The Celtic Literature Collective

Here is the Visit of the king of Thessaly’s son Cael an iarainn to Ireland, and how unfortunately his walking-match turned out with him; or according to some authorities, the Adventure of the Carle of the Drab Coat.
From Egerton MS 154
Translated by Standish O'Grady. Silva Gaedelica, V.II.

It was a day of gathering and of conference constituted by Finn son of Cumall son of Art son of Trenmor grandson of Baeiscne, with the seven battalions of the reserve and seven of the regular Fianna, at the Hill of Edar son of Edgaeth; and as they threw an eye over the sea and great main they saw a roomy and a gallant ship that upon the waters bore right down for them, from the eastward and under a press of sail. She was fitted out as though for war and contention; and they had not long to wait before they marked a tall, bellicose, impetuously valiant óglaech rise by means of his javelins’ stavesor of his spears’ shafts, and so attain both his soles’ width of the white- sanded beach. A polished and most comely lorica he had on; an armature that was solid and infrangible surrounded him; his handsome red shield surmounted his shoulder, and on his head was a hard helmet; at his left side a sword, wide-grooved, straight in the blade; in his two fists he held a pair of thick-shafted spears, unburnished but sharp; a becoming mantle of scarlet hung on his shoulders, with a brooch of the burnt gold on his broad chest.

Thus equipped then, and in this fashion, he came into the presence of Finn and of the Fianna; and Finn spoke to him, saying: “of the whole world’s bloods, noble or ignoble, who art thou, warrior; or out of which airt of the four art come to us?" “Cael an iarainn is my name, the king of Thessaly’s son; and in all that which (since I left my own land and up to this present) I have perambulated of the globe, I have not left either isle or island but I have brought under tribute of my sword and under my own hand. What now I desire therefore is to carry off the universal tribute and capital power of Ireland.” Conan said: “we never have seen laech, nor heard of warrior, but a man to turn him would be found in Ireland.” “Conan,” answered Cael, “in thine utterance find I nought else than that of a fool or gaby; for were all they that during these seven years past are dead of the Fianna added now to those that yet live of them, I would in one single day treat them all to the grievousness of death and of life curtailed. But I will do a thing which ye will esteem a condition easier than that: if among the whole of you ye find one only laeck that in running, or in single fight, or in wrestling shall get the better of me, no more worry nor trouble will I inflict on you, but will get me gone back to my own land again:’ “Why now,” said Finn, “the runner that we have: Caeilte mac Ronan to wit, he at this moment is not at home; and were he here he would have a run with thee; but if, warrior, thou be a one that will tarry with the Fianna, and with them make friendship and observe the same, while I go to Tara of the Kings to fetch Caeilte whom if I find not there I shall to a certainty get in Keshcorran of the Fianna then do so.” “So be it done,” Cael assented.

