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Fables and Legends of Ireland

ISBN: 9781856354417
€9.99 €8.99

Ireland is much changed since giants and heroes strode across it, these tales depict the  bravery, cunning and heroism of some of Irelands favourite mythological characters. 

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To find out more about Maureen Donegan, click here. 



Sample: Preface


This is not a scholarly book, but it is an attempt to bring the lovely old stories of heroic Ireland to a wider audience than that of the schoolroom, or of the Irish scholar.
These tales were told and retold by word of mouth and, although they are full of magical creatures and enchanted castles, they are also about people: real people who suffered from indigestion and jealousy, just as we do.
I first came across the Táin Bó while doing research for quite a different kind of book; I dipped into Cecile Ó Rahilly's excellent translation from the Book of Leinster and was unable to put it down. Maeve and Ailill and Fergus and Cúchulainn are as alive today as they were when their history was finally captured in the yellow pages of eleventh- and twelfth-century manuscripts; the polished sarcasm of the royal pair is reflected in many a modern marriage, and Cúchulainn's vanity and the divided loyalties of Fergus are as old and as new as time.
These sagas and myths are part of a much larger stream of literature which extended from Iceland across Europe. In 'The Voyage of Maildún' one is irresistibly reminded of Jason in search of the Golden Fleece but, although Maildún's adventures are as bizarre and fantastic as one could imagine, throughout he remains endearingly human; pig-headed almost to the last and all too easily led astray by a pretty face. Indeed all the heroes - and anti-heroes - of the tales suffered from the same susceptibility. They could no more sense a scheming witch behind blue eyes and a fair face than they could avoid the bloody wars into which their pride and avarice, and sometimes their compassion, led them.
The Fianna, though, larger than life and swashbuckling across Ireland even into fairy cities beyond the sea, remain my favourites. Even Conan Maol with his tactless tongue and his incessant grumbling inspires a kind of reluctant affection and the little episode of 'The Magic Cloak', which was first recorded in verse in the Book of the Dun Cow, is a perfect and timeless picture of the incessant wars between the sexes.


