THE COMING OF CUCULAIN
"THE TRIUMPH AND PASSING OF CUCULAIN"
"IN THE GATES OF THE NORTH"
"THE FLIGHT OF THE EAGLE"
There are three great cycles of Gaelic literature. The first treats of the gods; the second of the Red Branch Knights of Ulster and their contemporaries; the third is the so-called Ossianic. Of the Ossianic, Finn is the chief character; of the Red Branch cycle, Cuculain, the hero of our tale.
Cuculain and his friends are historical characters, seen as it were through mists of love and wonder, whom men could not forget, but for centuries continued to celebrate in countless songs and stories. They were not literary phantoms, but actual existences; imaginary and fictitious characters, mere creatures of idle fancy, do not live and flourish so in the world's memory. And as to the gigantic stature and superhuman prowess and achievements of those antique heroes, it must not be forgotten that all art magnifies, as if in obedience to some strong law; and so, even in our own times, Grattan, where he stands in artistic bronze, is twice as great as the real Grattan thundering in the Senate. I will therefore ask the reader, remembering the large manner of the antique literature from which our tale is drawn, to forget for a while that there is such a thing as scientific history, to give his imagination a holiday, and follow with kindly interest the singular story of the boyhood of Cuculain, "battle-prop of the valour and torch of the chivalry of the Ultonians."
I have endeavoured so to tell the story as to give a general idea of the cycle, and of primitive heroic Irish life as reflected in that literature, laying the cycle, so far as accessible, under contribution to furnish forth the tale. Within a short compass I would bring before swift modern readers the more striking aspects of a literature so vast and archaic as to repel all but students.
A TRIBUTE BY A. E.
In this age we read so much that we lay too great a burden on the imagination. It is unable to create images which are the spiritual equivalent of the words on the printed page, and reading becomes for too many an occupation of the eye rather than of the mind. How rarely—out of the multitude of volumes a man reads in his lifetime—can he remember where or when he read any particular book, or with any vividness recall the mood it evoked in him. When I close my eyes, and brood in memory over the books which most profoundly affected me, I find none excited my imagination more than Standish O'Grady's epical narrative of Cuculain. Whitman said of his Leaves of Grass, "Camerado, this is no book: who touches this touches a man" and O'Grady might have boasted of his Bardic History of Ireland, written with his whole being, that there was more than a man in it, there was the soul of a people, its noblest and most exalted life symbolised in the story of one heroic character.
With reference to Ireland, I was at the time I read like many others who were bereaved of the history of their race. I was as a man who, through some accident, had lost memory of his past, who could recall no more than a few months of new life, and could not say to what songs his cradle had been rocked, what mother had nursed him, who were the playmates of childhood or by what woods and streams he had wandered. When I read O'Grady I was as such a man who suddenly feels ancient memories rushing at him, and knows he was born in a royal house, that he had mixed with the mighty of heaven and earth and had the very noblest for his companions. It was the memory of race which rose up within me as I read, and I felt exalted as one who learns he is among the children of kings. That is what O'Grady did for me and for others who were my contemporaries, and I welcome these reprints of his tales in the hope that he will go on magically recreating for generations yet unborn the ancestral life of their race in Ireland. For many centuries the youth of Ireland as it grew up was made aware of the life of bygone ages, and there were always some who remade themselves in the heroic mould before they passed on. The sentiment engendered by the Gaelic literature was an arcane presence, though unconscious of itself, in those who for the past hundred years had learned another speech. In O'Grady's writings the submerged river of national culture rose up again, a shining torrent, and I realised as I bathed in that stream, that the greatest spiritual evil one nation could inflict on another was to cut off from it the story of the national soul. For not all music can be played upon any instrument, and human nature for most of us is like a harp on which can be rendered the music written for the harp but not that written for the violin. The harp strings quiver for the harp-player alone, and he who can utter his passion through the violin is silent before an unfamiliar instrument. That is why the Irish have rarely been deeply stirred by English literature though it is one of the great literatures of the world. Our history was different and the evolutionary product was a peculiarity of character, and the strings of our being vibrate most in ecstasy when the music evokes ancestral moods or embodies emotions akin to these. I am not going to argue the comparative worth of the Gaelic and English tradition. All I can say is that the traditions of our own country move us more than the traditions of any other. Even if there was not essential greatness in them we would love them for the same reasons which bring back so many exiles to revisit the haunts of childhood. But there was essential greatness in that neglected bardic literature which O'Grady was the first to reveal in a noble manner. He had the spirit of an ancient epic poet. He is a comrade of Homer, his birth delayed in time perhaps that he might renew for a sophisticated people the elemental simplicity and hardihood men had when the world was young and manhood was prized more than any of its parts, more than thought or beauty or feeling. He has created for us or rediscovered one figure which looms in the imagination as a high comrade of Hector, Achilles, Ulysses, Rama or Yudisthira, as great in spirit as any. Who could extol enough his Cuculain, that incarnation of Gaelic chivalry, the fire and gentleness, the beauty and heroic ardour or the imaginative splendour of the episodes in his retelling of the ancient story. There are writers who bewitch us by a magical use of words, whose lines glitter like jewels, whose effects are gained by an elaborate art and who deal with the subtlest emotions. Others again are simple as an Egyptian image and yet are more impressive and you remember them less for the sentence than for a grandiose effect. They are not so much concerned with the art of words as with the creation of great images informed with magnificence of spirit. They are not lesser artists but greater, for there is a greater art in the simplification of form in the statue of Memnon than there is in the intricate detail of a bronze by Benvenuto Cellini. Standish O'Grady had in his best moments that epic wholeness and simplicity, and the figure of Cuculain amid his companions of the Red Branch which he discovered and refashioned for us is I think the greatest spiritual gift any Irishman for centuries has given to Ireland.
I know it will be said that this is a scientific age, the world is so full of necessitous life that it is waste of time for young Ireland to brood upon tales of legendary heroes, who fought with enchanters, who harnessed wild fairy horses to magic chariots and who talked with the ancient gods, and that it would be much better for youth to be scientific and practical. Do not believe it, dear Irish boy, dear Irish girl. I know as well as any the economic needs of our people. They must not be overlooked, but keep still in your hearts some desires which might enter Paradise. Keep in your souls some images of magnificence so that hereafter the halls of heaven and the divine folk may not seem altogether alien to the spirit. These legends have passed the test of generations for century after century, and they were treasured and passed on to those who followed, and that was because there was something in them akin to the immortal spirit. Humanity cannot carry with it through time the memory of all its deeds and imaginations, and it burdens itself only in a new era with what was highest among the imaginations of the ancestors. What is essentially noble is never out of date. The figures carved by Phidias for the Parthenon still shine by the side of the greatest modern sculpture. There has been no evolution of the human form to a greater beauty than the ancient Greeks saw and the forms they carved are not strange to us, and if this is true of the outward form it is true of the indwelling spirit. What is essentially noble is contemporary with all that is splendid to-day, and, until the mass of men are equal in spirit, the great figures of the past will affect us less as memories than as prophecies of the Golden Age to which youth is ever hurrying in its heart.
O'Grady in his stories of the Red Branch rescued from the past what was contemporary to the best in us to-day, and he was equal in his gifts as a writer to the greatest of his bardic predecessors in Ireland. His sentences are charged with a heroic energy, and, when he is telling a great tale, their rise and fall are like the flashing and falling of the bright sword of some great champion in battle, or the onset and withdrawal of Atlantic surges. He can at need be beautifully tender and quiet. Who that has read his tale of the young Finn and the Seven Ancients will forget the weeping of Finn over the kindness of the famine- stricken old men, and their wonder at his weeping and the self- forgetful pathos of their meditation unconscious that it was their own sacrifice called forth the tears of Finn. "Youth," they said, "has many sorrows that cold age cannot comprehend."
There are critics repelled by the abounding energy in O'Grady's sentences. It is easy to point to faults due to excess and abundance, but how rare in literature is that heroic energy and power. There is something arcane and elemental in it, a quality that the most careful stylist cannot attain, however he uses the file, however subtle he is. O'Grady has noticed this power in the ancient bards and we find it in his own writing. It ran all through the Bardic History, the Critical and Philosophical History, and through the political books, "The Tory Democracy" and "All Ireland." There is this imaginative energy in the tale of Cuculain, in all its episodes, the slaying of the hound, the capture of the Laity Macha, the hunting of the enchanted deer, the capture of the wild swans, the fight at the ford and the awakening of the Red Branch. In the later tale of Red Hugh which he calls "The Flight of the Eagle" there is the same quality of power joined with a shining simplicity in the narrative which rises into a poetic ecstacy in that wonderful chapter where Red Hugh, escaping from the Pale, rides through the Mountain Gates of Ulster, and sees high above him Slieve Mullion, a mountain of the Gods, the birthplace of legend "more mythic than Avernus" and O'Grady evokes for us and his hero the legendary past, and the great hill seems to be like Mount Sinai, thronged with immortals, and it lives and speaks to the fugitive boy, "the last great secular champion of the Gael," and inspires him for the fulfilment of his destiny. We might say of Red Hugh and indeed of all O'Grady's heroes that they are the spiritual progeny of Cuculain. From Red Hugh down to the boys who have such enchanting adventures in "Lost on Du Corrig" and "The Chain of Gold" they have all a natural and hardy purity of mind, a beautiful simplicity of character, and one can imagine them all in an hour of need, being faithful to any trust like the darling of the Red Branch. These shining lads never grew up amid books. They are as much children of nature as the Lucy of Wordsworth's poetry. It might be said of them as the poet of the Kalevala sang of himself,
"Winds and waters my instructors."
