The Champion’s Portion

Chapter One

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, slamming  the 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.’

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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 groups  separated 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.

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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. 

Document_2021-07-21_174214 (2) 2Detail from a 9th century Irish manuscript illumination in the Bodleian Library, Oxford [Auct D 2 19, f.52r]

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)