THE SIEGE OF HOWTH
Translated by Whitley Stokes
Revue Celtique 8 (1887): 47–64
The text of the following saga is taken, with the omission of two uninteresting passages (of which the former is an interpolation), from the original ms. of the Book of Leinster, an Irish codex of the middle of the twelfth century, pp. 114b–117a of the facsimile. The argument is briefly as follows:
Atherne of Ulster, a poet ill-famed for his ruthless exactions, in the course of a bardic circuit of Ireland which he undertook at his king Conor's desire, is about to leave Leinster with his booty of kine and women. The men of Leinster attempt to recover their wives, and drive the Ulstermen, who come to protect Atherne, into the peninsula of Étar now Howth, near Dublin. In the course of the fighting, two brothers of the Ulster champion, Conall Cernach, are slain. After many days the Ulstermen, led by Cúchulainn, sally forth and defeat their foes. Conall Cernach alone pursues the routed host to avenge his brothers, overtakes their one-handed king Mess-gegra, and (having bound one of his own arms to his side) slays him in a duel and beheads the body. Returning in triumph he meets Buan, Mess-gegra's queen, who dies of grief on seeing her husband's head. Of the brain extracted from this head and mixed with lime is formed a ball, with which afterwards king Conor is slain.
Atherne, Conor and the other persons above mentioned are said to have lived in the first century of the Christian era; and the possible incidents of the saga are such as may well have taken place at that period of heroic barbarism.
Another copy of this saga is found in Harleian 5280, fo. 44b., a ms. of the fifteenth century preserved in the British Museum; and the more important of its variae lectiones (marked H.) are given in the footnotes.
The story is analysed by O'Curry in his Lectures on Manuscript Materials, pp. 266-270. And Conall's duel and Buan's death are balladized by the late Sir Samuel Ferguson in his Poems (Dublin, 1880), p. 32-41 .
“Cette légende,” says M. d'Arbois de Jubainville (Essai d'un catalogue, etc. 142), était dejà connue au dixième siècle, comme on peut le voir par un poème de Cinaed hua Artacain, mort en 975. Livre de Leinster, p. 16 1, col. i .
In Ireland there dwelt a hard, merciless man, to wit, Atherne the Urgent of Ulster. A man that asked the one-eyed for his single eye and used to demand the woman in childbed. He was so called from going by Conor's counsel, on a (bardic) circuit. This is the way he went at first, lefthandwise about Ireland till he made the round of Connaught. This is the way he then went, to the king of the midst of Ireland, between the two Fords of Hurdles, namely, to Eochaid son of Luchta, king of the south of Connaught. Eochaid went to deliver Atherne to the men of Munster over the Shannon, southward.
“That thou mayst not shew thanklessness towards us, O Atherne,” saith Eochaid, “if we have aught of jewels or treasures that are good in thine eyes, take them.”
“There is, forsooth,” saith Atherne, “the single eye there in thy head, to be given to me into my fist.”
“There shall be no refusal,” saith Eochaid, “thou shalt have it.”
So then the king put his finger under his eye, and tore it out of his head, and gave it into Atherne's fist.
“Take my hand, O gillie,” saith the king, “and lead me to the water that I may wash my face.”
Then he poured three waves of the water on his face.
“Has the eye been torn out of my head, O gillie?” saith the king.
“Woe is me!” saith the gillie. “Red (derg), is the lough (derc) with thy blood!”
“This shall be its name forever,” saith the king, “Redlough,” namely Dergderc.
For the generosity that the king shewed, to wit, giving his single eye for his honour's sake, as a miracle of generosity God gave him his two eyes.
This is the way Atherne went thereafter, to the king of Munster, even to Tigerna Tétbuillech. Nought then took he for his honour save that the queen should sleep with him that night, or the honour of the men of Munster should be lost for ever. And that night on which the woman was brought to bed, this is the night that she slept with Atherne, for sake of her husband's honour, that his honour might not be taken away.
