| Our Little Celtic Cousin of Long Ago|
|by Evaleen Stein|
|The story of Ferdiad, a boy of Ireland, in the time of High King Brian Boru, when the Danes were pillaging the Irish countryside. How his foster-father Angus becomes poet to the High King and how Ferdiad himself recovers a lost treasure. Gives a glimpse into the customs and social life of the Celts, with special emphasis on their artistic achievements, including the Book of Kells and the stories of Cuculain. Ages 8-10 |
FERDIAD AND CONN SEE THE SIGHTS
 THE boys were just starting off together when a sudden
"O, look over there!" cried Ferdiad, "I believe they
are beginning to course the hounds!"
Both lads ran across a space of green grass to where a
low wattled fence enclosed a large oval race-course.
People were gathered about it talking excitedly as they
watched the lively capers of a dozen or more large wolf
hounds that several men held in leash by long leather
thongs. The dogs were straining impatiently at their
collars, and the moment the signal was given and they
were unleashed, "Br-rh-rh-rh-rh-rh!!" off they
darted, their noses pointing
 straight ahead and their long legs and powerful bodies
bounding past so swiftly that neither Ferdiad nor Conn
could make out one from another.
But in a few moments the fastest began to sweep ahead,
and Conn cried out excitedly, "Look! Look! That big
light brown one I picked out is leading!"
"Not now!" called back Ferdiad, as they hurried along
the fence following the racing dogs with their eyes.
"No! now it's the one with the white tip to his tail!"
"Whew!" shouted Conn , as " Br-rh-rh-rh-rh-rh!
"with a deep roar the baying pack swept past again, "If
there isn't that bright blue one that was 'way behind
leading them all now!"
And, sure enough, when the panting hounds came around
the last quarter of the track it was the bright blue
that leaped first across the streak of white lime that
marked the goal. There was a great shouting and
clapping of hands by
 the bystanders as the tired dogs were led off.
"Whose hound was it that won? Do you know?" asked Conn
"I heard a man say he belonged to Prince Cormac of
Cromarty," answered Ferdiad. "They say the prize is an
enameled dog-collar and a leather leash trimmed with
silver. I wonder when the high king will give it to
"Not till the end of the fair, boy," said a tall man
standing near. "The high king isn't here yet but is
coming to-morrow, and there will be games and chariot
races yet, and, last of all, the poets' and
"Well," said Conn as the boys turned away, "that hound
race was good,—but I never thought the blue one
would win! He was such a handsome color I suppose
Prince Cormac must have had him specially dyed for the
"I dare say," said Ferdiad, "but I have a green hound
at home that is just as handsome, and my foster-mother
says when she colors the
 next wool she spins maybe she will have enough red left
to dye another one."
For the Celts thought oddly colored animals very
pretty, and women when they dyed the yarn which they
all spun for themselves often emptied what was left in
their dye-pots over the family pets. So a purple cat
or blue or red dog was no uncommon sight.
But the boys had wandered off from the race track and
had come to an open space where were a number of booths
covered with green boughs. Here merchants were selling
all sorts of things; there were bows and arrows,
swords, shields and spears, bronze horns and trumpets
and harps, homespun woollen and linen cloth, and fine
silks from beyond the sea, and there were wonderful
bracelets and necklaces and torques, a kind of twisted
collar, and brooches, all of finely wrought gold and
silver; for the Celts, both men and women, loved to
wear quantities of golden ornaments and nowhere in
 all the world were there more skilful goldsmiths than
In one of the better built booths covered with a
thatched roof several scribes were busy. Each held in
his lap a thin board with a sheet of vellum on which he
wrote, dipping his swan-feather pen into ink held in
the tip of a cow's horn fastened to the arm of his
chair. Some were writing letters for people who had no
ink or vellum of their own or perhaps could not write
themselves; while others were copying from books beside
them, all of which were for sale. No one had dreamed
yet of printing books on presses, so copying them by
hand was the only way to make them. Some of the books
had initial letters painted in gold and colors, and as
the boys passed they looked critically at these.
"They are not so well done as some at the Kinkora
monastery where I go to school, " said Conn. For the
most beautiful books were
 made by the patient hands of the Celtic monks.
"No," said Ferdiad, "I dare say not. And they can't
compare with the books at the monastery of Kells near
where we live."
"Oh," he went on eagerly, "you just ought to see the
Great Gospel of Saint Columkille that is kept at Kells!
The monks there say there's nothing like it in the
"I've heard something of that book," said Conn, "but I
don't know much about it. What is it?"
"Well," answered Ferdiad, "it's hundreds of years old
and painted with the most wonderful borders and
initials and pictures that anybody ever made! The
patterns are so fine and the lines lace in and out so
perfectly that they say if your eyes are sharp enough
you can count hundreds of loops and ornaments on a spot
no wider than your finger!"
"I don't see how anybody ever painted patterns
 like that!" said Conn. "Who made it?"
"Nobody knows for sure," answered Ferdiad. "Some say
Saint Columkille had it made and some say he did it
himself. But everybody declares that whoever painted
it, an angel must have guided his hand, for nobody
could have done it without help from Heaven. And then
the book has the most wonderful gold case you ever
saw!" For most handsome books then each had its own
box-like case of gold or silver or carved wood or
Just then a horse's whinny caught the boys' attention
and they went over to the pens where horses and sheep
and cows were for sale, and enormous wolf-hounds some
of them as large as calves. Around these hounds
especially was always a crowd of interested buyers, for
the Celts delighted in racing them; also these powerful
dogs were useful in protecting their homes at night and
in chasing off the packs of wolves
 that roamed through the great wide forests that covered
so much of the land. Presently both boys began to
sniff hungrily as they came to that part of the fair
where the food was being sold.