These were O'Grady's own earliest companions and no man can find better comrades than earth, water, air and sun. I imagine O'Grady's own youth was not so very different from the youth of Red Hugh before his captivity; that he lived on the wild and rocky western coast, that he rowed in coracles, explored the caves, spoke much with hardy natural people, fishermen and workers on the land, primitive folk, simple in speech, but with that fundamental depth men have who are much in nature in companionship with the elements, the elder brothers of humanity: it must have been out of such a boyhood and such intimacies with natural and unsophisticated people that there came to him the understanding of the heroes of the Red Branch. How pallid, beside the ruddy chivalry who pass huge and fleet and bright through O'Grady's pages, appear Tennyson's bloodless Knights of the Round Table, fabricated in the study to be read in the drawing-room, as anaemic as Burne Jones' lifeless men in armour. The heroes of ancient Irish legend reincarnated in the mind of a man who could breathe into them the fire of life, caught from sun and wind, their ancient deities, and send them, forth to the world to do greater deeds, to act through many men and speak through many voices. What sorcery was in the Irish mind that it has taken so many years to win but a little recognition for this splendid spirit; and that others who came after him, who diluted the pure fiery wine of romance he gave us with literary water, should be as well known or more widely read. For my own part I can only point back to him and say whatever is Irish in me he kindled to life, and I am humble when I read his epic tale, feeling how much greater a thing it is for the soul of a writer to have been the habitation of a demigod than to have had the subtlest intellections.
We praise the man who rushes into a burning mansion and brings out its greatest treasure. So ought we to praise this man who rescued from the perishing Gaelic tradition its darling hero and restored him to us, and I think now that Cuculain will not perish, and he will be invisibly present at many a council of youth, and he will be the daring which lifts the will beyond itself and fires it for great causes, and he will also be the courtesy which shall overcome the enemy that nothing else may overcome.
I am sure that Standish O'Grady would rather I should speak of his work and its bearing on the spiritual life of Ireland, than about himself, and, because I think so, in this reverie I have followed no set plan but have let my thoughts run as they will. But I would not have any to think that this man was only a writer, or that he could have had the heroes of the past for spiritual companions, without himself being inspired to fight dragons and wizardy. I have sometimes regretted that contemporary politics drew O'Grady away from the work he began so greatly. I have said to myself he might have given us an Oscar, a Diarmuid or a Caoilte, an equal comrade to Cuculain, but he could not, being lit up by the spirit of his hero, be merely the bard and not the fighter, and no man in Ireland intervened in the affairs of his country with a superior nobility of aim. He was the last champion of the Irish aristocracy and still more the voice of conscience for them, and he spoke to them of their duty to the nation as one might imagine some fearless prophet speaking to a council of degenerate princes. When the aristocracy failed Ireland he bade them farewell, and wrote the epitaph of their class in words whose scorn we almost forget because of their sounding melody and beauty. He turned his mind to the problems of democracy and more especially of those workers who are trapped in the city, and he pointed out for them the way of escape and how they might renew life in the green fields close to Earth, their ancient mother and nurse. He used too exalted a language for those to whom he spoke to understand, and it might seem that all these vehement appeals had failed but that we know that what is fine never really fails. When a man is in advance of his age, a generation unborn when he speaks, is born in due time and finds in him its inspiration. O'Grady may have failed in his appeal to the aristocracy of his own time but he may yet create an aristocracy of character and intellect in Ireland. The political and social writings will remain to uplift and inspire and to remind us that the man who wrote the stories of heroes had a bravery of his own and a wisdom of his own. I owe so much to Standish O'Grady that I would like to leave it on record that it was he who made me conscious and proud of my country, and recalled my mind, that might have wandered otherwise over too wide and vague a field of thought, to think of the earth under my feet and the children of our common mother. There hangs in the Municipal Gallery of Dublin the portrait of a man with brooding eyes, and scrawled on the canvas is the subject of his bitter meditation, "The Lost Land." I hope that O'Grady will find before he goes back to Tir-na-noge that Ireland has found again through him what seemed lost for ever, the law of its own being, and its memories which go back to the beginning of the world.
THE COMING OF CUCULAIN
THE RED BRANCH
"There were giants in the earth in those days, the same were mighty men which were of yore men of renown."
The Red Branch feasted one night in their great hall at Emain Macha. So vast was the hall that a man, such as men are now, standing in the centre and shouting his loudest, would not be heard at the circumference, yet the low laughter of the King sitting at one end was clearly audible to those who sat around the Champion at the other. The sons of Dithorba made it, giants of the elder time, labouring there under the brazen shoutings of Macha and the roar of her sounding thongs. Its length was a mile and nine furlongs and a cubit. With her brooch pin she ploughed its outline upon the plain, and its breadth was not much less. Trees such as the earth nourished then upheld the massy roof beneath which feasted that heroic brood, the great-hearted children of Rury, huge offspring of the gods and giants of the dawn of time. For mighty exceedingly were these men. At the noise of them running to battle all Ireland shook, and the illimitable Lir [Footnote: Lir was the sea-god, the Oceanns of the Celt; no doubt the same as the British Lear, the wild, white-headed old king, who had such singular daughters; two, monsters of cruelty, and one, exquisitely sweet, kind, and serene, viz.: Storm, Hurricane, and Calm.] trembled in his watery halls; the roar of their brazen chariots reverberated from the solid canopy of heaven, and their war-steeds drank rivers dry.
A vast murmur rose from the assembly, for like distant thunder or the far-off murmuring of agitated waters was the continuous hum of their blended conversation and laughter, while, ever and anon, cleaving the many-tongued confusion, uprose friendly voices, clearer and stronger than battle-trumpets, when one hero challenged another to drink, wishing him victory and success, and his words rang round the hollow dome. Innumerable candles, tall as spears, illuminated the scene. The eyes of the heroes sparkled, and their faces, white and ruddy, beamed with festal mirth and mutual affection. Their yellow hair shone. Their banqueting attire, white and scarlet, glowed against the outer gloom. Their round brooches and mantle-pins of gold, or silver, or golden bronze, their drinking vessels and instruments of festivity, flashed and glittered in the light. They rejoiced in their glory and their might, and in the inviolable amity in which they were knit together, a host of comrades, a knot of heroic valour and affection which no strength or cunning, and no power, seen or unseen, could ever relax or untie.
At one extremity of the vast hall, upon a raised seat, sat their young king, Concobar Mac Nessa, slender, handsome, and upright. A canopy of bronze, round as the bent sling of the Sun-god, the long-handed, far-shooting son of Ethlend, [Footnote: This was the god Lu Lam-fada, i.e., Lu, the Long-Handed. The rainbow was his sling. Remember that the rod sling, familiar enough now to Irish boys, was the weapon of the ancient Irish, and not the sling which is made of two cords.] encircled his head. At his right hand lay a staff of silver. Far away at the other end of the hall, on a raised seat, sat the Champion Fergus Mac Roy, like a colossus. The stars and clouds of night were round his head and shoulders seen through the wide and high entrance of the dun, whose doors no man had ever seen closed and barred. Aloft, suspended from the dim rafters, hung the naked forms of great men clear against the dark dome, having the cords of their slaughter around their necks and their white limbs splashed with blood. Kings were they who had murmured against the sovereignty of the Red Branch. Through the wide doorway out of the night flew a huge bird, black and grey, unseen, and soaring upwards sat upon the rafters, its eyes like burning fire. It was the Mor-Reega, [Footnote: There were three war goddesses:—(1) Badb (pronounced Byve); (2) Macha, already referred to; (3) The Mor-Rigu or Mor-Reega, who wag the greatest of the three.] or Great Queen, the far-striding terrible daughter of Iarnmas (Iron-Death). Her voice was like the shouting of ten thousand men. Dear to her were these heroes. More she rejoiced in them feasting than in the battle-prowess of the rest.
When supper was ended their bard, in his singing robes and girt around the temples with a golden fillet, stood up and sang. He sang how once a king of the Ultonians, having plunged into the sea-depths, there slew a monster which had wrought much havoc amongst fishers and seafaring men. The heroes attended to his song, leaning forward with bright eyes. They applauded the song and the singer, and praised the valour of the heroic man [Footnote: This was Fergus Mac Leda, Fergus, son of Leda, one of the more ancient kings of Ulster. His contest with the sea-monster is the theme of a heroic tale.] who had done that deed. Then the champion struck the table with his clenched hand, and addressed the assembly. Wrath and sorrow were in his voice. It resembled the brool of lions heard afar by seafaring men upon some savage shore on a still night.
