| 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 |
ON THE MARCH
 FERDIAD found the Kinkora school very interesting.
Every day when the weather was pleasant the boys
gathered in the cloister courtyard where the monks
taught them out of doors. If it was cold or rainy they
went inside to a schoolroom where the vellum books were
kept in leather satchels hanging from wooden pegs
ranged round the walls. The boys all had long narrow
tablets of wood coated with wax, and with a slender rod
of metal they wrote on these the things they must
specially remember. They learned grammar, a little
geography in rime, some Latin and various bits of
wisdom called "oghams," and every new school year they
must memorize at least ten new poems and stories; for
these were thought a very important part
 of school work. Ferdiad and Conn sat side by side and
told the stories over and over to each other, and were
always delighted to get a new one.
Meantime, Eileen was taught at home, where besides her
lessons she learned to spin and sew and weave and
embroider. There were several other girls and boys
whose foster-parents were among the attendants of the
high king and queen, and with these they had many merry
times. Conn came often to see them, and as the autumn
wore away the boys went nutting and hunting and fishing
When winter came it was not very cold, but fires were
lighted and in the evenings they played chess and
checkers and listened to stories and poems and music;
for Brian Boru loved such things and always did his
best to encourage scholars and poets and artists.
But though life passed happily enough for the boys and
girls, the faces of the older people
 began to grow more and more anxious as the weeeks went
on. Now and again Ferdiad and Eileen would hear talk
of some fresh raid by the Danes, who were all the while
growing bolder and bolder.
Sometimes Conn came with tales he had heard, and one
day he said to Ferdiad: "My foster-father says there's
bound to be a fight before long, or those Danes will
just settle themselves here in Ireland and we never can
drive them out!"
"That's what father Angus thinks, too," said Ferdiad.
"He says as soon as spring comes Brian Boru will get
all the Celtic kings together and start out after the
Danes and there will be a big battle somewhere."
And sure enough, as the winter passed, more and more
messengers came and went from Kinkora as the high king
completed his plans; and every one around the palace
talked of the Danes and how they must be conquered.
 "Do you know, Ferdiad," said Conn excitedly one day,
"folks say the banshee Aibell has been seen by the
O'Brien of Killaloe, and she has given him a magic
cloak that will make him invisible as he fights in the
"Who is Aibell?" asked Ferdiad.
"Oh, I forgot," said Conn, "you haven't lived here long
enough to know. She is the fairy queen who specially
guards the flaith O'Brien. He's a great champion who
lives at Killaloe, not far from here. Aibell is famous
around here and her palace is under the rock of Craglea
in a glen near the O'Briens' home.
"Well," said Ferdiad, "I hadn't heard about Aibell, but
I did hear that a flock of roysten crows flew eastward
last night, and some say the battle witches often take
the shape of crows and fly ahead when war is coming."
The next day the two boys had still more exciting
things to talk about. "Oh, Conn!"
 cried Ferdiad, "what do you think? We are going
too! The high king will take along quite a number of
the boys from here to run errands, and father Angus
says that you can go with the group with the palace
because you and I are such friends!"
"Oh, good!" cried Conn, his eyes dancing. "My
foster-father and my own father both are going with the
soldiers and I suppose quite an army will start from
"Yes," said Ferdiad, "some of the Celtic kings and
their soldiers will come here to start with Brian Boru
and the rest will meet him in the kingdom of Meath,
near where the river Liffey empties into the sea, and I
am sure my own father, too, will be with the Meath
army. They say a lot of the Danes have been camping
all winter at the Ford of the Hurdles, and the high
King means to attack them somewhere near there."
So the preparations went on; and by and by,
 when April came and the hawthorn trees began to bloom
and the fields were full of buttercups, the Celtic
kings with their poets and attendants began to arrive
in chariots, while their soldiers followed on foot.
