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The Boys' Cuchulain by  Eleanor Hull

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MEAVE DEMANDS THE BROWN BULL OF COOLEY AND IS REFUSED

[78]

F
OR many years Meave had been making preparations for her war with Ulster. To the East and South and West she had sent her messengers, stirring up the chiefs and calling them to aid her in her attack on Conor's land. From every quarter she asked for supplies of men and food, and if these were refused, she sent her fighting-bands into the district to waste and destroy it, and to carry off the cattle and produce by force. All the princes of Ireland stood in awe of Meave, so ruthless and proud was she, and so quick in her descent upon the lands of those who would not do her will. For had they not regarded her request, all Ireland would have been set in flames; for she would plunder and destroy all without pity or remorse. So in their own defence, the princes of the provinces promised her fighting-men and provender whenever she should call upon them, and month by month she gathered round her fort at Cruachan herds of cattle and swine and sheep, ready for the war.

Now Meave was looking about for a cause of contest between herself and Ulster; for she knew that Cuchulain was yet young, and she desired to begin the war before he came to his full strength; moveover, she had [79] heard that upon Ulster at that time there lay a heavy sickness, which had prostrated its fighting-men and warriors, its princes and captains, and that even Conor, the King, himself lay ill.

No common sickness was that which lay upon the Province, but it came of the wrath and vengeance of the gods. For in the days gone by the goddess Macha, one of the three fierce goddesses of war and battles, had visited Ulster as a mortal maid, to bring aid and comfort to one of the nobles of Ulster who was in sore distress. And the King and people had reviled her, and brought shame and scoffing upon her, because they saw that she was not as one of themselves; for they liked not that a woman greater than themselves should take up her abode amongst them. They made game of her in the public assembly, crowding round her, and scoffing at her courage and her splendid form and at her swiftness of running beyond any of the men. For they knew not that she was one of the great gods, and they were jealous of her, because they felt that she was nobler than they. Then Macha cursed the men of Ulster, and told them that in a time of danger and sore need, when all the chiefs and warriors of Ireland should gather round its borders, plundering and destroying, she would cast upon their warriors weakness and feebleness of body and of mind, so that they could not go forth in defence of the Province, and the land should be a prey to their enemies. Only upon Cuchulain she laid not her curse, for he was young, and it fell not upon women and little children, but upon full-grown warriors only, because it was the men of Ulster who had insulted her. Then she went away from them, and in dread of her they called the palace of the King [80] Emain Macha, or the "Brooch-pin of Macha," to this day


[Illustration]

MACHA CURSES THE MEN OF ULSTER.

When then Macha saw Meave gathering her hosts together to war against Ulster, she brought upon them this sickness, as she had prophesied. And Meave, hearing of this, hastened her preparations for the war, for she was determined that, come what might, she would march into Ulster at that time and smite it in its weakness, so that once and for ever Ulster would be subdued to Connaught by her hand. And her pride waxed greater at the thought.

There were in Ireland at that time two famous bulls, unlike to any kine that ever have been in Ireland from that time until now. For these bulls were cattle of the gods, and they had come to abide among men for this purpose only, to incite and bring about a war between Connaught and Ulster. For Macha watched o'er men, and she awaited the day when her revenge upon Ulster should fall. Now these cattle were born, one in the Province of Connaught among the cattle of Meave, and the other in Ulster among the cattle of Daire of Cooley, in Cuchulain's country. Meave knew not that these were immortal beasts, for that was in the secrets of the gods, but she knew well that among her cattle was one bull of extraordinary size, and fierceness, and strength, so that no other member of her herds dared to come near it; moreover, fifty men were required to keep it. And of all her stock, there was not one that Meave counted worth a metal ring beside this bull. She named him the Finn-bennach or "White-horned," and she believed that not in Ireland nor in the whole world beside, was [81] the equal and the fellow of this bull. One day, before the war began, while Meave was meditating in her mind what challenge she should send to Ulster, she caused all her cattle to be arrayed before her.

From pastures and meadow-lands, from hills and vales, she called in all her stock, her sheep and swine, her cattle and her steeds. Ailill also, her husband, caused his flocks and herds to be brought in, and reckoned alongside of hers. For Meave had boasted to her spouse that in all possessions of kine and live stock, as also in household goods and utensils, in jewels and ornaments, in garments and in stuffs, her share was greater far than his, so that, in fact, she was the better of the two, the real ruler and prince of Connaught.

