Book excerpt

He Stands Alone

The Fifth Book of the Ulster Cycle

Ulster Cycle
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Tor/Forge

He Stands Alone
The Conception of CúchulainnThe story of the birth of Cúchulainn exists in several recensions, one alleged to have been transcribed from the now lost Book of Druimm Snechtai, the others appearing in Lebor Na hUidre and in pieces in The Book of Leinster. Cúchulainn is the central character of the Ulster Cycle or, as it is sometimes referred to, the Heroic Cycle or the Red Branch Cycle. The period corresponds roughly to the beginning of the Christian era, although a lot of the tales can be found much earlier in the bardic tradition. This period was the golden age of Gaelic romance, which also included several stories and old-world sagas such as Tain Bó Cuailngé, the most important of the tales, and others concerned with Deirdre and the Sons of Uisneach, Conchobor's vision, the Battle of Rosnaree, and Conchobor's tragedy. The total number of tales is a question for scholarly argument; a hundred or more would be a conservative estimate.Unfortunately, some of the works have been lost or "retold" so often that they bear little resemblance to the originals andscholars have a difficult time agreeing on which tale is most authentic.The following retelling incorporates the two most common versions of the tale of Cúchulainn's birth (Compert Con Culaind). The first is taken from a Lebor Na hUidre manuscript, c. 1106; the second version comes from two recensions in Egerton 1782 (we no longer have the original, c. 1517).First versionTIMES HAD BEEN HARD AT Emain Macha for the Red Branch but harder still for the farmers, who came complaining to the Great Hall to visit with the king, Conchobor Mac Nessa, about the difficulties of planting crops that became food for birds before taking root in the deeply rich ground of Ulster.At last, weary of the complaints that kept coming his way, Conchobor elected to try to drive the birds away from Ulster."Let them take their food from Connacht for all I care," he grumbled angrily as he ordered his warriors to their chariots. "'Tis a sad state when a man's own Druid can't do him the courtesy of taking care of such little annoyances."Cathbad stared calmly back at his son the king and said, "Some little annoyances are the beginnings of major happenings. Take care that you don't confuse one with the other with your griping about grass and thistles."Conchobor sighed and stared over at his champion, Fergus Mac Roich, and shook his head ruefully. "Have you ever gotten a word you could understand from a Druid?" he asked.Fergus, whose head was pounding from his most recent alefeast, which he insisted he had attended only to keep from breaking a geis, a taboo, that had been pronounced on him ("And a handy thing that is for a man who likes his drink," grumbled Nessa, his wife), winced from the sharp tongue lashedhis way and said, "Druids don't have to speak in straight language. It's up to us to figure out what they say. Oh, my head!"Cathbad smiled at this. "Not bad for one who thinks more with the sword between his legs than he does with the empty walnut shell on top of his shoulders.""Don't press it, Druid," growled Fergus, shaking a thickly callused finger at him. "I'm in no mood to play fox and geese between you and your king.""Quite right," Cathbad said quickly. He looked from under shaggy brows at Conchobor. "The truth of the matter is that there could be greater magic here than what you think. We can interpret the movings of the world but not control it.""Well, then, let us ready nine chariots and draw a battle line with them and see if we can drive them from the lines," Conchobor said."Don't be surprised if you can't," Cathbad answered. "Your chariots may control the ground, but the birds have the air."Conchobor grumbled and left to ready himself for his chariot. On the way, he encountered his daughter Deichtine, who was her father's charioteer. She smiled and batted her beautiful eyes at him, saying, "Well, handsome Father, and where are you off to now?""The birds," he said sourly, pausing to breathe in the sweet scent of clover that seemed to come from her. "They are causing more problems than you think. Than I think," he corrected. "We're going to try to drive them away from Emain Macha."She shook her head. "Unless you can control the air, I don't think you'll have much luck," she said."You and Cathbad," Conchobor replied, shaking his head and moving past her. "Better if you were thinking about your wedding plans than worrying about the comings and goings of birds. Go ready the chariot."When Conchobor and his chariots reached the plain before Emain Macha, they drew up in wonder at the barren groundin front of them. Not a root, a leaf, or even so much as a blade of grass stood on the ground, and the birds seemed to be gathered in the center, waiting for them."Arrogant bastards, aren't they?" Conchobor muttered to his charioteer.He glanced at the other chariots drawn up in a line on either side of him. He waved a spear forward. "All right, warriors, let's try to send them back to Connacht. Or kill them. At this point I don't care a hazelnut one way or the other. Just get rid of them."He looked to