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19. The Battle of Fergus and Cuchulain

By Anonymous
Translated by Joseph Dunn1914

The hosts of the four grand provinces of Erin pitched camp and entrenched themselves for that night at the pillar-stone in Crich Roiss (‘the Borders of Ross’). Then Medb called upon the men of Erin for one of them to contend and do battle with Cuchulain on the morrow. And every one of them spake thus: “It shall not be I! it shall not be I!” cried each from his place. “No victim is owing from my people, and even if one were it would not be myself whom ye would send as a victim in his stead. I will not be the man to go in his place to fight with Cuchulain till the very day of doom and of life!”

Thereupon Medb summoned Fergus to go forth and contend and fight with Cuchulain, to drive him off from them on the ford ‘at the early morning-hour’ on the morrow, for that the men of Erin had failed her to go and do battle with him. “Ill would it befit me,” quoth Fergus, "to fight with a callow young lad without any beard, and mine own disciple, the fosterling of Ulster, the foster-child that sat on Conchobar’s knee, the lad from Craeb Ruad (‘Red Branch’).” Howbeit Medb murmured sore that Fergus foreswore her combat and battle. They filled him with wine till he was heavily drunken and then they questioned him about going to the combat. They bode the night in that place. Early on the morrow Fergus arose, since they importuned him urgently,  and his horses were got ready for him and his chariot harnessed and he fared forth to the place of combat where Cuchulain was.

When now Cuchulain saw him coming nigh, this is what he said: “Welcome thine arrival and thy coming, O my master Fergus,” spoke Cuchulain. “Truly given we esteem thy greeting,” Fergus answered. “It is truly given for thee, O Fergus” said Cuchulain; “and thou shalt have a night’s lodging here this night.” “Success and a blessing attend thee, O fosterling; not for hospitality from thee am I come, but to fight and do battle with thee.”

“A vain surety is the one wherewith my master Fergus comes to me; for no sword is in the sheath of the great staff he bears.” It was true what he said. A year before this tale, ‘before the expedition of the Táin, Ailill had found Fergus going to a tryst with Medb on the hillside in Cruachan and his sword on a branch near by him. And Ailill had torn the sword from its sheath and put a wooden sword in its stead and vowed he would not restore him the sword till came the day of the great battle when the men of Erin would clash in the great battle of the Cualnge Cattle-raid at Garech and Ilgarech. “It is a perilous thing for thee to come to a place of fight, O my master Fergus, without thy sword.”

“It matters not to me, O fosterling,” replied Fergus; “for had I a sword in this, it never would cut thee nor be plied on thee. But, by the honour and training I bestowed upon thee and the Ulstermen and Conchobar bestowed, by the troth of thy valour and knighthood I adjure thee, give way before me this day in the presence of the men of Erin!” “Truly I am loath to do that,” answered Cuchulain, “to flee before any one man on the Cattle-spoil of Cualnge.“ “Nay then it is not a thing to be taken amiss by thee,” said Fergus; “for I in my turn will retreat before thee when thou wilt be covered with wounds and dripping with gore and pierced with holes in the battle of the Táin. And when I alone shall turn in flight before thee, so will all the men of Erin also flee before thee in like manner.”

So zealous was Cuchulain to do whatever made for Ulster’s weal that he had his chariot brought to him, and he mounted his chariot and he went in confusion and flight from Fergus in the presence of the men of Erin. As far as Grellach Dolluid (‘the Stamping-place at Dolluid’) he fled, in order that Fergus might give way before him on the day of the battle. When the men of Erin saw that, they were joyful, and what they said was this: “He is fled from thee! He is fled from thee, O Fergus!” cried all. “Pursue him, pursue him quickly O Fergus,” Medb cried, “that he do not escape thee.”

“Nay then,” said Fergus, “I will pursue him no further. It is not like a tryst. Yon fellow is too speedy for me. For however little ye may make of the flight I have put him to, none of the men of Erin, not even four of the five provinces of Erin could have obtained so much as that of him on the Cow-creagh of Cualnge. For this cause, till the men of Erin take turns in single combat, I will not engage again with this same man.” Hence here we have the ‘White Battle’ of Fergus on the Táin thus far; and it is for this cause it is called the ‘White Battle,’ because no ‘blood on weapons’ resulted therefrom. They continue their march past Cuchulain and pitch camp in Crich Roiss.

Táin Bó Cúailnge
By Anonymous
English translation by Joseph Dunn (1914)
Cover: Táin Bó Cúailnge trans. Joseph Dunn (1914)