A great hosting was brought together by the Connachtmen, that is, by Ailill and Medb; and they sent to the three other provinces. And messengers were sent by Ailill to the seven sons of Magach: Ailill, Anluan, Mocorb, Cet, En, Bascall, and Doche; a cantred with each of them. And to Cormac Condlongas Mac Conchobair with his three hundred, who was billeted in Connacht. Then they all come to Cruachan Ai.
Now Cormac had three troops which came to Cruachan. The first troop had many-coloured cloaks folded round them; hair like a mantle(?); the tunic falling(?) to the knee, and long(?) shields; and a broad grey spearhead on a slender shaft in the hand of each man.
The second troop wore dark grey cloaks, and tunics with red ornamentation down to their calves, and long hair hanging behind from their heads, and white shields(?), and five-pronged spears were in their hands.
‘This is not Cormac yet,’ said Medb.
Then comes the third troop; and they wore purple cloaks, and hooded tunics with red ornamentation down to their feet, hair smooth to their shoulders, and round shields with engraved edges, and the pillars1 of a palace in the hand of each man.
‘This is Cormac now,’ said Medb.
Then the four provinces of Ireland were assembled, till they were in Cruachan Ai. And their poets and their druids did not let them go thence till the end of a fortnight, for waiting for a good omen. Medb said then to her charioteer the day that they set out:
‘Every one who parts here today from his love or his friend will curse me,’ said she, ‘for it is I who have gathered this hosting.’
‘Wait then,’ said the charioteer, ‘till I turn the chariot with the sun, and till there come the power of a good omen that we may come back again.’
Then the charioteer turned the chariot, and they set forth. Then they saw a full-grown maiden before them. She had yellow hair, and a cloak of many colours, and a golden pin in it; and a hooded tunic with red embroidery. She wore two shoes with buckles of gold. Her face was narrow below and broad above. Very black were her two eyebrows; her black delicate eyelashes cast a shadow into the middle of her two cheeks. You would think it was with partaing2 her lips were adorned. You would think it was a shower of pearls that was in her mouth, that is, her teeth. She had three tresses: two tresses round her head above, and a tress behind, so that it struck her two thighs behind her. A shuttle3 of white metal, with an inlaying of gold, was in her hand. Each of her two eyes had three pupils. The maiden was armed, and there were two black horses to her chariot.
‘What is your name?’ said Medb to the maiden.
‘Fedelm, the prophetess of Connacht, is my name,’ said the maiden.
‘Whence do you come?’ said Medb.
‘From Scotland, after learning the art of prophecy,’ said the maiden.
‘Have you the inspiration(?) which illumines?’4 said Medb.
‘Yes, indeed,’ said the maiden.
‘Look for me how it will be with my hosting,’ said Medb.
Then the maiden looked for it; and Medb said: ‘O Fedelm the prophetess, how seest thou the host?’
Fedelm answered and said: ‘I see very red, I see red.’
‘That is not true,’ said Medb; ‘for Conchobar is in his sickness at Emain and the Ulstermen with him, with all the best of their warriors; and my messengers have come and brought me tidings thence.
‘Fedelm the prophetess, how seest thou our host?’ said Medb.
‘I see red,’ said the maiden.
‘That is not true,’ said Medb; ‘for Celtchar Mac Uithichair is in Dun Lethglaise, and a third of the Ulstermen with him; and Fergus, son of Roich, son of Eochaid, is here with us, in exile, and a cantred with him.
‘Fedelm the prophetess, how seest thou our host?’ said Medb.
‘I see very red, I see red,’ said the maiden.
‘That matters not,’ said Medb; ‘for there are mutual angers, and quarrels, and wounds very red in every host and in every assembly of a great army. Look again for us then, and tell us the truth.
‘Fedelm the prophetess, how seest thou our host?’
‘I see very red, I see red,’ said Fedelm.
‘I see a fair man who will make play
With a number of wounds(?) on his girdle;6
A hero’s flame over his head,
His forehead a meeting-place of victory.
‘There are seven gems of a hero of valour
In the middle of his two irises;
There is — on his cloak,
He wears a red clasped tunic.
He has a face that is noble,
Which causes amazement to women.
A young man who is fair of hue
Like is the nature of his valour
To Cú Chulainn of Murthemne.
I do not know whose is the Hound
Of Culann, whose fame is the fairest.
But I know that it is thus
That the host is very red from him.
‘I see a great man on the plain
He gives battle to the hosts;
Four little swords of feats
There are in each of his two hands.
‘Two Gae-bolga,8 he carries them,
Besides an ivory-hilted sword and spear;
—9 he wields to the host;
Different is the deed for which each arm goes from him.
