Much I loved the jocund
Much the horse and chariot race,
Much I loved the deep carouse,
Quaffing in the Red Branch house."
Songs of the Western Gael, by Sir Saran. Ferguson.
THE CATTLE FORAY OF
now that we have heard of this wonderful raid of Cooley, so
wonderful that a dispute about it was considered one of the best
occasions for cutting up actually, as well as by satire, "the great
association of the bards," what was it really?
must not go too far from Loch Etive; but this great event was pretty
closely connected with the occurrences at Dun Uisnachan and the
revenge of our heroes, the sons of Uisnach. We must not claim too
much lest we imitate Dlarvan, entering the bard's palace. You will
remember that Conor sent Fergus to bring back the sons of Uisnach
from Loch Etive. Fergus had given up the kingship of Ulster to Conor,
and was a man of a light heart but strictly honourable, and one to
whom has been attributed this greatest ancient poem of Ireland. The
verse heading this chapter is supposed to represent his character.
O'Curry says, "Fergus mac Roigh was a great Ulster prince, who had
gone into voluntary exile, into Connaught, through feelings of
dislike and hostility to Conor mac Nessa, the King of Ulster, for
his treacherously putting to death the sons of Uisnach, for whose
safety Fergus had pledged his faith according to the knightly
customs of the time. And afterwards, when the Tain bo Cuailgne
occurred, Fergus was the great guide and director of the expedition
on the side of the Connaught men, against that of Conor mac Nessa,
and, as it would appear, he was himself the historian of the war."'
You see, then, the
connection of this famous poem with Loch Etive and the sons of
Uisnach. The appearance of Fergus on the scene gave a new motive to
the battle; had it not been for him, and his desire to revenge the
murders, the raid would have probably been a commonplace affair. As
it was, it not only gave him exercise for his arms, but must have
taken the leisure of the rest of his life, by causing him to write
the history. And so we shall suppose it.
The beginning of the
fight was on the side of Meave, who had been married to Conor, but
had quarrelled and left him ; when her father and brothers were
killed, she was made Queen of Connaught and married Aillil. She
seems to have been happy, but nevertheless disputed with her
husband, a son of the King of Leinster, about their property. Female
rights were far advanced in Ireland. Heave and her husband compared
their property, and brought out all their wooden vessels and metal
vessels, which were equal. Then they brought out their finger rings,
clasps, bracelets, thumb rings, diadems, and gorgets of gold, and
they were equal. Then they brought their garments of crimson, blue,
black, and green, yellow and mottled, and white and streaked, and
they were equal. Then they brought their horses and cattle from
woods and glens and remote solitudes, and all were equal, except one
bull, which was better in Aillil's flock. Now it really was Meave's
property, but the bull himself had gone to Aillil, as he did not
think it honourable to be under the control of a woman. Meave heard
of a better, and sent to say she would like to have it for a time,
but the messenger carried threats instead of friendly speeches, and
a struggle ultimately ensued between the south and north, Fergus and
his followers taking the lead against their own countrymen. With a
rush Meave entered Ulster, the country at that time being feeble and
spellbound. Meave came with all her princes and chiefs, her husband
Aillil, and her daughter Finnavair, the fair-browed, and met the
forces of the Ulster men, who were prevented from meeting their
opponents for a long time by a state of enchantment into which they
had been thrown. We shall not inquire into this. It is probably a
mode of accounting for a want of readiness in the people of Ulster.
It is most pleasant to read in O'Curry's lectures and Dr. Sullivan's
continuation, the description of all the nobles as they are
collected on both sides, and there is a richness and fulness which
to me surpasses anything of the kind which I have seen. "The march
and array of these troops, including Cuchullin, the distinguishing
description of their horses and chariots, arms, ornaments, and
vesture—even their size and complexion and the colour of their
hair—are described with great vividness and power."1 Fergus mac
Roigh knows all the chiefs and tells the names to Meave and Aillil,
but the messenger Mac Roth describes them. Here is a specimen of Mac
Roth's careful details.
"Then came another
company. No champion could be more beautiful than he who leads them.
His hair is of a deep red yellow, and bushy; his forehead broad, and
his face tapering; he has sparkling, blue, laughing eyes; a man
regularly formed, tall and tapering; thin red lips; pearly, shining
teeth; a white, smooth body. A red and white cloak flutters about
him; a golden brooch in that cloak at his breast; a shirt of white,
kingly linen, with gold embroidery at his skin; a white shield, with
gold fastenings at his shoulders; a gold-hilted, long sword at his
left side; a long, sharp, dark green spear, together with a short,
sharp spear, with a rich band and carved silver rivets in his hand.
`Who is he, O Fergus?' said Aillil. `The man who has come there is
in himself half a battle, the valour of combat, the fury of the
slaughter hound. He is Reochaid mac Fatheman from Rachlinn."'
It would be long to
tell you of all the glorious men and women, and beautiful garments
and armour; it would even be long to tell you of the combats of
CuchuIlin, who offered to fight any one of the opponents, and who
was supplied with knights on whom he might show his prowess, Queen
Meave persuading one after another to attack this formidable chief
It would be too long
to tell you of Cuchullin, who put on him twenty-seven shirts, cased
and smooth, and braced up with strings and pins, "so that his fury
may not exceed his reason." Nor can I tell you enough of his
charioteer who had "a raven black cloak which Simon Magus had made
for the King of the Romans, who gave it to Conor mac Nessa, King of
Ulster." You must read it for yourselves.
have never given us a battle after all, although I quite expected
one when they were fighting for the bull.
