The Champion’s Portion 6

Chapter Six

That first night, the three heroes were invited to partake of a fine feast but they had to remain alone in the closed partition. As soon as the food and drink were laid out and the slaves withdrew, a monstrous cave cat from the Sídhe mountains suddenly appeared, its malevolent yellow eyes and teeth gleaming wickedly in the fire and candlelight.

With a bound, both Conall and Laoghaire leapt from their benches to the rafters overhead, abandoning both weapons, food and drink in their haste to avoid the furious attack of the great beast.

Cú Chulainn remained calmly seated at the bench and when the beast stalked nearer, preparing to pounce, Cú Chulainn swiftly drew his sword and slashed at the snarling cat. The iron blade clashed harshly as if he had struck stone and the keen blade slid off the beast’s shoulders.  

The cat remained transfixed in a baleful crouch but evinced no further movement.  Cú Chulainn remained seated and watchful but availed himself to the full of the prepared food and drink.

As sunrise penetrated gaps in the shingled roof overhead, the monstrous beast bestirred itself and vanished as abruptly as it had first appeared just as Ailil swept into the room before Laoghaire and Conall could descent from the rafters where they had spent an uncomfortable and hungry night.

‘Well then?’ inquired Ailil, ‘does that not suffice?  Surely you have your champion here?’

‘Not so,’ insisted Laoghaire.  ‘Indeed,’ added Conall, ‘it is not against beasts that we are competing but in the strife of combat and battle that we seek a judgement.’

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On the second night, Ailil directed them to the valley of Ercol where they had to fight the black spirits of the Tuatha Dé Danann which guarded it.  Laoghaire went first but could not withstand their assault and fled, leaving his weapons and his chariot there. Conall was served a similar fate and was driven back, barely managing to hold on to his spear.

At the sight of Cú Chulainn, the dread shapes screamed and hissed as they attacked him, hacking at his shield and cloak until both were dented and rent, and his spear blunted.  The black shapes swarmed around him, thrusting and slashing and Laeg braced himself before screaming out, ‘Cú Chulainn, is that the best you can do, you pathetic little bollix, if you let a few empty cloaks get the better of you.’ 

Spurred on by his servant’s words, Cú Chulainn felt the blood course more violently through his veins, pumping him up so that the hair on his head sparkled with energy and light. He bounded forward with renewed valour at the spirits and slashed and stabbed and thrust and stamped forward until he was alone in a pool of black blood but with the trapping of his friends.

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On the third night, Ercol, lord of the valley, challenged each of them to single combat on horseback.  Laoghaire was first to be unseated and Ercol’s horse killed his mount and he fled from the valley back to Crúachan as soon as the beating he received allowed.

Conall also was forced to retire and his horse killed too.

The Grey of Macha killed Ercol’s horse with its mighty iron shod hooves and Cú Chulainn defeated Ercol and bound him by the neck to the back of his horse and set out for Crúachan.

‘Well,’ said Ailil, knowing full well that whatever he decided, nothing would please all three men in front of him. ‘That’s clear, then, isn’t it?  I mean, from what you told me and from what I can see, I award the Champion Portion to Cú Chulainn.’

‘Hold on there just a moment,’ insisted Laoghaire.  ‘We’re not here to fight against wild beasts or the folk of the Tuatha Dé Danann or the Sídhe for it is well known that Cú Chulainn has connections with that lot.’

‘He’s right,’ rumbled Conall, ‘The Champion’s Portion is about battle valour and we haven’t seen hide nor hair of that yet.’

The Champion’s Portion 4

Chapter Four

No sooner had they left Dun Rudraige and returned to Eamhain Macha, than the old quarrel over the champion’s portion broke out again so much so that Conor, exasperated by the whole affair, ordered the three foremost heroes, Laoghaire the Triumphant, Conall the Victorious and Cú Chulainn, the Hound of the North, to travel to the far southern kingdom of Da Mumhainn to seek the judgement of Cu Roi mac Dáire at Sliabh Mis.  

‘You can be sure,’ Fergus added, ‘that it is a fair judgement you will get there from him for it is well known that he is just and fair-minded but it will be a brave man who questions him for he is well versed in enchantments and mysteries long forgotten, even by the Tuatha de Danamm, and he can do things that no other man can do.’