‘A man in a battle-girdle (?), of a red cloak,
He puts — every plain.
He smites them, over left chariot wheel (?)
The Riastartha10 wounds them.
The form that appeared to me on him hitherto,
I see that his form has been changed.
‘He has moved forward to the battle,
If heed is not taken of him it will be treachery.
I think it likely it is he who seeks you:
Cú Chulainn Mac Sualtaim.
‘He will strike on whole hosts,
He will make dense slaughters of you,
Ye will leave with him many thousands of heads.
The prophetess Fedelm conceals not.
‘Blood will rain from warriors’ wounds
At the hand of a warrior — ’twill be full harm.
He will slay warriors, men will wander
Of the descendants of Deda Mac Sin.
Corpses will be cut off, women will lament
Through the Hound of the Smith that I see.’
The Monday after Samain11 they set forth, and this is the way they took: south-east from Cruachan Ai, i.e. by Muicc Cruimb, by Teloch Teora Crich, by Tuaim Mona, by Cul Sibrinne, by Fid, by Bolga, by Coltain, by Glune-gabair, by Mag Trego, by North Tethba, by South Tethba, by Tiarthechta, by Ord, by Slais southwards, by Indiuind, by Carnd, by Ochtrach, by Midi, by Findglassa Assail, by Deilt, by Delind, by Sailig, by Slaibre, by Slechta Selgatar, by Cul Sibrinne, by Ochaind southwards, by Uatu northwards, by Dub, by Comur southwards, by Tromma, by Othromma eastwards, by Slane, by Gortslane, by Druim Licce southwards, by Ath Gabla, by Ard Achad, by Feraind northwards, by Findabair, by Assi southwards, by Druim Salfind, by Druim Cain, by Druim Mac n-Dega, by Eodond Mor, by Eodond Bec, by Methe Togmaill, by Methe Eoin, by Druim Caemtechta, by Scuaip, by Imscuaip, by Cend Ferna, by Baile, by Aile, by Bail Scena, by Dail Scena, by Fertse, by Ross Lochad, by Sale, by Lochmach, by Anmag, by Deind, by Deilt, by Dubglaiss, by Fid Mor, by Coffitha, by Cronn, to Cualnge.
From Findabair Cuailnge, it is thence the hosts of Ireland were divided over the province to seek the Bull. For it is past these places that they came, till they reached Findabair.
Here ends the title; and the story begins as follows:—
This is the story in order:
When they had come on their first journey from Cruachan as far as Cul Sibrinne, Medb told her charioteer to get ready her nine chariots for her, that she might make a circuit in the camp, to see who disliked and who liked the expedition.
Now his tent was pitched for Ailill, and the furniture was arranged, both beds and coverings. Fergus Mac Roich in his tent was next to Ailill; Cormac Condlongas Mac Conchobair beside him; Conall Cernach by him; Fiacha Mac Fir-Febe, the son of Conchobar’s daughter, by him. Medb, daughter of Eochaid Fedlech, was on Ailill’s other side; next to her, Findabair, daughter of Ailill and Medb. That was besides servants and attendants.
Medb came, after looking at the host, and she said it were folly for the rest to go on the hosting, if the cantred of the Leinstermen went.
‘Why do you blame the men?’ said Ailill.
‘We do not blame them,’ said Medb; ‘splendid are the warriors. When the rest were making their huts, they had finished thatching their huts and cooking their food; when the rest were at dinner, they had finished dinner, and their harpers were playing to them. It is folly for them to go,’ said Medb; ‘it is to their credit the victory of the hosts will be.’
‘It is for us they fight,’ said Ailill.
‘They shall not come with us,’ said Medb.
‘Let them stay then,’ said Ailill.
‘They shall not stay,’ said Medb. ‘They will come on us after we have gone,’ said she, ‘and seize our land against us.’
‘What is to be done to them?’ said Ailill; ‘will you have them neither stay nor go?’
‘To kill them,’ said Medb.
‘We will not hide that this is a woman’s plan,’ said Ailill; ‘what you say is not good!’
‘With this folk,’ said Fergus, ‘it shall not happen thus (for it is a folk bound by ties to us Ulstermen), unless we are all killed.’
‘Even that we could do,’ said Medb; ‘for I am here with my retinue of two cantreds,’ said she, ‘and there are the seven Manes, that is, my seven sons, with seven cantreds; their luck can protect them,’(?) said she; ‘that is Mane-Mathramail, and Mane-Athramail, and Mane-Morgor, and Mane-Mingor, and Mane-Moepert (and he is Mane-Milscothach), Mane-Andoe, and Mane-who-got-everything: he got the form of his mother and of his father, and the dignity of both.’
