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.’
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.
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.’
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.
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 cursed as he crept back from the edge of the loft from where he had been looking down at the tumult the demand for the Champion’s portion had caused.The feasting had resumed and the men had made a circle around the fire and strong drink continued to soothe fierce spirits.
‘Bad cess to the lot of them, he swore, if they think that that was the best of my needles between their ribs.If I can’t get the men to fight, perchance I may fare better with the ladies coming to blows for, as fierce as their men are, the women are as lusty and as savage as their men.’
Just then, he caught sight of Fedelma returning from the privy and he moved quickly to intercept her.
‘All good things be with you, Fedelma of the Bright Heart, wife of Laoghaire.Truly I see that your name does you justice for your fresh heart can be seen in your open face and fine form.I would be honoured if you, Fedelma, consort of Laoghaire the Triumphant first enter the hall leading the ladies at your heel when you to join the men. First among all women you shall be on entering so from here on’. Bricriu moved on, leaving the girl staring after him.
Lendabair, daughter of Eoghean mac Durthtacht, wife of Conall Cernach of the Victories was next and Bricriu determined to lay it on thick for Lendabair was already vain of her own standing among the women, having only recently become Conall’s woman.
‘Greeting Lendabair, most favoured of all women for your beauty and attributes. Just as your man, Conall is head and shoulders above all other men, so too are you above all other women of the kingdom and you would do me great honour if you were to lead the ladies of the Ulaidh into the hall later tonight.’
Emer was surprised to find Bricriu standing beside her.
‘Fair Emer, daughter of the shrewd Forgall, wife of the champion foretold in the ancient prophecies, whose name will live on in songs and of praise signifying great acts, you outshine the very stars we look upon this evening.It is no surprise that might lords and kings, Lugaid and Erc among them, have contested for your hand.Just as the sun outshines the very stars we see, so too does your beauty outshine all the women of the world for none can compare with your elegance and lustre, your proud name and sagacity.’
At first the ladies, mindful of Bricriu’s words but unaware that he had suggested the same thing to each of them, moved slowly towards the porch of the granian, each keeping a causal eye on the others’ level progress. But as they neared the door way, their steps became shorter but quicker and their elbows raised, they scrambled forward, keeping up with each other only by hoisting their skirts above their thighs in an effort to barge ahead and so be first into the hall where the men were, intent on being foremost to enter and thus be acknowledged as the first lady of the kingdom.
The noise of their bustle, all elegance and grace cast aside in their haste to be the first to enter the hall, was as if a herd of giant elk were crashing through the forest. The warriors within, alarmed at the noise, rose to their feet and sought their weapons.
‘Stand down,’ roared Conor, ‘it is not enemies we need fear here but our very own women, incensed, no doubt, by the poisoned tongue of our host. For the sake of our own lives, shut the door and bar entry to the women if it is peace that we want.’
Even as Scél, the doorkeeper, moved to slam the door shut, Emer, a neck ahead of the other women, slammed her back against the door, just as it was fully closed by the homunculus.
Calling out to Cú Chulainn, she was quickly joined by Lendabair and Fedelma who joined in their cries for their men to open the doors for them.
‘We’re banjaxed now,’ Fergus said to Conor, as he rose up to strike the silver bell suspended above his seat.
‘Ladies,’ Conor began, ‘you are most welcome but here we are not looking for a bloody strife but if it is a fight you want, then let it be with fair words.’
Soon there was a buzzing in the hall as if a giant hive or bees had been disturbed with each woman praising her own man and by reflection herself so that the men became uneasy and were ready to quarrel amongst themselves.
Fedelma claimed royal privilege, being daughter to Conor, as well as beauty being her key features.Added to that, her man is Laoghaire, whose red hand has defended the borders of the Ulaidh from all enemies.
Lendabair countered with her beauty and the valour of her man, Conall, who is undefeated in battle and has ceaselessly defended the fords and passes of the kingdomno-one can doubt his courage or his deeds and so, she should be paramount, of all the ladies, in the Ulaidh.
Emer rebutted the two by claiming that she is the fairest of all and that, if she wished it so, no other woman could retain her man if she set her eyes upon him. Added to that is the fact that her man is Cú Chulainn, and as the prophecies have made clear, his is the name that will endure while stories about him will last until the end of generations.Let any one who doubt it prove it so by showing the strength of their love now for their woman, formerly barred from the feasting hall.
Immediately both Laoghaire and Conall were up on their hind legs, looking around desperately for some way to show their strength of their love for their women. Laoghaire punched his way through the stout timbers of the wall to the side of the hall to create a doorway while Conall kicked a hole in the wall so hard that the roof beams overhead shook with the fierce impact and a fine dust drifted down upon their heads.