"Famous deeds," he said, "are not wrought now amongst the Red Branch. I think we are all become women. I grow weary of these huntings in the morning and mimic exercises of war, and this training of steeds and careering of brazen chariots stained never with aught but dust and mire, and these unearned feastings at night and vain applause of the brave deeds of our forefathers. Come now, let us make an end of this. Let us conquer Banba [Footnote: One of Ireland's many names.] wholly in all her green borders, and let the realms of Lir, which sustain no foot of man, be the limit of our sovereignty. Let us gather the tributes of all Ireland, after many battles and much warlike toil. Then more sweetly shall we drink while the bards chaunt our own prowess. Once I knew a coward who boasted endlessly about his forefathers, and at last my anger rose, and with a flat hand I slew him in the middle of his speech, and paid no eric, for he was nothing. We have the blood of heroes in our veins, and we sit here nightly boasting about them; about Rury, whose name we bear, being all his children; and Macha the warrioress, who brought hither bound the sons of Dithorba and made them rear this mighty dun; and Combat son of Fiontann; and my namesake Fergus,[Footnote: This was the king already referred to who slew the sea-monster. The monster had left upon him that mark and memorial of the struggle.] whose crooked mouth was no dishonour, and the rest of our hero sires; and we consume the rents and tributes of Ulster which they by their prowess conquered to us, and which flow hither in abundance from every corner of the province. Valiant men, too, will one day come hither and slay us as I slew that boaster, and here in Emain Macha their bards will praise them. Then in the halls of the dead shall we say to our sires, 'All that you got for us by your blood and your sweat that have we lost, and the glory of the Red Branch is at an end.'"
That speech was pleasing to the Red Branch, and they cried out that Fergus Mac Roy had spoken well. Then all at once, on a sudden impulse, they sang the battle-song of the Ultonians, and shouted for the war so that the building quaked and rocked, and in the hall of the weapons there was a clangour of falling shields, and men died that night for extreme dread, so mightily shouted the Ultonians around their king and around Fergus. When the echoes and reverberations of that shout ceased to sound in the vaulted roof and in the far recesses and galleries, then there arose somewhere upon the night a clear chorus of treble voices, singing, too, the war-chant of the Ultonians, as when rising out of the clangour of brazen instruments of music there shrills forth the clear sound of fifes. For the immature scions of the Red Branch, boys and tender youths, awakened out of slumber, heard them, and from remote dormitories responded to their sires, and they cried aloud together and shouted. The trees of Ulster shed their early leaves and buds at that shout, and birds fell dead from the branches.
Concobar struck the brazen canopy with his silver rod. The smitten brass rang like a bell, and the Ultonians in silence hearkened for the words of their clear-voiced king.
"No ruler of men," he said, "however masterful and imperious, could withstand this torrent of martial ardour which rolls to- night through the souls of the children of Rury, still less I, newly come to this high throne, having been but as it were yesterday your comrade and equal, till Fergus, to my grief, resigned the sovereignty, and caused me, a boy, to be made king of Ulla and captain of the Red Branch. But now I say, ere we consider what province or territory shall first see the embattled Red Branch cross her borders, let us enquire of Cathvah the Ard-Druid, whether the omens be propitious, and whether through his art he is able to reveal to us some rite to be performed or prohibition to be observed."
That proposal was not pleasing to Fergus, but it pleased the Red Branch, and they praised the wisdom of their king.
Then Cathvah the Ard-Druid [Footnote: High Druid, or Chief Druid. Similarly we have Ard-Ri or High King.] spake.
"It hath been foretold," he said, "long since, that the Ultonians shall win glory such as never was and never will be, and that their fame shall endure till the world's end. But, first, there are prophecies to be accomplished and predictions to be fulfilled. For ere these things may be there shall come a child to Emain Macha, attended by clear portents from the gods; through him shall arise our deathless fame. Also it hath been foretold that there shall be great divisions and fratricidal strife amongst the children of Rury, a storm of war which shall strip the Red Branch nigh bare."
Fergus was wroth at this, and spoke words of scorn concerning the diviner, and concerning all omens, prohibitions, and prophecies. Concobar, too, and all the Red Branch, rebuked the prophet. Yet he stood against them like a rock warred on by winds which stand immovable, let them rage as they will, and refused to take back his words. Then said Concobar:
"Many are the prophecies which came wandering down upon the mouths of men, but they are not all to be trusted alike. Of those which have passed thy lips, O Cathvah, we utterly reject the last, and think the less of thee for having reported it. But the former which concerns the child of promise hath been ever held a sure prophecy, and as such passed down through all the diviners from the time of Amargin, the son of Milesius, who first prophesied for the Gael. And now being arch-king of the Ultonians, I command thee to divine for us when the coming of the child shall be."
Then Cathvah, the Ard-Druid, put on his divining apparel and took his divining instruments in his hands, and made his symbols of power upon the air. And at first he was silent, and, being in a trance, stared out before him with wide eyes full of wonder and amazement, directing his gaze to the east. In the end he cried out with a loud voice, and prophesying, sang this lay:
"Yea, he is coming. He draweth nigh. Verily It is he whom I behold— The predicted one—the child of many prophecies— Chief flower of the Branch that is over all— The mainstay of Emaiti Macha—the battle-prop of the Ultonians— The torch of the valour and chivalry of the North— The star that is to shine for ever upon the forehead of the Gael. It is he who slumbers upon Slieve Fuad— The child who is like a star— Like a star upon Slieve Fuad. There is a light around him never kindled at the hearth of Lu, The Grey of Macha keeps watch and ward for him, [Footnote: Madia's celebrated grey war-steed. The meaning of the allusion will be understood presently.] And the whole mountain is filled with the Tuatha de Danan." [Footnote: These were the gods of the pagan Irish. Tuatha=nations, De=gods, Danan=of Dana. So it means the god nations sprung from Dana also called Ana. She is referred to in an ancient Irish Dictionary as Mater deorurn Hibernensium.]
Then his vision passed from the Druid, he raised up his long white hands and gave thanks to the high gods of Erin that he had lived to see this day.
When Cathvah had made an end of speaking there was a great silence in the hall.
THE BOYS OF THE ULTONIANS
"And dear the school-boy spot We ne'er forget though there we are forgot."
"There were his young barbarians all at play."
In the morning Fergus Mac Roy said to the young king, "What shall we do this day, O Concobar? Shall we lead forth our sweet-voiced hounds into the woods and rouse the wild boar from his lair, and chase the swift deer, or shall we drive afar in our chariots and visit one of our subject kings and take his tribute as hospitality, which, according to thee, wise youth, is the best, for it is agreeable to ourselves and not displeasing to the man that is tributary."
"Nay," said Concobar, "let us wait and watch this day. Hast thou forgotten the words of Cathvah?"
"Truly, in a manner I had," said Fergus, "for I never much regarded, the race of seers, or deemed the birds more than pleasant songsters, and the stars as a fair spectacle, or druidic instruments aught but toys."
"Let us play at chess on the lawn of the dun," said the king, "while our boys exercise themselves at hurling on the green."
"It is agreeable to me," said Fergus, "though well thou knowest, dear foster-son, that I am not thy match at the game."
What the champion said was true, for in royal wisdom the king far excelled his foster-father, and that was the reason why Fergus had abdicated the supreme captainship of the Red Branch in favour of Concobar, for though his heart was great his understanding was not fine and acute like the understanding of his foster-son.
The table was set for them upon the lawn before the great painted and glowing palace, and three-footed stools were put on either side of that table, and bright cloths flung over them. A knight to whom that was a duty brought forth and unfolded a chess-board of ivory on which silver squares alternated with gold, cunningly wrought by some ancient cerd, [Footnote: Craftsman.] a chief jewel of the realm; another bore in his hand the man-bag, also a wonder, glistening, made of netted wires of findruiney, [Footnote: A bright yellow bronze, the secret of making which is now lost. The metal may be seen in our museums. In beauty it is superior to gold. ] and took therefrom the men and disposed them in their respective places on the board, each in the centre of his own square. The gold men were on the squares of silver, and the silver on the squares of gold. The table was set under the shadowing branches of a great tree, for it was early summer and the sun shone in his strength. So Concobar and Fergus, lightly laughing, affectionate and mirthful, the challenger and the challenged, came forth through the wide doorway of the dun. Armed youths went with them. The right arm of Fergus was cast lightly over the shoulder of Concobar, and his ear was inclined to him as the young king talked, for their mutual affection was very great and like that of a great boy and a small boy when such, as often happens, become attached to one another. So Concobar and Fergus sat down to play, though right seldom did the Champion win any game from the King. Concobar beckoned to him one of the young knights. It was Conall Carna, [Footnote: Conall the Victorious. He came second to Cuculain amongst the Red Branch Knights. He is the theme of many heroic stories. Once in a duel he broke the right arm of his opponent. He bade his seconds tie up his own corresponding arm.] son of Amargin, youngest of the knights of Concobar. "Son of Amargin," said the king, "do thou watch over the boys this day in their pastimes. See that nothing is done unseemly or unjust. Observe narrowly the behaviour and disposition of the lads, and report all things clearly to me on the morrow."
