The Breaking of Seven Geases
Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales from the Historical Cycle
Seven prophecies of warning broken
It was the custom in Ireland of old to lay geases upon champions, heroes and warriors. These were magical forbiddings, deeds they must not do or disaster would follow, and no disaster fell so hard upon a man who broke his geases as upon Conaire Mor!
His mother was a woman of the Sidhe called Etain, who had been married to King Eochaid, but discovered that she was previously married to the fairy prince Midir, and so made away with him to the lands under the mound. Eochaid was heartbroken and couldn't bear to look at the child who reminded him of his wife so much, and so he ordered the child slain, and the Sidhe places destroyed where they could be found.
His men dropped her down a well but she smiled so sweetly up at them that they couldn't stand to do the deed. Instead they gave her to shepherds, who called her Meas Buachalla and put her in a house with no windows, doors or roof so that none could harm her, but they left the roof off so she wouldn't feel imprisoned.
And so she grew up, more beautiful than any woman in Ireland before, although none laid eyes on her.
The druids at the court of Tara had foretold that High King Eterscele would marry a woman whose race and family were known to none. These words baffled the king, but he told his men to watch for such a creature as they went about their business, and sure enough before too long they came to a house with no windows or doors. Climbing one atop the other, they peered over the walls and saw Meas Buachalla looking back at them, and the High King had himself a wife.
But before they could fetch her out, a great bird flew into her house and changed into a handsome young man. He declared himself the King of the Birds and lay with Meas Buachalla, telling her after that she would have his child, and so it was – the High King thought the babe was his own son, and raised him as such.
The boy was called Conaire and was much loved by his parents, and he grew up with three foster brothers, from whom he was inseperable. No matter what they did, it was done together, eating, playing, riding horses or training for battle.
One day the four were out hunting when they spied a great flock of huge birds landed not far off, so Conaire thought he'd bring one down for the dinner table, but as he drew closer the birds took flight and flew a little distance away. He gave chase to the ocean's edge, but when he finally had a good shot at one, they shed their feathers and became tall, stern men.
Their leader was angry with him and told him that he had a geas never to kill a bird. Well Conaire was as surprised as you could imagine, and asked if he had any other geases he didn't know about. The Bird King told him he'd have a long and happy life, but there were six things and one he must not do.
He was not to permit pillaging in the land.
He was not to stay out more than nine nights in a row from Tara.
He was not to go rightwise round Tara, nor leftwise round Bregia.
He was not to hunt the evil beasts of Cerna.
He was not to let three red men go before him to the house of a red man.
He was not to let a solitary woman come into a house where he was after sunset.
And then the Bird King told him to walk naked back to Tara. Now the High King had died while they were out hunting, but it wasn't the custom that his son should take the throne as it was for lesser peoples. Instead the chief druid must eat of a slaughtered bull at his wake, and drink all of its blood.
In the heat-trance of the eating, the druid would see the next high king, and when he awoke the druid said a naked man would walk in the door to be the king. Next thing you know, in walks Conaire wearing nothing but what he'd got from his parents, and the deed was done!
For many years he reigned in peace and prosperity, and all the land was merry, save only for his foster brothers, who had taken it into their heads that they were above the law. But Conaire loved so well the trio that he said “Let every father slay his own son, but let my foster-brothers be spared!”
And so he broke his first geas – pillaging and raiding took place under his rule. But in the end their infamies grew too great to be ignored, so he raised his protection from them, and they fled to the dark oceans east of Ireland. On their ship they met Ingcel one-eye, himself an outlaw, and they raided Britain, slave-taking and slaughtering where they would.
But in one of their raids they accidentally burned Ingcel's own father and brothers alive, so Ingcel demanded reparations, a raid on their own land of Ireland. They beached their ships and they landed, a force of fierce marauders, upon the plain of the Liffey, south of Tara.
Seeing in the distance a fine house, Ingcel declared he'd like to plunder it, but Ferrigan, one of Conaire's foster brothers, replied that it was an ill deed to attack a guest house. Ingcel said the earth would crack open before he'd turn aside from his purpose, and so the villainous host marched on that place, called Da Dearga's hostel.
On that night King Conaire was travelling back from settling a dispute between two of his chiefs, and sore troubled he was too, for the negotiations had taken him nine days, and this was the tenth night he was beyond Tara's walls, so another geas was broken.
