Sacred Texts  Sagas and Legends  Celtic  Index  Previous  Next 
Buy this Book at

Gods and Fighting Men, by Lady Gregory, [1904], at

Part II Book IV: Illbrec of Ess Ruadh

ONE time Caoilte was hunting on Beinn Gulbain, and he went onto Ess Ruadh. And when he came near the hill of the Sidhe that is there, he saw a young man waiting for him, having a crimson fringed cloak about him, and on his breast a silver brooch, and a white shield, ornamented with linked beasts of red gold, and his hair rolled in a ball at the back, and covered with a golden cup. And he had heavy green weapons, and he was holding two hounds in a silver chain.

And when Caoilte came up to him he gave him three loving kisses, and sat down beside him on the grass. "Who are you, young champion," said Caoilte. "I am Derg, son of Eoghan of the people of Usnach," he said, "and foster-brother of your own." Caoilte knew him then, and he said: "And what is your life with your mother's people, the Tuatha de Danaan in Sidhe Aedha?" "There is nothing wanting to us there of food or of clothing," said the young man. "But for all that," he said, "I would sooner live the life of the worst treated of the serving-boys of the Fianna than the life I am living in the hill of the Sidhe." "Lonely as you are at your hunting to-day," said Caoilte, "it is often I saw you coming to the Valley of the Three Waters in the south, where the Siuir and the Beoir and the Berba come together, with a great company about you; fifteen hundred young men, fifteen hundred serving-boys, and fifteen hundred women." "That was so," said Derg; "and although myself and my gentle hound are living in the hill of the Sidhe, my mind is always on the Fianna. And I remember well the time," he said, "when you yourself won the race against Finn's lasting black horse. And come now into the hill," he said, "for the darkness of the night is coming on."

So he brought Caoilte into the hill with him,and they were set down in their right places.

It was at that time, now, there was great war between Lir of Sidhe Fionnachaidh and Ilbrec of Ess Ruadh. There used a bird with an iron beak and a tail of fire to come every evening to a golden window of Ilbrec's house, and there he would shake himself till he would not leave sword on pillow, or shield on peg, or spear in rack, but they would come down on the heads of the people of the house; and whatever they would throw at the bird, it is on the heads of some of themselves it would fall. And the night Caoilte came in, the hall was made ready for a feast, and the bird came in again, and did the same destruction as before, and nothing they threw at him would touch him at all. "Is it long the bird has been doing this?" said Caoilte. "Through the length of a year now," said Derg, "since we went to war with Sidhe Fionnachaidh."

Then Caoilte put his hand within the rim of his shield, and he took out of it a copper rod he had, and he made a cast of it at the bird, that brought it down on the floor of the hall. "Did any one ever make a better cast than that?" said llbrec. "By my word," said Caoilte, "there is no one of us in the Fianna has any right to boast against another." Then Ilbrec took down a sharp spear, having thirty rivets of gold in it, from its place, and he said: "That is the Spear of Fiacha, son of Congha, and it is with that Finn made an end of Aillen, son of Midhna, that used to burn Teamhair. And keep it beside you now, Caoilte," he said, "till we see will Lir come to avenge his bird on us."

Then they took up their horns and their cups, and they were at drinking and pleasure, and Ilbrec said: "Well, Caoilte," he said, "if Lir comes to avenge his bird on us, who will you put in command of the battle?" "I will give the command to Derg there beyond," said he. "Will you take it in hand, Dexg?" said the people of the hill. "I will take it," said Derg, "with its loss and its gain."

So that is how they spent the night, and it was not long in the morning till they heard blowing of horns, and rattling of chariots, and clashing of shields, and the uproar of a great army that came all about the bill. They sent some of their people out then to see were there many in it, and they saw three brave armies of the one size. "It would be a great vexation to me," said Aedh Nimbrec, the Speckled, then, "we to get our death and Lir's people to take the hill." "Did you never hear, Aedh," said Caoilte, "that the wild boar escapes sometimes from both hounds and from wolves, and the stag in the same way goes from the hounds with a sudden start; and what man is it you are most in dread of in the battle?" he said.

"The man that is the best fighter of all the Men of Dea," said they all, "and that is Lir of Sidhe Fionnachaidh." "The thing I have done in every battle I will not give up to-day," said Caoilte, "to meet the best man that is in it hand to hand." "The two that are next to him in fighting," they said then, "are Donn and Dubh." "I will put down those two," said Derg.

Then the host of the Sidhe went out to the battle, and the armies attacked one another with wide green spears and with Lirtle casting spears, and with great stones; and the fight went on from the rising of the day till midday. And then Caoilte and Lir met with one another, and they made a very fierce fight, and at the last Lir of Sidhe Fionnachaidh fell by the hand of Caoilte.

