Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race

Page: 104

The Washer at the Ford

When he came to the ford upon the plain of Emania he saw there kneeling by the stream as it were a young maiden, weeping and wailing, and she washed a heap of bloody raiment and warlike arms in the stream, and when she raised a dripping vest or corselet from the water Cuchulain saw that they were his own. And as they crossed the ford she vanished from their sight.163

Clan Calatin Again

Then, having taken his leave of Conor and of the womenfolk in Emania, he turned again towards Murthemney and the foe. But on his way he saw by the roadside three old crones, each blind of one eye, hideous and wretched, and they had made a little fire of sticks, and over it they were roasting a dead dog on spits of rowan wood. As Cuchulain passed they called to him to alight and stay with them and share their food. “That will I not, in sooth,” said he. “Had we a great feast,” they said, “thou wouldst soon have stayed; it doth not become the great to despise the small.” Then Cuchulain, because he would not be thought discourteous to the wretched, lighted down, and he took a piece of the roast and ate it, and the hand with which he took it was stricken up to the shoulder so that its former strength was gone. For it was geis to Cuchulain to approach a cooking hearth and take food from it, and it was geis to him to eat of his namesake.164

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Death of Cuchulain

Near to Slieve Fuad, south of Armagh, Cuchulain found the host of his enemies, and drove furiously against them, plying the champion's “thunder-feat” upon them until the plain was strewn with their dead. Then a satirist, urged on by Lewy, came near him and demanded his spear. “Have it, then,” said Cuchulain, and flung it at him with such force that it went clean through him and killed nine men beyond. “A king will fall by that spear,” said the Children of Calatin to Lewy, and Lewy seized it and flung it at Cuchulain, but it smote Laeg, the king of charioteers, so that his bowels fell out on the cushions of the chariot, and he bade farewell to his master and he died.

Then another satirist demanded the spear, and Cuchulain said: “I am not bound to grant more than one request on one day.” But the satirist said: “Then I will revile Ulster for thy default,” and Cuchulain flung him the spear as before, and Ere now got it, and this time in flying back it struck the Grey of Macha with a mortal wound. Cuchulain drew out the spear from the horse's side, and they bade each other farewell, and the Grey galloped away with half the yoke hanging to its neck.

And a third time Cuchulain flung the spear to a satirist, and Lewy took it again and flung it back, and it struck Cuchulain, and his bowels fell out in the chariot, and the remaining horse, Black Sainglend, broke away and left him.

“I would fain go as far as to that loch-side to drink,” said Cuchulain, knowing the end was come, and they suffered him to go when he had promised to return to them again. So he gathered up his bowels into his [pg 233] breast and went to the loch-side, and drank, and bathed himself, and came forth again to die. Now there was close by a tall pillar-stone that stood westwards of the loch, and he went up to it and slung his girdle over it and round his breast, so that he might die in his standing and not in his lying down; and his blood ran down in a little stream into the loch, and an otter came out of the loch and lapped it. And the host gathered round, but feared to approach him while the life was still in him, and the hero-light shone above his brow. Then came the Grey of Macha to protect him, scattering his foes with biting and kicking.

And then came a crow and settled on his shoulder.

Lewy, when he saw this, drew near and pulled the hair of Cuchulain to one side over his shoulder, and with his sword he smote off his head; and the sword fell from Cuchulain's hand, and smote off the hand of Lewy as it fell. They took the hand of Cuchulain in revenge for this, and bore the head and hand south to Tara, and there buried them, and over them they raised a mound. But Conall of the Victories, hastening to Cuchulain's side on the news of the war, met the Grey of Macha streaming with blood, and together they went to the loch-side and saw him headless and bound to the pillar-stone, and the horse came and laid its head on his breast. Conall drove southwards to avenge Cuchulain, and he came on Lewy by the river Liffey, and because Lewy had but one hand Conall tied one of his behind his back, and for half the day they fought, but neither could prevail. Then came Conall's horse, the Dewy-Red, and tore a piece out of Lewy's side, and Conall slew him, and took his head, and returned to Emain Macha. But they made no show of triumph in entering the city, for Cuchulain the Hound of Ulster was no more.

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The Recovery of the Tain

The history of the “Tain,” or Cattle Raid, of Quelgny was traditionally supposed to have been written by no other than Fergus mac Roy, but for a long time the great lay or saga was lost. It was believed to have been written out in Ogham characters on staves of wood, which a bard who possessed them had taken with him into Italy, whence they never returned.

The recovery of the “Tain” was the subject of a number of legends which Sir S. Ferguson, in his “Lays of the Western Gael,” has combined in a poem of so much power, so much insight into the spirit of Gaelic myth, that I venture to reproduce much of it here in telling this singular and beautiful story. It is said that after the loss of the “Tain” Sanchan Torpest, chief bard of Ireland, was once taunted at a feast by the High King Guary on his inability to recite the most famous and splendid of Gaelic poems. This touched the bard to the quick, and he resolved to recover the lost treasure. Far and wide through Erin and through Alba he searched for traces of the lay, but could only recover scattered fragments. He would have conjured up by magic arts the spirit of Fergus to teach it to him, even at the cost of his own life—for such, it seems, would have been the price demanded for the intervention and help of the dead—but the place of Fergus's grave, where the spells must be said, could not be discovered. At last Sanchan sent his son Murgen with his younger brother Eimena to journey to Italy and endeavour to discover there the fate of the staff-book. The brothers set off on their journey.