Cú Chulainn smiled lazily and without bothering to rise to his feet he stretched out his arm and dug his fingers into the packed floor of the hall and with a massive heave, wrenched the whole wall up to a height where the others at his bench could see the night stars glittering outside in the dark sky.
Slamming the wall down violently so that it sank into the earth a knees length, the loft where Bricriu had been gloating over the success of his plan, tilted and collapsed, sending Bricriu rolling in the midden, among the dogs outside his own hall.Staggering to his feet, he stared uncomprehendingly at the lop-sided aspect his hall had now assumed, its wall breached in two places, lath and wattle bent and twisted, its oaken beams fractured and cracked.
Furious, he demanded entry and angrily remonstrated with the warriors of Eamhain Macha.
‘Lookit here to me,’ he roared, ‘I prepared a feast for you in good faith and this is how you repay my generosity – you wreck my new hall in wanton acts of destruction to impress your women. But I am not impressed and I lay a geas on all here to restore my hall to the way it was on your arrival before you can be further refreshed with food and drink.’
Shamefaced the men stood and together they began to effect repairs, straightening the pillars and repairing the daub and wattle on the walls but try as they might they could not tug the sunken wall out of the clinging earth so that even a blade of straw could pass between the wall and the ground.
‘No point beating your own back with someone else’s rod,’ remarked Sencha, ‘Ask the one who did the damage to repair it.After all, none of us can eat or drink or sleep until the damage is repaired.’
Cú Chulainn stood up and stretched languidly before grinning at the others.He sauntered over to where he had slammed the wall down and crouched, slipping both hands into the dirt, scrabbling to get a purchase of the wall with his fingertips. His muscles bunching on his back, he heaved and tugged but was unable to budge it.
Again he tried with no result until Laeg edged closer and whispered is this the famous hero songs will be sung about hereafter. Your strength must have gone if a little thing like a simple wall can defeat you.If this is the best you can do, then I should be looking for another hero who has need of my chariot skills.
Grunting, Cú Chulainn spat on his hands and felt his battle wrath surge within his blood.
His body tensed and stretched, his joints unlocking and stretching so that a clenched fist could be placed between each pair of ribs.His eyes started from their sockets and the veins in his face and neck stood out pulsing visibly as face contorted into an animal snarl of rage, his hair bristling on his scalp, each lock standing erect and, in the light of the central hearth, tinged with fire.
Assumed gigantic stature, he wrenched the whole side of the building up with a forceful tug and laid it carefully and gently down on the ground, smoothed by the stamp of his heavy foot.
The geas removed by their actions the warriors gathered around the central hearth and made way for the women who continued to laud their men until exasperated, Conor demanded a halt.
‘Your words cut deeper than the sharpest weapon. Do you want to drive the pride of Eamhain Macha into the pride of battle for the vanity of women?For you alone, of all beings, bring men to do things that would otherwise be left undone’.
Despite Conor’s words, which only quietened the assembly for a short space of time, the hall soon became a babble of voices as Mugain, Conor’s wife, attempted to reassert control over the ladies but Emer’s voice continued to ring out.
‘If you think it shameful for a woman to praise her man, then it is truly wanton I am for I believe that there is no other man among the heroes of the Craobh Ruadh that can match Cú Chulainn in mind or body, his splendour and grace, his fury and valour in the battleline and it is my duty to proclaim so before all other men and women.’
‘No doubt, my lady you mean well,’ Conall rose to his feet and looked along the bench to where Emer sat beside her man, one slim hand resting on his knee, ‘but if what you say is true, let us hear it affirmed from the mouth of your champion himself so that we may contest it with him.’
‘Ahh, Conall, go on out of that with you.’ Setanta yawned and scratched his stomach. ‘Haven’t we had this feast already interrupted for no good reason and now I would fain satisfy my appetite for good food and strong drink for, in truth, I am sick and tired of this endless bickering and there nothing can be done until our good natures are restored to us by feasting with friends.’
Laoghaire Buadach, son of Connad mac Iliach was the first to arrive at Bricriu’s new feasting hall at Dun Rudraige.
‘Laoghaire, valiant warrior of the Ulaidh, the fiery thunderbolt of Midé, Welcome to my hall.Come in and tell me why it is you have never been given the champion’s portion at Eamhain Macha?’
Laoghaire glared at Bricriu before grunting and looking down at his muddy sandals.‘Ahh sure, I suppose I could get it any time I want, for there are few warriors of my stature at any table.’
