Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race

Page: 72

Conary the High King

Then King Eterskel died, and a successor had to be appointed. In Ireland the eldest son did not succeed to the throne or chieftaincy as a matter of right, but the ablest and best of the family at the time was supposed to be selected by the clan. In this tale we have a curious account of this selection by means of divination. A “bull-feast” was held—i.e., a bull was slain, and the diviner would “eat his fill and drink its broth”; then he went to bed, where a truth-compelling spell was chanted over him. Whoever he saw in his dream would be king. So at Ægira, in Achæa, as Whitley Stokes points out, the priestess of Earth drank the fresh blood of a bull before descending into the cave to prophesy. The dreamer cried in his sleep that he saw a naked man going towards Tara with a stone in his sling.

The bull-feast was held at Tara, but Conary was then with his three foster-brothers playing a game on the Plains of Liffey. They separated, Conary going towards Dublin, where he saw before him a flock of great birds, wonderful in colour and beauty. He drove after them in his chariot, but the birds would go a spear-cast in front and light, and fly on again, never letting him come up with them till they reached the sea-shore. Then he lighted down from his chariot and took out his sling to cast at them, whereupon they [pg 168] changed into armed men and turned on him with spears and swords. One of them, however, protected him, and said: “I am Nemglan, king of thy father's birds; and thou hast been forbidden to cast at birds, for here there is no one but is thy kin.” “Till to-day,” said Conary, “I knew not this.”

“Go to Tara to-night,” said Nemglan; “the bull-feast is there, and through it thou shalt be made king. A man stark naked, who shall go at the end of the night along one of the roads to Tara, having a stone and a sling—'tis he that shall be king.”

So Conary stripped off his raiment and went naked through the night to Tara, where all the roads were being watched by chiefs having changes of royal raiment with them to clothe the man who should come according to the prophecy. When Conary meets them they clothe him and bring him in, and he is proclaimed King of Erin.

Conary's Geise

A long list of his geise is here given, which are said to have been declared to him by Nemglan. “The bird-reign shall be noble,” said he, “and these shall be thy geise:

“Thou shalt not go right-handwise round Tara, nor left-handwise round Bregia,130
Thou shalt not hunt the evil-beasts of Cerna,
Thou shalt not go out every ninth night beyond Tara.
Thou shalt not sleep in a house from which firelight shows after sunset, or in which light can be seen from without.
No three Reds shall go before thee to the house of Red.
No rapine shall be wrought in thy reign.
[pg 169]
After sunset, no one woman alone or man alone shall enter the house in which thou art.
Thou shalt not interfere in a quarrel between two of thy thralls.”

Conary then entered upon his reign, which was marked by the fair seasons and bounteous harvests always associated in the Irish mind with the reign of a good king. Foreign ships came to the ports. Oak-mast for the swine was up to the knees every autumn; the rivers swarmed with fish. “No one slew another in Erin during his reign, and to every one in Erin his fellow's voice seemed as sweet as the strings of lutes. From mid-spring to mid-autumn no wind disturbed a cow's tail.”

Beginning of the Vengeance

Disturbance, however, came from another source. Conary had put down all raiding and rapine, and his three foster-brothers, who were born reavers, took it ill. They pursued their evil ways in pride and wilfulness, and were at last captured red-handed. Conary would not condemn them to death, as the people begged him to do, but spared them for the sake of his kinship in fosterage. They were, however, banished from Erin and bidden to go raiding overseas, if raid they must. On the seas they met another exiled chief, Ingcel the One-Eyed, son of the King of Britain, and joining forces with him they attacked the fortress in which Ingcel's father, mother, and brothers were guests at the time, and all were destroyed in a single night. It was then the turn of Ingcel to ask their help in raiding the land of Erin, and gathering a host of other outlawed men, including the seven Manés, sons of Ailell and Maev of Connacht, besides Ferlee, Fergar, and Ferrogan, they made a descent upon Ireland, taking land on the Dublin coast near Howth.

[pg 170]

Meantime Conary had been lured by the machinations of the Danaans into breaking one after another of his geise. He settles a quarrel between two of his serfs in Munster, and travelling back to Tara they see the country around it lit with the glare of fires and wrapped in clouds of smoke. A host from the North, they think, must be raiding the country, and to escape it Conary's company have to turn right-handwise round Tara and then left-handwise round the Plain of Bregia. But the smoke and flames were an illusion made by the Fairy Folk, who are now drawing the toils closer round the doomed king. On his way past Bregia he chases “the evil beasts of Cerna”—whatever they were—“but he saw it not till the chase was ended.”

Da Derga's Hostel and the Three Reds

Conary had now to find a resting-place for the night, and he recollects that he is not far from the Hostel of the Leinster lord, Da Derga, which gives its name to this bardic tale.131 Conary had been generous to him when Da Derga came visiting to Tara, and he determined to seek his hospitality for the night. Da Derga dwelt in a vast hall with seven doors near to the present town of Dublin, probably at Donnybrook, on the high-road to the south. As the cavalcade are journeying thither an ominous incident occurs—Conary marks in front of them on the road three horsemen clad all in red and riding on red horses. He remembers his geis about the “three Reds,” and sends a messenger forward to bid them fall behind. But however the messenger lashes his horse he fails to get nearer than the length of a spear-cast to the three Red Riders. He shouts to them to turn back and follow the king, but one of them, looking over his shoulder, bids him ironically look out for “great [pg 171] news from a Hostel.” Again and again the messenger is sent to them with promises of great reward if they will fall behind instead of preceding Conary. At last one of them chants a mystic and terrible strain. “Lo, my son, great the news. Weary are the steeds we ride —the steeds from the fairy mounds. Though we are living, we are dead. Great are the signs: destruction of life; sating of ravens; feeding of crows; strife of slaughter; wetting of sword-edge; shields with broken bosses after sundown. Lo, my son!” Then they ride forward, and, alighting from their red steeds, fasten them at the portal of Da Derga's Hostel and sit down inside. “Derga,” it may be explained, means “red.” Conary had therefore been preceded by three red horsemen to the House of Red. “All my geise,” he remarks forebodingly, “have seized me to-night.”

Gathering of the Hosts

From this point the story of Conary Mōr takes on a character of supernatural vastness and mystery, the imagination of the bardic narrator dilating, as it were, with the approach of the crisis. Night has fallen, and the pirate host of Ingcel is encamped on the shores of Dublin Bay. They hear the noise of the royal cavalcade, and a long-sighted messenger is sent out to discover what it is. He brings back word of the glittering and multitudinous host which has followed Conary to the Hostel. A crashing noise is heard—Ingcel asks of Ferrogan what it may be—it is the giant warrior mac Cecht striking flint on steel to kindle fire for the king's feast. “God send that Conary be not there to-night,” cry the sons of Desa; “woe that he should be under the hurt of his foes.” But Ingcel reminds them of their compact—he had given them the plundering of his own father and brethren; they cannot refuse to stand by him in the [pg 172] attack he meditates on Conary in the Hostel. A glare of the fire lit by mac Cecht is now perceived by the pirate host, shining through the wheels of the chariots which are drawn up around the open doors of the Hostel. Another of the geise of Conary has been broken.