Tragic Death of Cu
Roi mac Dairi” is one of a group of sagas which belong to the oldest parts
of the Ulster cycle and which center
around Cu Roi mac Dairi, a half demonic personage with magic powers who,
according to tradition, resided in the south of Ireland. He is associated
especially with Kerry, where the remains of a prehistoric fortification in the
Slemish Mountains are still known as Caher Conree, ”Cu Roi’s City.” It is
not surprising that the composers of the Ulster cycle should conceive the idea
of representing their beloved hero, Cu
Chulainn, as victorious over this great southern champion. Cu Chulainn,
being only a beardless youth, usually wins by strategem rather than by open
warfare. The story told in ”The Tragic Death of Cu Roi mac Dairi” must have
been widespread; there are numerous versions of it in early Irish and its fame
even spread across the channel into Wales.
did the men of Ulster slay Cu Roi mac Dairi? Easy to say Because of Blathnat
who was carried off from the siege of the Fir Falgae, because of the three cows
of luchna and the ”three men of Ochain,” that is, the little birds that used
to be on the ears of Iuchna’s cows. And a cauldron was carried off with the
cows. This cauldron was their calf. Thirty cows’ milking was the capacity of
the cauldron and the full of it was milked from them every time while the birds
were singing to them. Hence said Cu Chulainn in the Siaburcharpat: (1)
There was a cauldron in the fort:
The calf of the three cows,
Thirty cows within its gullet,
That was its portion.
They used to go to that cauldron,
Delightful was the struggle,
Nor did they come away from it again
Until they left it full.
There was much gold and silver it,
It was a goodly find.
I carried off that cauldron
With the daughter of the king.
Cu Roi mac Dairi went with the men of Ulster then to the siege, and they did not recognize him, that is, they called him the man in the grey mantle. Every time a head was brought out of the fort, ”Who slew that man? Conchobar would say ”I and the man in the grey mantle,” each answered in turn. When, however, they were dividing the spoil,’ they did not give Cu Roi a share, for justice was not granted him.
He then ran in among the cows and gathered them before him, collected the birds in his girdle, thrust the woman under one of his armpits, and went from them with the cauldron on his back. And none among the men of Ulster was able to get speech with him save Cu Chulainn alone. Cu Roi turned upon the latter, thrust him into the earth to his armpits, cropped his hair with his sword, rubbed cow-dung into his head, and then went home.
After that Cu. Chulainn was a whole year avoiding the Ulstermen. One day, however, when he was on the peaks of Bairche, he saw a great flock of black birds coming towards him over the sea. He killed one of them forthwith. After that he killed one of the flock in every land he passed through until he came to Srub Brain (Raven’s Beak) in the west of Ireland, that is, the black bird’s head which he cut off Srub Brain is named therefrom.
This took place west of Cu Roi’s stronghold; and the Cu Chulainn knew that it was he who had brought him to shame and he held converse with the woman Blathnat, for he had loved her even before she was brought over sea; she was a daughter of Iuchna king of the Fir Falgae (Men of Falga), that is, they were a ”sea-wall” in the islands of the sea. He made a tryst with her again in the west on the night of Samain.
Moreover, a province of the Erainn set forth to go with Cu Chulainn. It was on that day Blathnat advised Cu Roi that he should build a splendid enclosure for his stronghold of every pillar-stone standing or lying in Ireland. The Clan Dedad set out one day for the building of the stronghold, so that he was all alone in his fortress on that day. There was an agreement between Blathnat and Cu Chulainn, namely, to pour the milk of Iuchna’s cows down the river in the direction of the Ulstermen, so that the river might be white when she was bathing Cu Roi.
So it was done. It was poured down to them, and the river then became ”Finnglas (White Flecked).” She then began lousing his head in front of the stronghold
”Come into the stronghold,” said she, ”and get washed before the hosts come back with their burdens of stones.” Just then he lifted up his head and saw the host of Ulster coming towards him along the glen, both foot and horse ”Who are those yonder, woman?” said Cu Roi. ”Thy people,” said Blathnat, ”with the stones and oak for building the stronghold ”If they are oaks, ’tis swiftly they travel; it is a triumph, if they are stones,” said Cu Roi.
