It was two bulls which caused the war between Queen Medb of Connaught and the Ulstermen, and it is no wonder as they were causing trouble from the moment of their birth. They were no ordinary bulls but were magical bulls of the Sidhe one was called Finnbennach 'White-horn' and the other was the Donn Cuailnge 'The Brown of Cooley'.
The Brown Bull of Ulster was gigantic and full of vigour and 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 young men to jump on his back and tall enough to shelter a hundred warriors beneath him. Narrow-flanked and broad-breasted, he was courageous and fierce, and as crafty as he was strong, and he had a fearsome temper. Even the fairy sprites kept away from his glen when he pawed the earth in anger throwing sods over his shoulders and glaring at anyone within sight. 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 Connaught 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 red, the colour of blood and his breast was as strong as a stallion's. When he stood among the herd of Queen Medb and Ailill bellowing his greatness to the world he was indeed a hero to his herd.
He would swish his heavy tail, and kick up his hooves, and lift his proud snout to the sky, heralding his preeminence over all creatures. He was in his prime and he had the aid of fellow faery-creatures.
These bulls had lived an eternity of time but they were not always in the form of bulls. They started out in the world as two swineherds. Fruich was the name of one and he served under King Bodb of Munster, and Rucht was the name of the other and he served under King Ochne of Connaught. They could change shape at any time they wished.
They met in the course of their work. When there was a glut of acorns and beech nuts in Munster, Ochne would send his swineherd with his pigs to feed in the south and likewise in other years Bodb would send his herds up to Connaught to fatten up. And so the years went by peacefully enough and Fruich and Rucht became friends. ( Fruich was called after a boar's bristle and Rucht after it's grunt )
However it wasn't long before the Connaught people began to boast that their herdsman Rucht was more powerful than his Munster friend Fruich. When the Munster people heard this they claimed that their swineherd was much more powerful. The next year when Rucht went down south he got a very cool reception from his friend.
'Is it you who has been boasting that you are more powerful than me?' asked Fruich.
'I'm certainly no less so' replied Ochne's swineherd.
'Then we shall put it to the test' said Bodb's swineherd, ' I'll cast a spell over your pigs so that whatever they eat they won't gain any weight.'
So he cast the spell, and it succeeded. Rucht was forced to take his pigs back to Connaught as thin as when they had first left, and he was the laughing stock of Connaught. 'That proves nothing, I can cast a spell or two myself' said he.
He waited patiently and when hard times fell on Munster and Bodb's swineherd came north in search of food for his pigs, Rucht played the same trick on Fruich and he had to go back and face the mockery of Munster.
Nothing more was proved by all these shenanigans other than that they were equal. Because of all the trouble they had caused they were both dismissed from their positions. In disgust they took the form of ravens and fought a long and loud battle in the sky above Connaught. 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 gathered together on the plain and grumbled among themselves.
'We're tired of all this noise, there's no end to it' they said.
Just then a steward from Ochne's palace in Connaught came up the hill towards them. 'They're as noisy as the birds we had in Connaught last year it's a wonder they're not the same ones.'
When they heard that the two birds turned back into human form and they were recognised and welcomed back to humanity. 'We are welcome nowhere' Fruich said 'we bring only sorrow and death and slaughter between friends.' They were brought before Bodb to explain themselves. He asked them what they had been doing all this time and he was told they had been fighting. 'We took the form of ravens and fought for a year over Connaught, 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 company and each turned into a huge water beast; one headed for the Shannon and the other for the Suir. They first met in the Suir and fought a great battle, biting and snapping with enormous jaws, and then they carried their fight to the river Shannon and the men of Connaught gathered on the banks to watch them. Each water-creature had a head the size of the top of a mountain and the spray from their jaws reached up as far as the sky. Neither was able to master the other and so wearily the two declared a truce and climbed up out of the water, and there they resumed the shape of men. King Ochne had been by the side of the river and he asked them how they were getting along. His swineherd sighed 'Nothing is going as planned, for two years we've fought and neither can best the other. We are going to try the fight as stags.'
They each parted ways again in the form of stags. For the next two years the people of Ireland were disturbed by the sounds of 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 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 their way.
They met again in the seventh year in the shape of men on neutral ground. 'Do you admit defeat?' asked Ochne's swineherd.
'Certainly not, do you?' answered Bodb's man.
'In that case we will fight as men.' said Ochne's man. And so they fought and brought the two provinces into the conflict with them. No one realised that the mighty champions whose deeds outdid each other's in courage and strength were the two former swineherds. Now Bodb's man was called Rinn, and Ochne's was called Faebur.
Finally there was a large 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 Ochne, leaving their camp and chariots and horses unguarded and while Ochne kept them all in conversation, the Connaught men surrounded the Munster host, and literally squashed them; wherever a Munster man sat he was slain by a Connaught man.
'Welcome,' Ochne said to Bodb, as he surveyed the carnage.
'Welcome?' said Bodb incredulous.