So saying, he moved one of the pieces on the board, and Conall Carna strode away southwards to where the boys were already dividing themselves into two parties for a match at hurling.
That son of Amargin was the handsomest youth of all the province. White and ruddy was his beardless countenance. Bright as gold which boils over the edge of the refiner's crucible was his hair, which fell curling upon his broad shoulders and over the circumference of his shield, outshining its splendour. By his side hung a short sword with a handle of walrus-tooth; in his left hand he bore two spears tipped with glittering bronze. Fergus and Concobar watched him as he strode over the grass; Concobar noted his beauty and grace, but Fergus noted his great strength. Soon the boys, being divided into two equal bands, began their pastime and contended, eagerly urging the ball to and fro. The noise of the stricken ball and the clash of the hurles shod with bronze, the cries of the captains, and the shouting of the boys, filled all the air.
That good knight stood midway between the goals, eastward from the players. Ever and anon with a loud clear voice he reproved the youths, and they hearkening took his rebukes in silence and obeyed his words. Cathvah came forth that day upon the lawn, and thus spoke one of the boys to another in some pause of the game, "Yonder, see! the Ard-Druid of the Province. Wherefore comes he forth from his druidic chambers to-day at this hour, such not being his wont?" And the other answered lightly, laughing, and with boyish heedlessness, "I know not wherefore; but well he knows himself." And therewith ran to meet the ball which passed that way. There was yet a third who watched the boys. He stood afar off on the edge of the plain. He had a little shield strapped on his back, two javelins in one hand, and a hurle in the other. He was very young and fair. He stood looking fixedly at the hurlers, and as he looked he wept. It was the child who had been promised to the Ultonians.
"Very small and beautiful like a star."
"I love all that thou lovest, Spirit of delight; The fresh earth in new leaves drest, And the blessed night; Starry evening and the morn, When the golden mists are born."
Sualtam of Dun Dalgan on the Eastern Sea, took to wife Dectera, daughter of Factna the Righteous. She was sister of Concobar Mac Nessa. Sualtam was the King of Cooalney [Footnote: Now the barony of Cooley, a mountainous promontory which the County of Louth projects into the Irish Sea.] a land of woods and mountains, an unproductive headland reaching out into the Ictian Sea.
Dectera bare a son to Sualtam, and they called him Setanta, That was his first name. His nurse was Dethcaen, the druidess, daughter of Cathvah the druid, the mighty wizard and prophet of the Crave Rue. His breast-plate [Footnote: A poetic spell or incantation. So even the Christian hymn of St. Patrick was called the lorica or breastplate of Patrick.] of power, woven of druidic verse, was upon Ulla [Footnote: Ulla is the Gaelic root of Ulster.] in his time, upon all the children of Rury in their going out and their coming in, in war and in peace. Dethcaen [Footnote: Dethcaen is compounded of two words which mean respectively, colour, and slender.] sang her own songs of protection for the child. His mother gave the child suck, but the rosy-cheeked, beautiful, sweetly-speaking daughter of Cathvah nursed him. On her breast and knee she bare him with great love. Light of foot and slender was Dethcaen; through the wide dun of Sualtam she went with her nursling, singing songs. She it was that discovered his first ges, [Footnote: Ges was the Irish equivalent of the tabu.] namely, that no one should awake him while he slept. He had others, sacred prohibitions which it was unlawful to transgress, but this was discovered by Dethcaen. She discovered it while he was yet a babe. With her own hands Dethcaen washed his garments and bathed his tiny limbs; lightly and cheerfully she sprang from her couch at night when she heard his voice, and raised him from the cradle and wrapped him tenderly, and put him into the hands of his mother. She watched him when he slumbered; there was great stillness in the palace of Sualtam when the child slept. She repeated for him many tales and taught him nothing base. When he was three years old, men came with hounds to hunt the stream which ran past Dun Dalgan. [Footnote: Now Dundalk, capital of the County of Louth.] Early in the morning Setanta heard the baying of the hounds and the shouting of the men. They were hunting a great water-dog which had his abode in this stream. Setanta leaped from his couch and ran to the river. Well he knew that stream and all its pools and shallows; he knew where the water-dog had his den. Thither by circuit he ran and stood before the month of the same, having a stone in either hand. The hunted water-dog drew nigh. Maddened with fear and rage he gnashed his teeth and growled, and then charged at the child. There, O Setanta, with the stroke of one stone thou didst slay the water-dog! The dog was carried in procession with songs to the dun of Sualtam, who that night gave a great feast and called many to rejoice with him, because his only son had done bravely. A prophet who was there said, "Thou shalt do many feats in thy time, O Setanta, and the last will resemble the first."
Setanta played along the sand and by the frothing waves of the sea-shore under the dun. He had a ball and an ashen hurle shod with bronze; joyfully he used to drive his ball along the hard sand, shouting among his small playmates. The captain of the guard gave him a sheaf of toy javelins and taught him how to cast, and made for him a sword of lath and a painted shield. They made for him a high chair. In the great hall of the dun, when supper was served, he used to sit beside the champion of that small realm, at the south end of the table over against the king. Ever as evening drew on and the candles were lit, and the instruments of festivity and the armour and trophies on the walls and pillars shone in the cheerful light, and the people of Sualtam sat down rejoicing, there too duly appeared Setanta over against his father by the side of the champion, very fair and pure, yellow-haired, in his scarlet bratta fastened with a little brooch of silver, serene and grave beyond his years, shining there like a very bright star on the edge of a thunder-cloud, so that men often smiled to see them together.
While Sualtam and his people feasted, the harper harped and trained singers sang. Every day the floor was strewn with fresh rushes or dried moss or leaves. Every night at a certain hour the bed-makers went round spreading couches for the people of Sualtam. Sometimes the king slept with his people in the great hall. Then one warrior sat awake through the night at his pillow having his sword drawn, and another warrior sat at his feet having his sword drawn. The fire-place was in the midst of the hall. In winter a slave appointed for that purpose from time to time during the night laid on fresh logs. Rude plenty never failed in the dun of Sualtam. In such wise were royal households ordered in the age of the heroes. For the palace, it was of timber staunched with clay and was roofed with rushes. Without it was white with lime, conspicuous afar to mariners sailing in the Muirnict. [Footnote: The Irish Sea or St. George's Channel. Muirnict means the Ictian Sea.] There was a rampart round the dun and a moat spanned by a drawbridge. Before it there was a spacious lawn. Down that lawn there ever ran a stream of sparkling water. Setanta sailed his boats in the stream and taught it here to be silent, and there to hum in rapids, or to apparel itself in silver and sing liquid notes, or to blow its little trumpet from small cataracts.
SETANTA RUNS AWAY
"For a boy's way is the wind's way."
And now the daily life of that remote dun no longer pleased the boy, for the war-spirit within drave him on. Moreover he longed for comrades and playfellows, for his fearful mother permitted him no longer to associate with children of that rude realm whose conversation and behaviour she misliked for her child. She loved him greatly and perceived not how he changed, or how the new years in their coming and their going both gave and took away continually.
In summer the boy sat often with the chief bard under the thatched eaves of the dun, while the crying swallows above came and went, asking many questions concerning his forefathers back the ascending line up to Rury, and again downwards through the ramifications of that mighty stem, and concerning famous marches and forays, and battles and single combats, and who was worthy and lived and died well, and who not. More than all else he delighted to hear about Fergus Mac Roy, who seemed to him the greatest and best of all the Red Branch. In winter, cradled in strong arms, he listened to the reminiscences and conversation of the men of war as they sat and talked round the blazing logs in the hall, while the light flickered upon warlike faces, and those who drew drink went round bearing mead and ale.
Upon his seventh birthday early in the morning he ran to his mother and cried, "Mother, send me now to Emain Macha, to my uncle."
Dectera grew pale when she heard that word and her knees smote together with loving fear. For answer she withdrew him from the society of the men and kept him by herself in the women's quarter, which was called grianan. The grianan was in the north end of the palace behind the king's throne. In the hall men could see above them the rafters which upheld the roof and the joining of the great central pillar with the same. From the upper storey of the grianan a door opened upon the great hall directly above the throne of the king, and before that door was a railed gallery.
Thence it was the custom of Dectera to supervise in the morning the labours of the household thralls and at night to rebuke unseemly revelry, and at the fit hour to command silence and sleep. Thence too in the evening, ere he went to his small couch, Setanta would cry out "good-night" and "good slumber" to his friends in the hall, who laughed much amongst themselves for the secret of his immurement was not hid. Moreover, Dectera gave straight commandment to her women, at peril of her displeasure and of sore bodily chastisement, that they should not speak to him any word concerning Emain Macha. The boy as yet knew not where lay the wondrous city, whether in heaven or on earth or beyond the sea. To him it was still as it were a fairy city or in the land of dreams.
