- The culture, history and people of Ireland and the Irish

Prev | Next | Contents | Main Page


Once there was a glorious and stately king who held the supreme lordship over all the land of Ireland. The name of the king was Eochaid Airemm, and he was the son of Finn, who was the son of Finntan; who was the son of Rogan the Red; who was the son of Essamain; who was the son of Blathecht; who was the son of Beothecht; who was the son of Labraid the Tracker; who was the son of Enna the Swift; who was the son of Angus of Tara, called the Shamefaced; who was the son of Eochaid the Broad-jointed; who was the son of Ailill of the Twisted Teeth; who was the son of Connla the Fair; who was the son of Irer; who was the son of Melghe the Praiseworthy; who was the son of Cobhtach the Slender from the plain of Breg; who was the son of Ugaine the Great; who was the son of Eochaid the Victorious.

Now all the five provinces of Ireland were obedient to the rule of Eochaid Airemm: for Conor the son of Ness, the king of Ulster, was vassal to Eochaid; and Messgegra the king of Leinster was his vassal; and so was Curoi, the son of Dare, king of the land of Munster; and so were Ailill and Maev, who ruled over the land of Connaught. Two great strongholds were in the hands of Eochaid: they were the strongholds of Fremain in Meath, and of Fremain in Tethba; and the stronghold that he had in Tethba was more pleasing to him than any of those that he possessed.
Less than a year had passed since Eochaid first assumed the sovereignty over Erin, when the news was proclaimed at once throughout all the land that the Festival of Tara should be held, that all the men of Ireland should come into the presence of their king, and that he desired full knowledge of the tributes due from, and the customs proper to each. And the one answer that all of the men of Ireland made to his call was: "That they would not attend the Festival of Tara during such time, whether it be long or short, that the king of Ireland remained without a wife that was worthy of him;" for there is no noble who is a wifeless man among the men of Ireland; nor can there be any king without a queen; nor does any man go to the Festival of Tara without his wife; nor does any wife go thither without her husband.

Thereupon Eochaid sent out from him his horsemen, and his wizards, and his officers who had the care of the roads, and his couriers of the boundaries throughout all Ireland; and they searched all Ireland as they sought for a wife that should be worthy of the king, in her form, and her grace, and her countenance, and her birth. And in addition to all this there yet remained one condition: that the king would take as his wife none who had been before as a wife to any other man before him.

And after that they had received these commands, his horsemen, and his wizards, and his officers who had the care of the roads, and the couriers of the boundaries went out; and they searched all Ireland south and north; and near to the Bay of Cichmany they found a wife worthy of the king; and her name was Etain the daughter of Etar, who was the king of Echrad. And his messengers returned to Eochaid, and they told him of the maiden, of her form, and her grace, and her countenance. And Eochaid came to that place to take the maiden thence, and this was the way that he took; for as he crossed over the ground where men hold the assembly of Bri Leith, he saw the maiden at the brink of the spring. A clear comb of silver was held in her hand, the comb was adorned with gold; and near her, as for washing, was a bason of silver whereon four birds had been chased, and there were little bright gems of carbuncle on the rims of the bason. A bright purple mantle waved round her; and beneath it was another mantle, ornamented with silver fringes: the outer mantle was clasped over her bosom with a golden brooch. A tunic she wore, with a long hood that might cover her head attached to it; it was stiff and glossy with green silk beneath red embroidery of gold, and was clasped over her breasts with marvellously wrought clasps of silver and gold; so that men saw the bright gold and the green silk flashing against the sun. On her head were two tresses of golden hair, and each tress had been plaited into four strands; at the end of each strand was a little ball of gold. And there was that maiden, undoing her hair that she might wash it, her two arms out through the armholes of her smock. Each of her two arms was as white as the snow of a single night, and each of her cheeks was as rosy as the foxglove. Even and small were the teeth in her head, and they shone like pearls. Her eyes were as blue as a hyacinth, her lips delicate and crimson; very high, soft, and white were her shoulders. Tender, polished, and white were her wrists; her fingers long, and of great whiteness; her nails were beautiful and pink. White as the snow, or as the foam of the wave, was her side; long was it, slender, and as soft as silk. Smooth and white were her thighs; her knees were round and firm and white; her ankles were as straight as the rule of a carpenter. Her feet were slim, and as white as the ocean's foam; evenly set were her eyes; her eyebrows were of a bluish black, such as ye see upon the shell of a beetle. Never a maid fairer than she, or more worthy of love, was till then seen by the eyes of men; and it seemed to them that she must be one of those who have come from the fairy mounds: it is of this maiden that men have spoken when it hath been said: "All that's graceful must be tested by Etain; all that's lovely by the standard of Etain."

