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 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.
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)