Emerald Isle

Nera and the Hill of Cruachan

King Aillil, husband to Queen Medb whose famous cattle raid started a war with Cú Chulainn, was deep in his cups as the sun set on Samhain night, red and cloud-torn over the ancient fortress of Rathcroghan. Bothered by the whispering winds, he took a notion that it would be a good test of courage if one of his warriors would go out and put a wicker knot on the ankle of a gallowed corpse, and promised a sword of solid gold to the one who did.

Now you might think there wasn't much danger in bothering a corpse, but on Samhain night it was said among the old people of Ireland that the dead had power and could walk again, especially in that place, so not a man stirred or raised his head save only for Nera, warrior of Connachta.

Boldly he set forth, his way lit only by a guttering rushlight, and he found the swinging body, upon which he set the wicker ring. Stepping back to admire his handiwork, he almost fell tail over top when the corpse kicked, asking for a cup of water in a croak like an old door opening!

Not wanting to offend the revenant and understanding that being hanged could be a thirsty business, Nera agreed and hefted the body up on his back, where it clung fast. He set off as quickly as he could towards the nearest house, but didn't it erupt in flames as he approached.

Shielding his face with his hands, he was spurred by the corpse like jockey on a horse to the next house, but it sank immediately into the waters of the lake upon which it sat!

"There's your water, " muttered Nera, but the claws of the body dug into his neck.

"A cup," it cursed, "a cup! I am no bullock to lap the living lough!"

So onwards they went, until at length, when the fear was growing on Nera as his rushlight was near to gone, they came to a house and entered. An old couple within bade them worried welcome and gave the hanged man a cup, from which he drank three times. Upon swallowing the third, what did he do but spit out the lot onto the old people, who died on the spot, clutching their faces.

"What did you do," cried Nera, "didn't they give you your water!"

"I was not hanged for my courteous nature," said the corpse, and so Nera brought him back to where he belonged on the gallows. Heaving a sigh of relief that the ordeal was over, he set off towards to Rathcroghan, but fell into a deep hole in the darkness, finding his way out only by a strange light which beckoned him on.

When he emerged into that Samhain night, he saw before him a great fire blazing and the whole hall in ruins, heads cut off everyone, and a rampaging Sidhe army red with slaughter howling through the once-fair streets! Night-mares and great ravens capered amid the blackened beams and sightless eyes stared aghast from coal-cairns.

Weeping with horror, he followed the fairy folk into their deep mound when they were done with their deadly business, setting foot only where they had stepped and repeating their passwords, until he came to a green and warm land.

There he met a woman of the fairy people and forgot at once his anger and sorrow, staying with her for what seemed like an endless summer, carrying her wood and lighting her fire, until a spark caught on his finger one evening and it all came back to him in a rush. Hands shaking with rage he swore his vengeance on the fairies but she calmed him, telling him that he had seen but a vision, and if he warned King Aillil the warriors of Connachta could destroy the fairy mound before they themselves were attacked next Samhain.

She put a summer flower in his hair and kissed him farewell, bidding him to remember their love and the child he had given to her, and he fled the land of the young as quick as he could.

Well when he returned he found he had been gone only an hour, and the King scoffed at his wild stories, but then Nera remembered the flower in his hair, and he presented it to the king as proof. Upon seeing this, the King fell silent, holding up the flower in the firelight, and the very next day himself and his armies laid waste to the fairy mound, until not one stone stood upon another.

Nera, it is said, found his lady love before the King's cold iron fell, and they lived and loved happily ever after, which as we all know is rare enough in those or any times.

Shown on the map below is the fabled site of Rathcroghan.


Further Tales from the Ulster Cycle