‘You should go first to my father, Ailil, king of Connachta for that is on your path,’ Sencha advised, ‘for the way to Da Mumhainn is long and treacherous, for you must go on the wooden plank road over the bogs.’

‘So be it,’ Cú Chulainn said, clapping his hands together.  ‘Let us get our horses yoked to the chariots but I would lifer Laoghaire go last as everyone knows his style of driving does not permit others to accompany him both for the clumsiness of his horses and the unsteadyness of his chariot.’

‘You’re right there,’ Conall agreed, ‘and besides, if we let him go first, the ruts his wheels churn up in the turf make tracks not easily followed for more than a season after he has passed that way.’

‘Ah, don’t be jeering out of you at me for that,’ Laoghaire snapped. ‘You both know I am quick enough to cross the fords and watercourses, to storm the shield wall and to outstrip all the warriors of Eamhain Macha, so don’t go comparing me with famed chariot men until I get more practice steering and racing through hard and rocky defiles until I gain the master hand,’

and he leapt unto his chariot and urged Sedlang to lash the horses on their way.  

Not to be out done, Conall followed suit at once but Sétanta dallied where he was, a beaker of wine at his elbow, amused by the chatter of the ladies and amusing them by juggling nine apples above his head never letting the one touch another nor letting one fall to the ground before doing the same with nine feather darts and nine bone handled knives, the iron blades flashing in the morning sun.

Meanwhile, Sedlang urged the grey mares westwards over the slopes of Brega until on a perilous descent from the heights, Laoghaire motioned for the charioteer to slow down as a thick, dank mist enveloped them, making it too risky to proceed.

‘Better stop here,’ Laoghaire ventured, pulling his cloak tighter around him as he surveyed the dismal scene.

Sedlang nodded as he attended to the horse, unyoking them from the chariot and leading them over to some stunted plants in the lee of the cliff.  Startled by his approach, a surly brute emerged from a fissure in the cliff where he had been sleeping. 

Grotesque in both size and deformity, the giant had a patch of coarse black hair growing down in a peek over his forehead which was large and bulbous.  Small close-set eyes glared above a loose, fleshy mouth. Bunched hairy shoulders supported a roughly hewn club while a kilt of crudely tanned skins hung to knees over broad spatulate feet.

‘Whose horse them be?’ He grunted at Sedlang.

Sedlang glanced over his shoulders for Laoghaire, before answering ‘The horses of Laoghaire.

’Ahh, fine fellow he is,’ said the brute, before suddenly swinging his huge cudgel at Sedlang knocking him sideways powerfully.

Laoghaire saw his servant fall from the corner of his eye and he bounded over.

‘What did you do that for?’ He demanded.

The brute eyed Laoghaire furiously.  

‘For the damage ye have done to my property,’ he snarled, before swinging his fearsome club again and laying Laoghaire low.

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Laeg, concerned about the amount of time Cú Chulainn was spending with the ladies, yoked the horses and stacked Cú Chulainn’s weapons in the chariot, before going over to him. 

‘You’re a right eejit, you know, squinting away here at the girls while those other two have gone on ahead of you.  I thought you wanted the champion’s portion.’

‘You’re right,’ Cú Chulainn said, ‘come on, Let’s go.’

Crossing Magh Brega, Laeg gave the horses their head so that they seemed to fly across the whole kingdom of the Ulaidh before beginning their descent in the darkness.

Laeg reined in and eased the Grey and the Dubh into a gentle walk as the dark fog closed in around them. No sooner had he unyoked the horses than a burly figure emerged from the mist. Gross and muscular, the giant held a heavy cudgel over one massive shoulder from which hung a rank kilt barely covering his rump, 

‘Whose horses them be?’ He demanded, nodding at the two stallions

‘They belong to Cú Chulainn,’ Laeg said, leaping back out of range of the giant’s club and calling out for his master. Cú Chulainn was there instantly, standing proudly between his charioteer and the brute.

‘What is it that you want?’

‘Reparation for the damage you have done,’ snarled the giant.

‘Well, take this then,’ smiled Cú Chulainn and in one fluid motion he had plucked the long sword which hung at his side and sliced the giant across the back of his legs, toppling him forward so that he could more conveniently lop the brute’s head off.

