Their charioteers had the horses already yoked and the heroes left immediately and arrived at Eamhain Macha at the end of long days of hard travel. No one there dared ask news of their visit to Crúachan and to Cu Roi in Da Mhuntainn until food and drink had been served in the great hall of the Craobh Ruadh but still the three champions said not a word.Sualtáim, Cú Chulainn’s father, fearing that things were wrong, gestured at the slaves to ensure the men’s cups were filled and to withhold the champion’s portion from presentation.
All would have gone well but for Bricriu, who sensed that things were not right and he loudly demanded that the champion’s portion be served.
‘We should present the Champion’s portion to someone other than these three fine heroes for they bring no sign from either Connachta or from Cu Roi in Da Mhuntainn as to who the champion’s portion should be assigned to.’
The taunting was too much for Laoghaire to bear, he jumped to his feet and brandished the bronze cup that Medb had given him.
‘See here,’ he exclaimed, ‘is this not such a token as you wanted, given to me by Queen Medb’s fair hand.I claim the champion’s portion by right of this precious cup and none may contest it with me.’
‘Not so,’ growled Conall Cernach, heaving himself to his feet. ‘ From the difference between your bronze cup and this one that I hold here’ – and he held aloft his drinking horn so that the firelight and the candles were reflected back from the brightly polished argent with the gold outline of the bird delicately chased around its width – ‘given to me by the same fair hands, I claim the champion’s portion.’
Cú Chulainn laughed and stood up from the bench.
‘You are both wrong.Anything that you were given at the hands of that woman serves only to intensify our strife, presenting each of us with what they thought we were worth.But to me,’ he continued, ‘both King Ailil and his consort gave me this, distinguished above all the rest,’ and with that, he raised the red gold horn so that the dragon stone and other precious stones flashed and glittered in the light.
Conor and Fergus rose to their feet in the sudden silence and looked down from the high table.
‘There is no doubt as to who the champion’s portion must be awarded to,’ Fergus began only to be loudly challenged by an enraged Laoghaire and Conall.
‘I swear by the ancient gods of our people,’ Laoghaire spat out, ‘that such a cup was bought, not by blood but by costly skins and furs and by the gold amassed from Forgall the Cunning and given to those at Crúachan.’
‘You couldn’t bear to have a defeat marked up against you, could you?’ Jeered Conall?‘You had to have the champion’s portion as well, didn’t you?Well, you will have to go through me to lay your hands on it for the Champion’s portion will not be yours.’
Conall vaulted the trestle table, his sword already drawn as Laoghaire moved around to Cú Chulainn’s flank.
Conor struck the silver balls hanging from the golden shaft above his chair and commanded the men to put up their weapons.
In the silence that followed, Sencha spoke up.
‘As you know the time of Samhain fast approaches.I tell you now that astonishing events will occur at that time all issues shall be resolved for those who are present over the féis.’
Leaving Crúachan and mindful of Conor’s command, the three heroes rode on to the dún of Cu Roi in the far south west kingdom of Da Munhainn, each content with the secret they bore. Disappointed at Cu Roi’s absence, the warriors unyoked their tired horses and allowed themselves to be led into the round house by Blathnat, his woman who greeted them warmly preparing food and drink fit for heroes as well as comfortable beds for them to rest in. That night she told them that Cu Roi had left instructions that the warriors must mount night guard in order of their seniority and Laoghaire was deputised to go first, being the oldest of the trio.
As Laoghaire kept watch that night, he heard a distant rumbling and then from the west, where the sun had long since sunk, he saw a giant approaching, misshapen and huge, his head towering above the trees nearby and in the space between his legs Laoghaire cloud discern the far coastline. Stripped oaks, cut with a single stroke at their base, he threw at Laoghaire but they soared far over his head, landing Laoghaire knew not where. Hoisting his spear, Laoghaire stood up on the wall of the dun, prepared to sell his life dearly but the giant brushed his long spear aside and, reaching out grasped him in the palm of his hand.Mighty and stout though Laoghaire was, he fitted the giant’s hand as he could cradle a game piece within his own palm. With a jerk, the giant flipped him over the high wall of the dun so that he landed in the midden outside the dun.