Grace with Etain's grace compare!
Etain's face shall test what's fair!

And desire of her seized upon the king; and he sent a man of his people in front of him to go to her kindred, in order that she might abide to await his coming. And afterwards the king came to the maiden, and he sought speech from her: "Whence art thou sprung, O maiden?" says Eochaid, "and whence is it that thou hast come?" "It is easy to answer thee," said the maiden: "Etain is my name, the daughter of the king of Echrad; 'out of the fairy mound' am I" "Shall an hour of dalliance with thee be granted to me?" said Eochaid. "'Tis for that I have come hither under thy safeguard," said she. "And indeed twenty years have I lived in this place, ever since I was born in the mound where the fairies dwell, and the men who dwell in the elf-mounds, their kings and their nobles, have been a-wooing me: yet to never a one of them was granted sleep with me, for I have loved thee, and have set my love and affection upon thee; and that ever since I was a little child, and had first the gift of speech. It was for the high tales of thee, and of thy splendour, that I have loved thee thus; and though I have never seen thee before, I knew thee at once by reason of the report of thee that I had heard; it is thou, I know, to whom we have attained." "It is no evil-minded lover who now inviteth thee," says Eochaid. "Thou shalt be welcomed by me, and I will leave all women for thy sake, and thine alone will I be so long as it is pleasing to thee." "Let the bride-price that befits me be paid," said the maiden, "and after that let my desire be fulfilled." "It shall be as thou hast said," the king answered her; and he gave the value of seven cumals to be her brideprice; and after that he brought her to Tara, whereon a fair and hearty welcome was made to her.

Now there were three brothers of the one blood, all sons of Finn, namely, Eochaid Airem, and Eochaid, and Ailill Anglonnach, or Ailill of the Single Stain, because the only stain that was upon him was the love that he had for his brother's wife. And at that time came all the men of Ireland to hold the festival of Tara; they were there for fourteen days before Samhain, the day when the summer endeth, and for fourteen days after that day. It was at the feast of Tara that love for Etain the daughter of Etar came upon Ailill Anglonnach; and ever so long as they were at the Tara Feast, so long he gazed upon the maid. And it was there that the wife of Ailill spoke to him; she who was the daughter of Luchta of the Red Hand, who came from the province of Leinster: "Ailill," said she, "why dost thou gaze at her from afar? for long gazing is a token of love." And Ailill gave blame to himself for this thing, and after that he looked not upon the maid.

Now it followed that after that the Feast of Tara had been consumed, the men of Ireland parted from one another, and then it was that Ailill became filled with the pangs of envy and of desire; and he brought upon himself the choking misery of a sore sickness, and was borne to the stronghold of Fremain in Tethba after that he had fallen into that woe. There also, until a whole year had ended, sickness long brooded over Ailill, and for long was he in distress, yet he allowed none to know of his sickness. And there Eochaid came to learn of his brother's state, and he came near to his brother, and laid his hand upon his chest; and Ailill heaved a sigh. "Why," said Eochaid, "surely this sickness of thine is not such as to cause thee to lament; how fares it with thee?" "By my word," said Ailill, "'tis no easier that I grow; but it is worse each day, and each night." "Why, what ails thee?" said Eochaid, "By my word of truth," said Ailill, "I know not." "Bring one of my folk hither," said Eochaid, "one who can find out the cause of this illness."

