Emerald Isle

A Hero Is Born

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Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales from the Ulster Cycle

His name would echo through the ages

Queen Nessa had been known as a gentle and sweet natured woman when she was a maid, but through the hardships of the world she became cold and ruthless. Still, for all that she was still a rare beauty and an indomitable warrior, which many men find to be an irresistible combination!

And so it was with King Fergus Mac Ríoch, master of all Ulster and the northlands. He had to have her and told her as much, but she wanted Ulster for her son Conchobar, so she named as her bride-price that the King let her son rule Ulster for a year while they enjoyed themselves.

Well, she did more than enjoy herself, she made great gifts to the chieftains of Ulster and counselled her son well, so his judgements were seen to be fair and just. After the year was past, the people of Ulster muttered to themselves that Conchobar was a far better king than Fergus had ever been, and what sort of king wanders off for a year anyway!

So Fergus was deposed and stormed off in a rage, although he remained married to Nessa, and Conchobar became the new king of Ulster. He grew into a fine young man, and his sister Deichtire grew to be a fine woman, trained well by her mother in the arts of war, leading armies into battle and fearing nobody.

But the time came for her to be married, so a match was made with Sualtim, who was of noble blood and her equal in every way. But while her fifty maids prepared the bride-to-be, she took a cup of wine, and so caught up  as she in the preparations that she didn't notice the mayfly she had swallowed with the same draught!

She swiftly fell into a deep sleep, and her maids along with her, and while she slept she dreamed of a tall young man with uncannily long arms, who introduced himself as Lugh, one of the Sidhe. He had been in the form of a mayfly, he said, when she had swallowed him, and he told them they had to come away with him.

With that, they transformed into a flock of white birds and spiralled above Emain Macha, flying south to the land of the Sidhe. Sualtim and Conchobar were distraught, as you might imagine, and scoured the land from coast to coast, but found no sign of Deichtre or her fifty maids.

Almost a year to the day afterwards, Conchobar was siting at a feast with his men outside the fortress, when what should they see but a great flock of birds landed before them, eating everything in sight. Trees were plucked bare, the corn was left nothing but stalks, and the green grass itself was swallowed!

Mighty vexed they were too I don't mind telling you, so they yoked up their chariots and set out after the birds, noticing that they were bound to one another by very fine silver and golden chains.

“A bag of the same gold as binds them to the man who brings me those birds!” cried Conchobar in high excitement, and they raced until the sun had set at last without catching a single one. Exhausted and exasperated, Conchobar decided to call it a night and told his men to look around for somewhere to stay.

Fergus his foster-father who was once king returned to them sayign he'd found a small hut but it would have to do. Bricriu of the bitter tongue predictably complained and said he'd go see for himself.

He found instead a tall hall with a well thatched roof, carven beams and deep walls, fresh with the smell of hay and cooking beef sizzling its drippings over the warm fire. A young man and woman came out and said he and his company were very welcome, and they were fair to look upon, and gazing deeper into the hall, what did he see but the fifty missing women!

Well he made his way back to Conchobar with all haste, and in turn the king and his men rode up to find good food and rich wine thrust into their arms by their missing maids. Great cheer was had but in the middle of the night they were roused from their rest by a shrieking wail and the sound of howling!

Conchobar sprang to his feet, afraid they were under attack, but the man of the house appeared again and said it was but the lady giving birth, so the King and his men settled down again uneasily. In the morning the man was nowhere to be found, but before them was the King's own sister  Deichtire holding a newborn babe in her arms.

The men of Ulster fell to quarrelling then, arguing over who would raise him, but in the end Morann the wisest judge said that all of the men would have a hand in raising him, each teaching him their own skills, and that the child was to be called Setanta.

The birthplace of Cúchulainn, or as he was known at first Setanta, is marked here below on the map.


Further Tales from the Ulster Cycle

Irish fairy tales, Irish folklore