Irish Myths – The Courting of Emer
When Cuchulain was growing out of his boyhood at Emain Macha, all the women of Ulster loved him for his skill in feats, for the lightness of his leap, for the weight of his wisdom, for the sweetness of his speech, for the beauty of his face, for the loveliness of his looks, for all his gifts.
He had the gift of caution in fighting, until such time as his anger would come on him, and the hero light would shine about his head; the gift of feats, the gift of chess-playing, the gift of draught-playing, the gift of counting, the gift of divining, the gift of right judgment, the gift of beauty.
And all the faults they could find in him were three, that he was too young and smooth-faced, so that young men who did not know him would be laughing at him, that he was too daring, and that he was too beautiful.
The men of Ulster took counsel together then about Cuchulain, for their women and their maidens loved him greatly, and it is what they settled among themselves, that they would seek out a young girl that would be a fitting wife for him, the way that their own wives and their daughters would not be making so much of him. And besides that they were afraid he might die young, and leave no heir after him.
So Conchubar sent out nine men into each of the provinces of Ireland to look for a wife for Cuchulain, to see if in any dun or in any chief place, they could find the daughter of a king or of an owner of land or a house-holder, who would be pleasing to him, that he might ask her in marriage.
All the messengers came back at the end of a year, but not one of them had found a young girl that would please Cuchulain. And then he himself went out to court a young girl he knew in Luglochta Loga, the Garden of Lugh, Emer, the daughter of Forgall Manach the Wily.
He set out in his chariot, that all the chariots of Ulster could not follow by reason of its swiftness, and of the chariot chief who sat in it. And he found the young girl on her playing field, with her companions about her, daughters of the landowners that lived near Forgall’s dun, and they learning needlework and fine embroidery from Emer.
And of all the young girls of Ireland, she was the one Cuchulain thought worth courting; for she had the six gifts — the gift of beauty, the gift of voice, the gift of sweet speech, the gift of needlework, the gift of wisdom, the gift of chastity.
And Cuchulain had said that no woman should marry him but one that was his equal in age, in appearance, and in race, in skill and handiness; and one who was the best worker with her needle of the young girls of Ireland, for that would be the only one would be a fitting wife for him. And that is why it was Emer he went to ask above all others.
And it was in his rich clothes he went out that day, his crimson five-folded tunic, and his brooch of inlaid gold, and his white hooded shirt, that was embroidered with red gold.
And as the young girls were sitting together on their bench on the lawn, they heard coming towards them the clatter of hoofs, the creaking of a chariot, the cracking of straps, the grating of wheels, the rushing of horses, the clanking of arms.
“Let one of you see,” said Emer, “what is it that is coming towards us.” And Fiall, daughter of Forgall, went out and met him, and he came with her to the place where Emer and her companions were, and he wished a blessing to them.
Then Emer lifted up her lovely face and saw Cuchulain, and she said, “May the gods make smooth the path before you.” “And you,” he said, “may you be safe from every harm.”
“Where are you come from?” she asked him. And he answered her in riddles, that her companions might not understand him, and he said, “From Intide Emna.”
“Where did you sleep?”
“We slept,” he said, “in the house of the man that tends the cattle of the plain of Tethra.”
“What was your food there?”
“The ruin of a chariot was cooked for us,” he said.
“Which way did you come?”
“Between the two mountains of the wood.”
“Which way did you take after that?”
“That is not hard to tell,” he said. “From the Cover of the Sea, over the Great Secret of the Tuatha de Danaan, and the Foam of the horses of Emain, over the Morrigu’s Garden, and the Great Sow’s back; over the Valley of the Great Dam, between the God and his Druid; over the Marrow of the Woman, between the Boar and his Dam;
over the Washing-place of the horses of Dea; between the King of Ana and his servant, to Mandchuile of the Four Corners of the World; over Great Crime and the Remnants of the Great Feast; between the Vat and the Little Vat, to the Gardens of Lugh, to the daughters of Tethra, the nephew of the King of the Fomor.”
“And what account have you to give of yourself?” said Emer. “I am the nephew of the man that disappears in another in the wood of Badb,” said Cuchulain.
“And now, maiden,” he said, “what account have you to give of yourself?”
“That is not hard to tell,” said Emer, “for what should a maiden be but Teamhair upon the hills, a watcher that sees no-one, an eel hiding in the water, a rush out of reach.
The daughter of a king should be a flame of hospitality, a road that cannot be entered. And I have champions that follow me,” she said, “to keep me from whoever would bring me away against their will, and against the will and the knowledge of Forgall, the dark king.”
“Who are the champions that follow you, maiden?” said Cuchulain.
“It is not hard to tell you that,” said Emer. “Two of the name of Lui; two Luaths; Luath and Lath Goible, sons of Tethra; Triath and Trescath; Brion and Bolor; Bas, son of Omnach, the eighth Condla, and Cond, son of Forgall.
Every man of them has the strength of a hundred and the feats of nine. And it would be hard for me,” she said, “to tell of all the many powers Forgall has himself. He is stronger than any labouring man, more learned than any Druid, more quick of mind than any poet. You will have more than your games to do when you fight against Forgall, for many have mind of his power and of the strength of his doings.”
