2. The Occasion of the Táin
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- Joseph Dunn
Then were brought to them the least precious of their possessions, that they might know which of them had the more treasures, riches and wealth. Their pails and their cauldrons and their iron-wrought vessels, their jugs and their keeves and their eared pitchers were fetched to them.
Likewise, their rings and their bracelets and their thumbrings and their golden treasures were fetched to them, and their apparel, both purple and blue and black and green, yellow, vari-coloured and gray, dun, mottled and brindled.
Their numerous flocks of sheep were led in from fields and meeds and plains. These were counted and compared, and found to be equal, of like size, of like number; however, there was an uncommonly fine ram over Medb’s sheep, and he was equal in worth to a bondmaid, but a corresponding ram was over the ewes of Ailill.
Their horses and steeds and studs were brought from pastures and paddocks. There was a noteworthy horse in Medb’s herd and he was of the value of a bondmaid; a horse to match was found among Ailill’s.
Then were their numerous droves of swine driven from woods and shelving glens and wolds. These were numbered and counted and claimed. There was a noteworthy boar with Medb, and yet another with Ailill.
Next they brought before them their droves of cattle and their herds and their roaming flocks from the brakes and wastes of the province.
These were counted and numbered and claimed, and were the same for both, equal in size, equal in number, except only there was an especial bull of the bawn of Ailill, and he was a calf of one of Medb’s cows, and Finnbennach (‘the Whitehorned’) was his name. But he, deeming it no honour to be in a woman’s possession, had left and gone over to the kine of the king. And it was the same to Medb as if she owned not a pennyworth, forasmuch as she had not a bull of his size amongst her cattle.
Then it was that macRoth the messenger was summoned to Medb, and Medb strictly bade macRoth to learn where there might be found a bull of that likeness in any of the provinces of Erin. “Verily,” said macRoth, “I know where the bull is that is best and better again, in the province of Ulster, in the hundred of Cualnge, in the house of Darè son of Fiachna; even Donn Cualnge (‘the Brown Bull of Cualnge’) he is called.”
“Go thou to him, macRoth, and ask for me of Darè the loan for a year of the Brown Bull of Cualnge, and at the year’s end he shall have the meed of the loan, to wit, fifty heifers and the Donn Cualnge himself. And bear thou a further boon with thee, macRoth. Should the borderfolk and those of the country grudge the loan of that rare jewel that is the Brown Bull of Cualnge, let Darè himself come with his bull, and he shall get a measure equalling his own land of the smooth Plain of Ai and a chariot of the worth of thrice seven bondmaids and he shall enjoy my own close friendship.”
Thereupon the messengers fared forth to the house of Darè son of Fiachna. This was the number wherewith macRoth went, namely, nine couriers. Anon welcome was lavished on macRoth in Darè’s house—fitting welcome it was—chief messenger of all was macRoth. Darè asked of macRoth what had brought him upon the journey and why he was come.
The messenger announced the cause for which he was come and related the contention between Medb and Ailill. “And it is to beg the loan of the Brown Bull of Cualnge to match the Whitehorned that I am come,” said he; “and thou shalt receive the hire of his loan, even fifty heifers and the Brown of Cualnge himself. And yet more I may add: Come thyself with thy bull and thou shalt have of the land of the smooth soil of Mag Ai as much as thou ownest here, and a chariot of the worth of thrice seven bondmaids and enjoy Medb’s friendship to boot.”
At these words Darè was well pleased, and he leaped for joy so that the seams of his flock-bed rent in twain beneath him. “By the truth of our conscience,” said he; “however the Ulstermen take it, whether ill or well, this time this jewel shall be delivered to Ailill and to Medb, the Brown of Cualnge to wit, into the land of Connacht.” Well pleased was macRoth at the words of the son of Fiachna.
Thereupon they were served, and straw and fresh rushes were spread under them. The choicest of food was brought to them and a feast was served to them and soon they were noisy and drunken. And a discourse took place between two of the messengers. “’Tis true what I say,” spoke the one; “good is the man in whose house we are.” “Of a truth, he is good.” “Nay, is there one among all the men of Ulster better than he?” persisted the first. “In sooth, there is,” answered the second messenger. “Better is Conchobar whose man he is, Conchobar who holds the kingship of the province. And though all the Ulstermen gathered around him, it were no shame for them. Yet is it passing good of Darè, that what had been a task for the four mighty provinces of Erin to bear away from the land of Ulster, even the Brown Bull of Cualnge, is surrendered so freely to us nine footmen.”
Hereupon a third runner had his say: “What is this ye dispute about?” he asked. “Yon runner says, ‘A good man is the man in whose house we are.’” “Yea, he is good,” saith the other. “Is there among all the Ulstermen any that is better than he?” demanded the first runner further. “Aye, there is,” answered the second runner; “better is Conchobar whose man he is; and though all the Ulstermen gathered around him, it were no shame for them. Yet, truly good it is of Darè, that what had been a task for four of the grand provinces of Erin to bear away out of the borders of Ulster is handed over even unto us nine footmen.” “I would not grudge to see a retch of blood and gore in the mouth whereout that was said; for, were the bull not given willingly, yet should he be taken by force!”
At that moment it was that Darè macFiachna’s chief steward came into the house and with him a man with drink and another with food, and he heard the foolish words of the runners; and anger came upon him, and he set down their food and drink for them and he neither said to them, “Eat,” nor did he say, “Eat not.”
Straightway he went into the house where was Darè macFiachna and said: “Was it thou that hast given that notable jewel to the messengers, the Brown Bull of Cualnge?” “Yea, it was I,” Darè made answer. “Verily, it was not the part of a king to give him. For it is true what they say: Unless thou hadst bestowed him of thine own free will, so wouldst thou yield him in despite of thee by the host of Ailill and Medb and by the great cunning of Fergus macRoig.” “I swear by the gods whom I worship,” spoke Darè, “they shall in no wise take by foul means what they cannot take by fair!”
There they abide till morning. Betimes on the morrow the runners arise and proceed to the house where is Darè. “Acquaint us, lord, how we may reach the place where the Brown Bull of Cualnge is kept.” “Nay then,” saith Darè; “but were it my wont to deal foully with messengers or with travelling folk or with them that go by the road, not one of you would depart alive!” ”How sayest thou?” quoth macRoth. “Great cause there is,” replied Darè; “ye said, unless I yielded in good sort, I should yield to the might of Ailill’s host and Medb’s and the great cunning of Fergus.”
“Even so,” said macRoth, “whatever the runners drunken with thine ale and thy viands have said, ’tis not for thee to heed nor mind, nor yet to be charged on Ailill and on Medb.” “For all that, macRoth, this time I will not give my bull, if ever I can help it!”
Back then the messengers go till they arrive at Cruachan, the stronghold of Connacht. Medb asks their tidings, and macRoth makes known the same: that they had not brought his bull from Darè. “And the reason?” demanded Medb. MacRoth recounts to her how the dispute arose. “There is no need to polish knots over such affairs as that, macRoth; for it was known,” said Medb, “if the Brown Bull of Cualnge would not be given with their will, he would be taken in their despite, and taken he shall be!” To this point is recounted the Occasion of the Tain.