Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race

Page: 108

“Half in wonder, half in terror, loth to stay and loth to fly,
Seem'd to each beglamour'd hearer shades of kings went thronging by:
But the troubled joy of wonder merged at last in mastering fear,
As they heard through pealing thunder, ‘Fergus son of Roy is here!’
“Brazen-sandall'd, vapour-shrouded, moving in an icy blast,
Through the doorway terror-crowded, up the tables Fergus pass'd:—
‘Stay thy hand, oh harper, pardon! cease the wild unearthly lay!
Murgen, bear thy sire his guerdon.’ Murgen sat, a shape of clay.
“ ‘Bear him on his bier beside me: never more in halls of Gort
Shall a niggard king deride me: slaves, of Sanchan make their sport!
But because the maiden's yearnings needs must also be condoled,
Hers shall be the dear-bought earnings, hers the twin-bright cups of gold.’
“ ‘Cups,’ she cried, ‘of bitter drinking, fling them far as arm can throw!’
Let them in the ocean sinking, out of sight and memory go!
Let the joinings of the rhythm, let the links of sense and sound
Of the Tain-Bo perish with them, lost as though they'd ne'er been found!’
“So it comes, the lay, recover'd once at such a deadly cost,
Ere one full recital suffer'd, once again is all but lost:
For, the maiden's malediction still with many a blemish-stain
Clings in coarser garb of fiction round the fragments that remain.”

The Phantom Chariot of Cuchulain

Cuchulain, however, makes an impressive reappearance in a much later legend of Christian origin, found in the twelfth-century “Book of the Dun Cow.” He was summoned from Hell, we are told, by St. Patrick to prove [pg 239] the truths of Christianity and the horrors of damnation to the pagan monarch, Laery mac Neill, King of Ireland. Laery, with St. Benen, a companion of Patrick, are standing on the Plain of mac Indoc when a blast of icy wind nearly takes them off their feet. It is the wind of Hell, Benen explains, after its opening before Cuchulain. Then a dense mist covers the plain, and anon a huge phantom chariot with galloping horses, a grey and a black, loom up through the mist. Within it are the famous two, Cuchulain and his charioteer, giant figures, armed with all the splendour of the Gaelic warrior.

Cuchulain then talks to Laery, and urges him to “believe in God and in holy Patrick, for it is not a demon that has come to thee, but Cuchulain son of Sualtam.” To prove his identity he recounts his famous deeds of arms, and ends by a piteous description of his present state:

“What I suffered of trouble,
O Laery, by sea and land—
Yet more severe was a single night
When the demon was wrathful!
Great as was my heroism,
Hard as was my sword,
The devil crushed me with one finger
Into the red charcoal!”

He ends by beseeching Patrick that heaven may be granted to him, and the legend tells that the prayer was granted and that Laery believed.

Death of Conor mac Nessa

Christian ideas have also gathered round the end of Cuchulain's lord, King Conor of Ulster. The manner of his death was as follows: An unjust and cruel attack had been made by him on Mesgedra, King of Leinster, [pg 240] in which that monarch met his death at the hand of Conall of the Victories. Conall took out the brains of the dead king and mingled them with lime to make a sling-stone—such “brain balls,” as they were called, being accounted the most deadly of missiles. This ball was laid up in the king's treasure-house at Emain Macha, where the Connacht champion, Ket son of Maga, found it one day when prowling in disguise through Ulster. Ket took it away and kept it always by him. Not long thereafter the Connacht men took a spoil of cattle from Ulster, and the Ulster men, under Conor, overtook them at a river-ford still called Athnurchar (The Ford of the Sling-cast), in Westmeath. A battle was imminent, and many of the ladies of Connacht came to their side of the river to view the famous Ultonian warriors, and especially Conor, the stateliest man of his time. Conor was willing to show himself, and seeing none but women on the other bank he drew near them; but Ket, who was lurking in ambush, now rose and slung the brain-ball at Conor, striking him full in the forehead. Conor fell, and was carried off by his routed followers. When they got him home, still living, to Emain Macha, his physician, Fingen, pronounced that if the ball were extracted from his head he must die; it was accordingly sewn up with golden thread, and the king was bidden to keep himself from horse-riding and from all vehement passion and exertion, and he would do well.

Seven years afterwards Conor saw the sun darken at noonday, and he summoned his Druid to tell him the cause of the portent. The Druid, in a magic trance, tells him of a hill in a distant land on which stand three crosses with a human form nailed to each of them, and one of them is like the Immortals. “Is he a [pg 241] malefactor?” then asks Conor. “Nay,” says the Druid, “but the Son of the living God,” and he relates to the king the story of the death of Christ. Conor breaks out in fury, and drawing his sword he hacks at the oak-trees in the sacred grove, crying, “Thus would I deal with his enemies,” when with the excitement and exertion the brain-ball bursts from his head, and he falls dead. And thus was the vengeance of Mesgedra fulfilled. With Conor and with Cuchulain the glory of the Red Branch and the dominance of Ulster passed away. The next, or Ossianic, cycle of Irish legend brings upon the scene different characters, different physical surroundings, and altogether different ideals of life.

Ket and the Boar of mac Datho