The following night, the same sad events happened to Conall and he too was thrown over the wall of the dun.
When it was Cú Chulainn’s turn to guard the dun of Cu Roi, he went with an uneasy sense of foreboding and soon saw indistinct grey shapes in the night moving towards him and he called out. ‘I know not what you are.If you are friends, desist but if you are foe, beware.’
No sooner had he spoken that a group of nine dwarves launched an attack on him, hewing with short swords and daggers but Cú Chulainn sprang at them, slashing and hacking at them so that nine heads rolled on the ground, spouting blood. Alarmed by the booming sound, as if of a heavy sea was about to sweep over the dun, and standing up, Cú Chulainn saw that the incoming tide was flowing in over the land from the west and riding the surf was a hideous sea serpent of evil aspect.Rearing up, it opened its fearsome jaws as if in the act of swallowing man and dun in one gulp.Cú Chulainn, remembering the feats he had learned, swooped down upon the monster in a swallow dive as it neared the walls and clasped both arms around the monster’s slimy neck. Thrusting one arm down the serpent’s gullet he wrenched the beast’s slippery innards out, which he cast, with disgust, on the ground, before hacking the vile creature into bits with his sword.
Sitting there, exhausted and nauseated by the noxious fumes the serpent gave off, Cú Chulainn cursed when he saw, in the first glimmer of light from the east, striding in from the west, the giant Laoghaire and Conall had previously encountered.
‘You’ve had a hard night, by the looks of it,’ the giant commented wryly, looking at the heaped skulls of the dwarves and the scattered remains of the sea monster before the walls of the dun.
‘Well, you are not making it any better,’ Cú Chulainn snapped, springing to his feet and avoiding the giant’s lunge towards him.
Twisting around, Cú Chulainn made a salmon leap, vaulting over the giant’s head and onto his back, forcing his blade up and under the brute’s throat.
‘A life for a life,’ the giant panted.
‘Grant me three wishes, so,’ demanded Cú Chulainn.
‘Say what you will in the one breath and it will be so,’ the giant said.
Without stopping to think or to ease the pressure with which he held the blade to the giant’s throat, Cú Chulainn rapped out ‘The sovereignty of Eamhain Macha will be mine forever as will be the champion’s portion and the precedence of Emer over the ladies of the Ulaidh will last forever.’
‘And so it will be,’ claimed the giant before suddenly disappearing from Cú Chulainn’s grasp as the sun rose in the eastern sky. Blathnat found him sitting wearily on the guard step shortly afterwards.
‘Surely that is the tiredness of the valiant hero and not the exhaustion of the defeated.It is clear to me – and it would be also to Cu Roi, if he were here that the champion’s portion must go to Cú Chulainn for who else has amassed such a collection of spoils as this,’ she said, pointing to the cairn of heaped skulls and the foul carcase of the sea monster.
‘No, we cannot accept the word of a woman here,’ Laoghaire cried out contemptuously.
‘And lookit here to me,’ Conall pointed out, ‘this was the work of the Sídhe for how else can this serpent be explained as well as the mystery of the giant?’
‘As far as I am concerned,’ Cú Chulainn yawned, ‘I no longer care what anyone thinks of the champion’s portion for it seems to me the effort to get it outweighs the benefits if bestows.’
‘Well, if you cannot accept the judgement offered here, my lord Cu Roi planned for that and instructed me to order you back to Eamhain Macha where he will eventually arrive to pronounce final judgement.’
Ailil reeled back against the wall and clapped a hand to his forehead as soon as the three heroes had left. ‘I can’t stand this,’ he complained, going over to where Medb was sitting, playing with a small squirrel. ‘No matter what I do or say, I am wrong and it seems foolish to court the anger of men such as these.It’s a poisoned cup Conor has offered me, I can tell you that much.’