‘Well, I wouldn’t care to be the one trying to stop you from claiming the bounty which should rightfully be yours.’ Bricriu laughed.
‘What do you mean?’ Laoghaire asked, his thin frame hunched as if to attack.
‘Sure don’t you know that the champion’s portion is an amphora of fine wine, enough for a host of champions, a boar, fine fed for seven feis, stuffed and roasted, a bull calf simmered in broth of curds, nuts and wheat since last Imbolc. Add to that five score oat cakes cooked in honey. The champion’s portion proves that you are the champion of Eamhain Macha surely and I know you are worthy of it.If I were you, I’d just tell my charioteer to serve it to me before anyone else can get up for it.’ Bricriu explained.
‘There will be fresh hot blood if anyone tries to stop me, I tell you,’ Laoghaire scowled, his hand on the blade at his side.
Bricriu laughed and clapped him on the back.
Burly Conall Cernach was the next to arrive at the head of a troop of men in blue and red cloaks, heavy wooden shields with brass bosses and mighty spears in their hands.
‘Conall, may the track rise easy before you,’ Bricriu greeted him effusively. ‘Hero of a five score battles and combats, it is said you have been victorious more than any other man in the Ulaidh, and when you raid into the neighbouring kingdoms, you are a night’s march before the men of the Ulaidh can catch up with you. On the return, you are always in the rear, harrying the enemy.What stops you, I’d like to know, from being given the champion’s portion of Eamhain Macha to hold forever more?’ Bricriu demanded, laying it on as twice as thickly as he had for Laoghaire. Satisfied that he had piqued Conall’s interest and pride, Bricriu waited impatiently until he could single the last of the vaunted heroes, Sétanta. So-called Hound of the North, named after, as a child, he had strangled the wolf hound of the smith, Cullain guarding the passages to the Ulaidh.
‘Welcome Sétanta, the heart of Eamhain Macha, beloved of the fairest, the ancient prophecies foretell your fame and glory and your name of the Hound is justifiably earned as the Ulaidh is well guarded by you as all men acknowledge that you surpass them all. Why then have you left the champion’s portion for other, lesser men to claim when none can contest it with you?’
‘By the blood of my father Lugh, I swear that any who contested against me would soon be a head shorter.’ Sétanta snorted.
Saying nothing further, Bricriu excused himself and left, waiting impatiently as Conor and his son, Crúscraid the stammerer, led the nobles, Fergus, the once king of the Ulaidh, Uísliu and his three sons, Sencha the draoidh, son of Ailell, King of Connachta, Amergin the poet, Dubhtacht, the beetle browed, Illand, son of Fergus and Cethirn son of Fintain among others to the long trestle table on the dais at the back end of the hall. The heroes of the Craobh Dearg took over the benches closer to the central hearth while the noble women were already in the rearmost bower outside the main hall.
Female slaves plied the trestle tables with bowls of savoury meats, and the men helped themselves to the jugs and ewers of both wine and ale that littered the long trestles while musicians and gleemen tumbled and cavorted before the king’s raised platform.
Fergus nodded to his son, Illand and he and Cethirn quickly moved to where Bricriu was standing, over seeing the spit-roasts of boar and bull.
‘You remember the conditions?’ Cethirn said grimly, his hand on the hilt of the heavy blade hanging at his side.
Bricriu looked up from what he was doing and scowled at the warriors facing him.
‘The feast cannot begin until you withdraw.’ Illand reminded him
Bricriu muttered something to one of the boys tending the spitted boar and then, without looking at either of the men, he turned and left the feasting area, going directly to the loft he had planned for himself. At the foot of the ladder, he turned and hailed the assembled company.
‘May you enjoy the largesse which I bestow upon you from the heart but I leave you all to give the champion’s portion to whoever you think is the foremost champion of the Ulaidh,’ he called out before ascending the ladder.
As befitted his status as king of the Ulaidh, his steward served the hind haunch of the boar to Conor and stepped back awkwardly as, at a nod from Laoghaire, Sedlang his charioteer, grasped his knife and moved to sever the remaining haunch.
‘This, the champion’s portion, I take for my master, Laoghaire the triumphant, for he of all the lords of the Craobh Ruadh deserve it so,’ he cried boldly.
Hardly had he finished speaking before both Id and Laeg, the charioteers of Conall and Sétanta, were on their feet, loudly claiming the haunch for their masters.
‘Give it here to Cú Chulainn,’ shouted Laeg ‘for it is well known by all here that he is the most valiant and heroic among you all.’