his immediate left, where the great champion Conall Cernach waited, and to his right at the other champion, Loegaire Buadabach. At the far end of the right wing, sourtongued Bricriu stood in his chariot. Conchobor took a deep breath and waved the line forward.The birds waited until the chariots were almost upon them, then rose effortlessly and flew a short distance away, lighting again, cawing and singing mockingly at the warriors they had left behind."Enough!" Conchobor snapped. "It'll be a frozen day for Manannan before I let a bird mock my coming and going. Kill them!"And with a mighty roar, the chariots rumbled forward. Again, the birds waited for them, then rose tantalizingly into the air as the warriors came within stone- and spear-cast range of them and stayed just ahead of them as the warriors stubbornly chased them past Slíab Fúait, over Edmund, over Brega, and slowly the warriors' mood melted and they became enchanted with the birds' flight and singing. They wondered at the nine score birds, each score flying separately with silver chains linking pairs together.Little earthwork or fence or stone wall hampered them in their chase. So it was that, toward evening, they found themselves a goodly distance from Emain Macha. Three birds brokefrom the game and flew away toward Bruig na Bóinde. Then darkness slipped over the land, and with it came a great snow that further dampened Conchobor's spirits."Unyoke your chariots," he ordered, grumbling. "Conall, you and Bricriu see if you can find shelter for us this night before our balls freeze with the cold.""Always me," Bricriu complained. "The others will gather around their fires, but here I am out in the cold, looking for a house where no self-respecting herder would put one." He shivered and drew his black cloak around his shoulders and glared malevolently at Conall, who seemed impervious to the cold. "And you don't feel it, do you?" he snapped waspishly."I feel it," Conall said calmly. "But I can't control it so I don't worry about it.""Idiot," muttered Bricriu. Then a light seemed to shimmer and move behind the thick flakes in front of them. "A light!" Bricriu said, pointing."I see it," Conall said. "'Tis a good grip you have on the obvious. Let's see if they have room for our party."They moved up cautiously through the heavily falling snow until they came to a crude house made of logs, the chinks filled with grass. A happy couple greeted them when they knocked on the door and invited them in."Welcome! Welcome!" cried the master. "A foul night it's become and no place for a traveler. We don't have much, but you are welcome to what we have."His bronzed face beamed at Bricriu and Conall. His shoulders strained the seams of his simple tunic while his wife gazed shyly up at them from red curls that tumbled down and around her fair white neck. Her belly was swollen, and it was apparent that she was near her time."Thank you," Conall said, "but we are not alone. We are the scouts for Conchobor, the king of the Red Branch, who waits for us.""Bring him in! Bring him in!" cried the man. A soft golden glow seemed to circle his head. "There's always room for one more. Meanwhile, we shall work at making you all welcome. As I said, it isn't much, but you're surely welcome to it."Conall nodded and stepped back outside, closing the door firmly behind him and Bricriu, who shivered and said, "'Tis a small and narrow house not fit for the king. Or for any of us, for that matter. It didn't seem that he had enough food and clothing for us, and we'll probably have to sit around the fire in our wet clothes.""Would you rather spend the night out here in the snow?" Conall asked.Bricriu sighed and bit his lip. Even he could recognize that something was better than what they had, and when they told Conchobor what they had found, the king ordered that all move up close to the house, taking their chariots with them. They did not take their chariots inside the house--there wasn't room for them--but they did suddenly discover a storehouse door in front of them. They started to open it, but the man of the house came quickly between them and the door.He smiled apologetically at Conchobor. "My wife has decided that this is the time to have our child," he said. "I beg that you allow her the privacy all women need at times like this.""A child?" Deichtine said. She stepped forward and around the man of the house, placing her hand upon the latch. "Then she'll need the help of a woman, for certain. Besides"--she grinned at Bricriu--"if I help, there'll be just that much more room for the rest of you."The man thanked her, and Deichtine entered the storeroom, firmly latching the door behind her."Well," the man said, rubbing his hands together. "There's a bit of food and drink for you and enough room that you'll be warm when it gets colder in the night.""Argh," Bricriu grunted sourly, but the others ignored him and took the cups the host handed them, drinking and remarking on the fine taste of the drink, and soon they were in good humor and singing their warrior songs.Meanwhile, Deichtine helped the woman through her birthing. She delivered a son, and at the same time a mare that stood at the entrance of the house gave birth to two foals. The Red Branch warriors