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27A. The Muster of the Men of Erin

By Anonymous
Translated by Joseph Dunn1914

The three Conarè from Sliab Mis, the three Lussen from Luachair, the three Niadchorb from Tilach Loiscthe, the three Doelfer from Deill, the three Damaltach from Dergderc, the three Buder from the Buas, the three Baeth from Buagnige, the three Buageltach from Mag Breg, the three Suibnè from the Siuir, the three Eochaid from Anè, the three Malleth from Loch Erne, the three Abatruad from Loch Ri, the three macAmra from Ess Ruaid, the three Fiacha from Fid Nemain, the three Manè from Muresc, the three Muredach from Mairg, the three Loegaire from Lecc Derg, the three Broduinde from the Berba, the three Bruchnech, from Cenn Abrat, the three Descertach from Druim Fornacht, the three Finn from Finnabair, the three Conall from Collamair, the three Carbre from Cliu, the three Manè from Mossa, the three Scathglan from Scairè, the three Echtath from Ercè, the three Trenfer from Taitè, the three Fintan from Femen, the three Rotanach from Rognè, the three Sarchorach from Suidè Lagen, the three Etarscel from Etarbane, the three Aed from Aidnè, the three Guarè from Gabal.

Then said Medb to Fergus: “It were truly a thing to boast of for thee, O Fergus,” said she, “werest thou to use thy mightiness of battle vehemently without stint amongst us to-day, forasmuch as thou hast been driven out of thine own land and out of thine inheritance; amongst us hast thou found land and domain and inheritance, and much good-will hath been shown thee!”

Thereupon Fergus uttered this oath: “I swear,” et reliqua, “jaws of men I would break from necks, necks of men with arms, arms of men with elbows, elbows of men with wrists, wrists of men with fists, fists of men with fingers, fingers of men with nails, nails of men with scalps, scalps of men with trunks, trunks of men with thighs, thighs of men with knees, knees of men with calves, calves of men with feet, feet of men with toes, toes of men with nails, so that heads of men over shields would be as numerous with me as bits of ice on the miry stamping-ground between two dry fields that a king’s horses would course on. Every limb of the Ulstermen would I send flying through the air before and behind me this day like the flitting of bees on a day of fine weather, if only I had my sword!”

At that Ailill spoke to his own charioteer, Ferloga, to wit: “Fetch me a quick sword that wounds the skin, O gilla,” said Ailill. “A year to-day I put that sword in thy hand in the flower of its condition and bloom. I give my word, if its bloom and condition be the worse at thy hands this day than the day I gave it thee on the hillside of Cruachan Ai in the borders of Ulster, though thou hadst the men of Erin and of Alba to rescue thee from me to-day, they would not all save thee!”

Ferloga went his way, and he brought the sword with him in the flower of its safe-keeping, and fair flaming as a candle. And the sword was placed in Ailill’s hand, and Ailill put it in Fergu’s hand, and Fergus offered welcome to the sword: “Welcome, O Calad Colg (‘Hardblade’) Letè’s sword!” said he. “Weary, O champion of Badb! On whom shall I ply this weapon?” Fergus asked. “On the men-of-war around thee,” Medb answered. “No one shall find indulgence nor quarter from thee to-day, unless some friend of thy bosom find it!”

Whereupon, Fergus took his arms and went forward to the battle, and he cleared a gap of an hundred in the battleranks with his sword in his two hands. Ailill seized his weapons. Medb seized her weapons and entered the battle. The Manè seized their arms and came to the battle. The macMagach seized their arms and came to the battle, so that thrice the Ulstermen were routed before them from the north, till Cualgae and sword drove them back again. Or it was Cuchulain that drove the men of Erin before him, so that he brought them back into their former line in the battle.

Conchobar heard that from his place in the line of battle, that the battle had gone against him thrice from the north. Then he addressed his bodyguard, even the inner circle of the Red Branch: “Hold ye here a while, ye men!” cried he; “even in the line of battle where I am, that I may go and learn by whom the battle has been thus forced against us thrice from the north.” Then said his household: “We will hold out,” said they, “in the place wherein we are: for the sky is above us and the earth underneath and the sea round about us, and unless the heavens shall fall with their showers of stars on the man-face of the world, or unless the furrowed, blue-bordered ocean break o’er the tufted brow of the earth, or unless the ground yawns open, will we not move a thumb’s breadth backward from here till the very day of doom and of everlasting life, till thou come back to us!”