‘That is not true,’ both Conall and Laoghaire shouted proudly, their voices almost drowned out by long blades rasping half out of metal-lipped sheaths, as warriors pushed back benches and surged to their feet. Both Conor was on his feet at the end of the hall livid with rage at the outbreak of hostility and vaunting pride among the noble warriors. Sétanta stood firm, his arm around the shoulders of his wiry charioteer, Laeg while Sedlang, Id, Conall and Laoghaire pushed their way forward towards the dais.
Conor’s voice rang out, clear and authoritative above the melee, ‘Part yourselves,’ he ordered.
Faced with the wrath of their king and their battle leader, the men stepped back a pace, shame-facedly. At a discrete cough from Sencha, Conor gestured at the draoidh. ‘Listen well, for Sencha will decide this contentious issue, if you do as I say.’
Mumbling, the men nodded their heads, but most eyes remained on the leg of pork remaining on the table.
‘Tonight,’ Sencha boomed, ‘we will all share in this champion’s portion so that no one of us will be deemed inferior, in place among the Craobh Ruadh or in valour and strength in the Craobh Dearg. Later, this matter can be more fully resolved through the wisdom of my father, Ailil mac Mata, king of Connachta. Until then, we eat and drink and act as the band of warriors we are, the heroes of the Ulaidh.’
(I made a recording of chapter 1 if you care to listen.)
Bricriu thrust open the door of the Craobh Ruadh, so violently that the fire in the central hearth belched a cloud of smoke while the candles on the long table on the dais flickered before he stamped into the hall, slammingthe door shut and glaring around from under heavy black eyebrows before seeing Conor on the dais. The Craobh Ruadh, the Red Branch, was one of the three great halls within Eamhain Macha, the heart of the kingdom of the Ulaidh, and attracted the fighting men and champions who protected the northern kingdom and punished transgressors. These warriors and fighting men in turn were mentored by those former champions, heroes still, veterans like Conall, Ferdia, Fergus, Bricriu and others of their generation and older still, like Sencha the Draoidh. But now it was the time of the new generation of warriors and champions and, despite his age and seniority among the veterans of the Craobh Ruadh, Bricriu knew they called him The Bitter-tongued behind his back and refused to see him for what he believed he was.
Conor Mac Nessa, the once boy-king, looked up from the game of fiduchell he had been playing with Fergus mac Rioch and frowned. ‘Guard yourself,’ he muttered to his companion, ‘and keep a civil tongue in your head for you know full well the bile that man produces’. Fergus glanced over his shoulder and then shifted on his haunch so the his sword lay unimpeded by his side.
Conor knew the noisy arrival of Bricriu would do nothing to ease the ache he already felt in his temples and the top of his head from too much of the unwatered wine he and Fergus had been drinking but hospitality demanded guests must be allowed to eat and drink before stating their business but he guessed what Bricriu would demand.
Sétanta mac Sualtáim, or lately called Cú Chulainn, the Hound of the North, had recently returned from a lengthy foray into Alba and almost immediately on his return, had taken forcibly to wife, Emer, daughter of the wily Forgall Manach and there was much talk for what this would all mean, for Emer was from the southern kingdom of Laigheann.
‘An’ why wouldn’t ye have a feast for yer man?Sure isn’t he just home here himself with his new woman and how else can we build relationships and keep our brotherhood strong?’ Bricriu demanded, knowing full well the old king’s reluctance to engage in extravagance.
‘It would not be seemly at this time,’ Conor replied.
‘Give Cú Chulainn a chance to settle down,’ Fergus chipped in.‘After all, it is a new experience for us as well as for the Hound.’
Annoyed by the old fool siding with the man who had usurped him, Bricriu was more than ever determined to go through with the plan he was beginning to hatch to sow discord among the heroes of the Craobh Ruadh, especially now that Fergus continued to belittle him
‘Well, lookit here to me,’ Bricriu said slyly, ‘if you lot won’t have a feast for your man that all will remember, then I will.I will return on the morrow and you can give me the honour of accepting an invitation to feast with me.’ He pushed his cup of wine away and stood up abruptly. ‘Until tomorrow then.’.
‘What do you think, Fergus?’ Conor asked glancing over at the older man. Fergus the Unwise they called him, and with good reason, Conor reminded himself, after he had ceded this kingdom of the Ulaidh in return for the favour of his widowed mother, Ness. That was more than three decades past and the kingdom under Conor had prospered in that time and Conor had grown used to listening to the older man’s advice.