Then Fachtna, the chief physician of Eochaid, was summoned to give aid to Ailill, and he laid his hand upon his chest, and Ailill heaved a sigh. "Ah," said Fachtna, "there is no need for lament in this matter, for I know the cause of thy sickness; one or other of these two evils oppresseth thee, the pangs of envy, or the pangs of love: nor hast thou been aided to escape from them until now." And Ailill was full of shame, and he refused to confess to Fachtna the cause of his illness, and the physician left him.

Now, after all this, king Eochaid went in person to make a royal progress throughout the realm of Ireland, and he left Etain behind him in his fortress; and "Lady," said he, "deal thou gently with Ailill so long as he is yet alive; and, should he die," said he, "do thou see that his burial mound be heaped for him; and that a standing-stone be set up in memory of him; and let his name be written upon it in letters of Ogham." Then the king went away for the space of a year, to make his royal progress throughout the realm of Ireland, and Ailill was left behind, in the stronghold of Fremain of Tethba; there to pass away and to die.

Now upon a certain day that followed, the lady Etain came to the house where Ailill lay in his sickness, and thus she spoke to him: "What is it," she said, "that ails thee? thy sickness is great, and if we but knew anything that would content thee, thou shouldest have it." It was thus that at that time she spoke, and she sang a verse of a song, and Ailill in song made answer to her:


Young man, of the strong step and splendid, What hath bound thee? what ill dost thou bear? Thou hast long been on sick-bed extended, Though around thee the sunshine was fair.


There is reason indeed for my sighing, I joy naught at my harp's pleasant sound; Milk untasted beside me is lying;
And by this in disease am I bound.


Tell me all, thou poor man, of thine ailing; For a maiden am I that is wise;
Is there naught, that to heal thee availing, Thou couldst win by mine aid, and arise


If I told thee, thou beautiful maiden, My words, as I formed them, would choke, For with fire can eyes' curtains be laden: Woman-secrets are evil, if woke.


It is ill woman-secrets to waken;
Yet with Love, its remembrance is long; And its part by itself may be taken, Nor a thought shall remain of the wrong.


I adore thee, white lady, as grateful; Yet thy bounty deserve I but ill:
To my soul is my longing but hateful, For my body doth strive with me still.

Eocho Fedlech,[FN#9] his bride to him taking, Made thee queen; and from thence is my woe: For my head and my body are aching, And all Ireland my weakness must know.


If, among the white women who near me abide, There is one who is vexing, whose love thou dost hide; To thy side will I bring her, if thus I may please; And in love thou shalt win her, thy sickness to ease.

Ah lady! said Ailill, "easily could the cure of my sickness be wrought by the aid of thee, and great gain should there come from the deed, but thus it is with me until that be accomplished:

Long ago did my passion begin,
A full year it exceeds in its length; And it holds me, more near than my skin, And it rules over wrath in its strength.

And the earth into four it can shake, Can reach up to the heights of the sky And a neck with its might it can break, Nor from fight with a spectre would fly.

In vain race up to heaven 'tis urged; It is chilled, as with water, and drowned: 'Tis a weapon, in ocean submerged;
'Tis desire for an echo, a sound.

'Tis thus my love, my passion seem; 'tis thus I strive in vain To win the heart of her whose love I long so much to gain.

[FN#9] Pronounced Yeo-ho Fayllya, see note, p. 166.

And the lady stood there in that place, and she looked upon Ailill, and the sickness in which he lay was perceived by her; and she was grieved on account of it: so that upon a certain day came the lady to Ailill, and "Young man," she said, "arouse thyself quickly, for in very truth thou shalt have all that thou desirest; and thereon did she make this lay:

Now arouse thyself, Ailill the royal: Let thy heart, and thy courage rise high; Every longing thou hast shall be sated, For before thee, to heal thee, am I.

