Engraving of a shield and weapons


"The warriors of Ulster are suffering from their annual debility,[*] and Cuchulain has been holding the whole army of Maeve at bay, single-handed, slaying a hundred men every night. After he has met the leading champions of Connaught in single combat, and slain the wizard Calatin and his twenty-nine sons, "who ran at him as one man, and put their twenty-nine right hands upon his head," well nigh making an end of him, Maeve in despair urges his old comrade Ferdiad to go out and meet him, making him offers of great price, and, should he slay Cuchulain, her daughter Findabair, queen of the west of Elga. Ferdiad reluctantly consents, because his honour is at stake, and Maeve gives him her brooch with its hooked pin, as a guerdon [=reward].

Cuchulain is grieved to see Ferdiad coming out against him, and beseeches him not to fight, for he knows that Ferdiad must fall by his hand. He says to Ferdiad who is taunting him with cowardice: "When we were together with Scathach .... yon were my heart companion, you were my people, you were my family ... I never found one that was dearer, it is sorrowful your death would be to me." Ferdiad upbraids him, and Cuchulain ever reminds him of their ancient friendship. "We were heart companions, we were comrades in gatherings; we shared the one bed where we used to sleep sound sleep."

Every day they come out and fight until evening, and when they leave off, each puts his arm round the other's neck and gives him three kisses. Their horses are in the one enclosure, their chariot drivers at the one fire. Of every herb that is put to Cuchulain's wounds, he sends an equal portion over the ford to Ferdiad, who in turn divides his food and drink with Cuchulain. The latter even is fretted when he sees a sad look on Ferdiad's face on the morning of their second day's fight, and laments that he should have come out to fight against his old comrade at the bidding of a woman. Ferdiad, conscious perhaps of his approaching end, answers, "O Cuchulain, giver of wounds, true hero, every man must come in the end to the sod, where his last grave shall be." They renew the fight until the fall of evening, and it was "mournful, sorrowful, and downhearted, their parting that night."

Ferdiad rises early on the morrow, for he knows that one or both must fall that day. He arrays himself in his battle suit, and dons his apron of purified iron, through dread of the Gae Bulg of Cuchulain. "He puts his crested helmet of battle on his head, on which were forty gems, carbuncles, in each division, and it was studded with shining rubies of the Eastern world." They try the ford feat. Ferdiad has chosen it, though he knows that Cuchulain makes an end of every fighter that is against him in that feat. They fight from early dawn till mid-day. Cuchulain for the third time leaps up towards the "troubled clouds of the air," and alights on the boss of Ferdiad's shield, to strike at his head from above, and for the third time" is cast to the ground "as a light woman would cast her child."

Cuchulain's anger rises at this, and the flames of the hero-light begin to shine about his head. So close was their fight then that the "Bocanachs and Bananachs and the witches of the valley screamed from the rims of their shields, and from the handles of their spears." The river is cast out of its course, so great is the fury of their fight. At length Cuchulain calls for his Gae Bulg, and the spear passes through the armour of Ferdiad and out through his body. "That is enough," said Ferdiad, "I die by that. And I may say, indeed, you have left me sick after you, and it was not right that I should fall by your hand." Cuchulain ran towards him and lifted him across the ford, so that his body should not be on the west with the men of Ireland.

Then a cloud and a weakness comes over him, and he begins to lament for Ferdiad, and to recall all their ancient deeds: "It was not right, you to fall by my hand; it was not a friendly ending. . . . O Ferdiad, it is a sorrowful story to me, that I should see you so red and so pale, I with my spear reddened, and you in a bed of blood, . . . Yesterday he was larger than a mountain; to-day there is nothing of him but a shadow." The lamentations of these warriors and their queens are full of beauty and dignity. They are the crown of the tragedy, and almost justify it."

[* AJ Note: A kind of sleeping sickness, brought on the men of Ulster by a curse from the goddess Macha.]

Text Source:
Best, R. T. "Cuchulain and the Men of the Red Branch." The New Ireland Review. Vol. XVII.
Dublin: New Ireland Review, 1902. 103-5; 306-308.

Cuchulainn carries Ferdiad across the river


Play was each, pleasure each,
Till Ferdiad faced the beach;
One had been our student life,
One in strife of school our place,
One our gentle teacher's grace
       Loved o'er all and each.

Play was each, pleasure each,
Till Ferdiad faced the beach;
One had been our wonted ways,
One the praise for feat of fields,
Scatach gave two victor shields
       Equal prize to each.

Play was each, pleasure each,
Till Ferdiad faced the beach;
Dear that pillar of pure gold
Who fell cold beside the ford.
Hosts of heroes felt his sword
       First in battle's breach.

Play was each, pleasure each,
Till Ferdiad faced the beach;
Lion fiery, fierce, and bright,
Wave whose might no thing withstands,
Sweeping, with the shrinking sands,
       Horror o'er the beach.

Play was each, pleasure each,
Till Ferdiad faced the beach;
Loved Ferdiad, dear to me:
I shall dree his death for aye
Yesterday a Mountain he,—
       But a Shade to-day.

1. From the "Taín Bo Cuailgne." In the Fight at the Ford, after mighty deeds, Ferdiad at last is slain. Cuchulainn, grievously wounded, bewails his friend. His charioteer at last beseeches him to leave; he consents, declaring that each contest and each combat which he had waged before was play and pleasure compared to this battle with Ferdiad. Then he speaks this lay. The original metre is reproduced. It will be observed that iterated or burthen lines appear in this poem, which was probably composed before the sixth century.

Text Source:
Sigerson, George. Bards of the Gael and Gall: Examples of the Poetic Literature of Erinn.
London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1897. 103-5.

Background courtesy of Windhaven Web Art.

Web-presentation ©2018 Anniina Jokinen. All Rights Reserved.
May be printed for personal and schoolroom use. All further publication requires permission.