This is the way Atherne went thereafter, to Leinster, till he abode in Ard Brestine in the south of Moyfea. And they came to the south of Leinster to meet him and to offer him jewels and treasures, not to come into the country, so that he might not leave invectives. For the treasures of no one whom he assailed would abide unless a gift were given to him. And no folk or tribe by whom he should be slain would get reprisal. So that (any) man would give his wife to him, or his single eye out of his head, or his desire of jewels and treasures. Now this is what he bore in his mind, great invectives to leave on the Leinstermen, so that they should slay him, and that Ulster would thus be for ever avenging him on Leinster. So then he made a demand of (the men of) the south of Leinster in Brestine (and he said) that he saw not of jewels or treasures aught that he would take from them, but he would leave an ail bréthre (verbal insult) on them for ever, so that they should not hold up their faces before the Gael, unless they gave him the jewel that was best on the hill; and (he said) that no one in the hill knew what this jewel was or what place it was in.
That was an outrage (?) and great disgrace to the host. And they all besought the Lord of the Elements to give them help to put away from them the outrage (?) that was inflicted upon them.
Now there was a horseman training his horse on the hill: he used to move towards the meeting: he used to leap from it. And once, while turning the horse over shanks (?) the horse flung a great sod from his two hooves. No one in the meeting noticed it till it came into the bosom of the king, to wit, Fergus Fairge. And in the face of the sod, on the clayey side, he saw the brooch wherein were four-score ounces of red gold. “What is this in my bosom, O Atherne?” saith the king.
Then said Atherne
A brooch there is in Ard Brestine
From a horse's hooves it hath been given
Over it a great just judgment hath been passed,
In the mantle of Mane son of Durthacht.
“That is the brooch whereof I were fain,” says Atherne. “My father's brother left it, and buried it in the ground after the breaking of a battle-slaughter on the Ulstermen, to wit, the Battle of Brestine.”
So then the brooch was given to him. And he went thereafter to Mes-gegra, the king of Leinster. A brother of his was Mes-róidia. Two sons of two mutes were those. Deaf and dumb were their mother and their father. Mess-gegra made great welcome to Atherne.
“It is well, indeed,” saith Atherne, “provided thy wife be with me till morning.”
“Wherefore should I give thee my wife?” says the king.
“For thy honour's sake,” saith Atherne, “Or slay me, so that there may be a shame on Leinstermen forever and so that Ulster may never cease to avenge me upon them.”
“If it be for the Ulstermen, thou shalt not find welcome with me, O Atherne. But thou shalt have the woman for my honour's sake. Nevertheless there is not in Ulster a man who could take her unless I gave her to thee for my honour's sake.”
“This is true,” saith Atherne, “that I will not stop from thee till a man of Ulster bear off thy head and thy wife.”
“That shall not be considered against thee,” saith the king. “Thou shalt have welcome.”
The woman sleeps with him, even Buan, Mes-gegra's wife. And Atherne keeps on the circuit of Leinster till the end of a year, and he took thrice fifty queens of the wives of princes and nobles of Leinster to carry them with him to his (own) country.
“Well now, my lad,” saith Atherne to his gillie, “fare thou for me to the Ulstermen that they come to meet me. Meseemeth the Leinstermen will be plotting against me concerning my booty unless I appeal (?) to their honour.”
Then the Leinstermen went to bid farewell to Atherne till they were at the Tolka to the north of Dublin. Then Atherne bids them farewell, and he left (them) no blessing and took none from them.
Sorrowful were the Leinstermen that their wives should be taken from them in captivity to Ulster. So when Atherne came to Ainech Lagen the Leinstermen went to pursue their booty. Then came the Ulstermen after Atherne: they came to protect him. A battle is fought about him straightway. The Ulstermen are routed, and they went by the sea eastward until they were shut up (?) in Howth. Nine watches were they in Howth without drink, without food, unless they drank the brine of the sea, or unless they devoured the clay. Seven hundred kine, in sooth, had Atherne in the middle of the fort ; and there was not a boy or man of Ulster who tasted their milk, but the milking was cast down the cliff, so that of the Ulstermen none might find out Atherne's food to taste it. And the wounded men were brought to him, and he would not let a drop go into their mouths, so that they used to bleed to death alone.
