Once upon a time there dwelt in the province of Leinster a wealthy hospitable lord named Mesroda, son of Datho. Two possessions had he; namely, a hound which could outrun every other hound and every wild beast in Erinn, and a boar which was the finest and greatest in size that man had ever beheld.
Now the fame of this hound was noised all about the land, and many were the princes and lords who longed to possess it. And it came to pass that Conor, King of Ulster, and Maev, Queen of Connacht, sent messengers to Mac Datho to ask him to sell them the hound for a price, and both the messengers arrived at the Dún of Mac Datho on the same day. Said the Connacht messenger, ‘We will give thee in exchange for the hound six hundred milch cows, and a chariot with two horses, the best that are to be found in Connacht, and at the end of a year thou shalt have as much again.’ And the messenger of King Conor said, ‘We will give no less than Connacht, and the friendship and alliance of Ulster, and that will be better for thee than the friendship of Connacht.’
Then Mesroda Mac Datho fell silent, and for three days he would not eat nor drink, nor could he sleep o’ nights, but tossed restlessly on his bed. His wife observed his condition, and said to him, ‘Thy fast hath been long, Mesroda, though good food is by thee in plenty; and at night thou turnest thy face to the wall, and well I know thou dost not sleep. What is the cause of thy trouble?’
‘There is a saying,’ replied Mac Datho, ‘“Trust not a thrall with money, nor a woman with a secret.”’
‘When should a man talk to a woman,’ said his wife, ‘but when something were amiss? What thy mind cannot solve perchance another’s may.’
Then Mac Datho told his wife of the request for his hound both from Ulster and from Connacht at one and the same time, ‘And whichever of them I deny,’ he said, ‘they will harry my cattle and slay my people.’
‘Then hear my counsel,’ said the woman. ‘Give it to both of them, and bid them come and fetch it; and if there be any harrying to be done, let them even harry each other; but in no way mayest thou keep the hound.’
On that, Mac Datho rose up and shook himself, and called for food and drink, and made merry with himself and his guests. Then he sent privately for the messenger of Queen Maev, and said to him, ‘Long have I doubted what to do, but now I am resolved to give the hound to Connacht. Let ye send for it on such a day with a train of your nobles or warriors and bear him forth nobly and proudly, for he is worth it; and ye shall all have drink and food and royal entertainment in my Dún.’ So the messenger departed, well pleased.
To the Ulster messenger Mac Datho said, ‘After much perplexity I have resolved to give my hound to Conor. Let the best of the Ulstermen come to fetch him, and they shall be welcomed and entertained as is fitting.’ And for these he named the same day as he had done for the embassy from Connacht.
When the appointed day came round, the flower of the fighting men of two provinces of Ireland were assembled before the Dún of the son of Datho, and there were also Conor, King of Ulster, and Ailill, the husband of Maev, Queen of Connacht. Mac Datho went forth to meet them. ‘Welcome, warriors,’ he said to them, ‘albeit for two armies at once we were not prepared.’ Then he bade them into the Dún, and in the great hall they sat down. Now in this hall there were seven doors, and between every two doors were benches for fifty men. Not as friends bidden to a feast did the men of Ulster and of Connacht look upon one another, since for three hundred years the provinces had ever been at war.
‘Let the great boar be killed,’ said Mac Datho, and it was done. For seven years had that boar been nourished on the milk of fifty cows; yet rather on venom should it have been nourished, such was the mischief that was to come from the carving of it.
When the boar was roasted it was brought in, and many other kinds of food as side dishes, ‘And if more be wanting to the feast,’ said Mac Datho, ‘it shall be slain for you before the morning.’
‘The boar is good,’ said Conor.
‘It is a fine boar,’ said Ailill; ‘and now, O Mac Datho, how shall it be divided among us?’
There was among the Ulster company one Bricru, son of Carbad, whose delight was in biting speeches and in fomenting strife, though he himself was never known to draw sword in any quarrel. He now spoke from his couch in answer to Ailill:
‘How should the boar be divided, O son of Datho, except by appointing to carve it him who is best in deeds of arms? Here be all the valiant men of Ireland assembled; have none of us hit each other a blow on the nose ere now?’
‘Good,’ said Ailill, ‘so let it be done.’