Conchobar went his way to the place where he heard the battle had gone three times against him from the north. Then Conchobar made a rush at Fergus, and he lifted shield against shield there, namely against Fergus mac Roig, even Ochain (‘the Fair-ear’) of Conchobar with its four ears of gold and its four bracings of red gold. Therewith Fergus gave three stout blows of Badb on the Ochain of Conchobar, so that Conchobar’s shield cried aloud on him and the three chief waves of Erin gave answer, the Wave of Clidna, the Wave of Rudraige and the Wave of Tuag, to wit. Whenever Conchobar’s shield cried out, the shields of all the Ulstermen cried out. However great the strength and power with which Fergus smote Conchobar on the shield, so great also was the might and valour wherewith Conchobar held the shield, so that the ear of the shield did not even touch the ear of Conchobar.

“Hearken, ye men of Erin!” cried Fergus; “who opposes a shield to me to-day on this day of battle when four of the five grand provinces of Erin come together on Garech and Ilgarech in the battle of the Cattle-raid of Cualnge?” “Why, then, a gilla that is younger and mightier and comelier than thyself is here,” Conchobar answered, “and whose mother and father were better! The man that hath driven thee out of thy borders, thy land and thine inheritance; the man that hath driven thee into the lairs of the deer and the wild hare and the foxes; the man that hath not granted thee to take the breadth of thy foot of thine own domain or land; the man that hath made thee dependent upon the bounty of a woman; the man that of a time disgraced thee by slaying the three bright Ughts of the valour of the Gael, the three sons of Usnech that were under thy safeguard and protection; the man that will repel thee this day in the presence of the men of Erin; Conchobar son of Fachtna Fathach son of Ross Ruad son of Rudraige, High King of Ulster and son of the High King of Erin; and though any one should insult thee, there is no satisfaction nor reparation for thee, for thou art in the service of a woman!”

“Truly hath this happened to me,” Fergus responded. And Fergus placed his two hands on Calad Colg (‘Hard blade’), and he heaved a blow with it backwards behind him, so that its point touched the ground, and he thought to strike his three fateful blows of Badb on the men of Ulster, so that their dead would be more in number than their living. Cormac Conlongas son of Conchobar saw that and he rushed to his foster-father, namely to Fergus and he closed his two royal hands over him outside his armour. “Ungentle, not heedful is this, O Fergus my master! Full of hate, not of friendship is this, O Fergus my master! Let not the Ulstermen be slain and destroyed by thee through thy destructive blows, but take thou thought for their honour to-day on this day of battle!” “Get thee away from me, boy! Whom then should I strike?” exclaimed Fergus; “for I will not remain alive unless I deliver my three fateful strokes of Badb on the men of Ulster this day, till their dead be more in number than their living.”

“Then turn thy hand slantwise,” said Cormac Conlongas, “and slice off the hill-tops over the heads of the hosts on every side and this will be an appeasing of thine anger.” “Tell Conchobar also to fall back again to his place in the battle,” said Fergus; “and I will no longer belabour the hosts.” Cormac told this to Conchobar: “Go to the other side, O Conchobar,” said Cormac to his father, “and this man will not visit his anger any longer here on the men of Ulster.” So Conchobar went to his place in the battle. In this manner Fergus and Conchobar parted.

Fergus turned away. He slew a hundred warriors of Ulster in the first onslaught with the sword. He met Conall Cernach. “Too great is this rage,” said Conall, “upon people and kindred because of the whim of a wanton.” “What would ye have me do, ye warriors?” asked Fergus. “Smite the hills crosswise and the bushes around,” Conall Cernach made answer.

Thus it was with that sword, which was the sword of Fergus: The sword of Fergus, the sword of Letè from Faery: Whenever he desired to strike with it, it became the size of a rainbow in the air. Thereupon Fergus turned his hand slantwise over the heads of the hosts, so that he smote the three tops of the three hills, so that they are still on the moor in sight of the men of Erin. And these are the three Maels (‘the Balds’) of Meath in that place, which Fergus smote as a reproach and a rebuke to the men of Ulster.

