Book excerpt

The Red Branch Tales

Ulster Cycle
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The Beginning of Emain Macha
This tale is found in The Book of Leinster (c. 1160) and is only one of the stories that explain how the Red Branch was established. Another version of the naming of Emain Macha is related in The Pangs of Ulster.
Once three kings, all from Ulster, ruled equally over Ireland. They were Díthorba, the son of Diman from Uisnech in Meath; Áed Ruad, the son of Bádurn, son of Argatmar, from Tír Áedha; and Cimbáeth, son of Fintan, son of Argatmar, from Finnabair on the Plain of Inis.
Now these three decided that it would be better by far if they took turns ruling over Ireland, and so they made arrangements by which each would rule for seven years before giving way to the other two. They had twenty-one rules written to ensure that each king would hand over the right to rule at the end of his seven years. This would, they thought, be good enough to ensure that each king's reign would be free from interference by the other two kings. As a result, each year there would be a great harvest of fruit and every color dyed into garments would hold fast and true and not fade or shade, and no woman would die again in childbearing.
These rules were hard-held and strict with accounting. First, seven Druids would be made available to chant those spells that would sear the flesh of the false one. Second, seven poets would sing satirical songs shaming the scandalous one. Then seven champions would be named to inflict harsh wounds upon the flesh of the arrogant one who failed in his promised obligations.
But the rules did not need to be enacted, for each of the three kings ruled wisely and carefully attended to the pact that had been drawn up among them. Each of them ruled three times as king for a total of sixty-three years.
One day Áed Ruad rode out along the place called Eas Ruaid,1 guiding his dappled horse carefully in the swift waters. But a fish jumped after a mayfly and startled the dappled horse, who reared and unseated his rider, pitching him into the swift current, where he drowned. For three days the others searched for his body and, when they found it, they buried him at Sídhe Ruaid, the Mound of the Red Man. He left one child as heir, a daughter named Macha Mong-Ruad,2 who demanded that her father's rightful place in the succession of rule be granted to her. But the other two kings, Cimbáeth and Díthorba, refused to surrender her father's seventh to her as she was a woman.3
Furious at her treatment, Macha brought together a huge army and destroyed the forces of the other two in battle but took only what she regarded as her seventh. She ruled for seven years as Ireland's queen before the death of Díthorba, who fell in battle at the Corann.4 Five stalwart sons stood staunchly at his burial, and then in turn each--Báeth, Bras, Betach, Úallach, and Borbchas--demanded that Macha defer to the accord authored by their father and the other two. But Macha refused and said, "Why should I surrender what I won on the field of battle? The pact drawn between your father and mine and Cimbáeth no longer applies, for none of you would listen to reason when it was offered."
Incensed, the five sons raised an army and came to unseat Macha from her throne, but the terrible rage of Macha rose up, and she led her army into battle. Oh, the wanton slaughter that rose to feed the ravens that day! Many heads were taken by Macha's blade, and the rest of the army fled in terror into the wilds of Connacht.
But Macha was weary with war after this, and she married Cimbáeth (and a wise choice he made to keep his own head!) and merged his army into hers to regain the strength that she had lost during the last war with the five sons. Then, knowing full well that the five sons stubbornly refused to agree to her might, she cleverly disguised herself as a leper by rubbing herself with rye dough and red dye until it seemed suppurating sores leaked yellow pus from her skin.
She entered the wild forests of Connacht and soon found them in Bairinn, where they were roasting a wild boar slain by Bras over a red fire.
"What's this?" Báeth said, when Macha came up to them, whining about her hunger and begging for a morsel from the roasting pig.
"What foulness do we find here?"
"Please," she whimpered, holding forth a hand that seemed more a claw than one with flesh and fingers. "Just a bite or two for a poor old hag."5
"Well, now," said Betach. "Let's let the old gal have a bite or two if she has any news about that bitch Macha."
"Don't encourage her," grumbled Borbchas.
"You'd begrudge her a mouthful or two from that big carcass?" Báeth asked, pointing at the pig roasting on the spit over the crackling fire made from beech trees. "Even with your gut we won't eat the whole thing."
So they all sat down and listened to the stories Macha made up on the spot as she ate the sliver of roasted meat the five sons gave to her for news of herself.
Then Bras brought out a skin of mead and they took to swilling it from their own cups, and soon they began to see Macha in a different light. It was Báeth who first noticed her eyes and, squinting his own against the smoke and drink befuddling him at the time, said, "You know, this hag has won--won--beaut--pretty eyes." He pursed his lips, sucking in his cheeks as he contemplated her. "What say we fuck her?"6
"Ah, don't be that way here," Borbchas said. "We don't need to be watching your shortcomings."
"And I don't want to be shaming you," Báeth said, rising. He grabbed her and took her off into the woods to the roaring laughter of his brothers.
"Now then," he said, placing her on her feet. "Let's see what you have, old girl."
He reached for the neckline of her dress, but when he pulled it free, he saw Macha's young breasts and frowned, shaking his head against his fuddled vision.
"What--" he began, but then squawked as Macha overpowered him and tied him to a tree with strips of cloth torn from his own clothes. She gagged him to keep him from yelling a warning to his brothers, then made her way back to the fire, pretending to be weary from lovemaking.
"Where is our brother?" the others asked when she stumbled out of the woods and stood warming herself next to the fire.
"Ah, the drink left him and then the shame came upon him after he saw that he had slept with a leper," she said.
The others roared with laughter at this, and Bras leaped to his feet, seizing her and throwing her over his shoulder. "Well, lass, there's no shame in that. We decided that each of us was going to give you a tickle or two when we heard Báeth bawling with pleasure. There must be a knowing way in those legs of yours when you lock them around the waist of a man."
And so it was that each of them took her into the dark of the wood away from the fire and each found himself tied with strips of his own clothing. Then Macha tied them together and marched them meekly to Ulster, where she brought them to the judgment of her warriors.
"Ah, let's kill them and be done with it," growled one. He jabbed a dirty finger at the rafters, where the heads of others lined the beams.
"No," Macha said. "I don't think that would be wise. My rule would become suspect if I let that happen. Instead, let us make them slaves and have them build a mighty fortress around me that will become the Great Hall of the new ruling city of Ulster forever."
And with that, she took a golden brooch out of her cloak and marked out the lines the buildings were to follow in what came to be known as Emain Macha.7
Copyright © 2003 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.