The more important folks were entertained inside the
dun, and the common soldiers pitched their tents in the
In a few days more Eileen and her mother waved a
tearful good-by to Angus and Ferdiad and Conn as they
took their places in the great host that wound out of
the dun and across the fields to the east. At the head
went Brian Boru and after him the kings and flaiths
riding in chariots, while the poets cantered along on
horseback, their musical branches tinkling and their
heads full of the battle songs they would chant when
the time came. There were also musicians and story
tellers and jugglers to provide entertainment when they
camped at night, and doctors and priests to attend
 would be wounded and dying in the fight. The soldiers
trudged along on foot and the baggage followed in
ox-carts. Ferdiad and Conn and the other boys marched
along with the rest and whenever they were wanted to
carry messages or do any service the buglers called
them, and when they got tired marching they could climb
in the ox-carts and ride for a while.
"How long will it take us to get to the sea-coast? Do
you know?" asked Conn of Ferdiad.
"Father Angus said it would be over a week," said
Ferdiad, "but I don't care how long it takes. I think
it will be lots of fun, especially when we camp at
And Ferdiad was right. The boys greatly enjoyed the
march, and, best of all, the evenings when the tents
were pitched, the protecting wall of earth thrown up
around the camp, the fires made and supper being
cooked. Later on, when the great king's-candle was
 at the door of Brian Boru's tent, story telling and
singing and all sorts of fun went on.
At last they drew near the mouth of the river Liffey
and began to smell the salt air of the sea; and on a
plain near its shore they made their camp. Close
behind rose the Hill of Howth, and not far off the sea
glittered and gleamed as the ebbing waves laid bare a
wide strand of boulders covered with long green water
weeds. By and by, when the tide would come sweeping
in, the great foaming breakers would roar and rumble
over the stones like a herd of angry, bellowing bulls,
and for this reason the Celtic people called the
seashore there "Clontarf," which means in their
language the "Lawn of the Bulls," a name which it bears
to this day.
Ferdiad and Conn, who had not before seen the ocean,
delighted in watching the curling green breakers and
wading out as far as they dared. But they did not have
much time to
 play, as the next day, which was Palm Sunday, they had
many errands to do.
On that morning all the other Celtic kings joined Brian
Boru's army, bringing with them their hosts of fighting
men dressed, as were all the rest of the Celtic
soldiers, in tunics of yellow linen; they had no armor
because they thought it cowardly to wear it and
protected only their heads with leather helmets and the
front of their legs from the knee down with pieces of
brown leather. The kings and flaiths did not wear even
these, but were arrayed in silk and gay linen bratts
and tunics and gold chains and bracelets quite as if
they were going to a feast instead of a fight.
Ferdiad and Conn were very busy for the next three or
four days, and finally, Thursday evening, Ferdiad said,
"I believe they will fight soon now. I wouldn't wonder
if it will be to-morrow!"
"Why," said Conn, "that's Good Friday!
 I shouldn't think Brian Boru would pick such a holy day
to fight. You know he is so religious."
"He is," said Ferdiad, "but I heard the soldiers
talking about a prophecy of a Dane soothsayer. I don't
know how the found out about it, but the prophecy says
if the battle is on Good Friday our Celts will win,
though the high king will be killed. Of course nobody
wants Brian Boru killed, but the soldiers say they want
to fight to-morrow on account of the first part of the
prophecy and that they can ward off the last part easy
enough as they are sure the high king won't be in the
fight because of the day and they will keep an extra
strong guard around him besides."
"What does Brian Boru say?" asked Conn. "Did you
"They say he has the battle all planned and is willing
for it to be to-morrow, though, as the soldiers
thought, he himself won't touch weapons on Good Friday
because it's against
 his religion. It seems to me he is too old to fight
"Don't you think it!" said Conn. "He is mighty brave
and a good fighter yet, if he is 'way past
That night there were no poets' songs nor story telling
nor jugglers' tricks, for everybody was on the alert
for the coming battle. The two boys curled up side by
side in one of the ox-carts and, like all the rest of
the Celtic host on this night, they did not take off
their clothes. Far off in the distance they could see
the watch-fires of the Danes at the Ford of Hurdles,
and they went to sleep talking excitedly of the morrow.
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