‘I’ll tell you this much,’ Fergus sat up and spat into the fire, ‘If we go to a feast organised by that venomous tongued pot-stirrer, there will be more of us dead afterwards than there would be to begin with. Mind you,’ he said, shifting painfully on the bench, ‘if he wants to have a feast let him build his own hall in his own grounds and the expense of that might soften his cough.’
Bricriu feigned delight when Conor agreed to his idea of a feast for Cú Chulainn and his newly claimed woman, Emer of Laigheann.
‘And yes,’ Conor continued, ‘you may organise the feast, Bricriu but you will also bear the expense not just of the food and drink but you must also provide a hall worthy of our Craobh Ruadh and our heroic warriors of the Ulaidh.’
‘Not only that,’ Fergus butted in, ‘You yourself will not be welcomed at that self same feast you organise for if you attend, I know that there will be enmity and malice aplenty.’
Sencha coughed and reminded Conor that he should insist on taking hostages and Bricriu cursed silently at the effort it caused him to hold in his rage at this treatment.
Leaving Eamhain Macha he immediately began preparation for a feasting hall to be built at his lands at Dun Rudraige.Remembering what Conor had said about the honour of the Craobh Ruadh, he determined to surpass the wonders of that building with his own great hall fit for heroes.The Craobh Dearg, the second of the great halls within Eamhain Macha, was just a barracks for warriors, a place to store weapons and equipment always to hand, but this, Bricriu determined, his hall would surpass all buildings for heroes in the same way that heroes surpassed all other men. He smiled suddenly, a plan formed for these prancing upstarts, these so smart, so-called heroes, they would be his guests at his hall soon enough and he would see what they were capable of.
The huge pillars of oak had been labouriously brought by teams of six horses and the combined effort of all the slaves was needed to position each of the central pillars into the post holes that the Draoidhs had arranged down the central aisle of the hall while seven strong men were needed to hoist each pole into the rafters overhead so that the roof could be attached.
The long hall was split in two by a walkway, on either side of which were trestle tables and benches with groupsseparated by panels of beaten bronze laced with gold swirls and interlocking circles so that all had a space around the huge central hearth.
Every imaginable aspect, whether it be shape, plan, embellishment, pillars and facades, portals and design, was such that the whole outshone its parts. Artisans had expertly filled the inner wattle walls separating the area, fit for queens, furnished with the cured furs and pillows, the benches draped with quilts and skins, from the feasting hall for the men. A massive platform spanned the forepart of the hall, its facing panel studded with rich stones and the burnished metal of shields and naked swords. On that platform were the seats for Conor mac Nessa, king of the Ulaidh and the leaders of Craobh Ruadh, the Red Branch warriors, before whom all trembled.
All of which Bricriu could easily look down on from the loft off to one side among the rafter beams, which he had built, knowing the men of the Ulaidh would not tolerate him to be at his own feast.
Making sure there was a full supply of food and drink, he set out for EM to deliver the formal invitation.
Conor was sprawled on his bench, idly looking at the boy troop exercising on the sward outside the Craobh Dearg when Fergus nudged him, alerting him to Bricriu’s approach.
Sencha sat up straighter and looked at the king enquiringly.They had discussed Bricriu’s impending visit and they all knew that nothing would suit the cantankerous man unless they all immediately responded with enthusiasm to his invitation to a feast at his newly erected feasting hall at Dun Rudraige. It had been more than two hands worth of moons since he had first suggested holding a feast for the Hound of the Ulaidh and all attempts to delay the inevitable had finally stopped but the Ulaidh were still not resigned to going.Bricriu stepped a pace closer and looked at the faces of the men on the dais before looking around him scornfully.
‘I’ll tell you this much and I’ll tell you no more but what with the expense it has put me to, in not only its construction and victualing, but also in its style and grace, I will be hard put out if the brave warriors of the Craobh Ruadh do not deign to honour my hall with their presence.’
‘We will need those nine hostages,’ Fergus reminded him.
Bricriu ignored him and continued, ‘I will cause enmity between lords and men, between heroes and champions if they will not come to my feast.’
‘Listen to him Conor, worse things will happen,’ Fergus pleaded.‘If we go with him it will mean mayhem.But if we must go, we must go on our terms.’
Bricriu shrugged. ‘I will cause enmity between fathers and sons, mothers and daughters and even between the two teats of the women until they are red, raw and bleeding and begin to grow hair and rot,’ he continued.
‘By the gods around us.’ swore Fergus, ‘I will not attend this bitter feast for I tell you now, that our dead will outnumber us if we accept.’
‘If I may suggest’. Sencha intervened, ‘Perhaps, Fergus, you would reconsider if Bricriu not only withdraws from his very own feast but also permits a nine-man troop of your choosing to guard and protect him at all time.’