Then the two good champions Dubh and Donn, sons of Eirrge, determined to go on with the battle, and it is how they fought, Dubh in the front of the whole army, and Donn behind all, guarding the rear. But Derg saw that, and he put his finger into the thong of his spear and made a cast at the one that was nearest him, and it broke his back and went on into the body of the other, so that the one cast made an end of the two. And that ended the battle, and all that was left of the great army of Lir went wearing away to the north. And there was great rejoicing in the hill at Ess Ruadh, and Ilbrec took the spoils of the beaten army for his people, and to Caoilte he gave the enchanted spear of Fiacha, together with nine rich cloaks and nine long swords with hilts and guards of gold, and nine hounds for hunting. And they said farewell to one another, and Caoilte left his blessing to the people of the hill, and he brought their thanks with him. And as hard as the battle had been, it was harder again for Derg to part from his comrade, and the day he was parted from Finn and from all the Fianna was no sadder to him than this day.

It was a long time after that Caoilte went again to the hill of Ilbrec at Ess Ruadh, and this is the way it happened.

It was in a battle at Beinn Edair in the east that Mane, son of the King of Lochlann, made a cast at him in the middle of the battle with a deadly spear. And he heard the whistling of the spear, and it rushing to him; and he lifted his shield to protect his head and his body, but that did not save him, for it struck into his thigh, and left its poison in it, so that he had go in search of healing. And it is where he went, to the hill of the Sidhe at Ess Ruadh, to ask help of Bebind, daughter of Elcmar of Brugh na Boinne, that had the drink of healing of the Tuatha de Danaan, and all that was left of the ale of Goibniu that she used to be giving out to them.

And Caoilte called to Cascorach the Musician, son of Caincenn, and bade him bring his harp and come along with him. And they stopped for a night in the hill of the Sidhe of Druim Nemed in Luigne of Connacht, and from that they went forward by Ess Dara, the Fall of the Oaks, and Druim Dearg na Feinne, the Red Ridge of the Fianna, and Ath Daim Glas, the Ford of the Grey Stag, and to Beinn Gulbain, and northward into the plain of Ceitne, where the Men of Dea used to pay their tribute to the Fomor; and up to the Footstep of Ess Ruadh, and the High Place of the Boys, where the boys of the Tuatha de Danaan used to be playing their hurling. And Aedh of Ess Ruadh and Ilbrec of Ess Ruadh were at the door of the hill, and they gave Caoilte a true welcome. "I am glad of that welcome," said Caoilte. And then Bebind, daughter of Elcmar of Brugh na Boinne, came out, and three times fifty comely women about her, and she sat down on the green grass and gave three loving kisses to the three, to Caoilte and to Cascorach and to Fermaise, that had come with them out of the hill of the Sidhe in Luigne of Connacht. And all the people of the hill welcomed them, and they said: "It is little your friendship would be worth if you would not come to help us and we in need of help." "It was not for bravery I was bade come," said Cascorach; "but when the right time comes I will make music for you if you have a mind to hear it." "It is not for deeds of bravery we are come," said Fermaise, "but we will give you our help if you are in need of it." Then Caoilte told them the cause of his journey. "We will heal you well," said they. And then they all went into the hill and stayed there three days and three nights at drinking and pleasure.

And indeed it was good help Caoilte and Cascorach gave them after that. For there was a woman-warrior used to come every year with the ships of the men of Lochlann to make an attack on the Tuatha de Danaan. And she had been reared by a woman that knew all enchantments, and there was no precious thing in all the hills of the Sidhe but she had knowledge of it, and would bring it away. And just at this time there came a messenger to the door of the hill with news that the harbour was full of ships, and that a great army had landed, and the woman-warrior along with it.

And it was Cascorach the Musician went out against her, having a shield he got the loan of from Donn, son of Midhir; and she used high words when she saw so young a man coming to fight with her, and he alone. But he made an end of her for all her high talk, and left her lying on the strand with the sea foam washing up to her.

And as to Caoilte, he went out in a chariot belonging to Midhir of the Yellow Hair, son of Dagda, and a spear was given him that was called Ben-badb, the War-Woman, and he made a cast of the spear that struck the King of Lochlann, that he fell in the middle of his army, and the life went from him. And Fermaise went looking for the king's brother, Eolus, that was the comeliest of all the men of the world; and he knew him by the band of gold around his head; and his green armour, and his red shield, and he killed him with a cast of a five-pronged spear. And when the men of Lochlann saw their three leaders were gone, they went into their ships and back to their own country. And there was great joy through the whole country, both among the men of Ireland and the Tuatha de Danaan, the men of Lochlann to have been driven away by the deeds of Caoilte and Fermaise and Cascorach.