gave the two foals to the boy as a birth-gift for the lack of anything else. The mother was weak from the birthing, so Deichtine took the boy to her breast to nurse him as the men continued their party through the small hours of the night in celebration of the birth.When morning came, however, the Ulstermen awoke to find themselves east of Bruig na Bóinde. Loegaire was the first to wipe the gummy night-tears from his eyes and look around in surprise. "Where's the house?" he yelped.The others awoke instantly and stared around, bewildered."Magic!" Bricriu moaned. "I told you it was no good to stay here. Now here we are in the middle of a magic working and who knows what might be happening to us?""Shut your gob," Conall growled, climbing to his feet, his great sword in hand. He looked around carefully as Conchobor rose to stand beside him."Do you know where we are?" Conchobor asked."I know where we aren't," Conall said gruffly. He gestured with the sword. "No house, no birds, no host or his wife."A child's cry came to them, and they turned and saw the newborn baby in Deichtine's arms. The two foals stood next to them."And what is this?" Conchobor asked.Deichtine shook her head. "I do not know, Father," she said. "I awoke like you to find myself alone on the hillside with this child and the foals that were born to the mare last night.""Well, at least the birds are gone," Conchobor said philosophically.He ordered that the chariots be yoked and that all return to Emain Macha.They took the boy with them and raised him in the king's household until he approached early childhood. Then suddenly he took sick and died, and all in the house mourned his passing, for by now they had grown fond of the stripling.Deichtine mourned his passing more than any other, for she had been a foster mother to the youth, and after she shed her tears, she found herself very thirsty. She went inside the Great Hall and there found a copper kettle, but every time she tried to drink from it, a tiny creature would leap from the liquid to her lips. Yet when she dropped it from her mouth, there was nothing to be seen and a great exhaustion seemed to come over her.That night while she slept, a golden dream came to her, and from the depths of the dream a wondrous man spoke to her and said that she would bear his child. "It was I who brought you and the others to the Bruig na Bóinde, and it was I who made you welcome while my wife was giving birth. The child you nursed was my child, as is the one that I have placed within your belly. It will be a son, and you will call him Sétanta, and the foals shall be his when he is old enough to control them.""Who are you?" she whispered, frightened by her dream.He smiled at her and said, "I am Lugh Mac Eithliu. But this you already know, even though you do not know that you know it."It wasn't long before all could see Deichtine was pregnant, yet she was still unmarried, and all the Ulstermen became concerned, for a rumor was circulating among them that it was a drunken Conchobor who had made her with child since his daughter used to sleep next to him.Conchobor, however, pretended not to hear the words andbetrothed Deichtine to Sualdam Mac Roich, who owed him a great favor.Now Deichtine was ashamed to go to her marriage bed with another's child in her belly, so when she came to Sualdam's bed she lay down and crushed the child within her until she was again like a virgin. Then she slept with her husband and was made pregnant by him and bore a son.second versionNow it was that Deichtine, sister of Conchobor, he who was the king of Ulster, was betrothed to Sualdam Mac Roich, and much happiness was being planned at Emain Macha for her wedding.On the morning of the event, however, Deichtine and fifty other maidens slipped away from the fortress and went on an elopement without any of the men from either Ulster or Connacht knowing a thing about it. Although the men tracked and cross-tracked in vain, they could find no trace of Conchobor's sister. For three years they searched, but not a scrap of dress was turned up or a single footprint that could be followed more than a short distance, where it seemed to disappear into thin air.Deichtine and the maidens who attended her came to the plain in front of Emain Macha where they had been turned into the form of birds and, in that form, rapidly destroyed all the grass and seeds, leaving not so much as a single blade anywhere. The Ulstermen were greatly alarmed by this and harnessed nine chariots together to drive the birds away or, better yet, to hunt them down, for at this time bird hunting was considered great sport among the Red Branch. The hunting party consisted of Conchobor, Fergus Mac Roich, Amergin, Blai Briuga, and sharp-tongued Bricriu.The birds, however, didn't wait for them to come within casting distance but rose and flew southward across Slíab Fúait, over the Ford of Letha and the Ford of Garach, and over the Plain of Gossa that lay between the men of Ross and the men of Arda.Grimly the warriors followed the birds, determined to drive them from Emain Macha, but night fell before they got close enough to the birds to make a cast, and then they lost sight of the birds and were forced to make camp.Wearily they unyoked their chariots