‘It would not be so,’ said Fergus. ‘There are seven kings of Munster here, and a cantred with each of them, in friendship with us Ulstermen. I will give battle to you,’ said Fergus, ‘in the middle of the host in which we are, with these seven cantreds, and with my own cantred, and with the cantred of the Leinstermen. But I will not urge that,’ said Fergus, ‘we will provide for the warriors otherwise, so that they shall not prevail over the host. Seventeen cantreds for us,’ said Fergus, ‘that is the number of our army, besides our rabble, and our women (for with each king there is his queen, in Medb’s company), and besides our striplings. This is the eighteenth cantred, the cantred of the Leinstermen. Let them be distributed among the rest of the host.’
‘I do not care,’ said Medb, ‘provided they are not gathered as they are.’
Then this was done; the Leinstermen were distributed among the host.
They set out next morning to Moin Choiltrae, where eight score deer fell in with them in one herd. They surrounded them and killed them then; wherever there was a man of the Leinstermen, it was he who got them, except five deer that all the rest of the host got. Then they came to Mag Trego, and stopped there and prepared their food. They say that it is there that Dubthach sang this song:
‘Grant what you have not heard hitherto,
Listening to the fight of Dubthach.
A hosting very black is before you,
Against Findbend15 of the wife of Ailill.
‘The man of expeditions will come
Who will defend (?) Murthemne.
Ravens will drink milk of —13
From the friendship of the swineherds.
‘The turfy Cronn14 will resist them;
He will not let them into Murthemne
Until the work of warriors is over
In Sliab Tuad Ochaine.
‘“Quickly,” said Ailill to Cormac,
“Go that you may — your son.
The cattle do not come from the fields
That the din of the host may not terrify them (?).
‘“This will be a battle in its time
For Medb with a third of the host.
There will be flesh of men therefrom
If the Riastartha comes to you.”’
Then the Nemain attacked them, and that was not the quietest of nights for them, with the uproar of the churl (i.e. Dubthach) through their sleep. The host started up at once, and a great number of the host were in confusion, till Medb came to reprove him.
Then they went and spent the night in Granard Tethba Tuascirt, after the host had been led astray over bogs and over streams. A warning was sent from Fergus to the Ulstermen here, for friendship. They were now in the weakness, except Cú Chulainn and his father Sualtaim.
Cú Chulainn and his father went, after the coming of the warning from Fergus, till they were in Iraird Cuillend, watching the host there.
‘I think of the host tonight,’ said Cú Chulainn to his father. ‘Go from us with a warning to the Ulstermen. I am forced to go to a tryst with Fedelm Noichride,15 from my own pledge that went out to her.’
He made a spancel-withe16 then before he went, and wrote an ogam on its —, and threw it on the top of the pillar.
The leadership of the way before the army was given to Fergus. Then Fergus went far astray to the south, till Ulster should have completed the collection of an army; he did this for friendship. Ailill and Medb perceived it; it was then Medb said:
‘O Fergus, this is strange,
What kind of way do we go?
Straying south or north
We go over every other folk.
‘Ailill of Ai with his hosting
Fears that you will betray them.
You have not given your mind hitherto
To the leading of the way.
‘If it is in friendship that you do it,
Do not lead the horses
Peradventure another may be found
To lead the way.’
‘O Medb, what troubles you?
This is not like treachery.
It belongs to the Ulstermen, O woman,
The land across which I am leading you.
‘It is not for the disadvantage of the host
That I go on each wandering in its turn;
It is to avoid the great man
Who protects Mag Murthemne.
‘Not that my mind is not distressed
On account of the straying on which I go,
But if perchance I may avoid even afterwards
Cú Chulainn Mac Sualtaim.’
Then they went till they were in Iraird Cuillend. Eirr and Indell, Foich and Foclam (their two charioteers), the four sons of Iraird Mac Anchinne,17 it is they who were before the host, to protect their brooches and their cushions and their cloaks, that the dust of the host might not soil them. They found the withe that Cú Chulainn threw, and perceived the grazing that the horses had grazed. For Sualtaim’s two horses had eaten the grass with its roots from the earth; Cú Chulainn’s two horses had licked the earth as far as the stones beneath the grass. They sit down then, until the host came, and the musicians play to them. They give the withe into the hands of Fergus Mac Roich; he read the ogam that was on it.
When Medb came, she asked, ‘Why are you waiting here?’