One day he saw afar upon the plain long lines of lowing kine and of laden garrans wending north-westward. He questioned his mother concerning that sight. She answered, "It is the high King's tribute out of Murthemney." [Footnote: A territory conterminous with the modern County of Louth.]
"Mother," he said, "how runs the road hence to the great city?"
"That thou shalt not know," said his mother, looking narrowly on the boy.
But still the strong spirit from within, irresistible, urged on the lad. One day while his mother conversed with him, inadvertently she uttered certain words, and he knew that the road to Emain Macha went past the mountain of Slieve Fuad. [Footnote: Now the Fews mountain lying on the direct way between Dundalk and Armagh.] That night he dreamed of Emain Macha, and he rose up early in the morning and clambered on to the roof of the palace through a window and gazed long upon the mountain. The next night too he dreamed of Emain Macha, and heard voices which were unintelligible, and again the third night he heard the voices and one voice said, "This our labour is vain, let him alone. He is some changeling and not of the blood of Rury. He will be a grazier, I think, and buy cattle and sell them for a profit." And the other said, "Nay, let us not leave him yet. Remember how valiantly he faced the fierce water-dog and slew him at one cast." When he climbed to the roof, as his manner was, to gaze at the mountain, he thought that Slieve Fuad nodded to him and beckoned. He broke fast with his mother and the women that day and ate and drank silently with bright eyes, and when that meal was ended he donned his best attire and took his toy weapons and a new ball and his ashen hurle shod with red bronze.
"Wherefore this holiday attire?" said his mother.
"Because I shall see great people ere I put it off," he answered.
She kissed him and he went forth as at other times to play upon the lawn by himself. The king sat upon a stone seat hard by the door of the grianan. Under the eaves he sat sunning himself and gazing upon the sea. The boy kneeled and kissed his hand. His father stroked his head and said, "Win victory and blessings, dear Setanta." He looked at the lad as if he would speak further, but restrained himself and leaned back again in his seat.
Dectera sat in the window of the upper chamber amongst her women. They sat around her sewing and embroidering. She herself was embroidering a new mantle for the boy against his next birthday, though that indeed was far away, but ever while her hands wrought her eyes were on the lawn.
"Mother," cried Setanta," watch this stroke."
He flung his ball into the air and as it fell met it with his hurle, leaning back and putting his whole force into the blow, and struck it into the clouds. It was long before the ball fell. It fell at his feet.
"Mother," he cried again, "watch this stroke."
He went to the east mearing of the spacious lawn and struck the ball to the west. It traversed the great lawn ere it touched the earth and bounded shining above the trees. Truly it was a marvellous stroke for one so young. As he went for his ball the boy stood still before the window. "Give me thy blessing, dear mother," he said.
"Win victory and blessing for ever, O Setanta," she answered. "Truly thou art an expert hurler."
"These feats," he replied, "are nothing to what I shall yet do in needlework, O mother, when I am of age to be trusted with my first needle, and knighted by thy hands, and enrolled amongst the valiant company of thy sewing-women."
"What meaneth the boy?" said his mother, for she perceived that he spoke awry.
"That his childhood is over, O Dectera," answered one of her women, "and that thou art living in the past and in dreams. For who can hold back Time in his career?"
The queen's heart leaped when she heard that word, and the blood forsook her face. She bent down her head over her work and her tears fell. After a space she looked out again upon the lawn to see if the boy had returned, but he had not.
She bade her women go and fetch him, and afterwards the whole household. They called aloud, "Setanta, Setanta," but there was no answer, only silence and the watching and mocking trees and a sound like low laughter in the leaves; for Setanta was far away.
The boy came out of that forest on the west side. Soon he struck the great road which from Ath-a-clia [Footnote: Ath-a-cliah, i.e., the Ford of the Hurdles. It was the Irish name for Dublin.] ran through Murthemney to Emain Macha, and saw before him the purple mountain of Slieve Fuad. In his left hand was his sheaf of toy javelins; in his right the hurle; his little shield was strapped upon his back. The boy went swiftly, for there was power upon him that day, and with his ashen hurle shod with red bronze ever urged his ball forward. So he went driving, his ball before him. At other times he would cast a javelin far out westward and pursue its flight. Ever as he went there ever flew beside him a grey- necked crow. "It is a good omen," said the boy, for he knew that the bird was sacred to the Mor-Reega.
He was amazed at his own speed and the elasticity of his limbs. Once when he rose after having gathered his thrown javelin, a man stood beside him who had the port and countenance of some ancient hero, and whose attire was strange. He was taller and nobler than any living man. He bore a rod-sling in his right hand, and in his left, in a leash of bronze, he led a hound. The hound was like white fire. Setanta could hardly look in that man's face, but he did. The man smiled and said—
"Whither away, my son?"
"To Emain Macha, to my uncle Concobar," said the boy.
"Dost thou know me, Setanta?" said the man.
"I think thou art Lu Lam-fada Mac Ethlend," [Footnote: Lu the Long-Handed son of Ethlenn. This mysterious being, being one of the deities of the pagan Irish, seems to have been the Sun-god.] answered Setanta.
"I am thy friend," said the man, "fear nothing, for I shall be with thee always."
Then the man and the hound disappeared as if they had been resolved into the rays of the sun; Setanta saw nothing, only the grey-necked crow starting for flight. Then a second man in a wide blue mantle specked with white like flying foam came against him and flung his mantle over Setanta. There was a sound in his ears like the roaring of the sea. [Footnote: This man was Mananan son of Lir. He was the Sea-god.] Chariots and horses came from the east after that. Setanta recognised those who urged on the steeds, they were his own people. "Surely," he said, "I shall be taken now." The men drave past him. "If I mistake not," he said, "the man who flung his mantle over me was Mananan the son of Lir."
Divers persons, noble and ignoble, passed him on the way, some riding in chariots, some going on foot. They went as though they saw him not.
In the evening he came to Slieve Fuad. He gathered a bed of dried moss and heaped moss upon his shield for a pillow. He wrapped himself in his mantle, and lay down to sleep, and felt neither cold nor hunger. While he slept a great steed, a stallion, grey to whiteness, came close to him, and walked all round him, and smelt him, and stayed by him till the morning.
Setanta was awaked by the loud singing of the birds. Light of heart the boy started from his mossy couch and wondered at that tuneful chorus. The dawning day trembled through the trees still half-bare, for it was the month of May.
"Horses have been here in the night," said the boy, "one horse. What mighty hoof marks!" He wondered the more seeing how the marks encircled him. "I too will one day have a chariot and horses, and a deft charioteer." He stood musing, "Is it the grey of Macha? [Footnote: The goddess Macha, already referred to, had a horse which was called the Grey of Macha—Liath-Macha. He was said to be still alive dwelling invisibly in Erin.] They say that he haunts this mountain." He hastened to the brook, and finding a deep pool, bathed in the clear pure water and dried himself in his woollen bratta [Footnote: The Gaelic word for mantle.] of divers colours. Very happy and joyous was Setanta that day. And he spread out the bratta to dry, and put on his shirt of fine linen and his woollen tunic that reached to the knees in many plaits. Shoes he had none; bare and naked were his swift feet.
"This is the mountain of Fuad the son of Brogan," [Footnote: An ancient Milesian hero. Brogan was uncle of Milesius.] said he. "I would I knew where lies his cairn in this great forest that I might pay my stone-tribute to the hero." Soon he found it and laid his stone upon the heap. He climbed to the hill's brow and looked westward and saw far away the white shining duns of the marvellous city from which, even now, the morning smoke went up into the windless air. He trembled, and rejoiced, and wept. He stood a long time there gazing at Emain Macha. Descending, he struck again the great road, but he went slowly; he cast not his javelins and drave not his ball. Again, from a rising ground he saw Emain Macha, this time near at hand. He remained there a long time filled with awe and fear. He covered his head with his mantle and wept aloud, and said he would return to Dun Dalgan, that he dared not set unworthy feet in that holy place.
Then he heard the cheerful voices of the boys as they brake from the royal palace and ran down the wide smooth lawn to the hurling- ground. His heart yearned for their companionship, yet he feared greatly, and his mind misgave him as to the manner in which they would receive him. He longed to go to them and say, "I am little Setanta, and my uncle is the king, and I would be your friend and playfellow." Hope and love and fear confused his mind. Yet it came to him that he was urged forwards, by whom he knew not. Reluctantly, with many pausings, he drew nigh to the players and stood solitary on the edge of the lawn southwards, for the company that held that barrier were the weaker. He hoped that some one would call to him and welcome him, but none called or welcomed. Silently the child wept, and the front of his mantle was steeped in his tears. Some looked at him, but with looks of cold surprise, as though they said, "Who is this stranger boy and what doth he here? Would that he took himself away out of this and went elsewhere." The boy thought that he would be welcomed and made much of because he was a king's son and nephew of the high King of Ulla, and on account of his skill in hurling, and because he himself longed so exceedingly for companions and comrades, and because there were within him such fountains of affection and loving kindness. And many a time happy visions had passed before his eyes awake or asleep of the meeting between himself and his future comrades, but the event itself when it happened was by no means what he had anticipated. For no one kissed him and bade him welcome or took him by the right hand and led him in, and no one seemed glad of his coming and he was here of no account at all. Bitter truly was thy weeping, dear Setanta.
