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Loch Etive and The Sons of Uisnach
Chapter XVII - Tain Bo Cuailgne

Much I loved the jocund chase,
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.


Margaet.—And 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?

O'Keefe.—We 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 of Dundalk.

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.

Willie.—You 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 air."

Next day they had swords, and cut off flesh as large as the head of an infant a month old.

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.

Sheena.—That is something thorough ; and now may we hear about Seanchan. Was he a real man?

O'Keefe.—Yes; 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 said.

Margaet.—And had the Irish people all those beautiful ornaments and dresses so early?

O'Keefe.—Fine 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.

Loudoun.—But 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.

O'Keefe.—You 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.

Margaet.—This 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 as poet?

O'Keefe.—Yes, 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.

Vision chasing 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 song,
Felt emotion's pulses fasten—fancies faster bound along."

During the excitement, Fergus, the long-buried king, appeared, whilst Seanchan, after his repentance and punishment, stands out with double honour.

Margaet.—And is the poem so grand?

O'Keefe.—Few 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.

Margaet.—Does it contain ancient, really ancient thought?

O'Keefe.—I am 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.

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