while Fergus went to search out shelter for the men. It wasn't long before he came to a house newly built and found a married couple living quietly within."Come in! Come in!" cried the host, but Fergus shook his head and slapped his hands together. His nose twitched as he smelled rich ale, but there were others he had to contend with first."I would be happy to enter," he said, "but there are others who are with me, and it wouldn't be seemly if I were sheltered while they were left for the cold dew of the night.""Then bring them in as well," the host said.Fergus looked with misgivings at the small house, but he was too polite to refuse and went back to gather the others. All the men and horses went to the house with him, but when they stepped inside Fergus stopped in wonder. The small, crude house had become large and magnificent, and there was plenty of room for all within. He frowned, but the smell of ale was rich in his nostrils, so he went forward eagerly to the great vat of frothing ale that seemed to be waiting just for him.Bricriu, however, had misgivings and went outside to check the area around the house. Faint strains of beautiful music came to him and, although he didn't know it was from the harp of Cnú Deireóil, he made his way along the trail the notes provided until he came to a great, fair, adorned house. He knockedon the door, and when it opened he found himself gazing upon the master himself."Come in, Bricriu," the master said. "Why do you insist on standing outside in the cold when it is warm within?"At that moment a beautiful woman came up next to the master and smiled at Bricriu, saying, "Yes, indeed. You are very welcome."Bricriu frowned and shook his head, trying to make sense of what had just happened to him. "Why does the woman welcome me more than the master?" he asked."Why, it is because of her that I welcome you," the man said. "But tell me: Is anyone missing from Emain Macha?"Bricriu sighed and scrubbed his hand over his thick, oily black hair and pulled at his pouting lip with dirty fingers. "Yes," he said at last. "Yes, there are fifty maidens who have been missing for three years. Three years this very night," he added, scratching his head and trying to think back to see if that was indeed the case.The man smiled. "Would you recognize them if you saw them again?" he asked.Bricriu shrugged. "I might. Then again, I might not. The passing of three years or the sickness of three years may have made me ignorant or unable to recognize them."The man laughed. "Well then, you still should try to see if you can recognize them. The fifty maidens you searched for are here in the house, and the woman by my side is none other than Deichtine. She and her maidens came from Emain Macha as a flock of birds in order to make the warriors come here."The woman then gave a great purple cloak with a red border to Bricriu and asked him to take word back to the others about what he had found. While he was making his way back to the others, Bricriu began to think. "Now, if I was to tell Conchobor that I had found them, that wouldn't mean as much to him as if he had found them himself. So I won't tell himthat I have found his sister and the other maidens who were with her. I'll just tell him that I have found a large house filled with beautiful women."When Bricriu at last came to Conchobor and the king asked him the news, Bricriu drew upon his sourest face and said, "Well, what's it to you? I found a magnificent house, and within that house was a radiant queen and a noble man who was dear and lovable. A large company of fair and pure women served them. That was a generous and glittering household indeed.""Is that true?" Conchobor asked, amused, for he knew well the wily and acid tongue of Bricriu. "Well, then, off you go back to that house, and since the master of the house is obviously a subject of mine for living in my land, tell him I desire that his wife come and sleep with me tonight.""Ah, now," Bricriu said, embarrassed at the problem his reticence had made. "I have made my trip to that house. Let some other go in my place."Fergus was the only one who agreed to deliver Conchobor's message when it was put to the others, and when he made his way to the house and spoke his message, the woman came away with him willingly. "It won't be the sleep the king thinks he'll be having," she warned him. "The pangs of childbirth are with me all ready."Fergus sighed and draped a heavy arm around her shoulders, and when they came close to Conchobor, Fergus told the king that he should give her a respite, and Conchobor agreed. They all lay down for the night, and when they awoke they discovered that a baby boy had been delivered in the night and lay within the folds of Conchobor's own cloak.Now Conchobor's sister Finnchoem had been traveling with them, and when Conchobor saw the child, he ordered Finnchoem to nurse him. Obediently, Finnchoem picked up the child, and her heart went out to the little boy and she said, "My heart loves this boy as if he was my own son, Conall.""Well," Bricriu said grouchily, "there's that to be said for him, for there's little difference between them. That child is the son of your sister Deichtine, who has been absent with her fifty maidens from Emain