THE NEW BOY
"I to surrender, to fling away this! So owned by God and Man! so witnessed to! I had rather be rolled into my grave and buried with infamy."—Battle-chaunt of a hero of the Saxons.
Once, struck sideways out of the press, the ball bounded into a clear space not far from Setanta. "Thou of the Javelins," cried the captain of the distressed party, "the ball is with thee." He roared mightily at Setanta. On a sudden Setanta, filled with all the glow and ardour of the mimic battle, cast his javelins to the ground, slipped the strap of his shield over his head, flung the shield beside his javelins on the grass and pursued the bounding ball. He out-ran the rest and took possession of the ball. Now to the right he urged it, now to the left. He played it deftly before every opponent who sought to check his career, and swiftly and cunningly carried it past each of these, and finally with a clear loud stroke sent it straight as a sling-bolt through the middle of the north goal. The boys of his adopted party shouted, and they praised his playing and that final victorious stroke. Setanta went back after that and stood by himself near the south goal. His face was flushed and his eyes sparkled, and he himself trembled with joy, yet was he not in the least exhausted or out of breath.
The captain of the northern company came down with his boys and all the boys who were chief in authority, and they surrounded Setanta and said, "Thou art here a stranger and on sufferance. We know thee not, but thou art a good hurler and not otherwise, as we think, unmeet to bear us company. Receive now our protection, and we will divide the sides again with a new division and continue the game, for thou art very swift and truly expert in the use of thy hurle."
The boys regulated all things according to the laws and customs of their elders. And everywhere it was the custom that the weak should accept the protection of the strong and submit themselves to their command. So slaves received masters, so runaways and fugitives got to themselves lords, and sheltered themselves under their protection and paid dues. Setanta's brow fell, and he answered, "Put not upon me, I pray you, these hard terms. I would be your friend and comrade, I cannot be your subject being what I am."
And they said, "Who art thou?"
And he answered, "I am the son of Dectera of Dun Dalgan, and nephew of the king."
Then the boy who was captain of the whole school, and the biggest and strongest, stood over him, and said—
"Thou, the king's nephew! the son of Sualtam and Dectera of Dun Dalgan! and comest hither without chariots and horsemen and a prince's retinue and guard. Nay, thou art a churl and a liar to boot, and hie thee hence now with wings at thy heels or verily with sore blows I shall beat thee off the lawn."
Thereat the blood forsook thy face, O Setanta, O peerless one, and thou stoodest like a still figure carved out of white marble, with the pallor of death in thy immortal face. But that other, indignant to see him stand as one both deaf and dumb, and mistaking his pallor for fear, raised his hurle and struck with all his might at the boy. Setanta sprang back avoiding the blow, and ere the other could recover himself, struck him back-handed over the right ear, whose knees were suddenly relaxed and the useless weapon shaken from his hands. Then some stood aside, but the rest ran upon Setanta to beat him off the lawn and struck at him all together, as well as they could, for their numbers impeded them, and fiercely the stranger defended himself, and many a shrewd stroke he delivered upon his enemies, for the slumbering war-spirit now, for the first time, had awaked in his gentle heart. Many times he was overborne and flung to the ground, but again he arose overthrowing others, never quitting hold of his hurle, and, whenever he got a free space, grasping that weapon like a war-mace in both hands, he struck down his foes. The skirts of his mantle were torn, only a rag remained round his shoulders, fastened by the brooch; he was covered with blood, his own and his enemies', and his eyes were like burning fire. Then Conall Carna being enraged ran towards the boys, meaning to rebuke their cowardice and with his strong hands hurl them asunder and save the stranger boy. There was not a knight in all Ireland those days who loved battle-fairness better than Conall Carna. Truly he was the pure-burning torch of the chivalry of the Ultonians in his time. But as he ran one withheld him and a voice crying "Forbear" rang in his ears. Yet he saw no man. He stood still, being astonished, and became aware that this tumult was divinely guided, for as in a trance he saw and heard marvellous things. For the war-steeds of the Ultonians neighed loudly in their stables, and from the Tec Brac, the Speckled House of the Red Branch, rose a clangour of brass, the roar of the shield called Ocean, and the booming of the Gate-of-Battle, and the singing of swords long silent, and the brazen thunder of the revolution of wheels; and he saw strange forms and faces in the air, and the steady sun dancing in the heavens, and a man standing beside the stranger whose face was like the sun. The son of Amargin saw and heard all, for he was a seer and a prophet no less than a warrior. But meantime his battle-fury descended upon Setanta, his countenance was distraught and his strength was multiplied tenfold, and the steam of his war- madness rose above him. He staggered to no blow, but every boy whom he struck fell, and he charged this way and that, and wherever he went they opened before him. Then seeing how they closed in behind him and on each side, he beat his way back to the grassy rampart in which was the goal, and, facing his enemies, bade them come against him again in their troops, many against one. "You have offered me your protection," he said, "and I would not endure it, but now I swear to you by all my gods that you and I do not part this day till you have accepted my protection, or till I lie without life on this lawn a trophy of your prowess and a monument of the chivalry and hospitality of the Red Branch." Then a boy stood out from the rest. He was freckled, and with red hair, and his voice was loud and fierce.
"Thou shalt have a comrade in thy battle henceforward," he said, "O brave stranger. On the banks of the Nemnich, [Footnote: Now the Nanny-Water, a beautiful stream running from Tara to the sea.] where it springs beneath my father's dun on the Hill of Gabra, nigh Tara, I met a prophetess; Acaill is her name, the wisest of all women; and I asked her who would be my life-friend. And she answered, 'I see him standing against a green wall at Emain Macha, at bay, with the blood and soil of battle upon him, and alone he gives challenge to a multitude. He is thy life-friend, O Laeg,' she said, 'and no man ever had a friend like him or will till the end of time.'"
So saying he ran to Setanta, and kneeling down he took him by his right hand, and said, "I am thy man from this day forward." And after that he arose and kissed him, and standing by his side cried, "O Cumascra Mend Macha, O stammering son of Concobar, if ever I was a shield to thee against thy mockers, come hither; and thou too come O Art Storm-Ear, and thou Art of the Shadow, and thou O Fionn of the Songs, and you O Ide and Sheeling, who were nursed at the same breast and knee with myself." So he summoned to him his friends, and they came to him, and there came to him, uninvited, the three sons of Fergus and others whose hearts were stirred with shame or ruth. Yet, indeed, they were few compared with the multitude of his enemies. Then for the first time the boy's soul was confused, and he cried aloud, and bowed his head between his hands, and the hot tears gushed forth like rain from his eyes, mingled with blood. Soon, hearing the loud mockery and derisive laughter of his enemies, he hardened his heart and went out against them with these his friends, and drove them over the whole course of the playing-ground, and, hard by the north goal, he brake the battle upon them and they fled. Of the fugitives some ran round the King and the Champion where they sat, but Setanta running straight sprang lightly over the chess table. Then Concobar, reaching forth his left hand, caught him by the wrist and brought him to a stand, panting and with dilated eyes.
"Why art thou so enraged?" said the King, "and why dost thou so maltreat my boys?"
It was a long time before the boy answered, so furiously burned the battle-fire within him, so that the King repeated his question more than once. At last he made answer—
"Because they have not treated me with the respect due a stranger."
"Who art thou thyself?" said the King.
"I am Setanta, son of Sualtam and of Dectera thy own sister, and it is not before my uncle's palace that I should be dishonoured."
Concobar smiled, for he was well pleased with the appearance and behaviour of the boy, but Fergus caught him up in his great arms and kissed him, and he said—
"Dost thou know me, O Setanta?"
"I think thou art Fergus Mac Roy," he answered.
"Wilt thou have me for thy tutor?" said Fergus.
"Right gladly," answered Setanta. "For in that hope too I left Dun Dalgan, coming hither secretly without the knowledge of my parents."
This was the first martial exploit of Setanta, who is also called Cuculain, and the reward of this his first battle was that the boys at his uncle's school elected him to be for their captain, and one and all they put themselves under his protection. And a gentle captain made he when the war-spirit went out of him, and a good play-fellow and comrade was Setanta amongst his new friends.
That night Setanta and Laeg slept in the same bed of healing after the physicians had dressed their wounds; and they related many things to each other, and oft times they kissed one another with great affection, till sweet sleep made heavy their eyelids.
