As a usual thing the material regarding
traditional kings is later in time of composition than the material of the Ulster
cycle. This story, however, although
it appears in a late manuscript, has all the appearance of belonging to the
Old-Irish tradition. In this, as in several other stories dealing with the early
kings, there is a rather strong emphasis on the legal and governmental system of
ancient Ireland. Superstitions regarding the kingship, curious ideas about the
influence of the moral and physical state of the monarch upon that of his
people, the custom of human sacrifice for the good of the country – all these
make the material of this selection especially interesting to the student of
early Irish social history. Here, as in numerous other romantic tales, we
encounter the motif of a visit to the fairy world, the Land
of Promise, the Land of Youth. As appears from the context Conn and Art are
regarded as contemporaries of Finn
Conn the Hundred-Fighter son of Fedlimid Rechtmar son of Tuathal Techtmar son of Feradach Findfechtnach son of Crimthann Nia Nair son of Lugaid Riab Derg son of the three white triplets, Bres and Nar and Lothar, the names of the sons of Eochaid Find,(1) was once at Tara of the kings, the noble conspicuous dwelling of Ireland, for a period of nine years, and there was nothing lacking to the men of Ireland during the time of this king, for, indeed, they used to reap the corn three times in the year. And his wife was Ethne Taebfada (Long-Side) daughter of Brislinn Binn the king of Norway. He loved her dearly. After their living a long time together Ethne died, and was buried with honor in Tailltiu; for Tailltiu was one of the three chief burial-places of Ireland, which were the Fair of Tailltiu, and the Brug beside the Boyne, and the cemetery of Cruachan. And he was dejected on account of his wife Ethne’s death, and it weighed so heavily on him, that he was unable any longer to rule or govern the kingdom. And there was lacking to Ireland at that time one thing only, that the king of Ireland should find a helpmate worthy of him in her stead.
And Manannan said not to burn her lest her guilt should cleave to the land or to themselves. Messengers came from Labraid to the house of Angus of the Brug, his own son-in-law; for a daughter of Labraid’s was the wife of Angus of the Brug, and her name was Nuamaisi. It was for this reason messengers were despatched: in order that Becuma Cneisgel should not find a place for her head in any of the fairy-mounds of Ireland.
Accordingly she was banished beyond the expanse of the sea and the great deep; and it was into Ireland in particular she was sent, for the Tuatha De Danann hated the sons of Mil after they had been driven out of Ireland by them. The girl had a lover in Ireland, Art son of Conn the Hundred-Fighter, but Art did not know that he was her lover.
As for the girl, she found a coracle (boat) which had no need of rowing, but leaving it to the harmony of the wind over sea she came to Ben Etair maic Etgaith. Thus was the girl. She had a green cloak of one color about her, with a fringe of red thread of red gold, and a red satin smock against her white skin, and sandals of white bronze on her, and soft yellow hair, and a gray eye in her head, and lovely-colored teeth, and thin red lips, black eyebrows, arms straight and fair of hue, a snowy white body, small round knees, and slender choice feet, with excellence of shape, and form, and complexion, and accomplishments. Fair was the attire of that maiden, even Eogan Inbir’s daughter. One thing only, however, – a woman was not worthy of the high-king of Ireland who was banished for her own misdeed
When she arrived, Conn was on Ben Etair, sorrowful, restless, and lamentful, bewailing his wife. The maiden recognized him as the high-king of Ireland, and she brought her coracle to land and sat down beside Conn. Conn asked tidings of her. The maiden answered, and said that she was come from the Land of Promise in quest of Art, whom she had loved from afar, because of the tales about him.
And she said that she was Delbchaem daughter of Morgan. ”I would not come between thee and thy choice of courtship,” said Conn, ”though I have no wife.” ”Why hast thou no wife?” said the maiden. ”My helpmate died,” replied Conn. ”What then shall I do?” said the maiden; ”is it with thee or with Art that I shall sleep?” ”Make thine’ own choice,” replied Conn. ”This is my choice,” said the maiden, ”since thou dost not accept me: let me have my choice of courtship in Ireland.”
”I see no defects in thee for which it were right to refuse thee, unless they are concealed in thee.” Then the maiden asked her own judgment of Conn, and it was granted her. And they made a union, Conn and the maiden, and she bound him to do her will. And her judgment was that Art should not come to Tara until a year was past. Conn’s mind was vexed because of the banishing of his son from Ireland without cause.