“Why do you not count me as a strong man as good as those others?” said Cuchulain. “Why would I not indeed, if your doings had been spoken of like theirs?” she said. “I swear by the oath of my people,” said Cuchulain, “I will make my doings be spoken of among the great doings of heroes in their strength.”
“What is your strength, then?” said Emer. “That is easily told; when my strength in fighting is weakest I defend twenty; a third part of my strength is enough for thirty; in my full strength I fight alone against forty; and a hundred are safe under my protection. For dread of me, fighting men avoid fords and battles; armies and armed men go backward from the fear of my face.”
“That is a good account for a young boy,” said Emer, “but you have not reached yet to the strength of chariot chiefs.”
“But, indeed,” said Cuchulain, “it is well I have been reared by Conchubar, my dear foster-father. It is not as a countryman strives to bring up his children, between the flags and the kneading trough, between the fire and the wall, on the floor of the one room, that Conchubar has brought me up;
but it is among chariot chiefs and heroes, among jesters and Druids, among poets and learned men, among landowners and farmers of Ulster I have been reared, so that I have all their manners and their gifts.”
“Who are these men, then, that have brought you up to do the things you are boasting of?” said Emer.
“That is easily told,” he said. “Fair-speaking Sencha taught me wisdom and right judgment; Blai, lord of lands, my kinsman, took me to his house, so that I have entertained the men of Conchubar’s province;
Fergus brought me up to fights and to battles, so that I am able to use my strength. I stood by the knee of Amergin the poet, he was my tutor, so that I can stand up to any man, I can make praises for the doings of a king.
Finchoem helped to rear me, so that Conall Cearnach is my foster-brother. Cathbad of the Gentle Face taught me, for the sake of Dechtire, so that I understand the arts of the Druids, and I have learned all the goodness of knowledge.
All the men of Ulster have had a hand in bringing me up, chariot-drivers and chiefs of chariots, kings and chief poets, so that I am the darling of the whole army, so that I fight for the honour of all alike. And as to yourself, Emer,” he said, “what way have you been reared in the Garden of Lugh?”
“It is easy to tell you that,” said Emer. “I was brought up,” she said, “in ancient virtues, in lawful behaviour, in the keeping of chastity, in stateliness of form, in the rank of a queen, in all noble ways among the women of Ireland.”
“These are good virtues indeed,” said Cuchulain. “And why, then, would it not be right for us two to become one? For up to this time,” he said, “I have never found a young girl able to hold talk with me the way you have done.”
“Have you no wife already?” said Emer. “I have not, indeed.”
“I may not marry before my sister is married,” she said then, “for she is older than myself.”
“Truly, it is not with your sister, but with yourself, I have fallen in love,” said Cuchulain.
While they were talking like this, Cuchulain saw the breasts of the maiden over the bosom of her dress, and he said: “Fair is this plain, the plain of the noble yoke.” And Emer said, “No one comes to this plain who does not overcome as many as a hundred on each ford, from the ford at Ailbine to Banchuig Arcait.”
“Fair is the plain, the plain of the noble yoke,” said Cuchulain. “No one comes to this plain,” said she, “who does not go out in safety from Samhain to Oimell, and from Oimell to Beltaine, and again from Beltaine to Bron Trogain.”
“Everything you have commanded, so it will be done by me,” said Cuchulain.
“And the offer you have made me, it is accepted, it is taken, it is granted,” said Emer.
With that Cuchulain left the place, and they talked no more with one another on that day.
When he was driving across the plain of Bregia, Laeg, his chariot-driver, asked him, “What, now, was the meaning of the words you and the maiden Emer were speaking together?”
“Do you not know,” said Cuchulain, “that I came to court Emer? And it is for this reason we put a cloak on our words, that the young girls with her might not understand what I had come for. For if Forgall knew it, he would not consent to it, but to you, Laeg,” he said, “I will tell the meaning of our talk.
“‘Where did you come from,’ said she. ‘From Intide Emna,’ said I, and I meant by that, from Emain Macha. For it took its name from Macha, daughter of Aed the Red, one of the three kings of Ireland.
When he died Macha asked for the kingship, but the sons of Dithorba said they would not give kingship to a woman. So she fought against them and routed them, and they went as exiles to the wild places of Connaught.
And after a while she went in search of them, and she took them by treachery, and brought them all in one chain to Ulster. The men of Ulster wanted to kill them, but she said, ‘No, for that would be a disgrace on my good government But let them be my servants,’ she said, ‘and let them dig a rath for me, that shall be the chief seat of Ulster for ever.’
Then she marked out the rath for them with the gold pin on her neck, and its name came from that; a brooch in the neck of Macha.
“The man, in whose house we slept, is Ronca, the fisherman of Conchubar. ‘A man that tends cattle,’ I said. For he catches fish on his line under the sea, and the fish are the cattle of the sea, and the sea is the plain of Tethra, a king of the kings of the Fomor.
” ‘Our food was the ruin of a chariot,’ I said. For a foal was cooked for us on the hearth, and it is the horse that holds up the chariot.