So, impelled by the unseen, Setanta came to Emain Macha without the knowledge of his parents, but in fulfilment of the law, for at a certain age all the boys of the Ultonians should come thither to associate there with their equals and superiors, and be instructed by appointed tutors in the heroic arts of war and the beautiful arts of peace. Concobar Mac Nessa was not only King of Ulster and captain of the Red Branch, but was also the head and chief of a great school. In this school the boys did not injure their eyesight and impair their health by poring over books; nor were compelled to learn what they could not understand; nor were instructed by persons whom they did not wish to resemble. They were taught to hurl spears at a mark; to train war-horses and guide war-chariots; to lay on with the sword and defend themselves with sword and shield; to cast the hand-stone of the warrior—a great art in those days; to run, to leap, and to swim; to rear tents of turf and branches swiftly, and to roof them with sedge and rushes; to speak appropriately with equals and superiors and inferiors, and to exhibit the beautiful practices of hospitality according to the rank of guests, whether kings, captains, warriors, bards or professional men, or unknown wayfarers; and to play at chess and draughts, which were the chief social pastimes of the age; and to drink and be merry in hall, but always without intoxication; and to respect their plighted word and be ever loyal to their captains; to reverence women, remembering always those who bore them and suckled when they were themselves helpless and of no account; to be kind to the feeble and unwarlike; and, in short, all that it became brave men to feel and to think and to do in war and in peace. Also there were those who taught them the history of their ancestors, the great names of the Clanna Rury, and to distinguish between those who had done well and those who had not done so well, and the few who had done ill. And these their several instructors appointed by Concobar Mac Nessa and the council of his wise men were famous captains of the Ultonians, and approved bards and historians. And over all the high king of Ulster, Concobar Mac Nessa, was chief and president, not in name only but in fact, being well aware of all the instructors and all the instructed, and who was doing well and exhibiting heroic traits, and who was doing ill, tending downwards to the vast and slavish multitude whose office was to labour and to serve and in no respect to bear rule, which is for ever the office of the multitude in whose souls no god has kindled the divine fire by which the lamp of the sun, and the candles of the stars, and the glory and prosperity of nations are sustained and fed. Such, and so supervised, was the Royal School of Emain Macha in the days when Concobar Mac Nessa was King, and when Fergus Mac Roy Champion, and when the son of Sualtam, not yet known by his rightful name, was a pupil of the same and under tutors and governors like the rest, though his fond mother would have evaded the law, for she loved him dearly, and feared for him the rude companionship and the stern discipline, the early rising and the strong labours of the great school.
THE SMITH'S SUPPER PARTY
"Bearing on shoulders immense Atlantean the weight, Well nigh not to be borne, Of the too vast orb of her fate."
One day, in the forenoon, a man came to Emain Macha. He was grim and swarthy, with great hands and arms. He made no reverence to Concobar or to any of the Ultonians, but standing stark before them, spake thus, not fluently:—"My master, Culain, high smith of all Ulster, bids thee to supper this night, O Concobar; and he wills thee to know that because he has not wide territories, and flocks, and herds, and tribute-paying peoples, only the implements of his industry, his anvils and hammers and tongs, and the slender profits of his labour, he feareth to feast all the Red Branch, who are by report mighty to eat and to drink; he would not for all Ireland bring famine upon his own industrious youths, his journeymen and his apprentices. Come therefore with a choice selection of thy knights, choosing those who are not great eaters, and drinkers, and you shall all have a fair welcome, a goodly supper, and a proportionate quantity of drink." That speech was a cause of great mirth to the Ultonians; nevertheless they restrained their laughter, so that the grim ambassador, who seemed withal to be a very angry man, saw nothing but grave countenances. Concobar answered him courteously, saying that he accepted the invitation, and that he would be mindful of the smith's wishes. When the man departed the Red Branch gave a loose rein to their mirth, each man charging the other with being in especial the person whose presence would be a cause of sorrow to the smith.
Culain was a mighty craftsman in those days. It was he who used to make weapons, armour, and chariots for the Ultonians, and there was never in Ireland a better smith than he. In his huge and smoky dun the ringing of hammers and the husky roar of the bellows seldom ceased; even at night the red glare of his furnaces painted far and wide the barren moor where he dwelt. Herdsmen and shepherds who, in quest of estrays, found themselves unawares in this neighbourhood, fled away praying to their gods, and, as they ran, murmured incantations.
In the afternoon Concobar, having made as good a selection as he could of his chief men, set forth to go. As they passed through the lawn he saw Setanta playing with his comrades. He stopped for a while to look, and then called the lad, who came at once and stood erect and silent before the King. He was now full ten years of age, straight and well-made and with sinews as hard as tempered steel. When he saw the company looking at him, he blushed, and his blushing became him well.
"Culain the smith," said Concobar, "hath invited us to a feast. If it is pleasing to thee, come too."
"It is pleasing indeed," replied the boy, for he ardently desired to see the famous artificer, his people, his furnaces, and his engines. "But let me first, I pray thee, see this our game brought to an end, for the boys await my return. After that I will follow quickly, nor can I lose my way upon the moor, for the road hence to the smith's dun is well trodden and scored with wheels, and the sky too at night is red above the city."
Concobar gave him permission, and Setanta hastened back to his playmates, who hailed him gladly in his returning, for they feared that the King might have taken him away from them.
The King and his great men went away eastward after that and they conversed eagerly by the way, talking sometimes of a certain recent great rebellion of the non-Irian kings of Ulla, [Footnote: The Ultonians were descended from Ir, son of Milesius.] and of each other's prowess and the prowess of the insurgents, and sometimes of the smith and his strange and unusual invitation.
"Say no word and do no thing," said Concobar, "at which even a very angry and suspicious man might take offence, for as to our host and his artificers, their ways are not like ours, or their thoughts like our thoughts, and they are a great and formidable people."
The Red Branch did not relish that speech, for they thought that under the measureless canopy of the sky there were no people great or formidable but themselves.
SETANTA AND THE SMITH'S DOG
"How he fell From heaven, they fabled, thrown by angry Jove Sheer o'er the crystal battlements; from morn To noon, from noon to dewy eve, A Summer's day, he fell; and with the setting sun Dropped from the zenith like a falling star, On Lemnos."
When Culain saw far away the tall figures of the Ultonians against the sunset, and the flashing of their weapons and armour, he cried out with a loud voice to his people to stop working and slack the furnaces and make themselves ready to receive the Red Branch; and he bade the household thralls prepare the supper, roast, boiled and stewed, which he had previously ordered. Then he himself and his journeymen and apprentices stripped themselves, and in huge keeves of water filled by their slaves they washed from them the smoke and sweat of their labour and put on clean clothes. The mirrors at which they dressed themselves were the darkened waters of their enormous tubs.
Culain sent a party of his men and those who were the best dressed and the most comely and who were the boldest and most eloquent in the presence of strangers, to meet the high King of the Ultonians on the moor, but he himself stood huge in the great doorway just beyond the threshold and in front of the bridge over which the Red Branch party was to pass. He had on him over his clothes a clean leathern apron which was not singed or scored. It was fastened at his shoulders and half covered his enormous hairy chest, was girt again at his waist and descended below his knees. He stood with one knee crooked, leaning upon a long ash-handled sledge with a head of glittering bronze. There he gave a friendly and grave welcome to the King and to all the knights one by one. It was dusk when Concobar entered the dun.
"Are all thy people arrived?" said the smith.
"They are," said Concobar.
Culain bade his people raise the drawbridge which spanned the deep black moat surrounding the city, and after that, with his own hands he unchained his one dog. The dog was of great size and fierceness. It was supposed that there was no man in Ireland whom he could not drag down. He had no other good quality than that he was faithful to his master and guarded his property vigilantly at night. He was quick of sight and hearing and only slept in the daytime. Being let loose he sprang over the moat and three times careered round the city, baying fearfully. Then he stood stiffly on the edge of the moat to watch and listen, and growled at intervals when he heard some noise far away. It was then precisely that Setanta set forth from Emain Macha. Earth quaked to the growling of that ill beast.
In the meantime the smith went into the dun, and when he had commanded his people to light the candles throughout the chamber, he slammed to the vast folding doors with his right hand and his left, and drew forth the massy bar from its place and shot it into the opposing cavity. There was not a knight amongst the Red Branch who could shut one of those doors, using both hands and his whole strength. Of the younger knights, some started to their feet and laid their hands on their sword hilts when they heard the bolt shot.
The smith sat down on his high seat over against Concobar, with his dusky sons and kinsmen around him, and truly they contrasted strangely with the bravery and beauty of the Ultonians. He called for ale, and holding in his hands a huge four-cornered mether of the same, rimmed with silver and furnished with a double silver hand-grip, he pledged the King and bade him and his a kindly welcome. He swore, too, that no generation of the children of Rury, and he had wrought for many, had done more credit to his workmanship than themselves, nor had he ever made the appliances of war for any of the Gael with equal pleasure. Concobar, on the other hand, responded discreetly, and praised the smith-work of Culain, praising chiefly the shield called Ocean [Footnote: Concobar's shield. When Concobar was in danger the shield roared. The sea, too, roared responsive.], which was one of the wonders of the north-west of Europe. The smith and all his people were well pleased at that speech, and Culain bade his thralls serve supper, which proved to be a very noble repast. There was enough and to spare for all the Ultonians. When supper was ended, the heroes and the artificers pledged each other many times and drank also to the memory of famous men of yore and their fathers who begat them, as was right and customary; and they became very friendly and merry without intoxication, for intoxication was not known in the age of the heroes.