‘We also agree,’ said Conor; ‘there are plenty of our lads in the house that have many a time gone round the border of the Provinces.’
‘You will want them to-night, Conor,’ said an old warrior from Conlad in the West. ‘They have often been seen on their backs on the roads of rushy Dedah, and many a fat steer have they left with me.’
‘It was a fat bullock thou didst have with thee once upon a day,’ replied Moonremar of Ulster, ‘even thine own brother, and by the rushy road of Conlad he came and went not back.’
‘’Twas a better man than he, even Irloth, son of Fergus Mac Leda, who fell by the hand of Echbael in Tara Luachra,’ replied Lugad of Munster.
‘Echbael?’ cried Keltchar, son of Uthecar Hornskin of Ulster. ‘Is it of him ye boast, whom I myself slew and cut off his head?’
And thus the heroes bandied about the tales and taunts of their victories, until at length Ket, son of Maga of the Connachtmen, arose and stood over the boar and took the knife into his hand. ‘Now,’ he cried, ‘let one man in Ulster match his deeds with mine, or else hold ye your peace and let me carve the boar!’
For a while there was silence, and then Conor King of Ulster, said to Logary the Triumphant, ‘Stay that for me.’ So Logary arose and said, ‘Ket shall never carve the boar for all of us.’
‘Not so fast, Logary,’ said Ket. ‘It is the custom among you Ulstermen that when a youth first takes arms he comes to prove himself on us. So didst thou, Logary, and we met thee at the border. From that meeting I have thy chariot and horses, and thou hadst a spear through thy ribs. Not thus wilt thou get the boar from me.’ Then Logary sat down on his bench.
‘Ket shall never divide that pig,’ spake then a tall fair-haired warrior from Ulster, coming down the hall. ‘Whom have we here?’ asked Ket. ‘A better man than thou,’ shouted the Ulstermen, ‘even Angus, son of Lama Gabad.’ ‘Indeed?’ said Ket, ‘and why is his father called Lama Gabad [wanting a hand]?’ ‘We know not,’ said they. ‘But I know it,’ said Ket. ‘Once I went on a foray to the East, and was attacked by a troop, Lama Gabad among them. He flung a lance at me. I seized the same lance and flung it back, and it shore off his hand, and it lay there on the field before him. Shall that man’s son measure himself with me?’ And Angus went to his bench and sat down.
‘Keep up the contest,’ then cried Ket tauntingly, ‘or let me divide the boar.’ ‘That thou shalt not,’ cried another Ulster warrior of great stature. ‘And who is this?’ said Ket. ‘Owen Mór, King of Fermag,’ said the Ulstermen. ‘I have seen him ere now,’ said Ket. ‘I took a drove of cattle from him before his own house. He put a spear through my shield and I flung it back and it tore out one of his eyes, and one-eyed he is to this day.’ Then Owen Mór sat down.
‘Have ye any more to contest the pig with me?’ then said Ket. ‘Thou hast not won it yet,’ said Moonremar, son of Gerrkind, rising up. ‘Is that Moonremar?’ said Ket, ‘It is,’ they cried.
‘It is but three days,’ said Ket, ‘since I was the last man who won renown of thee. Three heads of thy fighting men did I carry off from Dún Moonremar, and one of the three was the head of thy eldest son.’ Moonremar then sat down.
‘Still the contest,’ said Ket, ‘or I shall carve the boar.’ ‘Contest thou shalt have,’ said Mend, son of Sword-heel. ‘Who is this?’ said Ket. ‘’Tis Mend,’ cried all the Ulstermen.
‘Shall the sons of fellows with nicknames come here to contend with me?’ cried Ket. ‘I was the priest who christened thy father that name. ’Twas I who cut the heel off him, so that off he went with only one. What brings the son of that man to contend with me?’ Mend then sat down in his seat.
‘Come to the contest,’ said Ket, ‘or I shall begin to carve.’ Then arose from the Ulstermen a huge grey and terrible warrior. ‘Who is this?’ asked Ket. ‘’Tis Keltcar, son of Uthecar,’ cried they all.
