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Loch Etive and The Sons of Uisnach
Chapter IX - Conor MacNessa


"The bards shall forget them in their song, and their name shall not be known. The stranger shall come and build there, and remove the heaped-up earth. A half-worn sword shall rise before him; bending over it, he will say, These are the arms of the chiefs of old, but their names are not in song."

Loudoun.—It seems to me that you are trifling, and talking of fabricated histories and impossible ages. Is there not a story of Conor MacNessa having a ball in his brain for some years, and when he observed the darkness on the day of the crucifixion, and was told by his Druid that the "innocent One" was suffering, he became excited, and cut down trees in his rage; and so violently was he agitated that the ball sprang out of his skull, and his own brains with it, so that he died; and is not this enough to set aside all your histories, legends, and allusions as out of the region of fact?

O'Keefe.—It is quite true that this wonderful story occurs and I may tell you what this ball was, and how it got into MacNessa's skull.

Connall Cearnach was a great champion, and he killed Mesgcdhra, king of Leinster, and, according to the custom of the time, mixed his brain up with lime and made it into a ball. This ball was kept in the king's house in Ulster on a shelf, and two court fools got it out to play with one day, when Cet Mac Magach, who was an enemy of the house, and was prowling about in disguise, got hold of it, and kept it beside him, remembering a saying that Mesgedhra would still revenge himself on the Ulster men. Cet kept the ball for an opportunity, which he made by seizing cattle from the Ulster men, and causing Conor himself to pursue them; when they met, the fighting was conducted with more formality than we should expect. It is rather strange to find ladies at such an engagement, but they were invited, and they had the privilege of asking the champions to show themselves. Conor came forward, and when he saw Cet, who had been hiding, he was inclined to return, but the ball was sent out of a sling and stuck in his brain, causing him an illness, which, however, soon passed away.

Margaet.—What a ridiculous and coarse habit that was of making up men's brains with lime!

O'Keefe.—It was certainly barbarous, but it is not so long since we cut men's heads off. We have in museums some specimens which are thought to be the lime compounds of brains. Those I have seen are white and very small, so that the organic matter must have gone, and a small part of the brain could alone have been used. The brain story may be wrong; the knowledge of the crucifixion, which MacNessa displayed, must be fabricated. Wonderful stories grow around remarkable men.

Loudoun.-Interesting certainly, but not quite answering my question. Does the story not show so much absurdity that we may put it aside altogether, and all its connections, and is the time given—namely, the early part of the first century—not beyond the reach of Irish tradition?

O'Keefe.—You shall not drag me into the whole question of Irish chronology; but I may say that O'Curry gives the dates, and says that Deirdre's story can be traced as having existed as far back as the year 600, and even Campbell of Islay calls it 800 years old, and Skene gives the date of the Edinburgh MS. as 1238. These are long numbers, and when you get back to 600 it is as easy to go on to St. Patrick; and, when at St. Patrick, will any one deny that it is possible to step a few—say, three or four hundred years further, Mr. Loudoun? We know well that traditions may be preserved a few hundred years, and names of places for thousands of years. The identification of names of places spoken of in Scripture has succeeded so often now that we may say that Palestine has remained for thousands of years with the same nomenclature, although there may be some changes of sound according to our ideas of the pronunciation. In Gaelic the meaning of the names of places is often so clear that we know that they must refer to events which are old. Does the fact of the naming of the crucifixion not point merely to an addition made after the time of St. Patrick?

It may be that an error has been made by a too early date, although the actual proof of total chronological error in old Irish writings has not been made clear.

Loudoun.—But is it not true that the genealogies of Ireland go back to Pharaoh, and even to Adam, and does not that make them all void?

O'Keefe.—It is a pity that we in Ireland are apt, like the Americans, to exaggerate; but this does not contradict the fact that our genealogy may be as old as Adam; and the world is far too old for your Iittle limits.

Loudoun.—Granted; I will allow any age you like to name, but I do not want to be misled by the Celtic exuberance of fancy.

O'Keefe.—Don't be afraid. In the time of Tacitus, Ireland was better known to merchants than England; at least he says so; and if it was not very highly civilized, it was advanced enough to induce people to go there. In the time of Ptolemy, that is the second century, there were cities in Ireland. Aileach is named by him, perhaps in Macolicum.

In Scotland you have hundreds of castles, the origin of which has scarcely been mentioned in history, but people have called them Picts' towers, tradition being correct here, as this is being proved.' Before them there was another kind of castle, much more formidable, and in many instances larger, but not, so far as we know, so numerous. These were the vitrified forts, about which we conversed some days ago. Tradition fails nearly at the time when these ceased to be occupied. The Uisnach family have their names connected with one great fort of this kind, and a smaller in Loch Ness, also with non-vitrified places, such as the island and farm in Loch Etive. Indeed, nearly all the vitrified forts, if not all except these two, are unconnected, not only with history, but even with tradition, leaving out the part of tradition which cannot be separated from the purely romantic. Giants, fairies, &c., may be connected with tradition, but we shall not enter into their company in this inquiry.

We know well enough that people lived before our miserable histories, and we see their works. They had some large ideas, as shown both in their remains of buildings and their geographical and descriptive names, as well as general language; and when these names are consistently assigned to places, we have no reason to deny the connection of the people indicated.

Loudoun.—But are the names consistently put in this case?

O'Keefe.—I know of no contradiction. I know of no other region in which the names are found in the same relation. The tale agrees with the Irish traditions, and, as said, is natural, and one that would remain long with a people because of its very impressive character.

Loudoun.—But are there not many ways of telling the story?

O'Keefe.—That of course. Every fine story is told in many ways. Look at our war correspondents; not two can agree on the same event, although all are there on the same day.

Now, I may tell you finally I am not sure of the chronology ; but the events must have been in the early centuries, and when we get beyond the brochs we cannot be precise. It is consistent to put it before the Dalriad invasion, before the time of Columba, and even St. Patrick. It is a story of heathen times. There is no trace of clerics, and the architecture before us is itself heathen.

Sheena.—I must not let you quite off there. Have you not read Queen Hynde by James Hogg. Here we have the fine young Christian Queen, a descendant of many famous kings of Beregonium, marrying an Irish prince.

Cameron.-I am told that Hogg came and obtained the traditions at the spot.

O'Keefe.—It may be; but they introduce such confusion that I would not even think of them.


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