Atharna the Bard, surnamed the Extortionate, was the chief poet and satirist of Ulster in the reign of Conor Mac Nessa. Greed and arrogance were in his heart and poison on his tongue, and the kings and lords of whom he asked rewards for his poems dared not refuse him aught, partly because of the poisonous satires and lampoons which he would otherwise make upon them for their niggardliness, and partly for that in Ireland at that day it was deemed shameful to refuse to a bard whatsoever he might ask. Once it was said that he asked of a sub-king, namely Eochy Mac Luchta, who was famed for hospitality and generosity, the single thing that Eochy would have been grieved to give, namely his eye, and Eochy had but one eye. But the King plucked it out by the roots and gave it to him; and Atharna went away disappointed, for he had looked that Eochy would ransom his eye at a great price.
Now Conor Mac Nessa, King of Ulster, and all the Ulster lords, having grown very powerful and haughty, became ill neighbours to all the other kingdoms in Ireland. On fertile Leinster above all they fixed their eyes, and sought for an opportunity to attack and plunder the province. Conor resolved at last to move Atharna to go to the King of Leinster, in the hope that he himself might be rid of Atharna, by the King of Leinster killing him for his insolence and his exactions, and that he might avenge the death of his bard by the invasion of Leinster.
Atharna therefore set out for Leinster accompanied by his train of poets and harpers and gillies and arrived at the great Dún of Mesgedra the King, at Naas in Kildare. Here he dwelt for twelve months wasting the substance of the Leinstermen and in the end when he was minded to return to Ulster he went before the King Mesgedra and the lords of Leinster and demanded his poet’s fee.
‘What is thy demand, Atharna?’ asked Mesgedra.
‘So many cattle and so many sheep,’ answered Atharna, ‘and store of gold and raiment, and of the fairest dames and maidens of Leinster forty-five, to grind at my querns in Dún Atharna.’
‘It shall be granted thee,’ said the King. Then Atharna feared some mischief, for the King and the nobles of Leinster had not seemed like men on whom shameful conditions are laid, nor had they offered to ransom their women. Atharna therefore judged that the Leinstermen might fall upon him to recover their booty when he was once beyond the border, for within their own borders they might not affront a guest. He sent, therefore, a swift messenger to Conor Mac Nessa, bidding him come with a strong escort as quickly as he might, to meet Atharna’s band on the marches of Leinster, and convey him safely home.
Atharna then departed from Naas with a great herd of sheep and cattle and other spoils, and with thrice fifteen of the noble women of Leinster. He went leisurely, meaning to strike the highroad to Emania from Dublin; but when he came thither the Liffey was swollen with rain, and the ford at Dublin might not be crossed. He caused, therefore, many great hurdles to be made, and these were set in the river, and over them a causeway of boughs was laid, so that his cattle and spoils came safely across. Hence is the town of that place called to this day in Gaelic the City of the Hurdle Ford.
On the next day Conor and the Ulstermen met him, but a great force of the men of Leinster was also marching from Naas to the border, to recover their womenfolk, even as Atharna had expected. The Leinstermen then broke the battle on the company from Ulster, and defeated them, driving them with the cows of Atharna on to the sea cape of Ben Edar (Howth), but they recovered the women. On Ben Edar did King Conor with the remnant of his troop then fortify themselves, making a great fosse across the neck of land by which Ben Edar is joined to the mainland, and here they were besieged, with hard fighting by day and night, expecting that help should come to them from Ulster, whither they had sent messengers to tell of their distress.
Now Conall of the Victories was left behind to rule in Emania when Conor set forth to Leinster, and he now, on hearing how the King was beset, assembled a great host and marched down to Ben Edar. Here he attacked the host of Leinster, and a great battle was fought, many being slain on both sides, and the King of Leinster, Mesgedra, lost his left hand in the fight. In the end the men of Leinster were routed, and fled, and Mesgedra drove in his chariot past the City of the Hurdle Ford and Naas to the fords of Liffey at Clane. Here there was a sacred oak tree where druid rites and worship were performed, and that oak tree was sanctuary, so that within its shadow, guarded by mighty spells, no man might be slain by his enemy.
Now Conall Cearnach had followed hard on the track of Mesgedra, and when he found him beneath the oak, he drove his chariot round and round the circuit of the sanctuary, bidding Mesgedra come forth and do battle with him, or be counted a dastard among the kings of Erinn. But Mesgedra said, ‘Is it the fashion of the champions of Ulster to challenge one-armed men to battle?’
Then Conall let his charioteer bind one of his arms to his side, and again he taunted Mesgedra and bade him come forth.
Mesgedra then drew sword, and between him and Conall there was a fierce fight until the Liffey was reddened with their blood. At last, by a chance blow of the sword of Mesgedra, the bonds of Conall’s left arm were severed.
‘On thy head be it,’ said Conall, ‘if thou release me again.’
Then he caused his arm to be bound up once more, and again they met, sword to sword, and again in the fury of the fight Mesgedra cut the thongs that bound Conall’s arm. ‘The gods themselves have doomed thee,’ shouted Conall then, and he rushed upon Mesgedra and in no long time he wounded him to death.