And that was not all they did, for it was at that time there came three flocks of beautiful red birds from Slieve Fuad in the north, and began eating the green grass before the hill of the Sidhe. 'What birds are those?" said Caoilte. "Three flocks they are that come and destroy the green every year, eating it down to the bare flag-stones, till they leave us no place for our races," said Ilbrec. Then Caoilte and his comrades took up three stones and threw them at the flocks and drove them away. 'Power and blessings to you," said the people of the Sidhe then, "that is a good work you have done. And there is another thing you can do for us," they said, "for there are three ravens come to us every year out of the north, and the time the young lads of the hill are playing their hurling, each one of the ravens carried off a boy of them. And it is to-morrow the hurling will be," they said.

So when the full light of day was come on the morrow, the whole of the Tuatha de Danaan went out to look at the hurling; and to every six of them was given a chess-board, and a board for some other game to every five, and to every ten a Little harp, and a harp to every hundred men, and pipes that were sharp and powerful to every nine.

Then they saw the three ravens from the north coming over the sea, and they pitched on the great tree of power that was on the green, and they gave three gloomy screeches, that if such a thing could be, would have brought the dead out of the earth or the hair off the head of the listeners; and as it was, they took the courage out of the whole gathering.

Then Cascorach, son of Caincenn, took a man of the chessmen and made a cast at one of the ravens that struck his beak and his throat, and made an end of him; and Fermaise killed the second of them, and Caoilte the third of them in the same way.

"Let my cure be done now," said Caoilte, "for I have paid my fee for it, and it is time." "You have paid it indeed," said Ilbrec. "And where is Bebind, daughter of Elcmar?" he said. "I am here," said she.

"Bring Caoilte, son of Ronan, with you into some hidden place," he said, "and do his cure, and let him be well served, for he has driven every danger from the Men of Dea and from the Sons of the Gael. And let Cascorach make music for him, and let Fermaise, son of Eogabil, be watching him and guarding him and attending him"

So Elcmar's daughter went to the House of Arms, and her two sons with her, and a bed of healing was made ready for Caoilte, and a bowl of pale gold was brought to her, and it full of water. And she took a crystal vessel and put herbs into it, and she bruised them and put them in the water, and gave the bowl to Caoilte, and he drank a great drink out of it, that made him cast up the poison of the spear that was in him. Five drinks of it he took, and after that she gave him new milk to drink; but with the dint of the reaching he was left without strength through the length of three days and three nights.

"Caoilte, my life," she said then, "in my opinion you have got relief." "I have got it indeed," he said, "but that the weakness of my head is troubling me." "The washing of Flann, daughter of Flidias, will be done for you now," she said, "and the head that washing is done for will never be troubled with pain, or baldness, or weakness of sight." So that cure was done to him for a while; and the people of the hill divided themselves into three parts; the one part of their best men and great nobles, and another of their young men, and another of their women and poets, to be visiting him and making mirth with him as long as he would be on his bed of healing. And everything that was best from their hunting, it was to him they would bring it.

And one day, when Elcmar's daughter and her two sons and Cascorach and Fermaise were with Caoilte, there was heard a sound of music coming towards them from the waters of Ess Ruadh, and any one would leave the music of the whole world for that music. And they put their harps on the corners of the pillars and went out, and there was wonder on Caoilte that they left him. And he took notice that his strength and the strength of his hands was not come to him yet, and he said: "It is many a rough battle and many a hard fight I went into, and now there is not enough strength in me so much as to go out along with the rest," and he cried tears down.

And the others came back to him then, and he asked news of them. "What was that sound of music we heard?" he said. "It was Uaine out of the hill of the Sidhe, at the Wave of Cliodna in the south," said they; "and with her the birds of the Land of Promise; and she is musician to the whole of that country. And every year she goes to visit one of the hills of the Sidhe, and it is our turn this time." Then the woman from the Land of Promise came into the house, and the birds came in along with her, and they pitched on the pillars and the beams, and thirty of them came in where Caoilte was, and began singing together. And Cascorach took his harp, and whatever he would play, the birds would sing to it. "It is much music I have heard," said Caoilte, "but music so good as that I never heard before."

And after that Caoilte asked to have the healing of his thigh done, and the daughter of Elcmar gave herself to that, and all that was bad was sucked from the wound by her serving people till it was healed. And Caoilte stopped on where he was for three nights after that.

And then the people of the hill rose up and went into the stream to swim. And Caoilte said: "What ails me now not to go swim, since my health has come back to me?" And with that he went into the water. And afterwards they went back into the bill, and there was a great feast made that night.

And Caoilte bade them farewell after that, and Cascorach, but Fermaise stopped with them for a while. And the people of the bill gave good gifts to Caoilte; a fringed crimson cloak of wool from the seven sheep of the Land of Promise; and a fish-hook that was called Aicil mac Mogha, and that could not be set in any river or inver but it would take fish; and along with that they gave him a drink of remembrance, and after that drink there would be no place he ever saw, or no battle or fight he ever was in, but it would stay in his memory. "That is a good help from kinsmen and from friends," said Caoilte.

Then Caoilte and Cascorach went out from the hill, and the people of it made a great lamentation after them.

Next: Part II Book IV: The Cave of Cruachan