After that they both set out for Tara; and the maiden left her coracle in the clefts of the rocks in shelter and concealment, for she knew not when she might need that coracle again. Art was at Tara then playing chess, and Cromdes, Conn’s druid, along with him. And the druid said, ”A move of banishment of thine, my son, and because of the woman thy father marries thou art being banished.”
The king and his wife arrived at the place, and his son was brought to him straightway. And Conn said to Art, ”Leave Tara and Ireland for a year, and make thy preparation at once, for I have pledged myself to this.” And the men of Ireland deemed it a great wrong that Art should be banished for the sake of a woman. Nevertheless, Art left Tara that night, and Conn and Becuma were a year together in Tara, and there was neither corn nor milk in Ireland during that time. And the men of Ireland were in the greatest difficulty about that matter; and the druids of all Ireland were sent with the help of their science and their true wisdom to show what had brought that dreadful evil into Ireland.
The question was put to them, and the druids related to the king of Tara and the nobles of Ireland the cause of the evil: because of the depravity of Conn’s wife and her unbelief it was sent. And it was declared, through whom their deliverance would be possible, namely, that the son of a sinless couple should be brought to Ireland and slain before Tara, and his blood mingled with the soil of Tara.
This was told to Conn, but he knew not where there was such a boy. And he assembled the men of Ireland in one place, and said to them, ”I will go in quest of that sinless boy; and do you give the kingdom of Ireland to Art yonder so long as I am away, and, moreover, let him not leave Tara while I am absent until I come again.” Then Conn proceeded straight to Ben Etair, and he found a coracle there.
And he was a fortnight and a month on the sea wandering from one isle to another without knowledge or guidance save that of trusting to the course of the stars and the luminaries.
And seals and leviathans, and adzeheads and porpoises and many strange beasts of the sea rose up around the coracle, and swiftly uprose the waves, and the firmament trembled. And the hero all alone navigated the coracle until he came to a strange isle. He landed and left his coracle in a secret lonely place.
And it is thus the island was: having fair fragrant apple-trees, and many wells of wine most beautiful, and a fair bright wood adorned with clustering hazel-trees surrounding those wells, with lovely golden-yellow nuts, and little bees ever beautiful humming over the fruits, which were dropping their blossoms and their leaves into the wells.
Then he saw nearby a shapely hostel thatched with birds’ wings, white, and yellow, and blue. And he went up to the hostel. ’Tis thus it was: with doorposts of bronze and doors of crystal and a few generous inhabitants within. He saw the queen with her large eyes, whose name was Rigru Rosclethan daughter of Lodan from the Land of Promise, that is, the wife of Daire Degamra son of Fergus Fialbrethach from the Land of Wonders.
Conn saw there in the midst of the hostel a little boy with excellence of shape and form, in a chair of crystal, and his name was Segda Saerlabraid son of Daire Degamra. Conn sat down on the bedside of the hostel, and was attended upon, and his feet washed. And he knew not who had washed his feet.
Before long he saw a flame arising from the hearth, and the hero was taken by an invisible hand which guided him to the fire, and he went towards the fire. Then food-laden boards of the house with varied meats rose up before him, and he knew not who had given them to him.
After a short space he saw a drinking-horn there, and he knew not who had fetched the horn. Then the dishes were removed from him. He saw before him a vat excellent and finely wrought of blue crystal, with three golden hoops about it. And Daire Degamra bade Conn go into the vat and bathe, so that he might put his weariness from him.
And Conn did so,... A fair cloak was thrown over the king, and he awoke refreshed. Food and nourishment was set before him He said that it was taboo for him to eat by himself. And they answered that there was no taboo at all among them, save that none of them ever ate with the other.
”Though no one has eaten,” said the little boy Segda Saerlabraid, ”I will eat along with the king of Ireland, so that he may not violate his taboo.” And they lay in the same bed that night. Conn arose on the morrow, and laid before the household his need and his trouble. ”What is thy need?” said they. ”That Ireland is without corn and milk for a year now.” ”Why hast thou come hither?”
”In quest of your son,” replied Conn, ”if you are willing; for it has been told m that it is through him our deliverance will come; namely, - that the son of a sinless couple should be invited to Tara, and afterwards bathed in the water of Ireland; and it is you that possess the same, so let this young person, even Segda Saerlabraid, be given up.”
”Alas,” said Daire son of Fergus Fialbrethach, ”we would not lend our son for the kingship of the world; for never did his father and mother come together except when yonder little boy was made; and moreover our own fathers and mothers never came together save at our making.”
”Evil is the thing you say,” said the boy, ”not to respond to the king of Ireland; I will go myself with him.” ”Do not say that, son,” said the household.
