| 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 |
THE HIGH KING COMES TO THE FAIR
 "FATHER, Father!" called Eileen the morning after the
boat ride, as she ran out of the round wattled house
where she and her mother had slept.
She had caught sight of a tall man coming swiftly
toward her, and in a moment he stooped and kissing her
rosy cheek three times lifted her in his arms so she
could nestle her golden head on his bosom in the pretty
Celtic fashion of greeting those one loved.
"O, father," she said, as hand in hand they went to
meet her mother, Fianna, who had just stepped out into
the sunshine, "isn't this the day you sing your song
before the high king?"
"Yes, child," answered her father smiling,
 "but do not be too sure I will win the prize. There
are many fine poets here and everybody thinks the prize
will not be the jeweled ring only, but that Brian Boru
will choose the winner for his chief poet in place of
Niall who is dead. You know I told you Niall was a
great master of his art, so the high king will not be
easy to please."
Eileen laughed confidently, "So are you a master!" she
declared. Then, "Where is Ferdiad?" she asked.
"He will be along in a minute," answered her father;
"the poets' house was so crowded last night he went off
and slept in the tent with his friend Conn and his
As the three stood waiting for Ferdiad, you would have
thought them a handsome family. Eileen's yellow curls,
white skin and oval face were like her mother's, and
she was dressed in much the same fashion only that her
close-fit-  ting tunic and narrow clinging skirt of figured green and
white linen were not so long as her mother's yellow and
white ones, and her bratt (which was the Celtic name
for the loose mantle almost everyone wore), was blue
instead of green striped. Her head was bare while her
mother's was partly covered with folds of fine filmy
linen; but both had the same kind of sandals on their
Angus, Eileen's father, was tall and straight; his long
light hair was parted and hung over his shoulders in
carefully twisted strands while his beard also was
parted and curled in fork-shape, a very fashionable
way. He wore a crimson jacket, olive green trousers,
and shoes of brown leather embroidered in gold; round
his jacket was a saffron-colored girdle, his cape was
of checkered turquoise blue and black, fastened with a
large silver brooch, and on his head was a saffron
yellow pointed cap with a very narrow brim. Now if you
 the colors in his clothes you will know there were six;
and any Celt could have told you that meant that poets
were thought so much of that they ranked next to kings;
for no one else was allowed to wear six colors at once.
To do so was considered a great honor, for everybody
delighted in the brightest colors; but people who were
neither kings nor poets had to be satisfied with five
or less, according to their rank, down to the poor
slaves, who could wear only a single coarse garment of
Eileen's father carried in his hand a small quaintly
shaped harp with strings of bronze; though he was not
playing on it, yet as he walked along there was always
a sweet tinkling sound. That was because fastened to
his pointed cap was a musical branch such as all Celtic
poets wore. It was curving like a little bough from a
tree, only it was made of silver and in place of leaves
was hung with tiny silver bells. This meant that Angus
ranked as an
 ollave, or master poet, and had studied his art for
seven years. If he had been a poet less skillful his
musical branch would have been bronze, while, on the
other hand, the chief poet of the high king wore one of
But Ferdiad had already come up and been kissed three
times by Angus and Fianna, and then they began planning
the day, for next morning they were to return home.
"Eileen," said her mother, "you and I will go to the
merchants' booths. I want to buy some things before we
go home, and perhaps I will get a new necklace and
bracelets for you; then we must see the embroidering
women, for the queen's ladies say they make beautiful
Eileen had half wanted to go along with Ferdiad and
Conn, but her eyes sparkled at the prospect of buying
some new finery, so she was quite satisfied with her
"Then you boys can put in the morning
to-  gether," said Angus, "and I will be free to practice
my new song for the contest."
"O, father," cried Eileen, "can't we hear it?"
"No," answered Angus, "that is to be in the Hall of
Feasting this evening, and only the chief grown folks
will be there. But then," he added, seeing the
disappointment in her face, "there are to be
story-tellers on the fair green this afternoon, and you
children can go there."
So presently off they scattered, Angus strolling down
to a quiet place on the river bank, Eileen tripping
along beside her mother, while Ferdiad hurried over to
the race course where he was to meet Conn.
"Well," said the latter, who was eagerly watching for
him, "you are just in time for the morning races. They
are to be with horses and chariots to-day insead of
Sure enough, there was a tremendous squeaking of axles
as a number of two-wheeled chariots
 were being driven toward the track. All were made of
wicker strengthened by a framework of wood, and their
seven-spoked wheels were rimmed with bronze. Some were
quite open and others gayly canopied, and each held two
persons; one who merely rode, and the charioteer who
sat nearest the front and drove the horses.
As chariot after chariot came along, the boys looked at
them with interest. "Just see that one!" Ferdiad said,
"how fine the wickerwork is and what handsome bridle
reins all covered with red enamel!"
"Yes," said Conn, "and there comes another just as fine
with a blue canopy and silver trimmed reins."
All the while the crowd was becoming larger and larger
and presently an extra loud squeaking arose.