” ‘Between the two mountains of the wood,’ I said. These are the two mountains between which we came, Slieve Fuad to the west, and Slieve Cuilinn to the east of us, and we were in Oircil between them, the wood that is between the two.
” ‘The road,’ I said, ‘from the Cover of the Sea.’ That is from the plain of Muirthemne. And it is from this it got its name; there was at one time a magic sea on it, with a sea turtle in it that was used to suck men down, until the Dagda came with his club of anger and sang these words, so that it ebbed away on the moment: —
‘Silence on your hollow head;
‘Silence on your dark body;
‘Silence on your dark brow.’
” ‘Over the Great Secret of the men of Dea,’ I said. That is a wonderful secret and a wonderful whisper, because it was there that the gathering to the battle of Magh Tuireadh was first whispered of by the Tuatha de Danaan.
“Over the horses of Emain,’ I said. When Ema Nemed, son of Nama, reigned over the Gael, he had his two horses reared for him in Sidhe Ercman of the Tuatha De Danaan, and when those horses were let loose from the Sidhe, a bright stream burst out after them, and the foam spread over the land for a great length of time, and was there to the end of a year, so that the water was called Uanib, that is, foam on the water, and it is Uanib to-day.
” ‘The Back of the Great Sow,’ I said. That is Drimne Breg, the Ridge of Bregin. For the shape of a sow appeared to the sons of Miled on every hill and on every height in Ireland, when they came over the sea, and wanted to land by force, after a spell had been cast on it by the Tuatha de Danaan.
” ‘The Valley of the Great Dam,’ I said, ‘between the God and his Druid.’ That is, between Angus Og of the Sidhe of the Brugh and his Druid, to the west of the Brugh, and between them was the one woman, the wife of the Smith. That is the way I went, between the hill of the Sidhe of the Brugh where Angus is, and the Sidhe of Bresal, the Druid.
” ‘Over the Marrow of the Woman,’ I said. That is the Boinne, and it gets its name from Boann, the wife of Nechtan, son of Labraid. She went down to the hidden well at the bottom of the dun with the three cup-bearers of Nechtan, Flex and Lex and Luam.
No one came back from that well without blemish unless the three cup-bearers went with him. But the queen went out of pride and overbearing to the well, and it is what she said, that nothing would spoil her shape or put a blemish on her.
She passed lefthandwise round the well, to mock at its powers. Then three waves broke over her and bruised her two knees and her right hand and one of her eyes, and she ran out of the dun to escape until she came to the sea, and wherever she ran, the water followed after her.
Segain was its name on the dun; the River Segsa from the dun to the Pool of Mochua; the hand of the wife of Nechtan and the knee of the wife of Nechtan after that; the Boinne in Meath; Arcait it is called from the Finda to the Troma; the Marrow of the Woman from the Troma to the sea.
” ‘The Boar,’ I said, ‘and his Dam.’ That is, between Cleitech and Fessi. For Cleitech is the name for a boar, but it is also the name for a king, the leader of great hosts, and Fessi is the name for the great sow of a farmer’s house.
” ‘The King of Ana,’ I said, ‘and his servant.’ That is Cerna, through which we passed, and that is its name since Enna Aignech put Cerna, king of Ana, to death on that hill, and he put his steward to death in the east of that place.
” ‘The Washing of the Horses of Dea,’ I said. That is Ange, for in it the men of Dea washed their horses when they came from the battle of Magh Tuireadh. And it was called Ange, because the Tuatha de Danaan washed their horses in it.
” ‘The Four-cornered Mandchuile,’ I said. That is Muincille. It is there Mann, the farmer, was, and there he made spells in his great four-cornered chambers underground, to keep off the plague from the cattle of Ireland in the time of Bresel Brec, king of Leinster.
” ‘Great Crime,’ I said. That is Ailbine. There was a king here in Ireland, Ruad, son of Rigdond of Munster. He had an appointment of meeting with foreigners, and he set out for the meeting round the south of Alban with three ships, and thirty men were in each ship.
But the ships were stopped, and were held from below in the middle of the sea, and throwing jewels and precious things into the sea did not get them off.
Then lots were cast among them who should go into the sea and find out what was holding them. The lot fell on the king himself, Ruad, son of Rigdond, and he leaped into the sea, and it closed over him. He lit upon a large plain, where nine beautiful women met him, and they confessed that it was they themselves had stopped the ships, the way that he might come to them.
And he stopped with them nine days, and they gave him nine vessels of gold; and through the length of that time his men were not able to go on, through the power of the women. When he was going away, a woman of them said she would bear him a son, and that he must come back to them and bring away his son, when he would be coming from the east.
“Then he joined his men, and they went on their voyage, and they stopped away seven years, and then they came back by a different way, and they did not go near the same spot.
They landed in the bay, and the sea-women came up to them there, and the men heard them playing music in their brazen ship. And then the women came to the shore, and they put the boy out of the ship on the land where the men were.
And the harbour was stony and rocky, and the boy slipped and fell on one of the rocks, so that he died there. And the women saw it, and they cried all together, ‘Olbine, Olbine,’ that is ‘Great Crime.’ And it is from that it is called Ailbine.