Now as regards Cuchulain. He heard the Ochain of Conchobar smitten by Fergus macRoig. “Come, O Laeg my master,” cried Cuchulain: “who dares thus smite with those strong blows, mighty and far-away, the Ochain of Conchobar my master, and I alive?” Then Laeg made answer, saying: “The choice of men, Fergus macRoig, the very bold, smites it:—

“Blood he sheds, increase of slaughter,” said Laeg;
“Splendid the hero, Fergus macRoig!
Hidden had lain Fairyland’s chariot-sword!
Battle now hath reached the shield,
Shield of my master Conchobar!”

“How far have the hosts advanced, O Laeg?” Cuchulain asked. “They have come to Garech,” Laeg answered. “I give my word for that,” Cuchulain cried; “they will not come as far as Ilgarech, if I catch up with them! Quickly unloose the bands, gilla!” cried Cuchulain. “Blood covers men. Feats of swords shall be done. Men shall be spent therefrom!”

Since Cuchulain’s going into battle had been prevented, his twisting fit came upon him, and seven and twenty skin tunics were given to him that used to be about him under strings and cords when going into battle. Then Cuchulain gave a mighty spring, so that the bindings of his wounds flew from him to Mag Tuag (‘the Plain of the Bows’) in Connacht. His bracings went from him to Bacca (‘the Props’) in Corcomruad in the district of Boirenn. His supports sprang from him to Rath Cinn Bara (‘the Rath of Spithead’) in Ulster, and likewise his pins flew from him to Rath Clo (‘the Rath of the Nails’) in the land of the tribe of Conall. The dry wisps that were stuffed in his wounds rose to the roof of the air and the sky as highest larks fly on a day of sunshine when there is no wind. Thereupon, his bloody wounds got the better of him, so that the ditches and furrows of the earth were full of streams of blood and torrents of gore.

Some of the narrators aver that it was the strength of the warrior and champion that hurled these things to the aforementioned places; but it was not that, but his powerful friends, the fairy-folk, that brought them thither, to the end to make famous his history, so that from them these places are named.

This was the first exploit of valour that Cuchulain performed on rising out of his weakness: The two women lampoonists that made a feint of weeping and wailing over his head, Fethan and Collach to wit, he smote each of them against the head of the other, so that he was red with their blood and grey with their brains. These women had come from Medb to raise a pretended lamentation over him, to the end that his bloody wounds might burst forth on him, and to tell him that the men of Ulster had met with defeat and that Fergus had fallen in meeting the battle. His arms had not been left near him, except his chariot only. And he took his chariot on his back with its frame and its two axle-trees, and he set out to attack the men of Erin, and he smote them with the chariot, until he reached the place where Fergus macRoig was.

“Turn hither, O Fergus my master!” he cried. Fergus did not answer, for he heard not. He spoke again, “Turn hither, turn hither, O Fergus my master!” he cried; “and if thou turn not, I swear to god what the Ulstermen swear, I will grind thee as a mill grinds fresh grain; I will wash thee as a cup is washed in a tub; I will bind thee as the woodbine binds the trees; I will pounce on thee as hawk pounces on fledglings; I will go over thee as its tail goes over a cat; I will pierce thee as a tool bores through a tree-trunk; I will pound thee as a fish is pounded on the sand!” “Truly this is my lot!” spake Fergus. “Who of the men of Erin dares to address these stiff, vengeful words to me, where now the four grand provinces of Erin are met on Garech and Ilgarech in the battle of the Raid for the Kine of Cualnge?”

“Thy fosterling is before thee,” he replied, “and fosterling of the men of Ulster and of Conchobar as well, Cuchulain son of Sualtaim and sister’s son to Conchobar,” replied Cuchulain. “And thou didst promise to flee before me what time I should be wounded, in pools of gore and riddled in the battle of the Táin. For, when thou hadst not thy sword with thee, I did flee before thee in thine own combat on the Táin; and do thou avoid me,” said he. “Even that did I promise,” Fergus answered. “Away with thee, then!” cried Cuchulain. “’Tis well,” replied Fergus; “thou didst avoid me; now thou art pierced with wounds.”