‘Wait awhile, Keltcar,’ said Ket, ‘do not pound me to pieces just yet. Once, O Keltcar, I made a foray on thee and came in front of Dún. All thy folk attacked me, and thou amongst them. In a narrow pass we fought, and thou didst fling a spear at me and I at thee, but my spear went through thy loins and thou hast never been the better of it since.’ Then Keltcar sat down in his seat.
‘Who else comes to the contest,’ cried Ket ‘or shall I at last divide the pig?’ Up rose then the son of King Conor, named Cuscrid the Stammerer ‘Whom have we here?’ said Ket. ‘’Tis Cuscrid son of Conor,’ cried they all. ‘He has the stuff of a king in him,’ said Ket. ‘No thanks to thee for that,’ said the youth.
‘Well, then,’ said Ket, ‘thou madest thy first foray against us Connachtmen, and on the border of the Provinces we met thee. A third of thy people, thou didst leave behind thee, and came away with my spear through thy throat, so that thou canst not speak rightly ever since, for the sinews of thy throat were severed. And hence is Cuscrid the Stammerer thy byname ever since.’
So thus Ket laid shame and defeat on the whole Province of Ulster, nor was there any other warrior in the hall found to contend with him.
Then Ket stood up triumphing, and took the knife in his hand and prepared to carve the boar when a noise and trampling were heard at the great door of the hall, and a mighty shout of exultation arose from the Ulstermen. When the press parted, Ket saw coming up the centre of the hall Conall of the Victories, and Conor the King dashed the helmet from his head and sprang up for joy.
‘Glad we are,’ cried Conall, ‘that all is ready for feast; and who is carving the boar for us?’
‘Ket, son of Maga,’ replied they, ‘for none could contest the place of honour with him.’
‘Is that so, Ket?’ says Conall Cearnach.
‘Even so,’ replied Ket. ‘And now welcome to thee, O Conall, thou of the iron heart and fiery blood; keen as the glitter of ice, ever-victorious chieftain; hail mighty son of Finnchoom!’
And Conall said, ‘Hail to thee, Ket, flower of heroes, lord of chariots, a raging sea in battle; a strong, majestic bull; hail, son of Maga!’
‘And now,’ went on Conall, ‘rise up from the boar and give me place.’
‘Why so?’ replied Ket.
‘Dost thou seek a contest from me?’ said Conall; ‘verily thou shalt have it. By the gods of my nation I swear that since I first took weapons in my hand I have never passed one day that I did not slay a Connachtman, nor one night that I did not make a foray on them, nor have I ever slept but I had the head of a Connachtman under my knee.’
‘I confess,’ then, said Ket, ‘that thou art a better man than I, and I yield thee the boar. But if Anluan my brother were here, he would match thee deed for deed, and sorrow and shame it is that he is not.’
‘Anluan is here,’ shouted Conall, and with that he drew from his girdle the head of Anluan and dashed it in the face of Ket.
Then all sprang to their feet and a wild shouting and tumult arose, and the swords flew out of themselves, and battle raged in the hall of Mac Datho. Soon the hosts burst out through the doors of the Dún and smote and slew each other in the open field, until the Connacht host were put to flight. The hound of Mac Datho pursued them along with the Ulstermen, and it came up with the chariot in which King Ailill was driving, and seized the pole of the chariot, but the charioteer dealt it a blow that cut off its head. When Ailill drew rein they found the hound’s head still clinging to the pole, whence that place is called Ibar Cinn Chon, or the Yew Tree of the Hound’s Head.
Now when Conor pursued hard upon King Ailill, Ferloga, the charioteer of Ailill, lighted down and hid himself in the heather; and as Conor drove past, Ferloga leaped up behind him in the chariot and gripped him by the throat.
‘What will thou have of me?’ said Conor.
‘Give over the pursuit,’ said Ferloga, ‘and take me with thee to Emania,1 and let the maidens of Emania so long as I am there sing a serenade before my dwelling every night.’ ‘Granted,’ said Conor. So he took Ferloga with him to Emania, and at the end of a year sent him back to Connacht, escorting him as far as to Athlone; and Ferloga had from the King of Ulster two noble horses with golden bridles, but the serenade from the maidens of Ulster he did not get, though he got the horses instead. And thus ends the tale of the contention between Ulster and Connacht over the Carving of Mac Datho’s Boar.
1 The ancient royal residence of Ulster, near to the present town of Armagh.