” ‘The Remnants of the Great Feast,’ I said. That is Tailne. It was there the great feast was given to Lugh, son of Ethlenn, to comfort him after the battle of Magh Tuireadh, for that was his wedding feast of kingship.
” ‘In the Garden of Lugh, to the daughters of Tethra’s nephew,’ I said; for Forgall Manach is sister’s son of Tethra, king of the Fomor.
“As to the account of myself I gave her, there are two rivers in the land of Ross; Conchubar is the name of one of them, and it mixes with the other; and I am the nephew of Conchubar; and as to the plague that comes on dogs, it is wild fierceness, and truly I am a strong fighter of that plague, for I am wild and fierce in battles and in fights. And the Wood of Badb, that is the land of Ross, the Wood of the Morrigu, the Battle Crow, the Goddess of Battle.
“And when she said that no man should come to the plain of her breasts until he had killed three times nine men with one blow, and yet had saved one man from each nine, it is what she meant, that three brothers of her own will be guarding her, Ibur and Seibur and Catt, and a company of nine with each of them.
And it is what I must do, I must strike a blow on each nine, from which eight will die, but no stroke will reach any of her brothers among them; and I must carry her and her foster-sister, with their share of gold and silver, out of the dun of Forgall.
” ‘Go out from Samhain to Oimell,’ she said. That is, that I shall fight without harm to myself from Samhain, the end of summer, to Oimell, the beginning of spring; and from the beginning of spring to Beltaine, and from that to Bron Trogain.
For Oi, in the language of poetry, is a name for sheep, and Oimell is the time when the sheep come out and are milked, and Suain is a gentle sound, and it is at Samhain that gentle voices sound; and Beltaine is a favouring fire; for it is at that time the Druids used to make fires with spells and to drive the cattle between them against the plagues every year.
And Bron Trogain, that is the beginning of autumn, for it is then the earth is in labour, that is, the earth under fruit, Bron Trogain, the trouble of the earth.”
Then Cuchulain went on his way, and he slept that night in Emain Macha.
When Forgall came back to his dun, and his lords of land with him, their daughters were telling them of the young man that had come in a splendid chariot, and how himself and Emer had been talking together, and they could not understand their talk with one another.
The lords of land told this to Forgall, and it is what he said, “You may be sure it is the mad boy from Emain Macha has been here, and he and the girl have fallen in love with one another. But they will gain nothing by that,” he said; “for it is I will hinder them.”
With that Forgall went out to Emain, with the appearance of a foreigner on him, and he gave out that he was sent by the king of the Gall, to speak with Conchubar, and to bring him a present of golden treasures, and wine of the Gall, and many other things. And he brought some of his men with him, and there was a great welcome before them.
And on the third day, Cuchulain and Conall and other chariot chiefs of Ulster were praised before him, and he said it was right for them to be praised, and that they did wonderful feats, and Cuchulain above them all. But he said that if Cuchulain would go to Scathach, the woman-warrior that lived in the east of Alban, his skill would be more wonderful still, for he could not have perfect knowledge of the feats of a warrior without that.
But his reason for saying this was that he thought if Cuchulain set out, he would never come back again, through the dangers he would put around him on the journey, and through the wildness and the fierceness of the people about Scathach.
So then Forgall went home, and Cuchulain rose up in the morning, and made ready to set out for Alban, and Laegaire Buadach, the Battle Winner, and Conall Cearnach said they would go with him. But first Cuchulain went across the plain of Bregia to visit Emer, and to talk with her before going in the ship.
And she told him how it was Forgall had gone to Emain, and had advised him to go and learn warriors’ feats, the way they two might not meet again. Then each of them promised to be true to the other till they would meet again, unless death should come between them, and they said farewell to one another, and Cuchulain turned towards Alban.
When they came there, they stopped for a while at the forge of Donall, the smith, and then they set out to go to the east of Alban. But before they had gone far, a vision came before their eyes of Emain Macha, and Laegaire and Conall were not able to pass by it, and they turned back.
It was Forgall raised that vision, to draw them away from Cuchulain, that he might be in the more danger, being alone. Then Cuchulain went on by himself on a strange road, and he was sad and tired and down-hearted for the loss of his comrades, but he held to his word that he would not go back to Emain without finding Scathach, even if he should die in the attempt.
But now he was astray and ignorant, and not knowing which way to take, and he saw a terrible great beast like a lion coming towards him, and it watching him, but it did not try to harm him. Whatever way he went, the beast went before him, and then it stopped and turned its side to him.
So he made a leap and was on its back, and he did not guide it, but went whatever way it chose. They travelled like that through four days, till they came to the end of the bounds of men, and to an island where lads were rowing in a small loch; and the lads began to laugh when they saw a beast of that sort, and a man riding it. And then Cuchulain leaped off, and the beast left him, and he bade it farewell.
He passed on till he came to a large house in a deep valley, and a comely young girl in it, and she spoke to him, and bade him welcome. “A welcome before you, Cuchulain,” she said. He asked her how did she know him, and she said, “I was a foster-child of Wulfkin, the Saxon, the time you came there to learn sweet speech from him.”