Almost instantly, the fog dissipated and Laeg was amazed to find no trace of the giant but in its place, the puzzled looking Laoghaire and Conall as well who appeared to be waking up from a deep sleep, curled beside their patiently waiting horses.

‘What class of enchantment is this?’ Conall demanded, sitting up and rubbing his eyes.  

‘We must have met some of Setanta’s Sídhe friends, I think,’ muttered Laoghaire.

But Laeg could help but notice as the trio rode on towards Crúachan the large bruises they both bore, evidence of the giant’s club.

Bricriu’s Feast & The Champion’s Portion

The Champion’s Portion is an extension to the story of Bricriu’s Feast and is thought to have been based on texts from the 9th century which, in turn, were based on texts from 7th century (those texts are no longer extant) but the tale would have been orally transmitted for centuries before eventually being committed to writing. 

Bricriu’s Feast is found in several manuscripts, including The Book of the Dun Cow (Lebor na hUidre) c.1106 so called because the original vellum, upon which it was written, was made from the hide of a brown cow supposedly owned by the abbot of the monastery at Clonmacnoise.

The Book of the Dun Cow was written in the 11th century and is the oldest surviving miscellaneous manuscript in Irish literature but is badly damaged: only 67 leaves remain and many of the texts are incomplete.

Dun Cow
Lebor na hUidre (Book of the Dun Cow) Royal Irish Academy

The manuscript is thought to be the work of three scribes, identified with the letters A, M and H.

A and M were contemporary. A began the manuscript and several of the texts, which were continued by M, identified as Máel Muire, murdered by Vikings at Clonmacnoise in 1106.

Based on orthography and an English loanword, H (so named for his fondness of inserting homilies into the texts) was apparently writing in the late 12th or early 13th century and added a number of new texts and passages, sometimes over erased portions of the original, sometimes on new leaves. Vellum, made of lamb, calf, or goat skin, was expensive, so a page was often re-used by scribes for another document after the original text had been scraped or washed off.

Bricriu’s Feast is also found in The Book of Leinster, a medieval Irish literary compendium of stories, poetry, and history, and it appears, from annals included in it, that it was written between 1151 and 1201, although largely completed by 1160 and now kept in Trinity College, Dublin. 

The manuscript is a composite work and more than one hand appears to have been responsible for its production. The principal compiler and scribe was probably Áed Ua Crimthainn who was abbot of the monastery of Tír-Dá-Glas on the Shannon.

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The Book of Lenister Trinity College, Dublin

In the story, Bricriu promises the Champion’s Portion of his feast to three different heroes. A violent dispute over precedence ensues, which leads to a series of contests. One night a giant carrying an ax challenges the warriors of the Ulaidh to behead him in exchange for a chance to behead them in turn. On successive nights two of the heroes behead the giant, who, each time, replaces his head and leaves but comes back to take his turn only to find that the warriors have departed.Finally, the undisputed hero, Cú Chulainn, beheads the giant and, when the giant returns, places his own head on the block, true to his word. The giant, really a wizard in disguise, proclaims Cú Chulainn the first hero of the Ulaidh. 

This is considered the source for the beheading game used in Sir Gawayne and the Grene Knight, a late 14th century tale in Middle English while Bricriu’s Feast was the definitive source for W.B.Yeats’s play The Green Helmet. Not bad for an old Irish tale!

Bricriu’s Feast was the first old world saga or story I ever read that made me laugh out loud. The story teller was fully aware of the comic aspects of the heroic tale.

There are, however, so many repetitions and duplications, which may well have sounded better in the telling, but the structure of the manuscripts leaves something to be desired. Errors in transcription and transmission and the insertions of the different Christian scribes do not make for easy reading.

Sticking closely to the original translations*, this is my version of the story broken into digestible (I hope) and coherent chunks.

I will post Chapter One soon.

*Translations

Early Irish Myths and Sagas, Translated and with an introduction and notes by Jeffrey Gantz. Penguin Classics 1981

Fled Bricrend (The Feast of Bricriu), translated by George Henderson,

Medieval Irish Series, Cambridge Ontario 1999

Lady Gregory’s Complete Irish Mythology

Originally published as separate volumes by John Murray Publishers, London 

Gods and Fighting Men (1904) and Cuchullain of Muirthemne (1902)