O'Keefe.—I might tell
you of one, but it is very long; it is the single combat between
Ferdiaidh and Cuchullin. They were taught together as boys, and,
without any cause for enmity, they were made to fight in the great
cattle conflict in single combat. They began with knightly formality
and courtliness, chose weapons, which, on the first day, were
missiles, darts, and spears, and ivory-hilted small swords, but
neither could do fatal injury to the other, and they stopped. "Each
of them went towards the other and threw his arms around his neck
and embraced him three times." Then there came professors of healing
to cure them. "Every herb and every salve that was applied to the
sores, cuts, and many wounds of Cuchullin, he sent share of the same
over to Ferdiaidh, in order that the men of Erin should not have to
say, if Ferdiaidh fell by him, it was in consequence of an
inequality in the healing."
"Next day they began
the fight again, and now with heavy thrusting spears. Each began to
pierce, to perforate, and to lacerate the other, from the dawn of
each morning to the close of the evening. If it had been the custom
of flying birds to pass through human bodies, they might have passed
through their bodies on that day, and carried off lumps of gore and
flesh from their cuts and wounds into the surrounding clouds and
Next day they had
swords, and cut off flesh as large as the head of an infant a month
Then came a fierce,
bloody, and cruel struggle, when all courtliness was gone, and real
rage and brutality entered—a good image of war. Ferdiaidh was
killed. The spot at which the battle took place was called Ath
Ferdiaidh, the Ford of Ferdiaidh, which is now contracted into Ardee.
It is in Louth.
If you want to know
much more about the Tain, I fear you must learn Gaelic. O'Curry
thinks there is some foundation also for the talc which I have
called a satire, and many a wild story has a good foundation. He
thinks the poem may have been lost or carried away, and after a long
time recovered. This may he. We do not know the original words, and
we can readily imagine a good story swelling in the course of
centuries; poetry and prose mingled as in this case.
The famous bull
frightened all Connaught, and attacked his chief opponent there,
carried him on his horns, dashed him to pieces, and, left bits here
and there, and returned home to Ulster quite mad. The people of the
town ran away, and he attacked a rock, which lie took for an enemy,
and dashed himself to pieces.
is something thorough ; and now may we hear about Seanchan. Was he a
I suppose he was—about the time of Columba—long after the Cooley
battle of course, because that took place about A.D. 30 or 40 it is
had the Irish people all those beautiful ornaments and dresses so
gold ornaments they had very early, and the Danes robbed the tombs
of them when they came in the ninth century. What other proofs of
wealth they had who can tell, at the time when Tacitus said that
merchants knew Ireland better than Britain. My own inclination is to
believe that in Ireland there were, in very early times, one or more
tribes or aristocracies of a very advanced character, far beyond the
nation generally. If we hold that we get over several difficulties.
that would not show that the tale was written so soon as is
supposed, since Simon Magus could not have been in Ireland, and he
is mentioned in Dr. Sullivan's book.
are right there. No one ever does suppose, so far as I know, that
the tale is as it was at first. But I say that we do not know when
was made the first of the rich gold ornaments found in Ireland, and
on some points we are driven very far back, how far is a question
gradually clearing itself, but still too slowly; too few people
study it, and too many people speak with confidence.
little interruption with battles is pleasant enough, but before we
go far I want to hear the end of the bardish story. I want to hear
about Seanchan. He was humbled very deeply, and the whole
association suffered with him. Was he ever restored to his position
he was. There are various ways of telling the story of the
restoration of the Tain. At the intercession of the saints of Erin,
Fergus Mac Roy rose from his grave and repeated the Tain, which
Kiaran wrote down, whilst Seanchan sang it with his first full
recovery of powers after his somewhat magical loss, which was the
consequence of the spell put upon him by Mat-van, and which
prevented him or the association from making any poems, so that
these proud men became common, inert and ridiculous. The moment of
recovery is painted in a most spirited poem by Sir Samuel Ferguson,
who supposes the bard to have been inspired with the Tain-quest
before King Guary and a great company at a feast. He says in the
"Lays of the Western Gael"
"Set the harp; no
prelude wanted, Sanchan struck the master key,
And as bursts the brimful river all at once from caves of song,
Forth at once and once for ever leapt the torrent of the song.
splendid vision, Sanchan rolled the mystic scene
They that mocked in rude derision now at gaze with wondering mien,
Sate, and as the glorying master swayed the tightening reins of
Felt emotion's pulses fasten—fancies faster bound along."
excitement, Fergus, the long-buried king, appeared, whilst Seanchan,
after his repentance and punishment, stands out with double honour.
is the poem so grand?
men can read it in the original, and it is not all translated; it is
in the Leabhar na h-uidhri. It contains many things that are
extremely interesting, but like most of the Irish literature it is
too much confined to description of individuals, and the feelings
when described are more remarkable by exaggeration than insight. It
fails to rise up to the universal or to the plane of general human
interest. There is gold and silver, but there is not the refined
sculpture of Isomer. There is neither the parental nor conjugal love
shown by both Hector and Andromache, nor is there the delicate and
simple but princely Nausicaa. The outer life is too much for the
development of the inner. At least I gather so much, but I do not
pretend to have read it.
it contain ancient, really ancient thought?
certainly inclined to say of this tale as of the others of which we
have spoken that there is very little of the thought which is
essentially after Christianity in its character. The groundwork and
most of the superstructure is purely heathen, and it would seem to
me that the current of heathen thought and feeling ran with little
mixture into the ocean of life which Christianity had covered with
its saints and martyrs. Let those who make this a life study learn
to say more. We desire more students of Irish Gaelic, and more
publications of the originals and translations.