Fergus gave ear to that word of Cuchulain, and he turned and made his three great strides of a hero back from Cuchulain and turned in flight from him. And as he turned with his company of three thousand warriors and the Leinstermen following after Fergus—for it is under Fergus’ warrant they had come—and the men of Munster, there turned all the men of Erin.

Then the men of Erin broke their ranks westwards over the hill. The battle raged around the men of Connacht, around Ailill and his division and around Medb with hers and around the Manè with theirs and the macMagach with theirs. At midday Cuchulain came to the battle. At the time of sunset at the ninth hour as the sun entered the tresses of the wood, when man and tree were no more to be known apart, Medb and the last company of the men of Connacht fled in rout westwards over the hill.

At that time there did not remain in Cuchulain’s hand of the chariot but a handful of its spokes around the wheel, and a handbreadth of its poles around the shell, with the slaying and slaughtering of the four grand provinces of Erin during all that time.

Then Medb betook her to a shield-shelter in the rear of the men of Erin. Thereafter Medb sent off the Brown Bull of Cualnge along with fifty of his heifers and eight of her runners with him around to Cruachan, to the end that whoso might and whoso might not escape, the Brown Bull of Cualnge should get away safely, even as she had promised.

Then it was that the issue of blood came upon Medb, and she said: “Do thou, Fergus, undertake a shield-shelter in the rear of the men of Erin till I let my water flow from me.” “By my troth,” replied Fergus, “’tis an ill hour for thee to be taken so.” “Howbeit there is no help for me,” Medb answered; “for I shall not live if I do not void water!” Fergus accordingly came and raised a shield-shelter in the rear of the men of Erin. Medb voided her water, so that it made three large dikes, so that a [mill] could find room in each dike. Hence the place is known as Fual Medbha (‘Medb’s Water’).

Cuchulain came upon her as she was thus engaged, on his way to the battle, and he did not attack her. He would not strike her a blow from behind. He spared her then because it was not his wont to slay women. “Spare me!” cried Medb. “If I should slay thee, it were just for me,” Cuchulain answered. “Arise from hence,” said he; “for I deem it no honour to wound thee from behind with my weapons.” “I crave a boon of thee this day, O Cuchulain,” spake Medb. “What boon cravest thou of me?” asked Cuchulain. “That this host be under thine honour and thy protection till they pass westwards over Ath Mor (‘the Great Ford’).” “Yea, I promise that,” said Cuchulain. Then went Cuchulain around the men of Erin, and he undertook a shield-defence on one side of them, in order to protect the men of Erin. On the other side went the governors of the men of Erin. Medb went to her own place and assumed a shield-defence in the rear of the men of Erin, and in this manner they convoyed the men of Erin over Ath Mor westwards.

Then Laeg son of Riangabair brought Cuchulain’s sword unto him, the ‘Hard-headed Steeling’ to wit, and Cuchulain took the sword in his hand. Then he stood still and gave a blow to the three bald-topped hills of Ath Luain over against the three Maela (‘the Bald Tops’) of Meath, so that he struck their three heads off them. And they are in the bog as a witness ever since. Hence these are the Maolain (‘the Flat Tops’) of Ath Luain. Cuchulain cut them off as a reproach and affront to the men of Connacht, in order that every time men should speak of Meath’s three Bald Tops, these in the west should be the answer the ‘Three Flat Tops of Ath Luain.’

Then when the battle had been lost, Fergus began to view the host as it went westwards of Ath Mor. “It was thus indeed it behoved this day to prove, for following in the lead of a woman,” said Fergus. “Faults and feuds have met here to-day,” said Medb to Fergus. “Betrayed and sold is this host to-day,” Fergus answered. “And even as a brood-mare leads her foals into a land unknown, without a head to advise or give counsel before them, such is the plight of this host to-day in the train of a woman that hath ill counselled them.”

Then Cuchulain turned to where Conchobar was with the nobles of Ulster before him. Conchobar bewailed and lamented Cuchulain, and then he uttered this lay:—

“How is this, O Cualnge’s Hound
Hero of the Red Branch, thou:
Great woe, champion, hast thou borne
Battling in thy land’s defence!

“Every morn a hundred slain,
Every eve a hundred more
While the host purveyed thy fare
Feeding thee with cooling food!

“Five-score heroes of the hosts,
These I reckon are in graves.
While their women—fair their hue—
Spend the night bewailing them!”

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