Is my neck and its beauty so pleasing? 'Tis around it thine arms thou shalt place; And 'tis known as a courtship's beginning When a man and a woman embrace.

And if this cometh not to content thee, O thou man, that art son to a king! I will dare to do crime for thy healing, And my body to please thee will bring.

There were steeds, with their bridles, one hundred, When the price for my wedding was told; And one hundred of gay-coloured garments, And of cattle, and ounces of gold.

Of each beast that men know, came one hundred; And king Eocho to grant them was swift: When a king gave such dowry to gain me, Is't not wondrous to win me, as gift?

Now each day the lady came to Ailill to tend him, and to divide for him the portion of food that was allotted to him; and she wrought a great healing upon him: for it grieved her that he should perish for her sake. And one day the lady spoke to Ailill: "Come thou to-morrow," said she, "to tryst with me at the break of day, in the house which lieth outside, and is beyond the fort, and there shalt thou have granted thy request and thy desire." On that night Ailill lay without sleep until the coming of the morning; and when the time had come that was appointed for his tryst, his sleep lay heavily upon him; so that till the hour of his rising he lay deep in his sleep. And Etain went to the tryst, nor had she long to wait ere she saw a man coming towards her in the likeness of Ailill, weary and feeble; but she knew that he was not Ailill, and she continued there waiting for Ailill. And the lady came back from her tryst, and Ailill awoke, and thought that he would rather die than live; and he went in great sadness and grief. And the lady came to speak with him, and when he told her what had befallen him: "Thou shalt come," said she, "to the same place, to meet with me upon the morrow." And upon the morrow it was the same as upon the first day; each day came that man to her tryst. And she came again upon the last day that was appointed for the tryst, and the same man met her. "'Tis not with thee that I trysted," said she, "why dost thou come to meet me? and for him whom I would have met here; neither from desire of his love nor for fear of danger from him had I appointed to meet him, but only to heal him, and to cure him from the sickness which had come upon him for his love of me." "It were more fitting for thee to come to tryst with me," says the man, "for when thou wast Etain of the Horses, and when thou wast the daughter of Ailill, I myself was thy husband. "Why," said she, "what name hast thou in the land? that is what I would demand of thee." "It is not hard to answer thee," he said; "Mider of Bri Leith is my name." "And what made thee to part from me, if we were as thou sayest?" said Etain. "Easy again is the answer," said Mider; "it was the sorcery of Fuamnach and the spells of Bressal Etarlam that put us apart." And Mider said to Etain: "Wilt thou come with me?"

"Nay," answered Etain, "I will not exchange the king of all Ireland for thee; for a man whose kindred and whose lineage is unknown." "It was I myself indeed," said Mider, "who filled all the mind of Ailill with love for thee: it was I also who prevented his coming to the tryst with thee, and allowed him not thine honour to spoil it."

After all this the lady went back to her house, and she came to speech with Ailill, and she greeted him. "It hath happened well for us both," said Ailill, "that the man met thee there: for I am cured for ever from my illness, thou also art unhurt in thine honour, and may a blessing rest upon thee!" "Thanks be to our gods," said Etain, "that both of us do indeed deem that all this hath chanced so well." And after that Eochaid came back from his royal progress, and he asked at once for his brother; and the tale was told to him from the beginning to the end, and the king was grateful to Etain, in that she had been gracious to Ailill; and, "What hath been related in this tale," said Eochaid, "is well-pleasing to ourselves."