Macha for nigh on three years now. There she is."He pointed to where Deichtine lay exhausted upon her pallet.Now the mysterious stranger who had been with Deichtine had been none other than Lugh Long-Arm of the Tuatha De Danann, and it was the order of Lugh that the child be named Sétanta, and it was this name that the child bore until the time came that he killed the hound of Culann the Smith and became known as Cúchulainn or the Hound of Culann.But that was much later in the life of the baby; for now, the men of Ulster began to argue over which should bear the responsibility of being foster father to the boy. They almost came to blows before they asked Conchobor to make the decision and he glanced at where the boy lay gurgling happily in the arms of Finnchoem and said that she should be the one to raise him.But Sencha protested this saying, "It is I, not Finnchoem, who should raise him, for I am strong and skillful. My deeds in combat are great, and I am known for being noble and nimble, learned and prudent. I have precedence in the king's presence and advise him before he speaks. I judge all the disputes that come before him. No one but Conchobor would make a better foster father than I would."Blai Briuga snorted with disgust and rose, throwing his head back and looking down through slitted eyes at Sencha. "No, let me foster him. He'll not come to any harm or neglect with me at his side. My household is large enough to feed all the men of Ireland for an entire week, and none go away from my house soured by my decisions. Let my claim be settled by Conchobor."Fergus shook his head in wrath. "Have you no respect for the child? Bittering and barking like this! I'm concerned about the child. I will foster him. No one can match me in rank or riches or in courage, and none can meet my skill at arms. My honor alone makes me the ideal foster father. I am the scourge of the strong and the savior of the weak."Amergin laughed and said, "Well, then, don't turn away until I have my words. I am worthy enough to bring up a king! My deeds are well-known and my wisdom and wealth without challenge. Others come from far around to hear my eloquence and my open-minded decisions, and my courage and the rank of my family are without question. If I weren't already a prince, my poetry would surely make me one. And as for my strength, why there isn't a chariot chieftain around I couldn't kill if I put my mind to it. I look up to no one but the king himself."Conchobor shook his head. "Quit this nattering," he said. "Finnchoem will look after the boy until we reach Emain Macha. There, Morann the Judge will make the decision as to who shall be the foster father. I have spoken."With a great deal of grumbling and darting, deadly eyes, they made ready to return to Emain Macha, where Morann delivered his judgment."The boy should be given to Conchobor, for he is related to Finnchoem. Sencha shall teach him eloquence and oratory. Blai Briuga shall provide for him. Fergus will take him on his knee and teach him weapons. Amergin will be his teacher, while Conall Cernach shall be his foster brother. Finnchoem shall nurse him. And so all will have a part in raising him to become a chariot chief, prince, and sage. This boy will be loved by many and will settle your trials of honor and win many battles and ford fights."And so he was given to Amergin and Finnchoem and brought up at Dun Imrith on the Muirthemne Plain.Sétanta's Reply to Culann: The Naming of Cú ChulainnSo I killed the beast. He came running at me, so I took him by the shoulders and the hindquarters and dashed his head against a stone. Wouldn't you, if you could? Weren't we both trained from birth to kill or to be killed? Wasn't he three times larger than myself and all the doors of the house locked against me? I am sorry, but how can I repay you when all that I own is a name? And of what worth is that? Isn't everyone on this wide earth wrong, misplaced, or ill- devised? How could what is inside ever hope to be captured or known fully? Isn't the soul always shifting? From now on, let me guard what you possess, everything you love that loves you in return. I, who could destroy this whole village and everyone in it, will willingly be your dog. I will howl at the night. I will snuff out whatever intrudes or frightens anyone in your family. I will be the form fear takes in the unconscious heads of your drowsing enemies, a prince yes, but not a ruler--a servant. A name is an easy thing to change, a heart isn't. 
 
Mícheál O'CiardhiCopyright © 2002 by Randy Lee Eickhoff Randy Lee Eickhoff holds several graduate degrees, including a Ph.D. in Classics. He lives in El Paso, Texas where he works on translations in several languages, poetry, plays, and novels of which two have been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. His translation of Ireland's national epic is now a text in not only schools in the United States, but countries overseas as well. His nonfiction work on the Tigua Indians, Exiled, won the Southwest History Award. He has been inducted into the Paso Del Norte Writers Hall of Fame, the local chapter of the Texas Institute of Arts and Letters. He spends his time in El Paso, Ireland, and Italy, lecturing on Dante and The Ulster Cycle.