And the chiefs of Ulster used to come to him entreating a drink for Conor, and nought they got from him. So that what supported (?)Conor was what the girl used to bring on her back from Emain Macha at nones, even, Leborcham, she it is that used to bring it.
A slave and a slavegirl were in Conor's house, and this is the child that was born to them, even the girl Leborcham. Uncomely, now, was the girl's shape, to wit, her two feet and her two knees behind her, her two hams and her two heels before her. She it is that used to travel through Ireland in one day. Every thing of good or of evil that was done in Ireland she used to relate to Conor in the Red Branch at the end of the day. A loaflet (?) of three score cakes she had before her at the end of the fire, besides her share with the host. She it is that used to bring Conor his share on her back from Emain to Howth.
The fighting used to continue both day and night around the fort. Leinstermen say it was they that built Dún Etair. Cúchulainn's gap is there without closing. Every one was inciting him about fencing it. “Not so,” saith he (Cúchulainn) “a heap of spears (?) closes it for me.”Conor used to advise Cúchulainn not to put forth his prowess until a muster of Ulstermen should come. For Leborcham had gone to muster the Ulstermen that they might come in boats or by land to help them.
Mess-dead son of Amargen, a fosterson of Cúchulainn's, a boy of seven years, was put to keep the door of the fort. And nine men every hour of the day were slain by him, and Ulster's hostages were brought forth by the Leinstermen thrice every day, and they were borne-off in like wise by Mess-dead in combat. Wherefore it is on him that unequal combat was first practised in Ireland. This then is what they say, when the Ulstermen made land on the east of Howth, then three hundred heroes went to the wicket to slay him. There he gave forth his warcry, as they were cutting off his head. And Cúchulainn heard it (and said)
“It is the sky that crashes, or the sea that flows, or the earth that quakes, or the warshout of my fosterson at unequal combat being practised against him!”
With that Cúchulainn started out suddenly. The host was cleft in twain behind him. A battle is fought there straightway. Heavy in sooth was the attack that they delivered. Bloody the mutual uplifting: destructive the prowess which the heroes and the champions of valour displayed.
The two lines of battle were joined from terce to none. There the Leinstermen are routed, so that they raised a red wall against the Ulstermen, for it was a prohibition to Ulster to pass over a red wall. Fe on this side and fe on that was the conflict.
A great multitude of Ulstermen fell there in answering the fight. First there fell Mess-dead son of Amargen, and Brianán Brethach, and Condla, and Beothach, and Conaed son of Morna, and a multitude besides.
. . . . . . . . . . .
Alone fared Conall Cernach in pursuit of the Leinstermen, to avenge his brothers, Mes-dead and Loegaire, who had fallen in the fight. This is the road he went: through Dublin, past Drimnagh, through Hy-Gavla, into Forcarthain, by Uachtar Ard, past Naas, to Clane.
Now when the Leinstermen reached their country, each man of them went to his stead. But Mes-gegra (the king) stayed behind the host alone with his charioteer at the Path of Clane.
“I will sleep at present,” saith the charioteer to Mes-gegra, “and thou shalt sleep then.”
“I deem it well,”saith the king.
Now while Mes-gegra was looking at the water he saw a wonderful nut floating along the river towards him. Larger than a man's head was the nut. And he himself went down, and brought it to him, and cleft it with his skene, and left half the kernel for the gillie. And he saw that the gillie was lifted up in his sleep from the ground ; and after that the gillie awoke from his sleep.
“How is it with thee, my lad ?”saith the king.
“I have seen an evil vision,” saith the gillie.
“Catch the horses, my lad,” saith the king. The gillie caught the horses.
“Hast thou eaten up the nut?” saith the gillie. “Yea,” saith the king.
“Didst thou leave the half for me?” saith the gillie. “I lessened it first,” saith the king.
“The man that ate the little behind my back,” saith the gillie, “would eat the much.”
