hearers to know, of all that happened after—the people of the Inn coming out in attack, some to their death, and most making their escape. At last there were none left in the Inn with Conaire but Conall, Sencha, and Dubthach.

From the rage in Conaire, and the valor of his fight, a great drought came on him again in a fever of thirst, and no drink to get, he died of it. The other three, when they saw the High King was dead, went out and cut their way through the enemy and got away with their lives, but were wounded and hurt and broken. Conall Cernac went to his father’s house, half a shield and bits of his two spears in his hand. Amergin, his father, was outside his dun in Tailltin.

“Those are fierce wolves that have hunted you, my son,” said he.

“It was not wolves that wounded me, but fighting men,” said Conall.

“Have you news from Dá Derga’s Inn? Is your lord living?”

“He is not living,” said Conall.

“I swear by the gods the great tribes of Ulster swear by, the man is a coward that came out alive, leaving his lord dead with his enemies,” said Amergin.

“My own wounds are not white, old hero,” said Conall, and with that he showed him his right arm that was cut up.

“That arm fought there, my son,” said Amergin.

“That is true,” said Conall. “But many there are in front of the Inn now it gave drinks of death to last night.”

Mac Cécht, after getting away, went to the well of Casair near in Crith Cualann, but he could not find so much as a cup of water in it. On through the night he traveled, from lake to lake and river to river, but he could not find a cup of water in any. At last he came to Úarán Mór on Magh Aí, and it could not hide there. He filled the cup, went back, and reached Dá Derga’s Inn just before morning. When he got there, he saw two men striking off Conaire’s head so Mac Cécht struck off the head of one and then turned to the other leaving with the king’s head and took a stone and threw it at him and broke his back.

Mac Cécht stooped and poured the water into Conaire’s mouth and throat, and when the water was in, the head spoke and said: “A good man Mac Cécht is, a good man. A champion without and within. He gives a drink and saves a king. It is well he fought at the door, well he made an end of fighting men, good I would be and alive, to Mac Cécht the great.”

Mac Cécht took the body of the High King on his back to Teamhair and buried him there. And some say he went back to his homeland of Connacht, and stopped at a place, named in his grief, Magh Brongear.

After that day, there was no High King of Ireland for many years to come.

Leave a Reply