As he went with his men, he spied in the distance fire rising from the fields of the Liffey plain as the raiders pillaged acorss the land, and to reach them by the straightest route he had to go rightwise round Tara, and leftwise round Bregia. In the coils of acrid blinding smoke strange beasts reared up before him, and he slew them handily – not knowing they were the evil beasts of Cerna!
And so two more of his geases were broken.
By the light of rising flames he saw three men clad all in red, on red horses galloping past him towards the hostel, or perhaps it was only by the ruddy glow of the flames that they seemed so. Knowing he shouldn't let them enter the hostel before him – for Da Dearga means “the red man” - as it would break another geas of his, he cried out for them to stop.
They paused and looked at him strangely, and a chill ran through him when their eyes lit upon him.
“A gathering at a hostel, great the destruction, great the tidings!” Again Conaire cried to them to turn back for the sake of the great reward that would be given them. Then the riders sang out “Weary are the steeds we ride, the steeds from the Land of the Sidhe. Though we are living, we are dead. Great are the signs, destruction of life, sating of ravens, feeding of crows, strife of slaughter, wetting of sword-edges, shields with broken bosses after sundown. Lo, my son!”
And they went within the hostel and seated themselves before Conaire, breaking his geas as he entered after them.
Conaire went in and sat upon the couch. The mantle that was about him was even as the mist of a May day: diverse were the hues and semblances each moment shown upon it. A hand's breadth of his sword was outside its scabbard, and a man in front of the hostel might see by the light of the blade. The colour of the king's hair was like the sheen of smelted gold. Beside him was his little son - a small, freckled lad in a purple cloak, he was loved by all.
Strange were the visions that Conaire saw by shimmering firelight - he saw a man who had only one eye, one foot, and one hand. He knew him for the Swineherd of Bodb Dearg, and he knew that ruin was wrought at every feast at which he was present. And shapes more dreadful yet were shown him. He saw the Daughters of Bav - those three that are slaughtered at every destruction. Naked and bleeding, they hung by ropes from the roof.
In a vain attempt to cheer the king before the coming battle, his juggler played and danced through the hazy phantasms, but all fell still as the door boomed with three mighty knocks!
A peculiar and unpleasant woman was there, and she demanded entry to the hostel. Conaire refused, loathe to break yet another geas, but by the laws of hospitality she prevailed, although the company looked on her with great revulsion. With that, they leaped to their feet as something sailed through the smoke-hole – it was Ferrigan's head! And the king wept to see the ruin that was made of his foster brother by treachery three times around.
Giving that as a sign, the reavers attacked the hostel, firing spears and arrows through every crevice, but Da Dearga's house was not without its own warriors! From beneath it burst a terrible band of ferocious giants, whose dress was of rough hair, who had girdles of ox. hide, and who were armed with flails - each flail they wielded had chains of iron triple-twisted. These were the giants that had been taken by Cúchulainn at the siege of Faldal.
But crafty old Ingcel called to them and struck a bargain with them, so they dammed up the river that flowed through the hostel and blazing torches were hurled onto the roof. Conaire's men poured out in a fury of glittering steel, and wrought savage injuries upon the marauders, but in the smoke and confusion they were led far from the battle by a piper clad in red, playing Sidhe music.
In the furious heat a deep thirst came upon King Conaire, and his champions took his golden cup through the ranks of attackers, seeking to fill it and bring it back to their king. Meanwhile, Conaire had armed those who remained and even the juggler who stood dismayed.
Mad he was, and the mad see things we cannot, so he cried that the people of the De Danann were angry with King Conaire over the destruction King Eochaid had laid upon their places in his search for his wife. The giants, enspelled by Sidhe pipes, turned and attacked the King's warriors, while his champions searched in vain for water. But the rivers and lakes of Ireland listened to the old music of the Sidhe and hid themselves from the searchers.
At last one champion, MacCecht, found a lake that hadn't heard the tidings yet and filled the King's cup to the brim, returning to find all the defenders dead and the King's head being struck from his shoulders.He killed the raider and poured the water into the King's head, which spoke its last words, praising him for his courage and devotion.
Conaire's son was found the next day without a hair on his head being harmed, and he was carried away from the smouldering ruins. As he stood by the burning hostel he heard the red pipers chanting to each other: “Great the tidings! Through ancient enchantments a company has perished. Until this was accomplished we might not return. Now we ride the horses of Donn Tetscorach, the horses of Midir's son. Now we ride back to the Land of the Ever-living!”
On the map below is marked near Da Dearga's hostel should you wish to visit!
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