The Celtic Literature Collective

The Tragic Death of Cu Roi mac Dairi

Why did the men of Ulster slay Cu Roi mac Dairi? Easy to say Because of Blathnat who was carried off from the siege of the Fir Falgae, because of the three cows of Iuchna and the ”three men of Ochain,” that is, the little birds that used to be on the ears of Iuchna’s cows. And a cauldron was carried off with the cows. This cauldron was their calf. Thirty cows’ milking was the capacity of the cauldron and the full of it was milked from them every time while the birds were singing to them. Hence said Cu Chulainn in the Siaburcharpat:1

There was a cauldron in the fort:
The calf of the three cows, 
Thirty cows within its gullet, 
That was its portion. 

They used to go to that cauldron, 
Delightful was the struggle, 
Nor did they come away from it again 
Until they left it full. 

There was much gold and silver it,
It was a goodly find.
I carried off that cauldron 
With the daughter of the king.

Cu Roi mac Dairi went with the men of Ulster then to the siege, and they did not recognize him, that is, they called him the man in the grey mantle. Every time a head was brought out of the fort, ”Who slew that man? Conchobar would say ”I and the man in the grey mantle,” each answered in turn. When, however, they were dividing the spoil,’ they did not give Cu Roi a share, for justice was not granted him. 

He then ran in among the cows and gathered them before him, collected the birds in his girdle, thrust the woman under one of his armpits, and went from them with the cauldron on his back. And none among the men of Ulster was able to get speech with him save Cu Chulainn alone. Cu Roi turned upon the latter, thrust him into the earth to his armpits, cropped his hair with his sword, rubbed cow-dung into his head, and then went home. 

After that Cu Chulainn was a whole year avoiding the Ulstermen. One day, however, when he was on the peaks of Bairche, he saw a great flock of black birds coming towards him over the sea. He killed one of them forthwith. After that he killed one of the flock in every land he passed through until he came to Srub Brain (Raven’s Beak) in the west of Ireland, that is, the black bird’s head which he cut off Srub Brain is named therefrom. 

This took place west of Cu Roi’s stronghold; and the Cu Chulainn knew that it was he who had brought him to shame and he held converse with the woman Blathnat, for he had loved her even before she was brought over sea; she was a daughter of Iuchna king of the Fir Falgae (Men of Falga), that is, they were a ”sea-wall” in the islands of the sea. He made a tryst with her again in the west on the night of Samhain. 

Moreover, a province of the Erainn set forth to go with Cu Chulainn. It was on that day Blathnat advised Cu Roi that he should build a splendid enclosure for his stronghold of every pillar-stone standing or lying in Ireland. The Clan Dedad set out one day for the building of the stronghold, so that he was all alone in his fortress on that day. There was an agreement between Blathnat and Cu Chulainn, namely, to pour the milk of Iuchna’s cows down the river in the direction of the Ulstermen, so that the river might be white when she was bathing Cu Roi. 

So it was done. It was poured down to them, and the river then became ”Finnglas (White Flecked).” She then began lousing his head in front of the stronghold 

”Come into the stronghold,” said she, ”and get washed before the hosts come back with their burdens of stones.” Just then he lifted up his head and saw the host of Ulster coming towards him along the glen, both foot and horse ”Who are those yonder, woman?” said Cu Roi. ”Thy people,” said Blathnat, ”with the stones and oak for building the stronghold ”If they are oaks, ’tis swiftly they travel; it is a triumph, if they are stones,” said Cu Roi. 

He raised his head again and continued to scan them. ”Who are these?” said he. 

”Herds of kine and cattle,” said she. 
If they are cattle, so that they are cattle, 
They are not herds of lean kine. 
There is a little man brandishing a sword 
On the back of every cow. 

Thereupon Cu Roi went inside, and the woman bathed him, and she bound his hair to the bedposts and rails, and took his sword out of its scabbard and threw open the stronghold. He heard naught, however, until the Ulstermen had filled the house, and had fallen upon him. He rose up straightway against them, and slew a hundred of them with kicks and blows of his fists. An attendant who was within rose up against them and slew thirty of them. Thereof it was sung: 

Though the attendant of the prince, 
He was skilled at the battle-game, 
He slew thirty armed men, 
Then he let himself be slain. 

Senfiacal first came at the cry, whereof it was said: 

Senfiacal came first; 
He slew a hundred men of the host. 
Though great was the might of his combat, 
He got his death through Cu Chulainn. 

Then Cairbre Cuanach came upon them: 

Cairbre Cuanach came upon them.
He slew a hundred men, a mighty encounter, 
He would have grappled with Conchobar, 
If the monster-abounding sea had not drowned him. 

That is to say, when he was contending with Conchobar, he saw his stronghold in flames to the north of the sea. So he went into the sea to save it. His swim was great, and he was drowned there. 

The fight of Eochaid son of Daire 
From the promontory to the glen. 
He slew a hundred men, it was a great achievement. 
It was to avenge his good king. 

Then it was the Clan Dedad cast from them every pillar-stone which was standing or lying in Ireland, when they heard the shouting, and came up to the slaughter around the fortress, whereof it was said: 

After that came the Clan Dedad 
To seek their king, 
Five score and three hundred, 
Ten hundred and two thousand. 

When, however, they were slaying one another by the fortress, and Cu Chulainn had cut off Cu Roi’s head, and the fortress was aflame, Ferchertne, Cu Roi’s poet, was by his horses in the glen, and he said: 

Who is the youth that fights 
By the side of Cu Roi’s fortress 
If Daire’s son were alive 
It would not burn. 

Fer Becrach, however, Cu Roi’s charioteer, had made submission to Cairbre son of Conchobar, and he went into his chariot with him. He drove the horses against the rock, and the rock crushed both horses and men, whereof it was said: 

Fer Becrach... 
Perchance it is no lie thou sayest 
He bore Cairbre son of Conchobar 
Under the bitter sea waves. 

Then Ferchertne came. ”Art not thou Ferchertne?” said Conchobar. ”I am, indeed,” said he. ”Was Cu Roi kind to thee? said Conchobar. ”He was kind, indeed,” said he. ”Tell us somewhat of his bounty.” 

”I cannot now,” said he. ”My heart is sad after the slaying of my king, for mine own hand shall slay me, if no one else slay me! Then Ferchertne the poet said 2

”That was a kingly gift,” said Conchobar. ”It was little from him,” said Ferchertne. ”Where is Blathnat?” said he. ”She is here,” said the youths; ”but it was only by striking off Cu Roi’s head that we obtained her deliverance.” 

It was after that she was crushed against the rock, that is, the promontory of Cenn Bera. For the man Ferchertne made a rush towards her and caught her between his arms, so that her ribs broke in her back; and he hurled her down the cliff before him so that the rock crushed them both, and their grave is on the strand under the rock Hence it was sung: 

Sad was the struggle together 
Of Blathnat and Ferchertne, 
And the graves of them both are 
In the powerful land of Cenn Bera. 

Nevertheless the slaughter increased on them every day from Samain to the middle of spring The Ulstermen made a count of their forces, going and coming, and a half or a third of their heroes they left behind, as was said: 

Blathnat was slain 
In the slaughter above Argat-glenn. 
A grievous deed for a woman to betray her husband. 
Now that is the tragic death of Cu Roi mac Dairi. 

1. The Phantom Chariot of Cúchulainn
2. The poem is omitted because of the difficulties of translation 

Ancient Irish Tales. ed. and trans. by Tom P. Cross & Clark Harris Slover. NY: Henry Holt & Co., 1936

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