Then said Concobar: "We have this night toasted many heroes who are gone, and, as it is not right that we should praise ourselves, I propose that we drink now to the heroes that are coming, both those unborn, and those who, still being boys, are under tutors and instructors; and for this toast I name the name of my nephew Setanta, son of Sualtam, who, if any, will one day, O Culain, if I mistake not, illustrate in an unexampled manner thy skill as an artificer of weapons and armour."
"Is he then a boy of that promise, O Concobar?" said the smith, "for if he is I am truly rejoiced to hear it."
"He is all that I say," answered the King somewhat hotly, "and of a beauty corresponding. And of that thou shalt be the judge to- night, for he is coming, and indeed I am momentarily expecting to hear the loud clamour of his brazen hurle upon the doors of the dun, after his having leapt at one bound both thy moat and thy rampart."
The smith started from his high seat uttering a great oath, such as men used then, and sternly chid Concobar because he had said that all his people had arrived. "If the boy comes now," he said, "ere I can chain the dog, verily he will be torn into small pieces."
Just then they heard the baying of the dog sounding terribly in the hollow night, and every face was blanched throughout the vast chamber. Then without was heard a noise of trampling feet and short furious yells and sibilant gaspings, as of one who exerts all his strength, after which a dull sound at which the earth seemed to shake, mingled with a noise of breaking bones, and after that silence. Ere the people in the dun could do more than look at each other speechless, they heard a clear but not clamorous knocking at the doors of the dun. Some of the smith's young men back-shot the bolt and opened the doors, and the boy Setanta stepped in out of the night. He was very pale. His scarlet mantle was in rags and trailing, and his linen tunic beneath and his white knees red with blood, which ran down his legs and over his bare feet. He made a reverence, as he had been taught, to the man of the house and to his people, and went backwards to the upper end of the chamber. The Ultonians ran to meet him, but Fergus Mac Roy was the first, and he took Setanta upon his mighty shoulder and bore him along and set him down at the table between himself and the King.
"Did the dog come against thee?" said Culain.
"Truly he came against me," answered the boy.
"And art thou hurt?" cried the smith.
"No, indeed," answered Setanta, "but I think he is."
At that moment a party of the smith's people entered the dun bearing between them the carcass of the dog from whose mouth and white crooked fangs the blood was gushing in red torrents; and they showed Culain how the skull of the dog and his ribs had been broken in pieces by some mighty blow, and his backbone also in divers places. Also they said: "One of the great brazen pillars which stand at the bridge head is bent awry, and the clean bronze denied with blood, and it was at the foot of that pillar we found the dog." So saying, they laid the body upon the heather in front of Culain's high seat, that it might be full in his eye, and when they did so and again sat down, there was a great silence in the chamber.
SETANTA, THE PEACE-MAKER
"The swine-herd [Footnote: One of the minor gods. He resembles Mars Sylvanus of the Romans to whom swine were sacrificed.] of Bove Derg, son of the Dagda, The feasts to which he came used to end in blood."
Culain sat silent for a long time looking out before him with eyes like iron, and when at last he spoke his voice was charged with wrath and sorrow.
"O Concobar," he said, "and you, the rest, nobles of the children of Rury. You are my guests to-night, wherefore it is not lawful that I should take vengeance upon you for the killing of my brave and faithful hound, who was a better keeper of my treasures than a company of hired warriors. Truly he cost me nothing but his daily allowance of meat, and there was not his equal as a watcher and warder in the world. An eric, therefore, I must have. Consult now together concerning its amount and let the eric be great and conspicuous, for, by Orchil [Footnote: The queen of the infernal regions.] and all the gods who rule beneath the earth, a small eric I will not accept."
Concobar answered straight, "Thou shalt not get from me or from the Ultonians any eric, small or great. My nephew slew the beast in fair fight, defending his life against an aggressor. But I will say something else, proud smith, and little it recks me whether it is pleasing to thee or not. Had thy wolf slain my nephew not one of you would have left this dun alive, and of your famous city of artificers I would have made a smoking heap."
The Ultonians fiercely applauded that speech, declaring that the smiths should get no eric, great or small, for the death of their monster. The smiths thereupon armed themselves with their hammers, and tongs, and fire-poles, and great bars of unwrought brass, and Culain himself seized an anvil withal to lay waste the ranks of the Red Branch. The Ultonians on their side ran to the walls and plucked down their spears from the pegs, and they raised their shields and balanced their long spears, and swords flashed and screeched as they rushed to light out of the scabbards, and the vast chamber glittered with shaking bronze and shone with the eyeballs of angry men, and rang with shouts of defiance and quick fierce words of command. For the Red Branch embattled themselves on one side of the chamber and the smiths upon the other, burning with unquenchable wrath, earth-born. The vast and high dome re- echoing rang with the clear terrible cries of the Ultonians and the roar of the children of the gloomy Orchil, and, far away, the magic shield moaned at Emain Macha, and the waves of the ocean sent forth a cry, for the peril of death and of shortness of life were around Concobar in that hour. And, though the doors of thick oak, brass-bound, were shut and barred, there came a man into the assembly, and he was not seen. He was red all over, both flesh and raiment, as if he had been plunged in a bath of blood. His countenance was distraught and his eyes like those of an insane man, and sparks new from them like sparks from a smith's stithy when he mightily hammers iron plucked white from the furnace. Smoke and fire came from his mouth. He held in his hand a long boar-yard. The likeness of a boar bounded after him. He traversed the vast chamber with the velocity of lightning, and with his boar-yard beat such as were not already drunk with wrath and battle-fury, and shot insane fire into their souls. [Footnote: This was the demon referred to in the lines at the head of the chapter.]
Then indeed it wanted little, not the space of time during which a man might count ten, for the beginning of a murder grim and great as any renowned in the world's chronicles, and it is the opinion of the learned that, in spite of all their valour and beautiful weapons, the artificers would then and there have made a bloody end of the Red Branch had the battle gone forward. But at this moment, ere the first missile was hurled on either side, the boy Setanta sprang into the midst, into the middle space which separated the enraged men, and cried aloud, with a clear high voice that rang distinct above the tumult—
"O Culain, forbear to hurl, and restrain thy people, and you the Ultonians, my kinsmen, delay to shoot. To thee, O chief smith, and thy great-hearted artificers I will myself pay no unworthy eric for the death of thy brave and faithful hound. For verily I will myself take thy dog's place, and nightly guard thy property, sleepless as he was, and I will continue to do so till a hound as trusty and valiant as the hound whom I slew is procured for thee to take his place, and to relieve me of that duty. Truly I slew not thy hound in any wantonness of superior strength, but only in the defence of my own life, which is not mine but my King's. Three times he leaped upon me with white fangs bared and eyes red with murder, and three times I cast him off, but when the fourth time he rushed upon me like a storm, and when with great difficulty I had balked him on that occasion also, then I took him by the throat and by his legs and flung him against one of the brazen pillars withal to make him stupid. And truly it was not my intention to kill him and I am sorry that he is dead, seeing that he was so faithful and so brave, and so dear to thee whom I have always honoured, even when I was a child at Dun Dalgan, and whom, with thy marvel-working craftsman, I have for a long time eagerly desired to see. And I thought that our meeting, whensoever it might be, would be other than this and more friendly."
As he went on speaking the fierce brows of the smith relaxed, and first he regarded the lad with pity, being so young and fair, and then with admiration for his bravery. Also he thought of his own boyish days, and as he did so a torrent of kindly affection and love poured from his breast towards the boy, yea, though he saw him standing before him with the blood of his faithful hound gilding his linen lena and his white limbs. Yet, indeed, it was not the hound's blood which was on the boy, but his own, so cruelly had the beast torn him with his long and strong and sharp claws.
"That proposal is pleasing to me," he said, "and I will accept the eric, which is distinguished and conspicuous and worthy of my greatness and of my name and reputation amongst the Gael. Why should a man be angry for ever when he who did the wrong offers due reparation?" Therewith over his left shoulder he flung the mighty anvil into the dark end of the vast chamber among the furnaces, at the sound of whose falling the solid earth shook. On the other hand Concobar rejoiced at this happy termination of the quarrel, for well he knew the might of those huge children of the gloomy Orchil. He perceived, too, that he could with safety entrust the keeping of the lad to those people, for he saw the smith's countenance when it changed, and he knew that among those artificers there was no guile.
"It is pleasing to me, too," he said, "and I will be myself the lad's security for the performance of his promise."
"Nay, I want no security," answered the smith. "The word of a scion of the Red Branch is security enough for me."
Thereafter all laid aside their weapons and their wrath. The smiths with a mighty clattering cast their tools into the dark end of the chamber, and the Ultonians hanged theirs upon the walls, and the feasting and pledging and making of friendly speeches were resumed. There was no more any anger anywhere, but a more unobstructed flow of mutual good-will and regard, for the Ultonians felt no more a secret inclination to laugh at the dusky artificers, and the smiths no longer regarded with disdain the beauty, bravery, and splendour of the Ultonians.