‘Coward’! Medb laughed.‘Look, if you can’t decide, I’ll do it for you, for nothing would appear simpler. And what’s more, it will get those three oafs out of our hair and you will manage to keep your name as an impartial judge too.’
‘No matter what you do, Medb,’ Ailil said, ‘misfortune will follow upon any decision.’
‘Leave it to me,’ Medb smiled, ‘for it is obvious that Laoghaire is as different to Conall as bronze is to argent and Conall and Cú Chulainn are as different as argent is to gold.’
Laoghaire was both surprised and flattered when a messenger summoned him to a private meeting with Ailil and Medb. ‘Welcome, Laoghaire the Triumphant,’ Medb called out, advancing down the aisle towards him, her arms held out in greeting. Taking him by the arm she led him to a recess off the main hall and offered him rich wines.
‘It is our decision that you alone deserve the Champion’s portion, brave Laoghaire.Not only that, we feel you should be set above all the other heroes of Eamhain Macha, and to seal our approval, here is a cup fashioned for a champion.’
Medb gestured impatiently with her hand and a serving girl appeared, bearing a carved drinking horn capped and mounted in polished bronze, an exotic bird outlined in argent twining round from the base to the lip.
‘Keep this, Laoghaire, away from envious eyes until you have come to Conor and the Craobh Ruadh.When the Champion’s portion is brought out, you then produce your cup as token of your position before all the nobles of the Craobh Ruadh.’
Medb gestured again and the girl filled the horn to the brim with the dark, rich wine.
Laoghaire drank it back in one draught, well pleased with himself and the token of his supremacy.
‘Now,’ Medb continued, ‘you have the look of a champion.Go now and revel in that position as the champion of the Ulaidh.’
As soon as Laoghaire had left, Medb arranged a similar performance for Conall but this time, the drinking horn was trimmed with argent itself while the bird encircling the vessel was chased in gold. Delighted with the way her plan was working out, Medb summoned Cú Chulainn but her messenger was insulted and kicked away by Cú Chulainn who claimed he had no time for that kind of nonsense.
Infuriated by this behaviour, Medb decided she herself would go to entreat her uncouth guest.Slipping her long, slender white arms around his neck she murmured the promise of what she could offer.
‘You can tell your lies and show your arse to someone else for all I care,’ Cú Chulainn growled, twisting loose from her grasp.
‘Most comely of all champions, it is no lie I tell you when you are the subject.Were the world’s heroes to approach us, we would only choose you for the Champion’s portion for you surpass all in fame, bravery and valour so that the men of the Ulaidh recognise in you a champion of distinction, youth and glory.’
Unable to resist Medb’s seductive charms, Cú Chulainn allowed himself to be led away to where Medb presented him with a drinking horn capped and mounted in red gold with the outline of the bird mosaicked in precious stones.Filling the horn with the dark rich wine, Medb handed him alone a knob, as big as his two eyes, of deep red dragon-stone, saying,
‘Now know that you alone deserve the feast of a champion and not only that, I truly believe that just as it is impossible to compare you with the rank and file of the Ulaidh, so it is impossible to compare the lady Emer with the women of other men.There is no doubt that she should always enter the hall before any other woman should approach.’
Cú Chulainn laughed and, with one gulp, drained the drinking horn, turned on his heel and left.
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.’
‘Did you see that?’ Medb, wife of Ailil, king of Connachta, demanded, as the weapons hanging on the wall shifted imperceptibly as if the wall was vibrating.
She stood up, alarmed now at the noise of thunder despite the fact that the sky was clear.
‘Quick, Findabair, go up to your tower and tell me what you can see.’
Findabair, Medb’s daughter scampered up the steps and peered out over the plain before Crúachan.
‘There are chariots tearing along towards us. Two dappled greys are pulling the first polished wicker chariot with large black wheels, its yoke silver mounted.The warrior has long, curling, fair hair and a forked beard.A short red cloak, gold striped, billows from his shoulders.He holds a bronze shield and a five-pronged javelin and there are feathers in his cap.’