"Let's get something to eat!" said Conn, "Aren't you
"Yes" said Ferdiad, looking up at the sun, "it's past
midday!" And they made their way toward the nearest
booth. Beside it was an open fire and over this hung a
great bronze kettle in which pieces of meat were
boiling. A man in cook's cap and apron stood by with a
long hook of bronze.
"We would like some of your meat, sir," said Ferdiad,
and at once the man hooked out some pieces which he
placed on an earthen platter; this he set on a low
wooden table on the grass beside him, and the boys
sitting down on the ground began eating with their
fingers as people did then. They finished with some
milk served in cups hollowed out of yew wood and
 some wheaten cakes which the cook's wife had kneaded up
with honey and baked on a hot flat stone in front of
When the boys had eaten, "You be my guest, Conn," said
Ferdiad as he paid the man with one of the small silver
rings he took from his girdle.
By this time the crowd seemed to be moving toward the
grassy space within the race track, so of course
Ferdiad and Conn went along. When they reached the
place a wrestling match had already begun and after
that was running and jumping and quoit throwing and
fencing contests, and all the while there was a blaring
of trumpets and blowing of great horns or else somebody
was twanging on a harp or shaking castanets of bone,
keeping up a noise and excitement for all the world
like fairs of to-day.
When the sports were over the afternoon was almost
spent and Ferdiad and Conn fairly tired
 of sight seeing. "Come on," said Ferdiad, "let's go
find our curragh and take a row on the river before you
go back to your foster-father."
"All right!" said Conn, and off they went toward the
river. Near its bank was another grassy space and
scattered through it were a number of houses, all of
them round; for that was the shape most Celtic people
preferred. Each was built of poles placed upright in
the ground forming a circle; long rods of hazel from
which the bark had been peeled were woven between the
poles, making a wattled wall, and the cone-shaped roof
was thatched with rushes. These houses, which belonged
to the fair and had been built long before for the use
of the high-born people attending it, had been
freshened up with coats of lime, some glistening,
dazzling white in the sunlight, and others decorated
with bright stripes in different colors.
Several gayly dressed ladies were walking
 about and there was a sound of harpstrings in the air.
"Are those queens?" asked Conn of Ferdiad, for it was
his first visit to the fair and he had found Ferdiad
had been there before.
"Yes," said Ferdiad, "and my foster-mother is one of
the ladies attending the Queen of Meath, so she and my
foster sister, Eileen, stay in tha big house under the
big quicken tree. These houses are for the queens and
their ladies and those yonder are for the kings."
For you must know that Ireland was a land not only of
many kinds of parents but also of quantities of kings
and queens. The country was divided into ever so many
little kingdoms belonging to different tribes or clans,
and, as I have told you, in these tribes were many
chiefs or flaiths of different degrees of rank, but
over them all in each kingdom was the king. Some of
the kingdoms were larger and stronger
 than others, so the kings varied in power; but none of
them was so important as the high king who ruled them
all just as each of them ruled the chiefs under him.
But though the high king was called the King of
Ireland, the smaller kings fought and quarreled so much
among themselves, and so many bold chiefs from
countries near by were always trying to gain a foothold
in Ireland that the high king seldom really governed
the whole land. However, the one who came nearest to
doing it was the great Brian Boru, who hadn't come to
the fair yet but was expected the next day. Ferdiad
pointed out to Conn a long wooden house built on top of
a grassy mound in the middle of the fair where the high
king would stay, and close beside it another large
building where he would give another great feast in the
Meantime all the other fifteen or twenty kings with
their queens and followers were
hav-  ing the best kind of a time and behaving in the politest
way to each other; for no matter how much they fought
at other times, no one dared to start a quarrel at any
of the Celtic fairs, for everybody knew perfectly well
that the punishment was death.
But Ferdiad and Conn had come to the water's edge and
were just looking for the right boat when a little girl
with flying yellow curls came racing toward them, her
blue mantle fluttering and her little sandaled feet
twinkling as she ran. "O, Ferdiad," she called out, "I
was just wishing you would come! Mother says I may go
for a little ride on the river if you will take me!"
Then seeing Conn, whom she had not noticed in her
eagerness, she drew back with a touch of bashfulness.
"This is my new friend Conn, from Munster," explained
Ferdiad, "and he is going with us. Conn," he added
turning to the boy who
 was staring shyly at the little girl, "this is my
At this Eileen, with a friendly smile for the new
friend, took Ferdiad's hand as he helped her clamber
down the bank and they picked out the boat in which
they had come to the fair. It was the kind the Celts
called a "curragh" and was made of wickerwork covered
with tanned cow-hides which had been stained a dark
red. When Eileen had stepped daintily in and seated
herself and the boys followed, "Let's go across the
river and see how the fair looks from the other side,"
she said, "and then let's go around the bend and back!"
And Ferdiad and Conn taking up the long oars of hickory
did exactly as Eileen commanded.
THEY PICKED OUT THE BOAT IN WHICH THEY HAD COME.
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