And she gave him meat and drink, and he went away from her. Then he met with a young man, and he gave him the same welcome, and he said his name was Eochu, and they talked together, and Cuchulain asked him what was the way to Scathach’s dun.
The young man told him the way, across the Plain of Ill-Luck, that lay before him, and he said that on the near side of the plain the feet of men would stick fast, and on the far side every blade of grass would rise and hold them fast on its points.
And he gave him a wheel, and bade him to follow its track across the one half of the plain. And he gave him an apple along with that, and bade him to throw it, and to follow the way it went, till he would reach the end of the plain. And he told him many other things that would happen him, and how he would win a great name at the last.
And then each of them wished a blessing to the other, and Cuchulain did as he bade him, and so he got across the plain and went on his journey. And then, as the young man had told him, he came to a valley, and it full of monsters, sent there by Forgall to destroy him, and only one narrow path through it, but he went through it safely.
And after that his road led through a terrible, wild mountain. Then he came to the place where Scathach’s scholars were, and among them he saw Ferdiad, son of Daman, and Naoise, Ainnle, and Ardan, the three Sons of Usnach, and when they knew that he was from Ireland they welcomed him with kisses, and asked for news of their own country.
He asked them where was Scathach. “In that island beyond,” they said. “What way must I take to reach her?” he asked. “By the bridge of the cliff,” they said, “and no man can cross it till he has proved himself a champion, and many a king’s son has got his death there.”
And this is the way the bridge was: the two ends of it were low, and the middle was high, and whenever any one would leap on it, the first time it would narrow till it was as narrow as the hair of a man’s head, and the second time it would shorten till it was as short as an inch, and the third time it would get slippery till it was as slippery as an eel of the river, and the fourth time it would rise up on high against you till it was as tall as the mast of a ship.
All the warriors and people on the lawn came down to see Cuchulain making his attempt to cross the bridge, and he tried three times to do it, and he could not, and the others were laughing at him, that he should think he could cross it, and he so young.
Then his anger came on him, and the hero light shone round his head, and it was not the appearance of a man that was on him, but the appearance of a god; and he leaped upon the end of the bridge and made the hero’s salmon leap, so that he landed on the middle of it, and he reached the other end of the bridge before it could raise itself fully up, and threw himself from it, and was on the ground of the island where Scathach’s sunny house was, and it having seven great doors, and seven great windows between every two doors, and three times fifty couches between every two windows, and three times fifty young girls, with scarlet cloaks and beautiful blue clothing on them, waiting on Scathach.
And Scathach’s daughter, Uathach, was sitting by a window, and when she saw the young man, and he a stranger, and comeliest of the men of Ireland, making his attempt to cross the bridge, she loved him, and her face and her colour began to change continually, so that now she would be as white as a little flower, and then again she would grow crimson red.
And in her needlework that she was doing, she would put the gold thread where the silver thread should be, and the silver thread in the place where the gold thread should be.
And when Scathach saw that, she said: “I think this young man has pleased you.” And Uathach said: “There would be great grief on me indeed, were he not to return alive to his own people, in whatever part of the world they may be, for I know there is surely some one to whom it would be great anguish to know the way he is now.”
Then, when Cuchulain had crossed the bridge, he went up to the house, and struck the door with the shaft of his spear, so that it went through it. And when Scathach was told that, she said, “Truly this must be some one who has finished his training in some other place.”
Then Uathach opened the door for him, and he asked for Scathach, and Uathach told him where she was, and what he had best do when he found her.
So he went out to the place where she was teaching her two sons, Cuar and Cett, under the great yew-tree; and he took his sword and put its point between her breasts, and he threatened her with a dreadful death if she would not take him as her pupil, and if she would not teach him all her own skill in arms. So she promised him she would do that.
Now it was while Cuchulain was with Scathach that a great king in Munster, Lugaid, son of Ros, went northward with twelve chariot chiefs to look for a wife among the daughters of the men of Mac Rossa, but they had all been promised before.
And when Forgall Manach heard this, he went to Emain, and he told Lugaid that the best of the maidens of Ireland, both as to form and behaviour and handiwork, was in his house unwed. Lugaid said he was well pleased to hear that, and Forgall promised him his daughter Emer in marriage. And to the twelve chariot chiefs that were with him, he promised twelve daughters of twelve lords of land in Bregia, and Lugaid went back with him to his dun for the wedding.
But when Emer was brought to Lugaid to sit by his side, she laid one of her hands on each side of his face, and she said on the truth of her good name and of her life, that it was Cuchulain she loved, although her father was against him, and that no one that was an honourable man should force her to be his wife.
Then Lugaid did not dare take her, for he was in dread of Cuchulain, and so he returned home again.
As to Cuchulain, after he had been a good time with Scathach, a war began between herself and Aoife, queen of the tribes that were round about. The armies were going out to fight, but Cuchulain was not with them, for Scathach had given him a sleeping-drink that would keep him safe and quiet till the fight would be over, for she was afraid some harm would come to him if he met Aoife, for she was the greatest woman-warrior in the world, and she understood enchantments and witchcraft.