Conor nodded sharply at the former king and Fergus grunted ‘I will only attend if you yourself, Bricriu, are not present.’ before slamming his mug down on the table, sloshing some of its contents over his bunched fist.
Detail from a 9th century Irish manuscript illumination in the Bodleian Library, Oxford [Auct D 2 19, f.52r]
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.
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 TrinityCollege, 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.
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.
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)
Originally marketed at the semi-literate in the 19th century, comics were eventually perceived to be childish, and moved on to target children. They were certainly popular during the 1960’s when I was growing up but my parents always derided them as ‘comi-cuts’ or ‘penny dreadfuls’, no doubt due to the fact that in 1955 the Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act, supported by the Archbishop of Canterbury, The Home Secretary and the National Union of Teachers among others prohibited “any book, magazine or other like work which is of a kind likely to fall into the hands of children or young persons and consists wholly or mainly of stories told in pictures (with or without the addition of written matter), being stories portraying (a) the commission of crimes; or (b) acts of violence or cruelty; or (c) incidents of a repulsive or horrible nature; in such a way that the work as a whole would tend to corrupt a child or young person into whose hands it might fall”.
It was certainly unusual to see an adult reading a comic at that time. My father seemed convinced that comics would undermine a solid basis in reading books and by implication, my successful studying later.
It didn’t really matter to me what my parents approved or didn’t approve in those days because comics were too expensive for me. Comics like the Beezer, the Dandy – with loveable but fierce Black Bob – and The Beano were beyond my purse but someone always had a copy and was happy to lend.
Later it was the Valiant and the Eagle with Dan Dare and their glossier pages and more post-little-kid stuff yet the majority of the content was still humourous, derring-do, adventure, exploration (I fondly remember The Wolf of Kabul and his (nameless?) sidekick whose weapon of choice was, for some insurmountable reason, a much battered and taped cricket bat – or ‘clicky ba’ as it was referred to), and that kind of thing until the advent of the 68 pager.
Then there were the ‘Commando’ comics, unique, in that, first off, they cost a shilling, and they were a much smaller size (7 × 5½ inch), and could easily be kept in a jacket pocket and they always featured war stories and displayed a slender commando style dagger on the back cover with a précis of the story.
Graphically told in strong black and white images, stories were of hidden British valour, – a cricket player accused of cowardice under fire redeeming himself by accurately lobbying a grenade down a Panzer tank’s barrel or a Scottish roughneck chafing under military authority successfully defeats a sword wielding samurai soldier in the Pacific theatre of war, the samurai drawing on his training, the Scottish guy depending upon his heritage and background!
Of course there were the Dell and Marvel comics of Superman, Batman and other super heroes but I have to confess I was never really into them. Comics were, nevertheless, common among all ages and backgrounds in Europe, but I never paid any attention to what people were looking at or reading until I was living in Italy in the late seventies.
I knew a little Latin and phrases like ‘Avanti’, and ‘Mama mia’ all gleaned from old Commando comics summed up my knowledge of Italian and then I encountered ‘il Giallo a Fumetti” comic books, pretty much the same size as the Commando, and I developed an obsession with Diabolik and the skill with which the anti-hero was developed along with my clumsy grappling with Italian language.
Diabolik was a master thief, a ruthless killer, a force to be reckoned with on account of his uncanny ability to mimic the people he replaces. Along with his lissom side-kick, Eva Kant, the two enjoying a high octane lifestyle of luxury and danger, endlessly pursued by the drab Inspector Ginko in his staid striped tie.
I had never really considered the noises different cultures ascribe to sounds and animals. For me, dogs had always said – ‘bow-wow’ and roosters went ‘cock-a-doodle-do’ but here in the world of Diabolik, a cockerel went ‘kir-ree-ker-ree’ and silenced guns went ‘stumpf, stumpf’ while a key turning in a Yale lock went ‘ trac-trac’.
The difference here was that Diabolik was outside of that ‘proper’ world where heroes were clean-cut and good, always prevailing over bad, and the wicked got what was coming to them. Not here in these (subversive?) comics, as Diabolik always outwitted and easily eluded the forces of justice, leaving Ginko, and the rest of the police force in the fictional city of Clerville, frustrated. I vaguely remember something about Diabolik being banned in various countries for the same reason that cowboys in white hats always won out in Hollywood movies but that all just added to his mystique.
