Emerald Isle

The Vengeance of Mesegdra

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

The Fearsome Vengeance of Mesegdra

Back in the days of Ireland of old, in the times when legends walked the earth and before the light came to drive back the shadows of ancient times, the word of a bard was much feared, for the people had no writing, so all of their words and histories were stored in songs and poems by bardic masters.

As you can imagine they were very wary of getting on the wrong side of a bard, for their name could be blackened for all time by cunning satire and mocking memorials! One of the craftiest bards was called Atharna, also known as the Extortioner, because he'd lash any who didn't give him his due with vicious poetry and sullied reputations.

Once even it was said he came to the chieftain Eochaí and demanded his one eye for a payment, and the chieftain plucked it out, much to Atharna's disappointment, for he'd hoped the chieftain would give him a fine fat ransom instead.

Conor mac Nessa was the King in the North in those days, and his power grew strong. Many were his warriors and lacking his diplomacy, except in matters where he could take and give nothing in return. Above all other places, on the eastern lands were their eyes fixed, the rich rolling fields of Leinster.

King Conor brooded long and for many nights into his mead cups about how best to take his share of that wealth, until finally he decided he'd drop two birds with the one stone by sending Atharna to pester them, and then invade as revenge after they'd had enough of his leave-taking and insolent ways.

So Atharna set out with his caravan of poets and harpers, musicians and performers, and came to the Dún of Mesegdra who was King in Naas. For a full year he stayed, wasting their food and taking his measure and the measure of ten more of their drink, availing himself of their hospitality in grand style, so Mesegdra's temper was already delicate when the bold bard came at last to demand his due.

“And what will you have, Atharna?” asked King Mesegdra.

“One hundred and ten cattle, the same in sheep, my own weight in gold and thrice that in fine garments, and forty five of your fairest maidens to work in my fort.”

Without a blink or a wink, King Mesegdra agreed to his terms, which made Atharna mighty fearful. For he knew the men of Leinster weren't the sort to meekly hand over such a weighty toll, and he suspected they'd follow him and murder him once he left their lands, as it was considered a great crime to kill guests on your own soil.

He whispered in the ear of a starling and told the bird to bring him Conor mac Nessa for his safe passage from the border of the eastlands. Leisurely he left the halls of Dún Mesegdra and took his sweet time going back north, giving Conor plenty of opportunity to raise a muster, and sure enough he was met at the border by Conor and a force of men, his thrice fifteen women in tow.

But then from the darkling border forest burst King Mesegdra and a great host! And they fell on the Northmen with flashing blades and venomous oaths. Pitiless was the battle which followed, and Conor got the worst of it, so they fled to a nearby peninsula and walled it off with wattle and thorns, sending that same starling winging back to Emain Macha to seek help.

Conall of the Victories it was who heard the call in the north, and he marched as fleet as a springing deer to save his king. When he came to the sea cape of Ben Edar where the hard fighting was taking place, he struck the men of Leinster from behind like a wave tearing at a sand-house, and scattered them.

King Mesegdra was hard put to escape, but he managed to make his way to the fords of Liffey at Clane, where stood a sacred oak, beloved by the druids. None could spill blood under its boughs, for fear of the wrath of the Sidhe, so there Mesegdra rested, for he had lost a hand in the battle before.

Conall tracked him down and wheeled his chariot around the tree, shouting insults and raining his contempt upon the wounded king. But Mesegdra asked him

“Is it the way among the men of the north to challenge crippled men with one arm to battle?”

So Conall had his charioteer bind up his arm and again sang out his challenge. Mesegdra pulled out his sword and they set to it, until by chance he happened to cut the bonds holding Conall's arm in place.

“It's on your own head,” he said, “if you do that again!”

So he had his arm bound again, and they did furious battle, but again, Mesegdra managed to slip and cut the bonds holding Conall's arm, so Conall rushed on him and cut his head from his shoulders.

He took the head and Mesegdra's chariot and made his way back home, but along the way he met a woman of passing fairness.