‘We wait,’ said Fergus, ‘because of the withe yonder. There is an ogam on its —, and this is what is in it: “Let no one go past till a man is found to throw a like withe with his one hand, and let it be one twig of which it is made; and I except my friend Fergus.” Truly,’ said Fergus, ‘Cú Chulainn has thrown it, and they are his horses that grazed the plain.’
And he put it in the hands of the druids; and Fergus sang this song:
‘Here is a withe, what does the withe declare to us?
What is its mystery?
What number threw it?
Few or many?
‘Will it cause injury to the host,
If they go a journey from it?
Find out, ye druids, something therefore
For what the withe has been left.
‘— of heroes the hero who has thrown it,
Full misfortune on warriors;
A delay of princes, wrathful is the matter,
One man has thrown it with one hand.
‘Is not the king’s host at the will of him,
Unless it breaks fair play?
Until one man only of you
Throw it, as one man has thrown it.
I do not know anything save that
For which the withe should have been put.
Here is a withe.’
Then Fergus said to them: ‘If you outrage this withe,’ said he, ‘or if you go past it, though he be in the custody of a man, or in a house under a lock, the — of the man who wrote the ogam on it will reach him, and will slay a goodly slaughter of you before morning, unless one of you throw a like withe.’
‘It does not please us, indeed, that one of us should be slain at once,’ said Ailill. ‘We will go by the neck of the great wood yonder, south of us, and we will not go over it at all.’
The troops hewed down then the wood before the chariots. This is the name of that place, Slechta. It is there that Partraige is. (According to others, the conversation between Medb and Fedelm the prophetess took place there, as we told before; and then it is after the answer she gave to Medb that the wood was cut down; i.e. ‘Look for me,’ said Medb, ‘how my hosting will be.’ ‘It is difficult to me,’ said the maiden; ‘I cannot cast my eye over them in the wood.’ ‘It is ploughland(?) there shall be,’ said Medb; ‘we will cut down the wood.’ Then this was done, so that Slechta was the name of the place.)
They spent the night then in Cul Sibrille; a great snowstorm fell on them, to the girdles of the men and the wheels of the chariots. The rising was early next morning. And it was not the most peaceful of nights for them, with the snow; and they had not prepared food that night. But it was not early when Cú Chulainn came from his tryst; he waited to wash and bathe.
Then he came on the track of the host. ‘Would that we had not gone there,’ said Cú Chulainn, ‘nor betrayed the Ulstermen; we have let the host go to them unawares. Make us an estimation of the host,’ said Cú Chulainn to Loeg, ‘that we may know the number of the host.’
Loeg did this, and said to Cú Chulainn: ‘I am confused,’ said he, ‘I cannot attain this.’
‘It would not be confusion that I see, if only I come,’ said Cú Chulainn.
‘Get into the chariot then,’ said Loeg.
Cú Chulainn got into the chariot, and put a reckoning over the host for a long time.
‘Even you,’ said Loeg, ‘you do not find it easy.’
‘It is easier indeed to me than to you,’ said Cú Chulainn; ‘for I have three gifts, the gifts of eye, and of mind, and of reckoning. I have put a reckoning18 on this,’ said he; ‘there are eighteen cantreds,’ said he, ‘for their number; only that the eighteenth cantred is distributed among all the host, so that their number is not clear; that is, the cantred of the Leinstermen.’
Then Cú Chulainn went round the host till he was at Ath Gabla.19 He cuts a fork20 there with one blow of his sword, and put it on the middle of the stream, so that a chariot could not pass it on this side or that. Eirr and Indell, Foich and Fochlam (their two charioteers) came upon him thereat. He strikes their four heads off, and throws them on to the four points of the fork. Hence is Ath Gabla.
Then the horses of the four went to meet the host, and their cushions very red on them. They supposed it was a battalion that was before them at the ford. A troop went from them to look at the ford; they saw nothing there but the track of one chariot and the fork with the four heads, and a name in ogam written on the side. All the host came then.
‘Are the heads yonder from our people?’ said Medb.
‘They are from our people and from our choice warriors,’ said Ailill.
One of them read the ogam that was on the side of the fork; that is: ‘A man has thrown the fork with his one hand; and you shall not go past it till one of you, except Fergus, has thrown it with one hand.’
‘It is a marvel,’ said Ailill, ‘the quickness with which the four were struck.’
‘It was not that that was a marvel,’ said Fergus; ‘it was the striking of the fork from the trunk with one blow; and if the end was [cut] with one blow,21 it is the fairer for it, and that it was thrust in in this manner; for it is not a hole that has been dug for it, but it is from the back of the chariot it has been thrown with one hand.’
‘Avert this strait from us, O Fergus,’ said Medb.
