Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race

Page: 77

133 But Macha, who was no mere woman, but a supernatural being, appears again in connexion with the history of Ulster in a very curious tale which was supposed to account for the strange debility or helplessness that at critical moments sometimes fell, it was believed, upon the warriors of the province.

The legend tells that a wealthy Ulster farmer named Crundchu, son of Agnoman, dwelling in a solitary place among the hills, found one day in his dūn a young woman of great beauty and in splendid array, whom he had never seen before. Crundchu, we are told, was a widower, his wife having died after bearing him four sons. The strange woman, without a word, set herself to do the houshold tasks, prepared dinner, milked the cow, and took on herself all the duties of the mistress of the household. At night she lay down at Crundchu's side, and thereafter dwelt with him as his wife; and they loved each other dearly. Her name was Macha.

One day Crundchu prepared himself to go to a great fair or assembly of the Ultonians, where there would be feasting and horse-racing, tournaments and music, and merrymaking of all kinds. Macha begged her husband [pg 179] not to go. He persisted. “Then,” she said, “at least do not speak of me in the assembly, for I may dwell with you only so long as I am not spoken of.”

It has been observed that we have here the earliest appearance in post-classical European literature of the well-known motive of the fairy bride who can stay with her mortal lover only so long as certain conditions are observed, such as that he shall not spy upon her, ill-treat her, or ask of her origin.

Crundchu promised to obey the injunction, and went to the festival. Here the two horses of the king carried off prize after prize in the racing, and the people cried: “There is not in Ireland a swifter than the King's pair of horses.”

“I have a wife at home,” said Crundchu, in a moment of forgetfulness, “who can run quicker than these horses.”

“Seize that man,” said the angry king, “and hold him till his wife be brought to the contest.”

So messengers went for Macha, and she was brought before the assembly; and she was with child. The king bade her prepare for the race. She pleaded her condition. “I am close upon my hour,” she said. “Then hew her man in pieces,” said the king to his guards. Macha turned to the bystanders. “Help me,” she cried, “for a mother hath borne each of you! Give me but a short delay till I am delivered.” But the king and all the crowd in their savage lust for sport would hear of no delay. “Then bring up the horses,” said Macha, “and because you have no pity a heavier infamy shall fall upon you.” So she raced against the horses, and outran them, but as she came to the goal she gave a great cry, and her travail seized her, and she gave birth to twin children. As she uttered that cry, however, all the spectators felt [pg 180] themselves seized with pangs like her own and had no more strength than a woman in her travail. And Macha prophesied: “From this hour the shame you have wrought on me will fall upon each man of Ulster. In the hours of your greatest need ye shall be weak and helpless as women in childbirth, and this shall endure for five days and four nights—to the ninth generation the curse shall be upon you.” And so it came to pass; and this is the cause of the Debility of the Ultonians that was wont to afflict the warriors of the province.

Conor mac Nessa

The chief occasion on which this Debility was manifested was when Maev, Queen of Connacht, made the famous Cattle-raid of Quelgny (Tain Bo Cuailgné), which forms the subject of the greatest tale in Irish literature. We have now to relate the preliminary history leading up to this epic tale and introducing its chief characters.

Fachtna the Giant, King of Ulster, had to wife Nessa, daughter of Echid Yellow-heel, and she bore him a son named Conor. But when Fachtna died Fergus son of Roy, his half-brother, succeeded him, Conor being then but a youth. Now Fergus loved Nessa, and would have wedded her, but she made conditions. “Let my son Conor reign one year,” she said, “so that his posterity may be the descendants of a king, and I consent.” Fergus agreed, and young Conor took the throne. But so wise and prosperous was his rule and so sagacious his judgments that, at the year's end, the people,as Nessa foresaw, would have him remain king; and Fergus, who loved the feast and the chase better than the toils of kingship, was content to have it so, and remained at Conor's court for a time, great, honoured, and happy, but king no longer.

[pg 181]

The Red Branch

In his time was the glory of the “Red Branch” in Ulster, who were the offspring of Ross the Red, King of Ulster, with collateral relatives and allies, forming ultimately a kind of warlike Order. Most of the Red Branch heroes appear in the Ultonian Cycle of legend, so that a statement of their names and relationships may be usefully placed here before we proceed to speak of their doings. It is noticeable that they have a partly supernatural ancestry. Ross the Red, it is said, wedded a Danaan woman, Maga, daughter of Angus Ōg.134 As a second wife he wedded a maiden named Roy. His descendants are as follows:

Maga === Ross the Red === Roy
      |                |
      |                +-----+
      |                      |
   Fachtna === Nessa    Fergus mac Roy
  the Giant |
         Conor mac

But Maga was also wedded to the Druid Cathbad, and by him had three daughters, whose descendants played a notable part in the Ultonian legendary cycle.

                      Cathbad === Maga
    |                    |                   |
Dectera[*] === Lugh    Elva === Usna    Finchoom === Amorgin
            |                |                    |
            |          +-----+-----+              |
            |          |     |     |              |
         Cuchulain   Naisi Ainlé Ardan       Conall of the

  [*]Dectera also had a mortal husband, Sualtam, who passed as 
     Cuchulain's father.
[pg 182]

Birth of Cuchulain

It was during the reign of Conor mac Nessa that the birth of the mightiest hero of the Celtic race, Cuchulain, came about, and this was the manner of it. The maiden Dectera, daughter of Cathbad, with fifty young girls, her companions at the court of Conor, one day disappeared, and for three years no searching availed to discover their dwelling-place or their fate. At last one summer day a flock of birds descended on the fields about Emain Macha and began to destroy the crops and fruit. The king, with Fergus and others of his nobles, went out against them with slings, but the birds flew only a little way off, luring the party on and on till at last they found themselves near the Fairy Mound of Angus on the river Boyne. Night fell, and the king sent Fergus with a party to discover some habitation where they might sleep. A hut was found, where they betook themselves to rest, but one of them, exploring further, came to a noble mansion by the river, and on entering it was met by a young man of splendid appearance. With the stranger was a lovely woman, his wife, and fifty maidens, who saluted the Ulster warrior with joy. And he recognised in them Dectera and her maidens, whom they had missed for three years, and in the glorious youth Lugh of the Long Arm, son of Ethlinn. He went back with his tale to the king, who immediately sent for Dectera to come to him. She, alleging that she was ill, requested a delay; and so the night passed; but in the morning there was found in the hut among the Ulster warriors a new-born male infant. It was Dectera's gift to Ulster, and for this purpose she had lured them to the fairy palace by the Boyne. The child was taken home by the warriors and was given to Dectera's sister, Finchoom, who was then [pg 183] nursing her own child, Conall, and the boy's name was called Setanta. And the part of Ulster from Dundalk southward to Usna in Meath, which is called the Plain of Murthemney, was allotted for his inheritance, and in later days his fortress and dwelling-place was in Dundalk.