But after one hour, Cuchulain started up out of his sleep, for the sleeping-drink that would have held any other man for a day and a night, held him for only that length of time. And he followed after the army, and he met with the two sons of Scathach, and they three went against the three sons of Ilsuanach, three of the best warriors of Aoife, and it was by Cuchulain they were killed, one after the other.
On the morning of the morrow the fight was begun again, and the two sons of Scathach were going up the path of feats to fight against three others of the best champions of Aoife, Cue, Bim, and Blaicne, sons of Ess Enchenn. When Scathach saw them going up she gave a sigh, for she was afraid for her two sons, but just then Cuchulain came up with them, and he leaped before them on to the path of feats, and met the three champions, and all three fell by him.
When Aoife saw that her best champions were after being killed, she challenged Scathach to fight against herself, but Cuchulain went out in her place. And before he went, he asked Scathach, “What things does Aoife think most of in all the world?” “Her two horses and her chariot and her chariot-driver,” said Scathach.
So then Cuchulain and Aoife attacked one another and began a fierce fight, and she broke Cuchulain’s spear in pieces, and his sword she broke off at the hilt. Then Cuchulain called out, “Look, the chariot and the horses and the driver of Aoife are fallen down into the valley and are lost!”
At that Aoife looked about her, and Cuchulain took a sudden hold of her, and lifted her on his shoulders, and brought her down to where the army was, and laid her on the ground, and held his sword to her breast, and she begged for her life, and he gave it to her.
And after that she made peace with Scathach, and bound herself by sureties not to go against her again. And she gave her love to Cuchulain; and out of that love great sorrow came afterwards.
And as Cuchulain was going home by the narrow path, he met an old hag, and she blind of the left eye. She asked him to leave room for her to pass by, but he said there was no room on that path, unless he would throw himself down the great sea-cliff that was on the one side of it.
But she asked him again to leave the road to her, and he would not refuse, and he dropped down the cliff, with only his one hand keeping a hold of the path.
Then she came up, and as she passed him, she gave a hit of her foot at his hand, the way he would leave his hold and drop into the sea. But at that, he gave a leap up again on the path, and struck off the hag’s head.
For she was Ess Enchenn, the mother of the last three warriors that had fallen by him, and it was to destroy him she had come out to meet him, for she knew that under his rules of championship, he would make way for her when she asked it.
After that, he stayed for another while with Scathach, until he had learned all the arts of war and all the feats of a champion; and then a message came to him to come back to his own country, and he bade her farewell.
And Scathach told him what would happen him in the time to come, for she had the Druid gift; and she told him there were great dangers before him, and that he would have to fight against great armies, and he alone; and that he would scatter his enemies, so that his name would come again to Alban; but that his life would not be long, for he would die in his full strength.
Then Cuchulain went on board his ship to set out for Ireland, and in the same ship with him were Lugaid and Luan,, the two sons of Loch, and Ferbaeth and Larin and Ferdiad, and Durst, son of Derb.
On the night of Samhain they came to the island of Rechrainn, and Cuchulain left his ship and came to the strand. And there he heard a sound of crying, and he saw a beautiful young girl, and she sitting there alone.
He asked her who was she, and what ailed her, and she said she was Devorgill, daughter of the king of Rechrainn, and that every year he was forced to pay a heavy tax to the Fomor, and this year, when he could not pay it, they made him leave her there near the sea, till they would come and bring her away in place of it.
“Where do these men come from?” said Cuchulain. “From that far country over there,” she said, “and let you not stop here or they will see you when they come.”
But Cuchulain would not leave her, and presently three fierce men of the Fomor landed in the bay, and made straight for the spot where the girl was. But before they had time to lay a hand on her, Cuchulain leaped on them and he killed the three of them, one after the other.
The last man wounded him in the arm, and the girl tore a strip from her dress, and gave it to him to bind round the wound. And then she ran to her father’s house and told him all that had happened.
After that Cuchulain came to the king’s house, like any other guest, and his companions with him, and Conall Cearnach and Laegaire Buadach were there before them, where they had been sent from Emain Macha to collect tribute. For at that time a tribute was paid to Ulster from the islands of the Gall.
And they were all talking about the escape Devorgill had, and some were boasting that it was they themselves had saved her, for she could not be sure who it was had come to her, because of the dusk of the evening.
Then there was water brought for them all to wash before they would go to the feast; and when it came to Cuchulain’s turn to bare his arms, she knew by the strip of her dress that was bound about it, that it was he had saved her. “I will give the girl to you as your wife,” said the king, “and I myself will pay her wedding portion.”
“Not so,” said Cuchulain, “for I must make no delay in going back to Ireland.”
So then he made his way back to Emain Macha, and he told his whole story and all that had happened him. And as soon as he had rested from the journey, he set out to look for Emer at her father’s house.
But Forgall and his sons had heard he was come home again, and they had made the place so strong, and they kept so good a watch round it, that for the whole length of a year he could not get so much as a sight of her.
It was one day at that time he went down to the shore of Lough Cuan with Laeg, his chariot-driver, and with Lugaid. And when they were there, they saw two birds coming over the sea.