”I say that the king of Ireland should not be refused.”
”If that is so,” said the household, ”it is thus we shall let thee go from us, under protection of the kings of all Ireland, and Art son of Conn, and Finn son of Cumall, and the men of art, so that thou shalt come back safe to us again.”
”All that shall be given,” said Conn, ”if I can.” As for Conn and his coracle after having had this adventure, it was only a sail of three days and three nights for them to Ireland. The men of all Ireland were then gathered in assembly awaiting Conn at Tara. And when the druids saw the boy with Conn, this is the counsel they gave: to slay him and mingle his blood with the blighted earth and the withered trees, so that its due mast and fruit, its fish, and its produce might be in them.
And Conn placed the boy he had brought with him under the protection of Art and Finn, and the men of art, and the men of Ireland. The latter, however, did not accept that responsibility, but the kings accepted it at once, that is Conn, and Finn, and Art Oenfer, and they were all outraged as regards the boy.
As soon as they had finished this council, the boy cried out with a loud voice: ”O men of Ireland, leave me alone in peace, since you have agreed to slay me. Let me be put to death, as I shall say myself,” said the boy.
Just then they heard the lowing of a cow, and a woman wailing continually behind it. And they saw the cow and the woman making towards the assembly. The woman sat down, between Finn and Conn the Hundred-Fighter. She asked tidings of the attempt of the men of Ireland, that the innocent boy should be put to death in despite of Finn, and Art, and Conn, ”Where are those druids?”
”Here,” said they. ”Find out for me what those two bags are at the cow’s sides, that is, the bag at each side of her.” ”By our conscience,” said they, ”we know not indeed.”
”I know,” said she; ”a single cow that has come here to save that innocent youth. And it is thus it will be done to her: let the cow be slaughtered, and her blood mixed with the soil of Ireland, and save the boy. And moreover, there is something which it were more fitting for you to take heed to, that is, when the cow is cut up, let the two bags be opened, and there are two birds inside, a bird with one leg, and a bird with twelve legs.”
And the cow was slaughtered and the birds taken out of her. And as they were beating their wings in the presence of the host, the woman said, ”It is thus we shall discover which is the stronger if they encounter.”
Then the one-legged bird prevailed over the bird with twelve legs. The men of Ireland marvelled at that. Said the woman, ”You are the bird with the twelve legs, and the little boy the bird with one leg, for it is he who is in the right.
Take those druids there,” said the woman, ”for it were better for them to die, and let them be hanged.” And the young man was not put to death. Then the woman rose up and called Conn aside, and spoke as follows ”Put this sinful woman away, this Becuma Cneisgel, daughter of Eogan Inbir, and wife of Labraid Luathlam-ar-Claideb, for it is through transgression she has been driven out of the Land of Promise.”
”That is good counsel,” said Conn, ”if I could put her away; but since I cannot, give us good advice.”
”I will,” said the woman, ”for it is worse it will be; a third of its corn, and its milk, and its mast will be lacking to Ireland as long as she is with you.” And she took leave of them then and went off with her son, Segda.
Jewels and treasures were offered to them, but they refused them. Becuma chanced to be out on the green then, and she saw Conn’s son Art playing chess there. It was not pleasant for Art to see his enemy. ”Is that Conn’s son Art?” said she. ”It is indeed,” said they. ”I lay a taboo upon him,” said she, ”unless he play chess with me for stakes.” This was told to Art son of Conn. A chess-board was brought to them then, and they played, and Art won the first game.
”This is a game on thee, girl,” said Art. ”That is so,” said she. ”And I lay a taboo on thee,” said he, ”if thou eat food in Ireland until thou procure the warrior’s wand which Cu Roi mac Dairi had in his hand when taking possession of Ireland and the great world, and fetch it to me here.” Then the girl proceeded to the dewy light-flecked brug,’ wherein was Angus, with his dear wife at his side, even Nuamaisi daughter of Labraid.
However, she searched most of the fairy-mounds of Ireland, and found no tidings of the wand until she came to the fairy-mound of Eogabal, and a welcome was given her here by Aine daughter of Eogabal, for they were two foster-sisters. ”Thou wilt get thy quest here,” said she; ”and take yonder thrice fifty youths with thee until thou come to the stronghold of Cu Roi on the top of Sliab Mis.”