‘If he’s coming in anger we are doomed,’ Medb cried, ‘for that sounds like Laoghaire of the red hands.He will slice us down like you slice a leek at its base unless we make every effort to appease him.Who else do you see?’
‘A roan and a bay pull another finely carved wicker and wooden chariot.Like the other, the yoke is silver mounted but the wheels are bound in bronze.The warrior has wavy brown hair and his cloak is of blue and red, a heavy wooden shield with bronze bosses, and a mighty spear are in his hand.’
‘That must be Conall and as easily as you cut a fish with a sharp knife, will he disembowel each and every one of us that he finds here if we don’t mollify him.Is there anyone else?’
‘Two stallions, a grey and a black, pull a chariot with iron bound, yellow wheels. The yoke is silver with bronze mountings.The warrior is a small, dark man, eyebrows black as soot but his teeth gleam like pearls. A crimson shield hangs from his shoulders and he grips a long iron sword. Javelins and spears jut from the high sides of his chariot.’
‘Those other two are the drops before the shower, for that can only be Cú Chulainn,’ Medb said.‘Like a ten spoked mill grinds very fine, so too shall we be if we do not accord with his demands.Make preparations and prepare to receive these mighty warriors of the Ulaidh and let us hope that they come in peace.Send out a troop of slave girls, comely in looks, full breasted and bare to the waist, along with their brats as well and get ready to serve strong drink.’
Medb and Ailil waited on the dais in the central room of the great hall at Crúachan for the arrival of the heroes and warriors, for close behind Cú Chulainn, Conall and Laoghaire had arrived a cohort from Eamhain Macha, led by Conor, Fergus and Sencha, Ailil’s own son.
The bench on which they sat had silver designs chased on its front, framed in bronze and looked down on the main hearth but was screened off from the main section of the hall by a partition of red yew with carved bronze facings to waist height.
Overhead, triple bands of polished bronze, running through the roof beams of oak, caught the light from the hearth and reflected it back down on the royal couple so that they appeared bathed in its warm hue.
As musicians played, the might of the Ulaidh strode into the hall at the far end to where Ailil and Medb sat. A great feast for the noble visitors was proclaimed and at the end of three days of feasting and drinking, Ailil finally ventured to enquire as to the nature of their visit.
‘It’s like this,’ said Conor, leaning forward confidentially, ‘That bollix Bricriu, you know who I mean, the one over there with the long puss on him, well, you know he loves to stir up a bit enmity, just for the sake of it, curse him.’
‘I know what you mean,’ Ailil nodded, ‘we have a few like that the same.’
‘Anyway, didn’t the eejit promise the champion’s portion to each of my three lads and now, of course, they are bickering and quarrelling among themselves.’
‘And as if that is not bad enough,’ Fergus added, ‘their women are now involved, the bitches fighting over who has precedence over who at the feasts, if you don’t mind!’
Ailil remained silent for a moment before looking at Conor.
‘And why have you come here to me, then?’ He said quietly.
‘Well, we thought that with the three heroes’ rivalry for the champion’s portion and the ladies rivalry for precedence within Eamhain Macha, we thought you might be the best impartial judge of the matter.’
‘But what has it got to do with Ailil and Connachta?’ Medb demanded.‘Why should we earn the enmity of your champions by raising one above all?’
Sencha turned towards his father.
‘You really would be the best judge for all know of your moderation and we need to resolve this issue because the boy troop in the Craobh Ruadh need a model to aspire to.’
‘Well,’ his father considered, ‘I’ll have to think about it for it is not a task lightly undertaken.I’ll need at least three nights and that’s the best I can do.’
Conor leaned forward and grasped Ailil by the forearm.‘This will be a seal of our friendship if you do this thing for us,’ he said quietly.
Standing up, the nobles thanked Ailil and Medb, cursed Bricriu for he had caused the quarrels between the heroes and their women and commended their champions into the hands of a rival king.
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)