Ailill liked not this boasting of his wife; so when their flocks were driven in, their vessels and vats and mugs collected, their clasped ornaments and rings, as well arm-rings as thumb-rings, brooches and collars of carven metal-work, with their apparel and stuffs, it pleased the King to find that the share of Meave and of himself was exactly equal and alike. Among Meave's horses was a special mare, and she thought there was no mare in Ireland to equal it, but Ailill had one just its match. Among the sheep Meave owned one mighty ram, and among the swine one eminent boar, but Ailill proved that amongst his flocks and herds he had the same. Then Meave said: "Among the cattle, however, certain it is, that there is no bull to be named in the same breath with the White-horned." "Ay, no, indeed," said the herdsman, "the White-horned surpasseth all beasts; but, a week ago, he left the company of thy cattle, O Queen, and went over to the cattle of the King. 'Tis my opinion that he heard the keepers say that it was strange that so [82] powerful a bull should be under the dominion of a woman; for no sooner were the words out of their mouths, than he broke loose from his stall, and, head in air and bellowing loudly, he passed over to the herds of Ailill. Nought could stay him or bring him back; and all that stood in his path were trampled and gored to death."

Now when Meave heard that the White-horned was no longer in her keeping, not one of her possessions had any value in her eyes; for, because she had not that especial bull, it was in her esteem as though she owned not so much as a penny's worth of stock.

When Mac Roth, her herald, who stood at her right hand, saw the Queen's vexation, he said, "I know, O Queen, where a better bull than the White-horned is to be found, even with Daire of Cooley, in Cuchulain's country, and the Dun or "Brown Bull" of Cooley is its name; a match it is to the White-horned; nay, I think that it is yet more powerful than he."

"Whence came these bulls?" said Meave; "and what is their strength and their history? Tell me, Mac Roth, yet further of this bull."

Then Mac Roth said: "This is the description of the Dun. Brown he is, and dark as night, terrific in strength and size. Upon his back, at evening-tide, full fifty little boys can play their games. He moves about with fifty heifers at his side, and if his keepers trouble him, he tramples them into the earth in his rage. Throughout the land his bellowings can be heard, and on his horns are gold and silver tips. Before the cows he marches as a king, with bull-like front, and with the resistless pace of the long billow rolling on the shore. Like to the fury of a dragon, or like a lion's fierceness is his rage. [83] Only the Finn-bennach, the White-horned bull, is his mate and match; his pair in strength, in splendour, and in pride."

And Meave said: "What and whence are these kine, and wherefore did they come to Ireland?"

Mac Roth replied: "These are the cattle of the gods; out of the Fairy Palaces they came to Erin, and into the Fairy Palaces they will return again. For the disturbance and downfall of Erin are they come, to awaken wars and tumults among her people. Before they became cattle, they have lived many lives in many forms, but in whatever form they come to earth destruction and warfare haunt their steps. At the first they were two swineherds of the gods, dwelling in the underworld, and they kept the herds of the fairy gods of Munster and of Connaught. But a mighty war was fought between them, so that all Erin was disturbed and troubled by that war; and each of them tore the other in pieces, so that they died. But they were born again as two ravens, dwelling upon the earth, and for three hundred years they lives as birds, but in the end they pecked each other till they died.

"Then they became two monsters of the sea, and after that two warriors and two demon-men. But in each of all these forms they met together in terrific contest, so that the world of men and even the dwellings of the gentle gods were stirred and agitated by their wrath. For when men hear the sighing of the wind, or the wild turmoil of the billows on the shore, then, indeed, it is the bulls in fight wherever they may be, or in whatever form. And now that they are come to earth again, no doubt some mighty contest is at hand; for surely they are come to stir up strife and deadly warfare between man [84] and man, and Connaught and Ulster will be concerned in this."

"That likes us well," said Meave, "and for this contest we will well prepare. So, since the fellow of the White-horned dwells in Cooley, take thou thee a company, Mac Roth, and go and beg this excellent bull from Daire, that henceforth my cattle may compare with Ailill's kine, or that they may surpass them. Give all conditions he demands and promise what thou wilt, so only Daire give up the bull. And if he give it not up willingly, then will we come and seize the bull by force."