The Birth of the Bulls

It's as difficult to say what the precise cause of the great cattle raid was as it is to pinpoint the start of any war. Nevertheless the main protagonists, the true enemies at the beginning and in the middle and at the end, were the powerful and magical bulls of Ireland: the Donn Cuailnge and the Finnbennach.
The Donn Cuailnge, the brown bull of Ulster, was enormous and brimming with rude health. He could bull fifty heifers every day and they calved in less than twenty-four hours or burst their sides with the effort. He was broad enough for fifty youths to play across his back and tall enough to shelter a hundred warriors beneath him. Narrow-flanked and broad-breasted, he was as brave as he was ferocious, and as crafty as he was strong, and he had a right royal rage. Even spectres and spirits kept away from his glen when he pawed the earth throwing black turf across his back and growling and glaring at all comers. But he was handsome too, with a proud, curling brown head and a strong thick neck. His cows adored him and, in the evening, when he came to his byre, he made a musical lowing so melodious and unforgettable that no one in all of Cuailnge ever wished for other music.
Only the Finnbennach came near to matching him in power and beauty. The Finnbennach ruled the animals of Connacht absolutely. Because of him no male animal dared utter a sound louder than the lowing of a cow. He had a white head and white feet, but his body was the red colour of blood and his breast was as strong as a stallion's. When he stood among the cows of Ailill and Maeve, bellowing his greatness to the world, he was indeed a hero to his herd. He would swish his tail, and kick up his great hooves, and lift his haughty snout to the sky, proclaiming his victory over all things. He was strong and proud and in his prime, and he had the aid of demons.
Needless to say, they were not ordinary creatures, nor did they start out as bulls. They began, simply enough, as two swineherds. Fruich was the name of one. His master was Bodb, the king of the fairy creatures of Munster, and Rucht was the name of the other. His king, Ochall, ruled the fairy kingdom of Connacht, and being both of magical people the two swineherds were able to change into any shape they pleased.
They met, predictably enough, in the course of their work. When there was a glut of acorns and beech nuts in Munster, Ochall would send his swineherd with his pigs to feed in the south and when, in other years, there was plenty of food in Connacht Bodb would send his swineherd north to fatten up his stock. And so the years went by amicably enough with a steady friendship ripening between Fruich and Rucht (Fruich was called after a boar's bristle and Rucht after its grunt).
However it wasn't long before the Connacht people began to boast that their herdsman was more powerful than his southern colleague but when the Munster people heard that they denied it vigorously, and said that of course their pig-keeper was much more powerful than Ochall's. The next year, when Ochall's swineherd came south he got a very cool reception.
'Is it you who is trying to cause trouble between us?' asked Bodh's swineherd. 'They say you are more powerful than me.'
'I'm certainly no less so,' Ochall's swineherd said.
'Then we'll test it,' Bodb's swineherd said. I'll cast a spell over your pigs so that whatever they eat they won't gain a scrap of weight.'
He cast the spell, and it worked. It worked so well that Ochall had to take his pigs back home at the end of the season as thin and as wretched as when he had come, and when he got home he was the laughing stock of Connacht.
'That proves nothing,' he said to himself, trying to ignore the jeering. 'I can cast a spell or two myself.'
He bided his time and, when hard times fell on Munster and Bodb's swineherd had to come north in search of food for his pigs, Ochall's swineherd played the same trick, and Bodb's swineherd had to go home with a lean and miserable herd of pigs to face the mockery of Munster.
The whole affair proved nothing except that they were equal, and before long they were even more equal because they were both dismissed from their jobs.
In disgust they took the shape of ravens and fought a long and loud battle in the sky above Connacht. They fought for a year with no result, and then they flew south and fought for another year over Munster. The noise was unbearable and the people of Munster gathered together on the plain and grumbled among themselves.
'It goes on and on,' they said, 'and we're tired of it.'
Just then a steward from Ochall's palace in Connacht came up the hill towards them.
'They're making as much din as the birds we had in Connacht last year,' he said. 'You'd swear they were the same ones.'
And at this the two birds of prey turned back into human shapes and the people recognised the former swineherds and welcomed them home.
'We are welcome nowhere,' Bodb's pig-keeper said. 'We bring only sorrow and death and slaughter between friends.'
'I don't understand,' the king said, when they were brought before him. 'What have you been doing all this time?'
