Lugaid Red Stripes
Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales from the Ulster Cycle
Strange vines produce stranger fruit
Irish legends have this peculiar property – so long and so often have they been repeated down through the millennia that oftentimes one tale might cross into another, over and back, and leave its track behind. Some stories are far older than they might seem, and some contain shadows and echoes stretching back to the very beginning.
Such is the strange tale of Lugaid Red Stripes, who was also known as Red Sky. It was said he had three fathers, the Finn Emna, all of them brothers, and their names were Bres, Nár and Lothar. They wished for the High Kingship of Ireland so they went to war with their father, but on the night before they departed, their sister Clothru came to them and said she feared they would produce no heirs, and lay with them.
From this joining was produced Lugaid, who had a red stripe about his neck, and another around his waist. Above the neck he resembled Nár, from the neck to the waist he resembled Bres, and from the waist down he resembled Lothar.
Five years after High King Conaire Mór died, Lugaid sat himself upon the Lia Fáil, the stone of kings which roared whenever the true king sat upon it, making a sound heard throughout Ireland. However the stone didn’t roar for Lugaid, and so his foster father, none other than the hero Cú Chulainn, split it in two with his sword.
Never again did it roar until Conn of the Hundred Battles sat upon it, and after that, never at all.
It happened shortly afterwards that a Queen of Ireland, whose name was Ethne, became pregnant. She kept in her court a Druid, and this Druid made a prophecy after gazing into the still waters of a sacred well by the reflected light of a waxing moon.
He foretold that the child would slay Lugaid’s mother, so Ethne fled to Cruachán in the east to have her child. Lugaid gave chase and drowned her in the well, then cut her child from her womb, casting it after her into the waters. This child was called Furbaide Fer-benn, he who had two horns on his temples.
This child would later grow to be a man and kill Lugaid’s mother Clothru in revenge, for which Lugaid killed Furbaide on a mountain top called Sliab Uillean.
Lugaid had a wife whose name was Derbforgaill, daughter of the king of icy Lochlann, which we today know as Scandinavia, although she didn’t come to Ireland seeking his hand in marriage! Instead she had heard of the mighty hero Cú Chulainn and loved him because of the famous stories people would tell about him.
She and her two handmaids travelled to Ireland in the shape of pure white swans joined by a golden chain. They came to Loch Cuan, Strangford Lough, where Cú Chulainn and Lugaid were fishing.
“Shoot at the birds,” said Lugaid.
Cú Chulainn hurled a stone at them with his fearsome sling, and the stone went between her ribs and lodged in her womb. The birds fell and changed into women again on the strand.
“You have done evil to me!” said Derbforgaill, “and I have come to find you.”
“It is true” said.
Seeing his error, Cú Chulainn sucked the stone out of the womb of the girl, so that it was in his mouth with the gush of blood that was around it. He refused to marry her however, saying
“The side that I have sucked, I will not mate with.”
“You will give me, then, to anyone you like?” she replied.
“Indeed I would like you to go with the noblest man in Ireland, that is, Lugaid of the Red Stripes.”
“That is fine with me,” said she, “provided that I may always see you!”
She went then with Lugaid and bore him a child.
Some time after that, when winter was at its coldest and snow lay thick upon the ground, the men of Ulster made pillars of snow, and the women competed to see who could loose water the deepest into the pillar and so prove herself the most desirable to men. One by one they each sat on top of a snow pillar and tried their best, but only Derbforgaill’s reached the ground.
The other women saw this and were filled with furious jealousy, thinking that no man would want them, so they got her alone, attacking and mutilated her, gouging out her eyes and cutting off her nose, ears, and hair. When their deed was done they dragged her to her house and left her inside.
Meanwhile the men were in an assembly on a hillock above Emain Macha.
“Strange it is to me, O Lugaid”, said Cú Chulainn, “that there is snow unmelted on Derbforgaill’s house!”
Lugaid knew the truth instantly – for if a woman of the north had not lit her hearthfire in the depths of winter’s grip, there could be only one reason.
“She is dying then,” said Lugaid.
They rushed with equal speed towards the house and broke in the door, and saw with horror what the women had done to her, and they saw her soul was not in her.
And so the song was written
Cú Chulainn bids me farewell,
to whom I came from my homelands,
and Lugaid, vigorous with action,
to whom I gave a love which he did not take away from me.
I must go far,
not good the journey I obtained.
The separation from them will be distressful,
unless disaster and death come to me.
With Cú Chulainn, with Lugaid,
with whom there was soon terror or fear.
If it were not for reproach and atonement,
there might be no regret for our union.
The union which was broken with Riab nDerg,
it is a thorn in the heart, blood of the breast.
Cú Chulainn is deprived,
unlucky if it were not for the sloping hillside of the enclosure.
If it were not for the sloping hillside of the enclosure of Lugaid.
with which every obstruction was reddened.
It was too soon our vain thing,
with the son of the three Finn Emna’s.
That I will not see Cú Chulainn,
has made me tearful of sadness.
Feeble my people, wretched wailing,
and parting from Lugaid.
My fian-friend has not betrayed me,
Cú Chulainn, he loved boasting.
I had a noble, joyous companion,
Lugaid son of Clothrann of Cruachan.
Gift of valour, gift of feat, surpassing everyone,
for Cú Chulainn, whose shape was famed.
Gift of weapons for valorous Lugaid,
gift of my shape beyond every woman.
Every victory is a defeat afterwards,
with whomever may be envied.
Every treasure will be wholly unlawful,
every strong man will be sorrowful, or will be doomed.
Full of longing a tryst in this world,
it is not a path to heaven that it makes.
A tryst with death has destroyed, beyond every treasure,
a fair face, though beautiful its lustre.
Not happy is a hard heart,
which trusts another people.
Frequently its shape changes,
its face in time of misery.
When we used to drive around Emain,
from Tara, it was not a bad exploit.
Cú Chulainn was joyful there,
and Lugaid son of Clothru.
Cú Chulainn conversing with me,
with deeds, daring, dark.
It is that which was the fullness of my heart,
and laying with Lugaid.
We have parted from our playing,
at which we might have been forever.
Perhaps we may not meet afterwards,
I have been destined to go to my death.
And with that died Lugaid on the spot.
Cú Chulainn was aghast at this turn of events and lost himself in fury, shining with his hero-light he went to the house to the women and he knocked down the house upon them. No man or woman came out alive from that house, that is, of the three fifties of queens, he killed them all.
Then Cú Chulainn said
Derbforgaill, bright white bosom,
she reached me over the torrent of the ocean.
It was a friend’s grace she bestowed on me,
a daughter of a king of Lochlann, noble.
Since it was between two graves,
my bloodied heart makes sorrow.
Derbforgaill’s face under a hill of stone,
Lugaid Riab nDerg, unfortunate.
Lugaid was greatly renowned,
good it was that slaughter was expected.
That is what Lugaid chose,
what was intended by Derbforgaill
Lugaid was greatly renowned,
he was carrying his bright spearshafts.
Fifty murderous blows to decapitated enemies,
by the lighting of every moon.
Derbforgaill, famed with beauty,
with purity and modesty.
She did not fall into vanity,
her face over her companions' shoulder.
Three fifties of women in Emain,
it is I who have slaughtered them.
Though we were to pledge before the king of the tribes,
Derbforgaill was as valuable as they were.
And then he raised the mound and grave of Derbforgaill, that is Dér, daughter of Forgall, king of Lochlann.
Strangford Lough can be found on the map below!
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