For to herself she said: "The taking of this bull will be a thing not easy to accomplish; if Daire, as is likely, refuse it to me, war will arise between Connaught and Ulster, and this, seeing that the warriors of Ulster are now lying in their pains, we much could wish. For our hosts are gathered and our provisions ready, while on Ulster's side there are but women and little children and Cuchulain ready and fit to meet us; quickly in that case we shall march into Ulster's borders and raid the country up to Emain's palace gates, carrying off the spoils; the Brown Bull also we will bring with us, and henceforth not Ailill, nor the King of Ulster, nor all Ireland besides, will hold up their heads against ourselves or boast themselves our equal."

So Mac Roth with nine of his company traveled to the house of Daire in Cooley, and welcome was made for them, and fresh rushes strewn upon the floor and viands of the best were set before them, as became the chief of Ireland's heralds. But before they sat down to meat, Daire inquired of them: "What is the cause of your journey here to-day?" And Mac Roth replied: "A quarrel that has arisen between Ailill and Meave, [85] the King and Queen of Connaught, about the possession of the White-horned, for Meave is sorrowful and vexed because the King hath a better bull than she. She craves therefore, that a loan of the Dun or Brown Bull of Cooley be made to her, that she may say that she hath the finer kine. And if thou thyself wilt bring the bull to Cruachan, good payment shall be given thee; that is, due payment for the loan of the bull, and fifty heifers into the bargain, besides a stretch of country of the best in Connaught, and Meave's close friendship along with this."

This pleased Daire so well, that he threw himself upon his couch, and he laughed loud and long, so that the seams of the couch burst asunder under him. "By our good faith," he said, "the offer is a good one, and whatever the men of Ulster may say to my lending away their precious bull, lend it I will with all my heart."

Then supper was served, and the messengers of Meave ate and drank, and Daire plied them with strong wines, so that they began to talk at random to each other. "A good house is this to which we have come, and a wealthy man is Daire," said one to his fellow. "Wealthy he is indeed," said the other. "Would you say that he was the best man in all Ulster and the richest?" pursued the first who had spoken. "Surely not," replied the other, "for Conor the King, at least, is better in every way than he." "Well, lucky it is, I say," pursued the first, "that without bloodshed or any difficulty raised, he yields the bull to us nine messengers; for had he refused it, I trow that the warriors of all Ireland's Provinces could not have carried it off from Ulster." "Say not so," cried another, "for in truth, little matter to us had it been if Daire had refused it, for had we not [86] got the bull by fair means, we would have carried it off by foul."

Now just at that moment in came the steward, with fresh viands to set before the guests, but when he overheard their conversation, and the slighting way in which his master was spoken of by the heralds of Connaught, he set down the meat without a word and without inviting them to partake, and out he went at once and told his master what the heralds had said. Then Daire was very angry, and he exclaimed, "By the gods, I declare, that never will I lend the bull; and that now, unless by foul means they carry him off from me, he never shall be theirs."

The next morning, the messengers arose, having slept off their carouse, and they went to Daire's house, and courteously said: "Show us now, noble Sir, the way to the place where the Brown Bull is, that we may proceed with him on our journey back to Cruachan."

"Not so, indeed," said Daire, "for were it my habit to deal treacherously with those that come in embassage, not one of you would have seen the light of the sun to-day." "Why, how now, what is this?" they asked, surprised, for they had forgotten what they had said over their cups the night before. " 'Tis plain enough, I think," said Daire; "your people said last night that if I gave the bull not up of mine own will, yet Meave and Ailill would make me give it up by force. Let Meave and Ailill come and take it if they can. All Ulster will prepare to hold the bull."

"Come, come," said Mac Roth, "heed not what foolish men said after food and drink; Ailill and Meave had no ill intent in sending us to ask the bull of you. It were not right to hold them responsible for the loose words [87] of their messengers." "Nevertheless, Mac Roth, and however this may be, at this time you do not get my bull."

So Mac Roth and the nine messengers returned to Rath Crogan, and Meave inquired for the bull. And when she heard their tale, she said, "I thought as much, Mac Roth: it was not intended that you should have the bull. The bull, which is not to be got by fair means, must be got by foul; and by fair or foul, he shall be got by us."


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