'Fighting,' his swineherd said, simply. 'We took the shape of ravens and fought for a year over Connacht, and for a year over Munster, and now we are going to take the shape of water creatures for two years and see what becomes of that.'
They parted, there on the hill, and hurried away. Each turned into a huge water beast; one headed for the Shannon and the other for the Suir.
They met first in the Suir and fought a great battle, biting and snapping at each other with enormous jaws, and then they carried their fight to the Shannon and the men of Connacht gathered on the river bank to watch them. Each fish had a head the size of the top of a mountain and the spray from their jaws reached up as far as the sky but, although it was a marvellous entertainment for the huge and ever-growing crowd led by King Ochall, neither was able to master the other.
Wearily the two water creatures declared a truce and climbed out of the river and on to the bank, and there they resumed the shape of men.
'Well?' Ochall said. He had been waiting at the river's edge.
His swineherd sighed. 'Nothing goes well,' he said. 'Two years' strife and no result. We are going to try as stags.'
He looked inquiringly at Bodb's swineherd who nodded, and then they parted again, each to his own part of the country.
For the next two years the people of Ireland were disturbed by the clashing of antlers and the scattering of herds of young deer, and for two years after that by two phantoms pursuing each other on the land and in the air, and terrifying both themselves and those who saw them. After that they were two dragons breathing fire and snow alternatively and with no consideration for who might be in the way.
They met again, in the seventh year, in the shape of men on neutral ground.
'Do you admit defeat?' asked Ochall's swineherd.
'Certainly not. Do you?' asked Bodb's.
'Then we will fight as men,' Ochall's swineherd said.
And fight they did and brought their two provinces into the bitter conflict with them. No one knew that the two mighty champions whose deeds outdid each other's in courage and strength were in fact the two former swineherds. Now Bodb's man was named Rinn, and Ochall‰'s Faebur.
Finally there was a huge assembly by Loch Riach. The encampments were brilliant with rich garments and precious metals. Bodb brought seven times twenty horsemen and seven times twenty carts. Each man was of royal blood, and each matching dappled horse wore a silver bridle. The riders wore red-folded cloaks edged with spun gold, and green cloaks flung about their shoulders and fastened with a silver brooch. There was no end to the luxury of their trappings from their white and gold embossed shields to the heavy jewel-encrusted coronets on their heads. It is said that seven times twenty women and children died at the sight of them.
Perhaps it was their preoccupation with their appearance and the effect it had that made them over-confident. They marched arrogantly to meet Ochall, leaving their camp and carts and horses unguarded and, while Ochall kept them in conversation, the Connacht men quickly surrounded the Munster troop, gold coronets and silver shields notwithstanding. They literally squashed the Munster army; wherever a Connacht man sat a Munster man died beneath him.
'Welcome,' Ochall said to Bodb, surveying the carnage.
'Welcome?' Bodb said.
'I came only to talk,' said the king of the Munster fairies. 'With kings and queens,' he added, 'but I can't see many here.'
Ochall sighed. 'They have gone, young people' he sighed again.
'Then we should protect each other,' Bodb said.
Ochall looked pointedly at the remains of the Munster army.
'Why should I need your protection?' he said.
'Look to the north,' Bodb said, and Ochall turned and saw a vast independent group of warriors approaching the assembly. They were resplendent in crimson and white with blue-black cloaks. They set up camp a little distance away and watched the proceedå_ings quietly, fingering their bronze swords which they had hidden under their cloaks. Their sharp-edged white-bronzed shields they kept on their backs.
'And as well as that,' Bodb said, 'I have a champion to help you.' He brought forward Rinn.
'Those are Connacht men,' Ochall said, looking at the newcomers anxiously, 'and they will give me their allegiance.'
'But will they find you a champion to fight Rinn?' Bodb said.
Mainchenn, a druid from Britain, watched the proceedings with disgust. Pacts were made and older ones betrayed; independent men sold their birthright for royal favour; twenty northern men dropped dead with fright when they saw the mighty king of the Munster fairies, depleted though his army was, but still no one could be found to fight the southern champion, Rinn.
And then Faebur stepped forward. 'I will fight him,' he said, and Rinn, who until this time had watched all the would-be warriors with disdain, stepped back and said that Faebur's was not an acceptable challenge.
But Faebur was not going to be turned aside. He rushed at Rinn and the bloodiest fight of all took place. They lashed at each other for three days and three nights, striking so hard that their lungs could be seen, and then in the white heat of battle they released themselves once more from the human shape and became demons again, and scores of people died at the sight of them.