He raised his head again and continued to scan them. ”Who are these?” said he.
of kine and cattle,” said she.
If they are cattle, so that they are cattle,
They are not herds of lean kine.
There is a little man brandishing a sword
the back of every cow.
Cu Roi went inside, and the woman bathed him, and she bound his hair to the
bedposts and rails, and took his sword out of its scabbard and threw open the
stronghold. He heard naught, however, until the Ulstermen had filled the house,
and had fallen upon him. He rose up straightway against them, and slew a hundred
of them with kicks and blows of his fists. An attendant who was within rose up
against them and slew thirty of them. Thereof it was sung:
Though the attendant of the prince,
He was skilled at the battle-game,
He slew thirty armed men,
he let himself be slain.
first came at the cry, whereof it was said:
Senfiacal came first;
He slew a hundred men of the host.
Though great was the might of his combat,
got his death through Cu
Cairbre Cuanach came upon them:
Cairbre Cuanach came upon them.
He slew a hundred men, a mighty encounter,
He would have grappled with Conchobar,
If the monster-abounding sea had not drowned him.
is to say, when he was contending with Conchobar, he saw his stronghold in
flames to the north of the sea. So he went into the sea to save it. His swim was
great, and he was drowned there.
The fight of Eochaid son of Daire
From the promontory to the glen.
He slew a hundred men, it was a great achievement.
was to avenge his good king.
it was the Clan Dedad cast from them every pillar-stone which was standing or
lying in Ireland, when they heard the shouting, and came up to the slaughter
around the fortress, whereof it was said:
After that came the Clan Dedad
To seek their king,
Five score and three hundred,
hundred and two thousand.
however, they were slaying one another by the fortress, and Cu Chulainn had cut
off Cu Roi’s head, and the fortress was aflame, Ferchertne,
Cu Roi’s poet, was by his horses in the glen, and he said:
Who is the youth that fights
By the side of Cu Roi’s fortress
If Daire’s son were alive
would not burn.
Becrach, however, Cu Roi’s charioteer, had made submission to Cairbre son of
Conchobar, and he went into his chariot with him. He drove the horses against
the rock, and the rock crushed both horses and men, whereof it was said:
Perchance it is no lie thou sayest
He bore Cairbre son of Conchobar
the bitter sea waves.
Ferchertne came. ”Art not thou Ferchertne?” said Conchobar. ”I am,
indeed,” said he. ”Was Cu Roi kind to thee? said Conchobar. ”He was kind,
indeed,” said he. ”Tell us somewhat of his bounty.”
cannot now,” said he. ”My heart is sad after the slaying of my king, for
mine own hand shall slay me, if no one else slay me! Then Ferchertne the poet
”That was a kingly gift,” said Conchobar. ”It was little from him,” said Ferchertne. ”Where is Blathnat?” said he. ”She is here,” said the youths; ”but it was only by striking off Cu Roi’s head that we obtained her deliverance.”
was after that she was crushed against the rock, that is, the promontory of Cenn
Bera. For the man Ferchertne made a rush towards her and caught her between his
arms, so that her ribs broke in her back; and he hurled her down the cliff
before him so that the rock crushed them both, and their grave is on the strand
under the rock Hence it was sung:
Sad was the struggle together
Of Blathnat and Ferchertne,
And the graves of them both are
the powerful land of Cenn Bera.
the slaughter increased on them every day from Samain to the middle of
spring The Ulstermen made a count of their forces, going and coming, and a half
or a third of their heroes they left behind, as was said:
Blathnat was slain
In the slaughter above Argat-glenn.
grievous deed for a woman to betray her husband.
Now that is the tragic death of Cu Roi mac Dairi.
Ancient Irish Tales, ed. Tom P. Cross and Clark H. Slover, Henry Holt &