Supporting that strong taut storyline was the excellent graphic art in stark black and white. The ‘chiaroscuro’ – an Italian word for the play of light on dark (!) – brought scene elements into sharp focus – Eva’s pensive face in half-shadow, Ginko’s fist clutching his pipe – but it was not until Christmas of 1980 that I came across the colour version in a collection of stories in a bumper size annual.
The use of colour, pastel shades of pinks and blues, purples and red were, for me, anyway, a companion to the lighting in rock’n roll theatres worldwide. Sharp, vivid colours clarified action and defined intent.
Then, in the very early 80’s, Lat, the cartoonist for the New Straits Times (Malaysia) published ‘Kampong Boy’ and later ‘City Boy’ and I was hooked once again by both the storyline and strong black and white pictures as well as being an excellent introduction into village or ‘kampong’ life in rural Malaysia.
Nevertheless, I successfully avoided all further contact with graphics and manga despite their spiralling success and popularity throughout the world – think of TinTin and Asterix – but I have to say I always found the latter two a bit too cramped and cluttered for my liking.
Jump to now and in a bookshop, idling looking for stuff for grandchildren, and myself I came across the beautiful Amulet Series by Kazu Kibuishi. Since when were ‘Comics’ on the New York Times Best Seller lists? Gone were, I have to admit, the rather chunky, blocky portraits of Diabolik and the nubile Eva Kant, here all were flowing and sinuous, the colours swirling and blending in unimaginable ways while the storyline was emotionally taut – the children’s father dying in an car crash in the first few pages – so much so that some parents felt it was too intense for children, rather in the same way some mothers protect their children from perceived monsters with Max in ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ being deemed an undesirable associate!
Manga (comics) and Anime (animation) seem to be widespread with their vivid characterisation and visuals, comparative to cinematic style, shots of profile or details around the eyes, or the hands clenching a pipe, along with other close-ups in sharp, contrastive colours or the whole vista in a long shot.
Overall, I am terrible impressed with the skills involved – graphically retelling a story already written, Game of Thrones, for instance or known as in (slightly risque) The Legend of Cú Chulainn or to tell, from scratch, a 100% original story such as the Amulet.
Comics are not books and graphic novels are not movies just as movies are not TV. Each medium is obviously different and while there may be some overlap between them, they each present a different approach to entertainment and that cannot be a bad thing.
Along with the rise of the hill forts circa 1000 BCE, and the emphasis on items both as weapons and ornamentation, the stratification of society, into chieftains or kings surrounded by nobles and warriors supported by priests or druids interceding for farmers, craft-workers and slaves, was firmly established. This hierarchy inevitably involved the notion of the hero or champion and was marked by a leader able to distribute gifts and largesse while, at the same time, host feasts and celebrations where warriors would vie with each other for the favour of their liege. Such restrained power necessitated the rise of the heroic warrior, the hero, to stand alone and unbeaten. No doubt the flowering of literature of the twelfth century French Romance and Mallory’s later Arthurian romances must all have stemmed from the Iron Age concept.
Not everyone would – or could – be a hero. While all young boys played fierce physical games with wooden sticks – a proto Hurley? – before weapons could be handled, a hero was always set apart. Never having recognised parents and a mysterious background, Arthur is fostered at an early age just as Oedipus is brought up in ignorance of his parents and Lancelot of Arthurian legend is raised by the shadowy Lady of the Lake while Cú Chulainn’s birth is similarly shrouded in mystery.
Not obvious parentage means the hero has no name and must acquire one through his own actions – Sétanta kills the forge hound and becomes Cú Chulainn, while later Celtic heroes, Finn and the Welsh, Gwion, gain their later names of brilliance and light. The significance of having no family means a concomitant feeling of standing alone – the hero can expect no aid in his quest for glory but at the same time no limits are placed on his ambitions for his name to live on, forever, on the lips of men.
Never accepted in his own country, the Iron Age hero must leave his comfort zone, undergoing training at the hands of learned druids or experienced warriors. Tests of physical prowess, – ability to jump or vault over a stick their own height, run barefoot through a forest without breaking a twig underfoot, defend against 9 men throwing spears, remove a thorn from his foot while running – must be passed, but the hero must also be erudite and knowledgeable about poetry. Strangers approaching the territory of a chieftain had to undergo single combat or compose a poem on the spot.
Cú Chulainn trained under the tutelage of the warrior woman, Scáthach, who presented the fearsome gae bolga to the hero, along with a warning of its consequent use. Beowulf sought out sea monsters before going on to defeating Grendel and its mother, Arthur trained under the venerable Sir Ector de Maris, all to achieve the fame they sought. Beowulf leaves for the court of Denmark; Tristan of Arthurian legend travels to Ireland from his native Cornwall.