And they found it there, and she rejoiced. Thereupon she set out for Tara, and she brought the wand to Art, and laid it upon his knees. The chess-board was brought to them, and they played. And the men of the fairy-mound began to steal the pieces. Art saw that, and said, ”The men of the fairy-mound are stealing the pieces from us, girl; and it is not thou that art winning the game, but they.”
”This is a game on thee,” said the girl. ”It is so indeed,” said the young man; ”and give thy judgment.” ”I will this,” said she; ”thou shalt not eat food in Ireland until thou bring with thee Delbchaem the daughter of Morgan.” ”Where is she?” said Art.
”In an isle amid the sea, and that is all the information thou wilt get.” Art set out for Inber Colptha; and he found a coracle with choice equipment on the shore before him. And he put forth the coracle, and travelled the sea from one isle to another until he came to a fair, strange island; and lovely was the character of that island, full of wild apples and lovely birds, with little bees ever beautiful on the tops of the flowers.
A house, hospitable and noble, in the midst of the island, thatched with birds’ wings, white and purple, and within it a company of blooming women, ever beautiful, among them Creide Firalainn daughter of Fidech Foltlebor. A hearty welcome was then given to him, and food set before him, and tidings are asked of him. And he said that he was come from Ireland, and that he was the King of Ireland’s son, and his name was Art.
”That is true,” said Creide. After that she put out her hand, and gave him a variegated mantle with adornments of burnished gold from Arabia, and he put it on him, and it was right for him. ”’Tis true,” said she, ”that thou art Conn’s son Art and it is long since thy coming here has been decreed.” And she gave him three kisses, dearly and fervently. And she said, ”Look at the crystal bower.” And fair was the site of that bower, with its doors of crystal and its inexhaustible vats, for, though everything be emptied out of them, they were ever full again.
He remained a fortnight and a month in that island; after which he took leave of the girl, and related his errand. ”’Tis true,” said she, ”that is thine errand; and it will be no little time until the maiden will be found, for the way is bad thither, and there is sea and land between thee and her, and, even if thou dost reach it, thou wilt not go past it.
There is a great ocean and dark between; and deadly and hostile is the way there, for there is a wood that is traversed as though there were spear-points of battle under one’s feet, like leaves of the forest under the feet of men. There is a luckless gulf of the sea full of dumb-mouthed beasts on this side of that wood, even an immense oak forest, dense and thorny before a mountain, and a narrow path through it, and a dark house in the mysterious wood at the head of the same path, with seven hags and a bath of molten lead awaiting thee, for thy coming there has been fated.
And there is somewhat more grievous still, even Ailill Black-tooth son of Mongan Minscothach. And weapon cannot harm him. And there are two sisters of mine there, daugh- ters of Fidech Foltlebor, Finscoth and Aeb their names. There are two cups in their hands – a cup filled with poison, and one filled with wine.
And the cup which is on thy right hand, drink therefrom when thou hast need. And near at hand is the stronghold of the maiden. Thus it is, with a palisade of bronze round about it, and a man’s head on every stake of it, after being slain by Coinchenn Cennfada (Dog-Head Long-Head), save on one stake alone. And Coinchenn daughter of the king of the Coinchinn the mother of the girl, even Delbchaem daughter of Morgan.”
Art then set out after he had been instructed by the girl, until he came to the crest of that hapless sea full of strange beasts. And on all sides the beasts and great sea-monsters rose up around the coracle. And Art son of Conn donned his battle attire, and engaged them warily and circumspectly. And he began to slaughter them and maim them until they fell by him.
After that he came to the forest wild where the Coinchenn and the wicked, perverse hags were, and Art and the hags encountered. It was not a fair encounter for him, the hags piercing and hacking at him until morning. Nevertheless the armed youth prevailed over that hapless folk. And Art went on his way using his own judgment until he came to the venomous icy mountain; and the forked glen was there full of poisonous toads, which were lying in wait for whoever came there. And he passed thence to Saeb Mountain beyond, wherein were full many lions with long manes lying in wait for the beasts of the whole world.
After that he came to the icy river, with its slender narrow bridge, and a warrior giant with a pillar-stone, and he grinding his teeth on it, namely, Curnan Cliabsalach. Nevertheless they encountered, and Art overcame the giant, so that Curnan Cliabsalach fell by him. And he went thence to where Ailill Dubdedach son of Mongan was.
And ’tis thus that man was: a fierce champion was he; no weapon could harm him, or fire burn him, or water drown him. Then Art and he took to wrestling, and they made a manly combat, a stern, heroic, equally-sharp fight And Ailill Dubdedach began abusing Art, and they were haranguing one another. But Art overcame the giant, so that his head came off the back of his neck.
