Stories, Myths & Legends

The Birth of Conchobar (version 2)

There was a king of Ulster called Eochaid Yellow-Heel, son of Lóch. He had a daughter called Ness, and she was brought up by twelve foster-fathers. Her name was originally Assa ('easy', 'docile', 'gentle'), because she was of good manners and gentle as she was brought up. 

At that time, in the southern part of Ulster, there came a féinnid who went marauding throughout Ireland with 27 men. He was Cathbad, the illustrious druid. He had great knowledge and druidical skill as well as great physical strength, and he came from Ulster, but he was rarely to be found there.

Cathbad came upon another féinnid with 27 followers, and they began to fight in the wilderness. They fought until they were exhausted, and then they came to a peace agreement. If they hadn't, they would all have died together, because they were of equal number. So Cathbad and his people, and the other féinnid and his people, went to Ulster, where they killed the twelve foster-fathers of Ness, who were all feasting in one house. Only the maiden survived, and no-one knew who had committed this outrage. 

With great wailing and lamentation she went to her father, who said that, since the culprits were unknown, it was not possible to avenge the slaughter. This made her very angry, and she became a féinnid herself, leading a band of 27 warriors on an expedition to avenge her foster-fathers, destroying and plundering every district in turn.

After that, her name was changed to Ni-assa ('not gentle'), or Ness, because of the harshness of her fury and arms.  She would ask everyone she met for news about féinnidi, in the hope of finding the identity of the man who had killed her foster-fathers. 

Once, she left her men preparing the food, and set off alone to explore the wilderness, as she did whenever she came to any wild place. There she saw a beautiful, clear spring, and went there to bathe, leaving her weapons and her clothes on the bank. Cathbad happened to be making a foray into the same wilderness, and came to the place where Ness was bathing. He stood between her and her clothes and sword, unsheathed his own sword and held it over her head. 

'A life for a life,' she cried. 

'Give me my three demands,' said Cathbad. 

'You shall have them.' 

'These are my demands: that you remain under my protection; that there be a covenant of peace between us; and that you be my only wife as long as you live.' 

'Better that than be killed, since I have no weapons,' replied Ness. 

So they and their people assembled in one place, and when Cathbad judged the hour to be propitious they set out for Ulster. The maiden's father made them welcome, and gave them land - Ráith Cathbaid in the land of the Cruithne, near the river called Conchobar in Crích Rois. 

One night, a great thirst came upon Cathbad. Ness hunted all through the house for some water for him to drink, but couldn't find any. So she went to the river Conchobar, strained some water through her veil into a cup, and brought it to Cathbad. 

'Have a candle lit for us, so we can see the water,' said Cathbad. When a light was made, he saw two worms in the water. 

Cathbad bared his sword over Ness's head. 'If you want me to drink this, drink some of it yourself,' he said.  'Otherwise, you will be killed.' So she took two mouthfuls of the water, and swallowed a worm in each mouthful.  Shortly after this, she became pregnant, for the usual length of time that a woman is pregnant. Some say it was the worms that made her pregnant. But the king of Ulster, Fachtna Fathach son of Rudraige, was Ness's lover, and it was he who caused the pregnancy in spite of the fair druid Cathbad. 

Once, Cathbad went to Mag Inis to talk to Fachtna Fathach. Ness began to go into labour on the journey. 'If it is in your power,' said Cathbad, 'don't give birth until tomorrow, for then your son will be king of Ulster, or even of all Ireland, and his name will be remembered in Ireland forever. 
'I'll do that,' Ness agreed. 'Unless it comes out through my side, it won't come out any other way until the time is right.' She went into a meadow on the banks of the river Conchobar and sat down on a flagstone by the river's edge. There the pangs of childbirth came upon her. Cathbad prophesied the birth of a king who would command the hosts of Ireland, whom heroes would yield to and whose glory would be great.  Although he was not his own son, he would love him as if he was, because he would help him gain great influence. 

 Then Ness gave birth to the glorious, illustrious child, the promised son whose fame would spread throughout Ireland. The stone where he was born is still there, to the west of Airgdech. He was born with a worm in each hand. As soon as he was born he tumbled head over heels into the river, and the river carried him backwards, but Cathbad grabbed him and lifted him out. So he was named Conchobar, son of Fachtna Fathach, after the river. 

Cathbad brought up the boy as if he were his own son, so that he was often called Conchobar son of Cathbad.  Later, Conchobar assumed the kingship of Ulster by right of his father, Fachtna Fathach son of Rudraige, as well as his mother, who was the daughter of Eochaid Sálbuide. And through the strength and bravery and druidical knowledge of Cathbad, Conchobar was able to defeat Ailill and Medb in the Battle of Gáirech and Ilgáirech during the Cattle Raid of Cooley.

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