‘Bring me a chariot then,’ said Fergus, ‘that I may take it out, that you may see whether its end was hewn with one blow.’ Fergus broke then fourteen chariots of his chariots, so that it was from his own chariot that he took it out of the ground, and he saw that the end was hewn with one blow.
‘Heed must be taken to the character of the tribe to which we are going,’ said Ailill. ‘Let each of you prepare his food; you had no rest last night for the snow. And something shall be told to us of the adventures and stories of the tribe to which we are going.’
It is then that the adventures of Cú Chulainn were related to them. Ailill asked: ‘Is it Conchobar who has done this?’
‘Not he,’ said Fergus; ‘he would not have come to the border of the country without the number of a battalion round him.’
‘Was it Celtchar Mac Uithidir?’
‘Not he; he would not have come to the border of the country without the number of a battalion round him.’
‘Was it Eogan Mac Durtacht?’
‘Not he,’ said Fergus; ‘he would not have come over the border of the country without thirty chariots two-pointed (?) round him. This is the man who would have done the deed,’ said Fergus, ‘Cú Chulainn; it is he who would have cut the tree at one blow from the trunk, and who would have killed the four yonder as quickly as they were killed, and who would have come to the boundary with his charioteer.’
‘What kind of man,’ said Ailill,’is this Hound of whom we have heard among the Ulstermen? What age is this youth who is famous?’
‘An easy question, truly,’ said Fergus. ‘In his fifth year he went to the boys at Emain Macha to play; in his sixth year he went to learn arms and feats with Scathach. In his seventh year he took arms. He is now seventeen years old at this time.’
‘Is it he who is hardest to deal with among the Ulstermen?’ said Medb.
‘Over every one of them,’ said Fergus. ‘You will not find before you a warrior who is harder to deal with, nor a point that is sharper or keener or swifter, nor a hero who is fiercer, nor a raven that is more flesh-loving, nor a match of his age that can equal him as far as a third; nor a lion that is fiercer, nor a fence (?) of battle, nor a hammer of destruction, nor a door of battle, nor judgment on hosts, nor preventing of a great host that is more worthy. You will not find there a man who would reach his age, and his growth, and his dress, and his terror, his speech, his splendour, his fame, his voice, his form, his power, his hardness, his accomplishment, his valour, his striking, his rage, his anger, his victory, his doom-giving, his violence, his estimation, his hero triumph, his speed, his pride, his madness, with the feat of nine men on every point, like Cú Chulainn.’
‘I don’t care for that,’ said Medb; ‘he is in one body; he endures wounding; he is not above capturing. Therewith his age is that of a grown-up girl, and his manly deeds have not come yet.’
‘Not so,’ said Fergus. ‘It would be no wonder if he were to do a good deed today; for even when he was younger his deeds were manly.’
1 i.e. spears as large as pillars, etc.
2 Exact meaning unknown. It is always used in this connection.
3 Literally, a beam used for making fringe.
4 Ir. imbas forasnai, the name of a kind of divination.
5 Conjectural; some letters missing. For the Ulster sickness, see Introduction.
6 Unless this is an allusion to the custom of carrying an enemy’s head at the girdle, the meaning is obscure. LL has quite a different reading. The language of this poem is late.
7 Five syllables missing.
8 The Gae-bolga was a special kind of spear, which only Cú Chulainn could use.
9 Three syllables missing.
10 The Riastartha (‘distorted one’) was a name given to Cú Chulainn because of the contortion, described later, which came over him.
11 Samain, ‘summer-end,’ about the beginning of November.
12 Findbennach, the Whitehorned; i.e. the other of the two bulls in whom the rival swineherds were reincarnated.
13 Some kenning for blood?
14 i.e. the river Cronn. This line is a corruption of a reference which occurs later, in the account of the flooding of the Cronn, as Professor Strachan first pointed out to me.
15 Gloss incorporated in the text: ‘that is, with her servant,’ etc.
16 This was a twig twisted in the form of two rings, joined by one straight piece, as used for hobbling horses and cattle.
17 Marginal gloss: ‘or the four sons of Nera Mac Nuado Mac Taccain, as it is found in other books.’
18 Marginal gloss: ‘This is one of the three severest and most difficult reckonings made in Ireland; i.e. Cú Chulainn’s reckoning of the men of Ireland on the Táin and Lug’s reckoning of the Fomorian hosts at the battle of Mag Tured and Ingcel’s reckoning of the hosts at the Bruiden Da Derga.’
19 LU has Ath Grena.
20 i.e. fork of a tree.
21 Lit. ‘if its end was one cutting.’