The king's hand, with half the kernel therein, was overagainst him. The gillie attacks him with a sword and cut his hand off from him.
“That is bad, O gillie,” saith the king, “open my fist : half the kernel is therein.”
As the gillie saw that, he turned the sword against himself, and it went westwards through his back.
“Woe is me, my lad!” saith the king.
Mes-gegra himself yokes his chariot, and puts his (severed) hand into it before him.
Now when he went out of the ford westwards then came Conall into the ford on the east.
“Is that so, O Mes-gegra?” saith Conall.
“I am here,” saith Mes-gegra. “What then?”saith Conall.
“What can be wished,” saith Mes-gegra, “but (this): on him from whom thou claimest debts, make demand with all the might thou mayst have.”
“My brothers are with thee,” saith Conall.
“Not in my girdle are they,” saith Mes-gegra.
“That is a blemish,” saith Conall.
“True valour it is not,” saith Mes-gegra, “to fight with me who have but one hand.”
“Thus shall it be,” saith Conall, “my hand shall be tied to my side,” saith Conall.
Triply was Conall Cernach's hand tied to his side. And each smote the other till the river was red from them. Then was Conall's swordplay the mightier.
“Well, then, O Conall,” saith Mes-gegra. “I wot thou wilt not go till thou takest my head with thee. Take thou my head on thy head and my glory on thy glory.”
Conall severs his head from him in the Path of Clane, and Conall takes the head and put it on the flagstone on the ford's brink. A drop came from the neck of the head and went into the top of the stone and passed through it to the ground. Then he put Mes-gegra's head on the stone, and it went from the top of the stone to the ground, and it fared before him to the river. Conall the Cross-eyed was his name thitherto. For the Ulstermen had three blemishes, to wit, Conall the Cross-eyed and Cúchulainn the Blind, and Cuscraid the Mute. The women of Ulster divided (themselves) into three. Each loved a man of that triad. The third that loved Cúchulainn, they used to be blind while conversing with him; the third that loved Conall Cernach used to be cross-eyed while conversing with him: the third that loved Cuscraid the Mute used to be dumb while conversing with him.
Howbeit Conall put his head on his (own) head, and the head went over his shoulder, and he was straight-eyed from that hour.
Then Conall went alone into his chariot, and his charioteer into Mes-gegra's chariot. They go forward then into Uachtar Fine till they met with fifty women, namely Mes-gegra's wife Buan, with her maidens, coming southwards from the border.
“With whom art thou, O woman?” saith Conall.
“(I am) the wife of Mes-gegra the king.”
“It hath been enjoined on thee to come with me,” saith Conall.
“Who hath enjoined me?” saith the woman.
“Mes-gegra,” saith Conall.
“Hast thou brought a token with thee?” saith the woman.
“His chariot and his horses here,” saith Conall.
“Many are they on whom he bestows treasures,” saith the woman.
“His head is here then,” saith Conall.
“I am lost to him now!”says the woman.
The head was at one time reddened and at another whitened again. “What is it ails the head ?”says Conall.
“I know,” says the woman. “A dispute arose between him and Atherne. He declared that not one man of Ulster should bear me away. A contest about his word, this it is that ails the head.”
“Come thou to me,” says Conall, “into the chariot.”
“Stay for me,” she says, “till I bewail my husband.”
Then she lifts up her cry of lamentation, and it was heard even unto Tara and to Aillen, and she cast herself backwards, and she [was] dead.
On the road is her grave, even Coll Buana, the hazel (coll) which grew through her grave.
“Bear it hence, my lad,” says Conall.
“I cannot bear the head with me,” says the gillie.
“Take out its brain therefrom,” says Conall, “and ply a sword upon it, and bear the brain with thee, and mix lime therewith, and make a ball thereof.”
This is done, and the head is left with the woman. And they fared on till they reached Emain. So the Ulstermen had exultation at the slaying of the king of Leinster.
Hence then is the circuit of Athirne, and the slaying of Mes-gegra by Conall Cernach, and the battle of Howth.