The Feast of Bricriu
Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales from the Ulster Cycle
A surprise awaits the heroes at The Feast of Bricriu
Bricriu of the venomous tongue he was called, and well named indeed he was, for he loved nothing better than to cause trouble and spread rumours and half-truths to unsettle people. As such he decided to hold a great feast, although he knew that by his reputation few would be interested in attending, so he made a special effort to entice them.
He built a great hall of splendour, taking him a full year in the building, bedecked it with rare tapestries and scented with oils from the farthest misty lands. In the front part of the hall there was a royal seat made for Conchobar, high above all the other seats of the house. It was set with sapphires and other precious stones of all colours that glimmered with starlight and meadow sun, so that they made the night the same as the day, and round about it were the twelve seats of the twelve heroes of Ulster. Then he told King Conchobar and his followers to join him. Even, he said, he'd built a special room for himself off to one side so they wouldn't have to listen to him speak during the feast!
And the King rolled his eyes and said, "We will not go, for if we do, our dead will be more than our living after Bricriu has set us to quarrel with one another." But Bricriu was enraged after all his effort and said to the King, "I will stir up anger between father and son, so that they will be the death of one another," said Bricriu; "if I fail in doing that, I will make a quarrel between mother and daughter. If that fails, I will put the two breasts of every woman of Ulster striking one against the other, and destroying one another!" And he could do it too.
Such dire and baleful threats were not to be taken lightly, so the men of Ulster talked amongst themselves and considered how best to respond. Rather than risk further stirring up the ire of Bricriu, they sent eight strapping fellows to escort him from the hall directly after he'd laid out the feast, that way he wouldn't have a chance to muddy the waters of friendship.
Undeterred, Bricriu set his wily mind to considering how he might cause trouble without even being there! The crafty fiend spoke seperately to each of the three mightiest champions of Conchobar, telling them the hero's portion of the feast belonged to them and them alone. And it was no mean portion either, as he said "for it is not the portion of a fool's house. There goes with it a vat of good wine, with room enough in it to hold three of the brave men of Ulster. With that a seven-year-old boar, that has been fed since it was born on no other thing but fresh milk, and fine meal in spring-time, curds and sweet milk in summer, the kernel of nuts and wheat in harvest, beef and broth in the winter. With that a seven-year-old bullock that never had in its mouth, since it was a sucking calf, either heather or twig tops, but only sweet milk and herbs, meadow hay and corn, and along with that, five-score wheaten cakes made with honey. That is the Champion's Portion of my house!"
The three champions in their pride swore that the portion of the hero would belong to them, that was Conall, Cú Chulainn, and Laegaire, and by tradition they'd have to fight to claim it. So even before the feast had begun the seeds of dissent had been sown.
And sure enough on the day of the feast, as Bricriu was leaving the hall at swordpoint, he turned and said over his shoulder, "The Champion's Portion of my house is not the portion of a fool's house, let it be given to whoever you think the best hero of Ulster!"
Great trouble there was as the three champions wrestled and argued as to who should have the hero's portion, each proclaiming his virtues and downplaying the vantage of the other, and it could well have come to blows and worse grief had not Sencha the wise stepped in, for none others dared come between such limb-cracking warriors.
Sencha advised, "for this night to divide the Champion's Portion among the whole gathering, and after that to let it be settled according to the judgment of Ailell, king of Connaught, for it will be better for the men of Ulster, this business to be settled in Cruachan."
And so they agreed and feasted and drank, making merry.
Not to be so readily thwarted, Bricriu brooded in his chamber, seeing his game go awry, until he happened to spot out the window the approach of Fedelm of the Fresh heart with fifty women alongside her. "Aha," he thought, "here lies my chance!"
The ladies had taken a little too much mead in their journey to his house to he set out and took aside the three fairest, saying to them "I would not think well of it that any of the women of Ulster should go before you into the hail, for it is at your heel that all the other women of Ulster should walk. If you go first into the hall to-night; you will be queen over them all for ever and ever."
So he spoke to Fidelm of the Fresh Heart, Emer the Beautiful and Lendabair the Favourite, wrapping his words in many fine flatteries and much fulsome praise, so that the women would be mazed and confused. Getting the general idea however they began to pick up the pace, eventually running with their skirts hiked up to their waists before falling into quarrel outside the hall of Bricriu.
As loud and fierce as their argument was, the men within thought themselves besieged, and they leapt to arms, quickly barring the hall with a stout oaken beam and casting many a narrow glance at one another. Yet when the expected attack failed to burst through the walls, Cú Chulainn peered out a crack and said to the rest that it was their wives and daughters along with their followers having their own strife.
Well the men of course decided to help their women, so Conall and Laegaire tore down the pillars of the house to clear the way. Cú Chulainn, not to be outdone, lifted the entire structure in the air, thus opening a path for his wife Emer to enter first, slamming it down afterwards so it sank seven feet deep in the earth.
Such was the force of his action that Bricriu was hurled from his perch to land face down in the mud outside. Coughing and unrecognisable even in his party finery, he stalked into the house and demanded in a loud voice that his fine hall be set straight again. Not a bite of food nor a sup of wine would pass the lips of any until it was done, he said. Cú Chulainn, recognising the villain of the piece, lost the plot entirely at that stage and had to be doused in icy water until his battle fury subsided, and then he righted the building.
And for three days after they feasted. Cú Chulainn did nine feats with apples, nine with spears, and nine with knives, without ever letting one touch the other. And he took three times fifty needles from the women, and threw them up, one after the other, so that each needle went into the eye of the other, and in that way they were all joined together. Then he gave every woman her needle back into her own hand.
But of course the seeds of strife bear slow fruit, and bitterness still seethed in the hearts of the three champions until it had been decided which one was the mightiest. As they had agreed, they left the decision to King Ailill, who upon deliberation named Cú Chulainn as the mightiest champion.
This was no good to the other two however, and they quarreled, so he bid them begone from his hall and go to Cú Roí Mac Dáire to arbitrate their vanity. And so they went and again, they couldn't agree, so they retired back to Emain Macha. None could prove a definitive strength over any of the others.
Then a giant came to them, vast of body and vile of stench, rank and gnarled with age. He laughed and them and made light of their prowess, laying down a challenge - he would allow them to cut off his head if they in turn agreed to allow him to cut their heads off the following night. Thinking him mad they agreed, and Conall had his head off with one stroke. Picking up his head, the giant strode out the door to the astonishment of all.
The next night he returned bearing a sharp axe that was pitted with age and old gore, but Conall had made himself scarce, so Laegaire took his swing, again beheading the giant, and again the giant walked away with footsteps like the tread of doom. When he came back the following night, Laegaire was off out the back window in a terror, and who could blame him.
So it was left to Cú Chulainn to prove his mettle, and he sliced the head clean off the giant, who a third time stalked into the night. Upon his return, Cú Chulainn smiled and laid his own head on the block, awaiting the axe. The giant raised it up to the rafters, then laid it gently down beside the champion, saying "Rise up, Cú Chulainn. Vain is it for any warrior of Ulster or Ireland to seek to contend with you in bravery, and prowess and truth. Henceforth, to you shall belong the primacy of the warriors of Ireland and the curadhmhír, the champion's portion is your rightful claim."
The giant was none other than Cú Roí Mac Dáire who had come to vindicate his previous judgement. And so was the mischief of Bricriu undone, and the skill and wisdom of the men of Ireland prevailed.
Shown on the map below is where the tellers of tales lay Bricriu's hall.
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