“Who might you be, woman?” said Conall.

“I am Buan, wife of Mesgedra the King.”

“You'll come with me,” then said Conall.

“Who commands this?” said Buan.

“Mesgedra the King,” said Conall.

“And who are you to speak in his name?”

“Behold his chariot and his horses,” said Conall.

“He gives rich gifts to many a man,” answered the Queen.

Then Conall showed her the head of her husband.

“This is my token,” said he.

“It is enough,” said Buan. “but give me leave to keen him before I go into captivity.”

Then Buan rose up in her chariot and raised for Mesgedra a wail of sorrow so loud and piercing that her heart broke with it, and she fell backwards on the road and died. Conall buried her there and her husband's head beside her, and from that spot grew a fair hazel tree called Coill Buana.

Before he put the head beneath the cairn though, he scooped out the brains and mixed them with lime to make a stone for his sling, as was the custom when a mighty warrior or king had died in those days. Such brain-balls were said to be deadlier than any other.

Years later the Wolf of the West, a man from Connacht called Ket, disguised himself and went into the north to seek knowledge of these fearsome warriors, and he came to the halls of Conor in Emain Macha. He spied two children kicking around the brain-ball after they'd taken it from a shelf, and knew what it was, so he distracted the children and made off with it.

Shortly after he mustered a great force of Connachtmen and raided the north without mercy, carrying off many cattle and riches, so Conor gave chase with his own army. The women of Connacht, being unafraid and fierce, wanted to watch the fight, so they gathered nearby.

Conor thought he'd impress the ladies with the splendour of his chariot and armour, so he rode near and saluted them, but Ket was waiting in the bushes close at hand, and rose up, slinging the brain-ball straight at Conor's head!

Right into his temple it sang, and dropped him like a stone himself. The men of the north let out a wail and carried Conor off, sure he was done for, but after he returned to Emain Macha his physician Fingen found him yet alive. The brain-ball however was half stuck in his own brain.

“If that comes out his life will come out with it,” said Fingen, “but if we leave it in he'll look a little strange”.

“Sooner strange than dead,” said the lords of the north, and so Fingen stitched over it with gold thread the colour of Conor's hair, and told Conor not to move too quickly, to stay off horseback, and to avoid dancing.

For seven years Conor lived like that, and there was peace across Ireland, for he couldn't go to war or do anything which might inflame his passions, until one day the sun darkened at noon, and the people were fearful as it seemed they could see phantoms of long gone relatives and enemies walking about the countryside shouting without sound. The sacred wells in the land lit up with a wild light and the Sidhe whirled in a mad magical wind, dashing to and fro as if neither this place nor that was good enough for hiding.

Conor called to his chief druid, who was called Bacarach, and asked him what was the cause of all this. The druid went to a sacred grove of oaks, now turned brown, and went into a deep trance. He spoke then to Conor, and this is what he said:

“I see a hill near a city of gold like the sun, and on it three men are bound and nailed to crosses, side by side. The young man in the middle is as one of the immortals, but around him stand soldiers from a city of stone which is white as the moon, clad in red and iron, carrying tall spears, and a crowd gathers to see him die.”

“Is he then a criminal?”

“No,” intoned the druid, “but holiness, innocence and truth have come to the earth in him, the end of the old shadows, and for this have his own druids caused him to be killed, for their teachings were not the same as his. And the heavens are darkened with sorrow at the sight.”

Then Conor leaped to his feet in a fury, drawing his sword and holding it high, crying out:

“They won't kill him, it shall not be so! If I was there with a force of my northmen I'd cut them down and hear their weeping, like this!”

And he started to hack and hew at the trees about. So great were his exertions that the sling-ball burst right out of his head, and he fell down dead. And so was Mesgedra avenged upon his killer, Conor mac Nessa, King of Ulster.

Naas where Mesgedra once held court is marked on the map below!


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Irish fairy tales, Irish folklore