Emerald Isle

Queen Medb Invades Ulster

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

Her pride offended, Queen Medb Invades Ulster

A quarrel arose between Queen Medb of Connacht and the King of Ulster regarding who had the most wealth, but all of his men were cursed with the pains of a pregnant woman giving birth so they couldn't ride out to meet her marching army. Only Cúchulainn who had the blood of the Sidhe running through his veins could even walk, let alone fight.

Medb and her adventurers were on their way to a place called the Swineherd's Plain, but before they reached it Cúchulainn found a narrow place through the forest and thought he'd put the mettle of the men of Connacht to the test. Cutting down a great old oak tree, he carved into it ogham runes which  said that unless a warrior in his chariot could leap over the tree on his first attempt, none would pass.

Medb's charioteers gave it their best, but after twenty were wrecked they made camp. That night Medb held counsel with her war-captains and decided to send one of her own champions to battle Cúchulainn in single combat. Fraech Mac Fidaeg was chosen, a mighty warrior of great renown.

The next morning Fraech set out with nine others and found Cúchulainn washing in a river. Fraech bid his fellows to stand and watch, for he had heard that Cúchulainn didn't like fighting in water. He called out a challenge and was told that if he didn't leave, he'd be killed.

“You're welcome to try young lad!” he said cheerily, and so they wrestled in the manner of having one arm wrapped around the other, until Fraech was bested. Holding his head above the water Cúchlainn told him to yield, but he would not, and so he died.

His men brought him back to the Queen's camp and laid his body on a hill, but fled in terror when a group of women clad in green came up from the hill and carried his body down with them into the earth as though it was nothing but smoke. The hill was a Sidhe Dun, and it was called Sid Fraech afterwards. In a fury one of Medb's men, Fergus Mac Ríoch, leaped his chariot over the fallen tree, and so the army moved on.

They travlled to a place which had no name, but which was afterwards called Áth Meislir after Cúchulainn slew the champion Meislir and six of his men there. Day and night he harried the invaders, never staying long enough to be caught, worrying at them like a wolf on its prey.

When Medb's army encamped at Fornacht, she set up a strong watch and ordered ditches dug and hedges raised about them. Patrolling with her mighty hound Baiscne, she felt safe at last, until a stone from a sling knocked the head off the poor beast! Cúchulainn had crept silent as a shadow among them, and had killed it.

She screamed and ran bloody into her tent shrieking about the cowardice of her men that they hadn't caught this young warrior yet. Shamed, they climbed into their chariots even after the hard day's marching and building and set out into the wilderness to catch him. So hard did they drive that the axles of their chariots caught fire to light their way, but catch him they did not, save only for the sound of his laughter on the wind.

The next day Prince Orlám's charioteer was out making new shafts and axles for the damaged chariots, cutting branches from the trees and cleaning them with an axe, when a young man walked casually into the clearing. The charioteer who was hot and bothered by midges called out to the youth to make himself useful and help with the work, but fell silent and cold when he saw the young man stripping the bark from the trees by running it through his fist!

“It's yourself!” he cried, and made to flee, but he was caught by the scruff of the neck and lifted, his feet dangling above the ground.

“And who are you, then?” asked the smiling youth.

“I am Orlám's charioteer. He is the son of Medb and Ailill, and he is resting over there through the trees, by the dike.”

“Is he then? Don't you worry I have no quarrel with charioteers. Take me to this Orlám,” and Cúchulainn – for who else would it be – found the prince and slew him after a quick battle. Tying the prince's head to the charioteer's back, he told him to bring it to Medb, but not to remove the head until he was inside the camp.

“And if you do otherwise, you can expect a shot from my sling!”

The charioteer raced back to the camp, weeping with grief, and when he was near he saw Medb approaching with some men. He removed the head and told them the story, but Medb told him that he wasn't yet at the camp, rather just outside it – but not to worry, the forest was many miles away.

With that the charioteer's head exploded into a fine mist, for while Cúchulainn didn't have a problem with charioteers, he had a problem with men who did him wrong! The place where this happened is near to the place marked on the map below.


Further Tales from the Ulster Cycle

Irish fairy tales, Irish folklore