'No one asked you to come here,' said Ochne.
'I came only to talk, with Kings and Queens but I don't see too many here.' replied Bodb.
Ochne sighed 'They have all gone, young people, all gone' he sighed again.
'Then we should protect each other,' said Bodb.
Ochne looked at the pitiful remains of Bodb's army and asked pointedly 'Protect me with what?'
'Look North, then' said Bodb.
Ochne turned and saw a vast independent army approaching. They wore crimson and white with navy cloaks. They set up camp a little distance away and watched what was going on. They fingered their bronze swords which they had concealed beneath their cloaks.
'I have a champion here to help you' said Bodb and he brought forward Rinn. 'Those are Connaught men they will give me allegiance' said Ochne eyeing the newcomers anxiously. 'But will they find you a champion to fight Rinn' asked Bodb.
Mainchenn, a druid from Britain, watched the proceedings with disgust. New pacts were made and older ones broken. Independent men sold their birthright for royal favour; twenty northern men dropped dead with fright when they saw the King of the Munster fairies Bodb, depleted though his army was, but still none could be found to fight his champion Rinn.
Then Faebur stepped forward. 'I will fight him,' he said, and Rinn stepped back and said that Faebur's challenge was unacceptable. But Faebur was not going to be thwarted he rushed at Rinn and the bloodiest battle of all took place. They struck at each other for three days and nights, striking so hard that their lungs could be seen, and then in the heat of the battle they released themselves from human form and became monsters again and scores of people died at the sight of them.
Bodb eventually claimed victory over the Connaught men even when the kings of Leinster and Meath came to Ochne's aid, Bodb was still victorious. The champions had resumed human form and were once again hacking each other to ribbons, 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 the form of two water-worms. One of them went to Connaught where Medb had become queen, and the other went to Cuailnge in Ulster where he was eventually found by Daire Mac Fiachna.
Medb 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 into the water and the worm swam into it. He was multi-coloured and Medb poured away the water so she could see him better.
'Truly, you are a very beautiful creature, it's a shame you cannot speak' she said.
'I can speak' said he, and Medb knew he was of the Sidhe. 'Why are you disguised as such a small creature?' she asked.
'I am a very troubled creature' he said 'I have been in many shapes but in this one I have managed to find a bit of peace.'
Then he told her of all his adventures. Maeve listened gravely 'Things have been difficult for you, but could you tell me what I should do now that I have become queen?'
'You should take a husband, you are rich and beautiful' said the worm.
'Ah, but if I take a Connaught man how do I know he won't try to take over my lands?'
'I know the right man for you his name is Ailill son of Ross the Red of Leinster. He is a fine young man, without a fault. He will not be jealous or try to take your place. His beauty and ardour and strength will match your own' declared the worm.
Medb was pleased 'And what can I do to help you?' she asked.
'Bring me food every day to the stream,' and he gave a wriggle 'my name is Cruinnic' he said.
Daire Mac Fiachna came across the other worm in much the same way. As he was washing his hands in the stream a small multi-coloured creature watched him 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 you want with me?' asked Daire nervously.
'First I have to tell you that you will find a ship full of treasure.'
Daire stopped being nervous 'Treasure?' he said eagerly 'And what else?'
'After that you will confer maintenance and goods on to me.'
'What kind of goods?' asked Daire.
'Food,' said the worm.
'Why should I give you food?' asked Daire.
'Because I'm starving' shouted the worm.
'Is there not food in the stream?' asked Daire.
'Not for me, I'm not a fish, I used to be the swineherd of Bodb,' and the worm swelled with pride. 'My name is Tuinniuc and my colleague is over there in Connaught being fed off the fat of the land by Queen Medb and I'm getting weaker and weaker every day.'
'Yes, I've heard of you indeed' said Daire hastily.
'Then stop asking silly questions and bring me some food' snapped the worm.
And so Daire took the food to the worm every day for a year just as Medb was doing for her worm in Connaught.
The prophecies came true, Medb married Ailill Mac Ross and Daire found a treasure ship which made him wealthy. The worms grew fat and strong and restless in their streams.
'I have something to tell you' said Tuinniuc one day as Daire brought him his food. 'What is it?' asked Daire. 'I have to fight with Ochne's old swineherd, now called Cruinnic the worm of Connaught'
'And how are you going to do that...situated as you are?' asked Daire with skepticism.
'Tomorrow one of your cows will swallow me and at the same moment in Connaught one of Medb's cows will swallow Cruinnic.'
'But what will that accomplish?' asked Daire.
'Then two calves will be born, bull calves, and a great battle will take place because of them' and he slid off the stone and into the water where he disappeared.
And it happened as was foretold the cows swallowed the worms and gave birth to bull calves, one was called Finnbennach and wandered into the herd of King Ailill and the other was called Donn after the God of the Dead and he lived in Cualgne in the herd of Daire Mac Fiachna. The great war of the Brown Bull of Cooley was fought because of them.