"My!" exclaimed Ferdiad, "that must be somebody
important coming! Do hear what a
 noise his chariot makes!" For Celtic people thought it
very fine to attract attention as they drove along and
the more noise their wheels made the better they liked
By this time everybody was looking in the same
direction and as the chariot came nearer, "I should
think it is somebody important!" said Conn.
"Why, that is the high king! I've often seen him at
Kinkora; you know his palace is there."
It was Brian Boru, who had just come to the fair. In
front of him walked four stalwart soldiers each
carrying a battle axe. His chariot was of the finest
wicker with a purple canopy embroidered in gold, and
the two horses drawing it were snow-white with ears
dyed scarlet while their long manes and tails were
royal purple and their harness was richly decorated
The chariot stopped at a wooden pavilion overlooking
the race course, and the high king
 alighted and took his place on a seat piled with
The boys had been staring hard at everything. "I
didn't remember Brian Boru was so old!" whispered
Ferdiad, who had only glimpsed the high king at the
fair the year before. "But he's handsome yet!"
"Yes," said Conn, "he's far past eighty but he's mighty
good-looking." Indeed, most Celtic kings were; for the
simple reason that they were not allowed to reign if
they bore the slightest blemish on face or body.
The high king was of course dressed in six colors and
his mantle of purple silk fringed with gold was
fastened with a wonderful brooch so large that it
reached from shoulder to shoulder. His long beard was
parted fork-shape and from beneath his crown, which
covered his head like a golden hat, his hair fell in
twisted strands ornamented with hollow golden balls,
which were thought very stylish. Around
 his neck was a handsome golden torque and many rich
bracelets covered his arms.
When the high king had seated himself a group of men
who had followed his chariot ranged themselves behind
him, while the soldiers stood at each side as guard.
"Who do you suppose all those people are around the
high king?" said Conn. "There are ten, not counting
"Well," said Ferdiad, "my foster-father told me that at
important places like this at least ten people always
go around with the high king. Let me see,—one
must be a bishop,—"
"Yes," interrupted Conn, "he must be the one with the
top of his head shaved and the little gold box hanging
to his necklace. You know bishops carry bits of
parchment with verses from the bible written on them in
"Then," went on Ferdiad, "one must be a
 chief,—maybe it's that one with the red and green
spotted bratt and the fine torque. And there's always
a poet, but, of course, since Niall's dead and the high
king hasn't chosen a new one yet, I guess that must be
another chief standing where the poet belongs."
"And that one with the harp and trumpets anybody knows
is a musician," put in Conn, "and it's easy enough,
too, to tell that the tall man with the leather herb
bag at his girdle is a doctor, but who are those two
standing beside him?"
"I don't know which is which," said Ferdiad looking
perplexed, "but they must be the historian and lawyer,
for you can see from their looks and the color of their
clothes that those other three are servants."
By this time a number of other kings and their
followers had seated themselves in the pavilion, while
in another one nearby were various queens and their
ladies all in the
bright-  est colors and with many flashing ornaments of gold.
Presently the high king's musician began blowing one of
his great trumpets and the races began. There was a
sudden thud of bronze-shod hoofs swiftly printing the
ground, a glimpse of flying manes and tails, of panting
nostrils and taut glittering reins, of rushing chariots
and charioteers straining forward with long whips in
their hands, and, above all, the excited shouting of
the crowd; all of which proves, as I have told you,
that the Celtic people of long ago liked racing and
managed it at their fairs surprisingly the same as we
Of course Ferdiad and Conn stayed till the last race;
then they got something to eat and went over to the
fair green where they were to meet Eileen and hear the
story-teller. On their way they saw the high king's
chariot going toward the mound where stood the great
Hall of Feasting.
 "Why," said Conn, "I thought the feast wasn't to be
till this evening?"
"It isn't, boy," said a man wearing a soldier's helmet
and tunic with a short sword stuck into his girdle; one
arm was thrust through the leather holder of a small
round shield, though he carried these things only
because it was the custom of soldiers, not that he
expected to fight at the fair, for that, as you know,
was forbidden. "The high king is going to the meeting
of all the kings and chiefs which they have every year
in that hall over there. They hold the meeting to talk
over the affairs of Ireland,—and there's enough to
talk about now, youngsters!" went on the soldier. "The
way those pirate Danes are coming over here in their
long ships and fighting and robbing and burning folks'
houses has got to be stopped some way," and the
soldier's eyes flashed as he fiercely shook his round
"That's what my foster-father thinks!"
 cried Ferdiad. "He says they have been growing bolder
and bolder ever since they captured the fort at the
Ford of the Hurdles." (This fort was on the river
Liffey where the city of Dublin now stands.) "He says,
too, he wouldn't be surprised any day to see them come
up the Blackwater in their long boats and raid
"Why don't your king drive them off?" asked Conn.
"Well," said Ferdiad, "I guess our king of Meath is as
brave as anybody. But my foster-father says it will
take more than one king's army to drive off those
"That's a true word, son!" said the soldier. "It's
work for our best Celtic fighters, and I guess that is
what the high king will tell them. And I hope the
battle will soon be on!" And the soldier strode off
looking very fierce and warlike.
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