And, for the after history of Eochaid and Etain, it is told that once when Eochaid was in Fremain, at such time as the people had prepared for themselves a great gathering and certain horse-races; thither also to that assembly came Etain, that she might see the sight. Thither also came Mider, and he searched through that assembly to find out where Etain might be; and he found Etain, and her women around her, and he bore her away with him, also one of her handmaidens, called Crochen the Ruddy: hideous was the form in which Mider approached them. And the wives of the men of Ireland raised cries of woe, as the queen was carried off from among them; and the horses of Ireland were loosed to pursue Mider, for they knew not whether it was into the air or into the earth he had gone. But, as for Mider, the course that he had taken was the road to the west, even to the plain of Croghan; and as he came thither, "How shall it profit us," said Crochen the Ruddy, "this journey of ours to this plain?" "For evermore," said Mider, "shall thy name be over all this plain:" and hence cometh the name of the plain of Croghan, and of the Fort of Croghan. Then Mider came to the Fairy Mound of Croghan; for the dwellers in that mound were allied to him, and his friends; and for nine days they lingered there, banqueting and feasting; so that "Is this the place where thou makest thy home?" said Crochen to Mider. "Eastwards from this is my dwelling," Mider answered her; "nearer to the rising-place of the sun;" and Mider, taking Etain with him, departed, and came to Bri Leith, where the son of Celthar had his palace.

Now just at the time when they came to this palace, king Eochaid sent out from him the horsemen of Ireland, also his wizards, and his officers who had the care of the roads, and the couriers of the boundaries, that they might search through Ireland, and find out where his wife might be; and Eochaid himself wandered throughout Ireland to seek for his wife; and for a year from that day until the same day upon the year that followed he searched, and he found nothing to profit him.

Then, at the last, king Eochaid sent for his Druid, and he set to him the task to seek for Etain; now the name of the Druid was Dalan. And Dalan came before him upon that day; and he went westwards, until he came to the mountain that was after that known as Slieve Dalan; and he remained there upon that night. And the Druid deemed it a grievous thing that Etain should be hidden from him for the space of one year, and thereupon he made three wands of yew; and upon the wands he wrote an ogham; and by the keys of wisdom that he had, and by the ogham, it was revealed to him that Etain was in the fairy mound of Bri Leith, and that Mider had borne her thither.

Then Dalan the Druid turned him, and went back to the east; and he came to the stronghold of Fremain, even to the place where the king of Ireland was; and Eochaid asked from the Druid his news. Thither also came the horsemen, and the wizards, and the officers who had the care of the roads, and the couriers of the boundaries, to the king of Ireland, and he asked them what tidings they had, and whether they had found news of Mider and Etain. And they said that they had found nothing at all; until at the last said his Druid to him: "A great evil hath smitten thee, also shame, and misfortune, on account of the loss of thy wife. Do thou assemble the warriors of Ireland, and depart to Bri Leith, where is the palace of the son of Celthar; let that palace be destroyed by thy hand, and there thou shalt find thy wife: by persuasion or by force do thou take her thence."

Then Eochaid and the men of Ireland marched to Bri Leith, and they set themselves to destroy that fairy dwelling, and to demand that Etain be brought to them, and they brought her not. Then they ruined that fairy dwelling, and they brought Etain out from it; and she returned to Fremain, and there she had all the worship that a king of Ireland can bestow, fair wedded love and affection, such as was her due from Eochaid Airemm. This is that Eochaid who ruled over Ireland for twelve years, until the fire burned him in Fremain; and this tale is known by the name of the "Sick-bed of Ailill," also as "The Courtship of Etain." Etain bore no children to Eochaid Airemm, save one daughter only; and the name of her mother was given to her, and she is known by the name of Etain, the daughter of Eochaid Airemm. And it was her daughter Messbuachalla who was the mother of king Conary the Great, the son of Eterscel, and it was for this cause that the fairy host of Mag Breg and Mider of Bri Leith violated the tabus of king Conary, and devastated the plain of Breg, and out off Conary's life; on account of the capture of that fairy dwelling, and on account of the recovery of Etain, when she was carried away by violence, even by the might of Eochaid Airemm.

Prev | Next | Contents | Main Page


This is a website about Irish history and culture.