After that Art wrecked the stronghold; and he seized Ailill’s wife, and he threatened to do her injury until she told him the way to Morgan’s stronghold and the Land of Wonders. It was there Coinchenn Cennfada, Morgan’s wife, was; and she had the strength of a hundred in battle or conflict. She was the daughter of Conchruth king of the Coinchinn. And the druids had foretold her that if ever her daughter should be wooed, in that same hour she would die.
Therefore, she put to death everyone that came to woo her daughter. And it was she that had organized the hags with the bath of lead to meet him, and Curnan Cliabsalach son of Duscad, the door-keeper of Morgan’s house.
And it was she that had put Ailill Dubdedach in the way of Art son of Conn, because Art would come on that expedition to woo her daughter, as it had been foretold her. And it was she that had contrived the venomous toads, and the icy bridge, and the dark forest, and the mountain full of lions, and the hapless sea gulf.
Thus came Art to the stronghold which he was in quest of, that is, Morgan’s stronghold and pleasant it was. A fair palisade of bronze was round about it, and houses hospitable and extensive and a stately palace... in the midst of the enclosure. An ingenious, bright, shining bower set on one pillar over the enclosure, on the very top, where that maiden was. She had a green cloak of one hue about her, with a gold pin in it over her breast, and long, fair, very golden hair. She had dark-black eyebrows, and flashing grey eyes in her head, and a snowy-white body. Fair was the maiden both in shape and intelligence, in wisdom and embroidery, in chastity and nobility.
And the maiden said: ”A warrior has come to this place today and there is not in the world a warrior fairer in form, or of better repute. It is true,” said she ”he is Art; and it is long since we have been preparing for him. And I will go into a house apart,” said she, ”and do thou bring Art into the bower; for I fear lest the Coinchenn may put him to death, and have his head placed on the vacant stake before the stronghold.”
With that Art went into the bower, and when the women-folk saw him they made him welcome and his feet were bathed. - After that came the Coinchenn, and the two daughters of Fidech along with her, Aeb and Finscoth, to pour out the poison and the wine for Art. Then the Coinchenn arose and put on her fighting apparel, and challenged Art to combat. And it was not Art who refused a fight ever. So he donned his fighting gear, and before long the armed youth prevailed over the Coinchenn; and her head came off from the back of her neck, and he placed it on the vacant stake in front of the fortress.
Now concerning Art son of Conn and Delbchaem daughter of Morgan. That night they lay down merry, and in good spirits the whole stronghold in their power, from small to great, until Morgan king of the Land of Wonders arrived; for indeed he was not there at the time. Then, however, Morgan arrived, full of wrath, to avenge his fortress and his good wife on Art son of Conn.
He challenged Art to combat. And the young man arose, and put on his battle-harness, his pleasant, satin mantle, and the white light-speckled apron of burnished gold about his middle. And he put his fine dark helmet of red gold on his head. And he took his fair, purple, embossed shield on the arched expanse of his back. And he took his wide-grooved sword with the blue hilt, and his two thick-shafted, red-yellow spears, and they attacked each other, Art and Morgan like two enormous stags, or two lions, or two waves of destruction. And Art overcame Morgan, and he did not part from him until his head had come off his neck.
which Art took hostages of Morgan’s people, and also possession of the Land of
Wonders. And he collected the gold and silver of the land also and gave it all
to the maiden, even Delbchaem daughter of Morgan.
The stewards and overseers followed him from the land, and he brought the maiden with him to Ireland. And they landed at Benn Etair. When they came into port, the maiden said: Hasten to Tara, and tell to Becuma daughter of Eogan that she abide not there, but to depart at once, for it is a bad hap if she be not commanded to leave Tara.”
And Art went forward to Tara, and was made welcome. And there was none to whom his coming was not pleasing, but the wanton and sorrowful Becuma. But Art ordered the sinful woman to leave Tara. And she rose up straightway lamenting in the presence of the men of Ireland, without a word of leave-taking, until she came to Benn Etair.
As for the maiden Delbchaem, the seers, and the wise men, and the chiefs were sent to welcome her, and she and Art came to Tara luckily and auspiciously. And the nobles of Ireland asked tidings of his adventures from Art; and he answered them, and made a lay.
far the Adventures of Art son of Conn, and the Courtship of Delbchaem daughter
(1)The father of the triplets is usually Eochaid Fedlech, the brother of the king here referred to.
Ancient Irish Tales, ed. Tom P. Cross and Clark H. Slover, Henry Holt &