Cuchulain put a stone in his sling, and made a cast at the birds, and hit one of them. And when they came to where the birds were, they found in their place two women, and one of them the most beautiful in the world, and they were Devorgill, daughter of the king of Rechrainn, that had come from her own country to find Cuchulain, and her serving-maid along with her; and it was Devorgill that Cuchulain had hit with the stone.
“It is a bad thing you have done, Cuchulain,” she said, “for it was to find you I came, and now you have wounded me.” Then Cuchulain put his mouth to the wound and sucked out the stone and the blood along with it.
And he said, “You cannot be my wife, for I have drunk your blood. But I will give you to my comrade,” he said, “to Lugaid of the Red Stripes.” And so it was done, and Lugaid gave her his love all through her life, and when she died he died of the grief that was on him after her.
After that, Cuchulain got his scythe chariot made ready, and he set out again for Forgall’s dun. And when be got there, he leaped with his hero leap over the three walls, so that he was inside the court, and there he made three attacks, so that eight men fell from each attack, but one escaped in every troop of nine; that is the three brothers of Emer, Seibur and Ibur and Catt. And Forgall made a leap from the wall of the court to escape Cuchulain and he fell in the leap and got his death from the fall.
And then Cuchulain went out again, and brought Emer with him and her foster-sister, and their two loads of gold and silver.
And then they heard cries all around them, and Scenmend, Forgall’s sister, came following them with her men, and came up with them at the ford; and Cuchulain killed her in the fight, and it is from that it is called the Ford of Scenmend.
And her men came up with them again at the next ford, and he killed a hundred of them there. “It is a great thing you have done,” said Emer. “You have killed a hundred strong armed men; and Glondath, the Ford of Deeds, is the name that shall be on it for ever.”
Then they came to Raeban, the white field, and he gave three great angry blows to his enemies there, so that streams of blood went over it on every side. “This white hill is a hill of red sods to-day, through your work, Cuchulain,” said Emer. And from that time it has been called the Ford of the Sods.
Then they were overtaken again at another ford on the Boinne, and Emer quitted the chariot, and Cuchulain followed his enemies along the banks, so that the sods were flying from the feet of the horses across the ford northward; and then he turned and followed them northward, so that the sods flew over the ford southward.
And from that it is called Ath na Imfuait, the Ford of the Two Clods. And at each of these fords Cuchulain killed a hundred, and so he kept his word to Emer, and he came safely out of it all, and they came to Emain Macha, toward the fall of night.
And then Cuchulain was given the headship of the young men of Ulster, of the warriors, the poets, the trumpeters, the musicians, the three pipers, the three jesters to say sharp words; the three distributers of fame. It is of them the poet spoke, and set out their names, and it is what he said: — “The young men of Ireland, when they were in the Red Branch, it is they were the fairest of all hosts.” And of Cuchulain he said, ‘He is as hard as steel and as bright, Cuchulain, the victorious son of Dechtire.”
And then Cuchulain took Emer for his wife, after that long courting, and all the hardships he had gone through. And be brought her into the House of the Red Branch, and Conchubar and all the chief men of Ulster gave her a great welcome.
It was at Emain Macha, that was sometimes called Macha of the Spears, Conchubar, the High King, had the Eachrais Uladh, the Assembly House of Ulster, and it was there he had his chief palace.
A fine palace it was, having three houses in it, the Royal House, and the Speckled House, and the House of the Red Branch.
In the Royal House there were three times fifty rooms, and the walls were made of red yew, with copper rivets. And Conchubar’s own room was on the ground, and the walls of it faced with bronze, and silver up above, with gold birds on it, and their heads set with shining carbuncles; and there were nine partitions from the fire to the wall, and thirty feet the height of each partition. And there was a silver rod before Conchubar with three golden apples on it, and when he shook the rod or struck it, all in the house would be silent.
It was in the House of the Red Branch were kept the heads and the weapons of beaten enemies, and in the Speckled House were kept the swords and the shields and the spears of the heroes of Ulster. And it was called the Speckled House because of the brightness and the colours of the hilts of the swords, and the bright spears, green or grey, with rings and bands of silver and gold about them, and the gold and silver that were on the rims and the bosses of the shields, and the brightness of the drinking-cups and the horns.
It was the custom with the men of the Red Branch, if one of them heard a word of insult, to get satisfaction for it on the moment. He would get up in the feasting hall itself, and make his attack; and it was to prevent that, the arms were kept together in one place.
Conchubar’s shield, the Ochain, that is the Moaning One, was hanging there; whenever Conchubar would be in danger, it would moan, and all the shields of Ulster would moan in answer to it. And Conall Cearnach’s Lam-tapaid, the Quick Hand, was in it. And Fergus’s Leochain, and Dubthach’s Uathach, and Laegaire’s Nithach; and Sencha’s Sciath-arglan and Celthair’s Comla Catha, the Gate of Battle, and a great many others along with these.
And Cuchulain’s shield was there, and the way he got it was this. There was a law made by the men of the Red Branch that the carved device on every shield should be different from every other.