Bodb eventually claimed victory over the Connacht men. Even when the kings of Leinster and Meath came to Ochall's aid, Bodb was still victorious. The champions had resumed their earthly shape and were once again hacking each other to bits, but Bodb ordered the field to be cleared of slaughter and then he gathered up the two warriors and took them into his charge.
They next appeared in much more humble incarnations, that of two water worms. One of them went to Connacht, where Maeve had become queen, and the other went to Cuailnge in Ulster where he was eventually found by Daire Mac Fiachna.
Maeve was the first to accost her worm. She had gone to the well to wash her hands and face when she dipped her white-bronze container in the water and the little worm swam into it. He was every colour and hue of the spectrum and Maeve poured away the water so that she could have a better look at him.
'Truly,' she said, 'you are a very beautiful creature. What a pity you can't speak.'
'I can speak,' the worm said, and then Maeve knew it was indeed a magical creature.
'Why are you disguised as such a small animal?' she said.
'I am a very troubled animal,' he said. 'I have been many shapes but in this one I have managed to find a little peace.'
Maeve listened to him gravely. 'Things have been very difficult for you,' she said, 'but I wonder what the future holds for me now that I'm queen?'
'You should take a husband,' the worm said. 'You are rich' he paused and gave a little wriggle.
'Ah,' Maeve said, 'but if I take a Connacht man how do I know that he won't try to take over the kingdom?'
'I know exactly the man for you,' said the worm. 'Ailill the son of Ruad of Leinster. He is a fine young man without fault. He will not be jealous or try to take your place.'
'Mmm,' Maeve said, doubtfully. 'But is he...?' She hesitated.
'His beauty and ardour and strength will match your own,' the worm said.
Maeve was pleased. 'And how can I help you?' she asked.
'Bring me food every day to the stream,' the worm said. He gave another little wriggle. 'My name is Cruinnic,' he said.
Daire mac Fiachna came across his worm in much the same way. As he was washing his hands in a stream in Cuailnge a small multicoloured creature watched him gravely from a stone. Daire moved back hastily. He had never seen anything like it before and he was afraid.
'Don't run away,' said the worm, 'I have a lot of things to say to you.'
'What can we have to say to each other?' Daire asked nervously.
'First I have to tell you that you will find a ship full of treasure.'
Daire stopped being nervous. 'Treasure?' he said. 'And what else?'
'And after that,' the worm said, 'you will confer maintenance and goods on me.'
'What kinds of goods?'
'Food,' the worm said.
'Why should I give you food?' Daire asked.
'Because I'm starving,' the worm said, raising his voice.
'There is food in the stream,' Daire said.
'Not for me,' the worm said, 'I'm not a fish.'
'Then what?'
'I'm Bodb's swineherd,' the worm said, drawing himself up to his full two inches.' My name is Tuinniuc, and my colleague is over there in Connacht being fed off the fat of the land by Maeve and I'm getting weaker and weaker by the day .'
'Yes - I think I've heard of you,' Daire said, hastily.
'Then don't ask silly questions,' the worm said, 'and bring me some food.'
And so Daire undertook to feed the worm every day with his own hands for the period of one year, just as Maeve, in Connacht, was feeding Cruinnic.
The prophecies came true. Maeve married Ailill and Daire's treasure ship made him rich, and in their separate streams the worms grew fat and strong  and restless.
'I have something to tell you,' Tuinniuc said one day when Daire brought his customary meal.
'What is it?' Daire asked. 'Aren't things going well for us?'
'For you, maybe,' Tuinniuc said, 'you have corn and milk in abundance.'
'Haven't I looked after you?' Daire said.
'Yes,' the worm said. He sighed. 'But the battle feud...  I can feel it welling up inside me. I have to fight Ochall's swineherd once more.'
'How can you do that?' Daire asked. He paused, delicately. 'Situated as you are?'
'Tomorrow,' the worm said, 'one of your cows will drink me and, at the same moment in Connacht, Cruinnic will be drunk by one of Maeve's cows.'
'But how will that help?' Daire said.
'Then two calves will be born.'
'Calves?' Daire said.
'Bull calves,' the worm said. 'And a great battle will be fought.' He slid off the stone into the water. 'Goodbye,' he said, and disappeared.
And it happened exactly as Tuinniuc said. Cruinnic was swallowed by one of Maeve's cows at the stream near her palace, and simultaneously Tuinniuc disappeared down the throat of a thirsty Ulster cow. In the course of time two calves were born and they grew into the most beautiful and feared bulls in Ireland: the white bull Finnbennach in the west, and the brown bull, Donn Cuailnge in Ulster. Their horns were decorated with gold and silver and their roars were heard the length and breadth of the land. The Finnbennach was strong and fierce and cunning; the Donn Cuailnge was named for the ancient God of the Dead.
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Fables and Legends of Ireland