‘Take my head,’ said Mesgedra then, ‘and add my glory to thy glory, but be well assured this wrong shall yet be avenged by me upon Ulster,’ and he died.
Then Conall cut off the head of Mesgedra and put it in his chariot, and took also the chariot of Mesgedra and fared northwards. Ere long he met a chariot and fifty women accompanying it. In it was Buan the Queen, wife of Mesgedra, returning from a visit to Meath.
‘Who art thou, woman?’ said Conall.
‘I am Buan, wife of Mesgedra the King.’
‘Thou art to come with me,’ then said Conall.
‘Who hath commanded this?’ said Buan.
‘Mesgedra the King,’ said Conall.
‘By what token dost thou lay these commands upon me?’
‘Behold his chariot and his horses,’ said Conall.
‘He gives rich gifts to many a man,’ answered the Queen.
Then Conall showed her the head of her husband.
‘This is my token,’ said he.
‘It is enough,’ said Buan. ‘But give me leave to bewail him ere I go into captivity.’
Then Buan rose up in her chariot and raised for Mesgedra a keen of sorrow so loud and piercing that her heart broke with it, and she fell backwards on the road and died.
Conall Cearnach then buried her there, and laid the head of her husband by her side; and the fair hazel tree that grew from her grave by the fords of Clane was called Coll Buana, or the Hazel Tree of Buan.
But ere Conall buried the head of Mesgedra he caused the brain to be taken out and mixed with lime to make a bullet for a sling, for so it was customary to do when a great warrior had been killed; and the brain-balls thus made were accounted to be the deadliest of missiles.
So when Leinster had been harried and plundered and its king and queen thus slain, the Ulstermen drew northward again, and the brain-ball was laid up in the Dún of King Conor at Emania.
Years afterwards it happened that the Wolf of Connacht, namely Ket, son of Maga, came disguised within the borders of Ulster in search of prey, and he entered the palace precincts of Conor in Emania. There he saw two jesters of the King, who had gotten the brain-ball from the shelf where it lay, and were rolling it about the courtyard. Ket knew it for what it was, and put it out of sight of the jesters and took it away with him while they made search for it. Thenceforth Ket carried it ever about with him in his girdle, hoping that he might yet use it to destroy some great warrior among the Ulstermen.
One day thereafter Ket made a foray on the men of Ross, and carried away a spoil of cattle. The host of Ulster and King Conor with them overtook him as he went homeward. The men of Connacht had also mustered to the help of Ket, and both sides made them ready for battle.
Now a river, namely Brosna, ran between them, and on a hill at one side of this were assembled a number of the noble women of Connacht, who desired greatly to look on the far-famed Ultonian warriors, and above all on Conor the King, whose presence was said to be royal and stately beyond any man that was then living in Erinn. Among the bushes, close to the women, Ket hid himself, and lay still but watchful.
Now Conor, seeing none but womenfolk close to him at this point, and being willing to show them his splendour, drew near to the bank on his side of the stream. Then Ket leaped up, whirling his sling, and the bullet hummed across the river and smote King Conor on the temple. And his men carried him off for dead, and the men of Connacht broke the battle on the Ulstermen, slaying many, and driving the rest of them back to their own place. This battle was thenceforth called the Battle of the Ford of the Sling-cast, or Athnurchar; and so the place is called to this day.
When Conor was brought home to Emania his chief physician, Fingen, found the ball half buried in his temple. ‘If the ball be taken out,’ said Fingen, ‘he will die; if it remain he will live, but he will bear the blemish of it.’
‘Let him bear the blemish,’ said the Ulster lords, ‘that is a small matter compared with the death of Conor.’
Then Fingen stitched the wound over with a thread of gold, for Conor had curling golden hair, and bade him keep himself from all violent movements and from all vehement passions, and not to ride on horseback, and he would do well.
After that Conor lived for seven years, and he went not to war during that time, and all cause of passion was kept far from him. Then one day at broad noon the sky darkened, and the gloom of night seemed to spread over the world, and all the people feared, and looked for some calamity. Conor called to him his chief druid, namely Bacarach, and inquired of him as to the cause of the gloom.
The druid then went with Conor into a sacred grove of oaks and performed the rites of divination, and in a trance he spoke to Conor, saying, ‘I see a hill near a great city, and three high crosses on it. To one of them is nailed the form of a young man who is like unto one of the Immortals. Round him stand soldiers with tall spears, and a great crowd waiting to see him die.’
‘Is he, then, a malefactor?’
‘Nay,’ said the druid, ‘but holiness, innocence, and truth have come to earth in him, and for this cause have the druids of his land doomed him to die, for his teaching was not as theirs. And the heavens are darkened for wrath and sorrow at the sight.’
Then Conor leaped up in a fury, crying, ‘They shall not slay him, they shall not slay him! Would I were there with the host of Ulster, and thus would I scatter his foes’; and with that he snatched his sword and began striking at the trees that stood thickly about him in the druid grove. Then with the heat of his passion the sling-ball burst from his head, and he fell to the ground and died. Thus was fulfilled the vengeance of Mesgedra upon Conor Mac Nessa, King of Ulster.