Nowhere in the manuscripts is it ever suggested that Cú Chulainn is not from the kingdom of the Ulaidh (modern day Ulster in Northern Ireland) nevertheless, when all the fighting age men of the area are stricken with an ancient curse, Cú Chulainn alone is exempt. Like all his fellow outsiders, having no ties to hamper his actions, the hero inevitably becomes a force for disruption, change and catastrophe.
Heroes must claim their weapons forcibly or obtain them from supernatural forces – Lancelot receives his sword from the Lady of the lake, Beowulf discovers a sword in the lair beneath the lake, and Cú Chulainn smashes King Conor’s armoury before the king himself presented the nascent hero with his very own weapons while the youthful Arthur plucks the sword from the stone.
A tipping point occurs in all the lives of the heroes when the focus on honour and glory supersedes the needs or bonds of their society. Achilles rejects his mother’s help and chooses to die before the walls of Troy. Cú Chulainn hears the druid’s prophecy of bloody and glory but still chooses to seek the latter. This tipping point influences the remaining portion of the heroes’ life. Every further irrevocable action with the umbrella-like spear, the gae bolga, that Cú Chulainn accepts from the hands of Scáthach maintains or furthers the glorification of his name. Chulainn, in his killing fury, is just as prepared to slaughter his enemies as his compatriots once his battle fury descends upon him.
Mortal enemies of the heroes often involve demonic or supernatural forces as human weapons have little effect upon them, Achilles is dipped in the pool of immortality, Arthur is protected by the power of Excalibur and Cú Chulainn is unassailable when he is in his battle fury. The inevitable downfall of the hero is, therefore, always linked with the breaking of a vow or the forsaking of an oath. Arthur is killed at the hands of his illegitimate son, Cú Chulainn dies alone after breaking the taboos that ruled his life, Beowulf meets his demise by neglecting his role of kingship and acting as if he were still the hero.
I know, I know, I should be beavering away, churning out the pages of my new bestseller – oh, by the way, I think I am up to four sales so far on Raiding Cúailnge, not counting the two I made myself – and the fact that I didn’t do any writing at all on the day after Raiding Cúailgne made its debut, despite having publicly sworn to do so here on this blog, should make me feel guilty.
However, the truth is that I couldn’t sleep (for the excited anticipation of Hollywood calling?) the night before my novel entered the world of readers and I got up and started to scribble in a notebook and then swapped over to the computer and banged away at about two or three different scenes before going back to bed and sleeping until late that morning.
Anyway, I haven’t done any other writing since and I don’t feel bad because I have the perfect excuse for not doing anything. I mentioned a while back about a distinction between horizontal and vertical writing. Well, I’ve decided to go vertical again and if it takes me another dozen years, I don’t mind!
An Tána – or in English, the Táin – is the Old Irish word for a raid or a foray, usually involving attacking a neighbour and carrying off slaves and cattle and whatever else was available, although most wealth in those days involved cattle. The most famous examples are the Táin Bó Fraoch or the Cattle Raid of Fraoch and the Táin Bó Cúailnge, or the Cattle Raid of Cooley (an area in the north east of Ireland).
The latter is the central tale in the manuscripts dealing with what is known as the Ulster Cycle comprising almost eighty tales of heroes. Unfortunately, most of early Irish literature has been lost. Originally, tales were passed down in a strictly oral tradition until the advent of Christianity in the mid fifth century. The mythological and heroic tales were then recorded by scribes in the early monasteries and centres of Christian learning and it is not surprising that they overlaid the pagan tales with Christian overtones. The manuscripts that survive show clear linguistic signs of having been copied from earlier manuscripts, now lost, having been destroyed between the eight and eleventh centuries during the incessant Viking raids of that period. Much of what was saved was then, in turn, destroyed during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by the organised policy of the English Penal Laws in a deliberate attempt to destroy Irish culture.
The oldest of the surviving manuscripts is the Book of the Dun Cow, or Leabhar na hUidre, an 11th century manuscript written in the monastery at Clonmacnoise, now preserved in the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin. Unfortunately, the MS contains a rather jumbled version of the Táin Bó Cúailnge, which is augumented by another jumbled account in The Yellow Book of Lecan, a 14th century manuscript now held at Trinity College Dublin.
The origins of the Táin are much older than the surviving manuscripts. The language of the earliest versions of the tales have been dated to the 8th century while some of the verse elements are possibly two centuries earlier. Most Celtic scholars now believe that the tales of the Ulster or Heroic cycle must have had a long oral existence before they were given a Christian overhaul bu monastic scribes.