And the name of the man that used to make the shields was Mac Enge. Cuchulain went to him after coming back from Scathach, and bade him make him a shield, and put some new device on it.
“I cannot do that,” said Mac Enge, ‘for all I can do I have done already on the shields of the men of Ulster.” There was anger on Cuchulain then, and he threatened Mac Enge with death, was he, or was he not, under Conchubar’s protection.
Mac Enge was greatly put out at what had happened, and he was thinking what was best for him to do, when he saw a man coming towards him. “There is some trouble on you,” he said. “There is, indeed,” said the shield-maker, “for I am in danger of death unless I make a shield for Cuchulain.” “Clear out your workshop,” said the strange man, “and spread ashes a foot deep on the floor.”
And when this was don; Mac Enge saw the man coming over the outer wall to him again, and a fork in his hand, and it having two prongs. And he put one of the prongs in the ashes, and with the other he made the pattern that was to be cut on Cuchulain’s shield. And so Cuchulain got it, and the name it had was Dubhan, the Black One.
And as to Cuchulain’s sword that was hanging along with the shield, its name was the Cruaidin Cailidcheann; that is, the Hard, Hard Headed. And it had a hilt of gold with ornaments of silver, and if the point of the sword would be bent back to its hilt, it would come as straight as a rod back again. It would cut a hair on the water, or it would cut a hair off the head without touching the skin, or it would cut a man in two, and the one half of him would not miss the other for some time after.
And as to Cuchulain’s spear, the Gae Bulg, whether it was or was not kept in the Speckled House, this is the way he came by it. There were two monsters fighting in the sea one time, the Curruid and the Coinchenn their names were, and at the last the Coinchenn made for the strand to escape, but the other followed him and killed him there.
Then Bolg, son of Buan, a champion of the eastern part of the world, found the bones of the Coinchenn on the strand, and he made a spear with them. And he gave it to a great fighting man, the son of Jubar, and it went from one to another till it came to the woman-champion, Aoife. And Aoife gave it to Cuchulain, and he brought it to Ireland. And it was with it he killed his own son, and his friend Ferdiad afterwards.
There were three hundred and sixty-five men belonging to Conchubar’s household; and one among them served the supper every night, and when the year came round, he would take his turn again.
And it is not a small thing that supper was : beef and pork and beer for every man. But the three days before and the three days after Samhain, the chief men of Ulster used to come together, and to eat together in Conchubar’s palace, and Conchubar himself took charge of the supper at that feast; for every man that did not come on Samhain night, his wits would go from him, and it was as well to rake his grave and to put his memorial stone over him the next day.
And there were a great many poets and learned men used to come Conchubar’s court, for they were made welcome there when they were driven out of other places. Cathbad, the Druid, was among them, and his son, bright-faced Geanann, and Sencha, and Ferceirtne, that was very learned, and Morann, that could not give a wrong judgment, for if he did, the collar round his neck would tighten; and many others.
Adhna was the chief poet there at one time, and after he died Athairne was made chief poet of Ulster in his place. But Neidhe, Adhna’s son, came back from Alban, expecting to be made chief poet.
And it was the waves of the sea, breaking on the strand where he was, that told him of his father’s death. And when he got to Emain, he went into the palace and sat down in the chief poet’s chair, that he found empty, and put the chief poet’s cloak about him, that was lying there, and that was ornamented with beautiful birds’ feathers.
And then Athairne came in and found him there, and they began an argument with one another in the language of poetry, and Conchubar and all the chief men of Ulster came in to listen to them, and some of the other poets joined in the argument.
And Neidhe proved himself to be the best, but if he did, as soon as it was given in his favour, he came down from the chair, and took off the cloak and put it about Athairne, and said that, his father being dead, he would take him for his master.
So Athairne was chief poet, but no one had any great liking for him, for he was too fond of riches, and was no way hospitable or open-handed. It was he went to Midhir, and brought away secretly his three cranes of churlishness and denial, the way none of the men of Ireland would get a good reception if they would come to ask anything at his house.
“Do not come, do not come,” the first crane would say. “Get away, get away,” the second would say. “Go past the house, past the house,” the third would say to any one that came near it.
It was after that argument between Athairne and Neidhe, king Conchubar made a change in the laws. For it had been a law that no one that was not a poet could be a judge. But the language of the poets was hard to understand, and the king was vexed when he could understand but a small part of their argument.
So he said that from that time out, any fitting man might be made judge, was he or was he not a poet. And all the people agreed to that, and the new law turned out very well in the end.
And the twelve chief heroes of Conchubar’s Red Branch were these: Fergus, son of Rogh; Conall Cearnach, the Victorious; Laegaire Buadach, the Battle-Winner; Cuchulain, son of Sualtim; Eoghan, son of Durthacht, chief of Fernmag; Celthair, son of Uthecar; Dubthach Doel Uladh, the Beetle of Ulster; Muinremar, son of Geirgind; Cethern, son of Findtain; and Naoise, Ainnle, and Ardan, the three sons of Usnach.
Source: Lady Gregory – Cuchulain of Muirthemne, first published 1902.
republished by Colin Smythe Ltd. 1973, reprint 1993.