Then Finn started on the road, and had not gone far when he happened on an intricate gloomy wood, the diameter of which a deeply scooped out hollow way traversed throughout. Into this forest he had not penetrated any distance before he met a diabolical-looking being of evil aspect, an irrational wild monster of a yellow-complexioned thick-boned giant having on him a long drab coat down to the calves of his two legs, either of which Under him as they carried the great fellow’s ill-assorted body was like the mast of some ship of largest rate; like the side of a wide-wombed boat was each brogue of the two that garnished his knobbed feet armed with curved nails; the drab coat that invested him had to it a pewter platter’s width of a skirt-trimming consisting in a yellow stucco of mud, and this at every step that he took would flap against the calf of one leg so as to knock out of it a report that could be heard half-a-mile of country away; while every time that he lifted a foot, there used half-a-barrel of mire to squirt upwards to his buttocks and even over his entire yellow-tinted person. Finn fell to consider the great man for a length of time (for never before had he seen his like) and walked still on his way till the other spoke, saying: “what is this course of trudging or wandering that is befallen thee to make, Finn son of Cumall, all alone and solitary without a man of Ireland’s Fianna by thee?" “Such,” replied Finn, “is the measure of my perplexity and trouble that I cannot frame to tell thee that nor, though I could, would it do me any good whatsoever.” “Unless to me thou do explain the matter, thou wilt for ever suffer the damage and detriment of it [i.e. of thy reticence].” “Well then,” Finn began, “if I must tell it thee, know it to be the king of Thessaly’s son Cael an iarainn that yesterday at noon came in at Ben-Edar, looking to acquire for himself the rent and rule of all Ireland unless only that some one laech I may find who in running, in single combat or at wrestling, shall overcome him.” “And what would ye do?“ the big one enquired: “for I know him well, and there is not a single thing asserted by him but he is able to fulfil: upon the Fianna universally he would inflict slaughter of men and virile óglaechs.” Finn went on: “I would proceed to Tara of the Kings to fetch Caeilte, whom if I find not there I shall undoubtedly get in Keshcorann of the Fianna, in order that of yon warrior he may win a running match.” “Verily then,” said the big fellow, “thou art but ‘a kingdomless man’ if Caeilte son of Ronan be thy grand resource with which to scare away the other.” “Then indeed I know not what I shall do,” said Finn. “But I do,” quoth the great man: “wouldst thou but put up with me, of that hero I would upon my oath win a running wager.” Finn rejoined: “I esteem that in carrying thy coat and huge brogues for a single half-mile of country thou hast thine utmost endeavour to perform, and not to embark in a running bet with that laech.” “By all that’s positive, unless I win it of him not a man of all Ireland will bring it off.” “So be it done,” consented Finn: “but what is thy name?" and he made answer: “my name is bodach an chóta lachtna or ‘the carle of the drab coat.”’

Then Finn and the Carle returned back again, nor concerning their travel and wayfaring is anything told us until they reached Ben-Edar.

There Ireland’s Fianna in their numbers gathered about the big man, for never before had they seen his like; Cael an iarainn too came upon the ground, and enquired whether Finn had brought a man to run with him. Finn answered that he had, and exhibited his man; but when Cael had seen the Carle he objected that to all eternity he would not run with any such greasy bodach. At this hearing the latter emitted a coarse burst of horse-laughter, saying: “in respect of me thou art deceived, warrior; acquaint me therefore with the length of course that thou wouldst run, the which if I run not with thee, and more too if such be thy pleasure, thine it shall be to take the stakes.” “I care not,” rejoined Cael, “to have in front of me a course of less than three score miles.” “‘Tis well as it happens,” said the Cane: “three score miles exactly they are from Ben-Edar to Slieveluachra of Munster.” “So be it done,” Cael assented. “Well then,” suggested the bodach, “the right thing for us to do is to proceed westwards to Slieveluachra to begin with, and there to put up to-night, so that to-morrow we may be ready for our start and our walk.”

Those two good laechs (Cael an iarainn the king of Thessaly’s son namely, and the Carle of the drab coat) set out accordingly, - and of their journey there is not any record until as the sun went under they reached Slieveluachra of Munster. “Cael,” said the other then, “it behoves us to knock up some kind of dwelling, whether house or hut, to have over our heads.” But Cael - retorted: “by all that’s certain, I never will set about building a house on Slieveluachra for the sake of passing one night there, considering that I have no desire at all ever during the whole - Course of my life to return thither.” “So be it,” quoth the bodach: “but if I can manage to put up the like, ‘tis far enough away outside of it will be any that shall not have given his help to make it.”

The Carle entered then into the nearest darkling and intricate wood, where he never stayed nor rested till he had tied up four-and-twenty couples of gross timber; and these, along with their complement of rafters from the same wood and of fresh rushes of the mountain, he brought in that one load and so erected a house long and wide, all thatched and warm. Of the forest’s sticks both green and dry he on that lodging’s floor made up a vast bonfire, and a second time addressed Cael: “if thou be a man to come with me and in these woods seek some game or other-” ‘I understand nothing about it,” answered Cael: “and if I did, ‘tis not to second the like of thee would go.” 

Again the bodach sought the nearest wood’s recesses, into which he was not penetrated far when he roused a drove of wild swine; the stoutest boar that he saw he cut off from the rest and, along every track, through every covert, followed until by strenuousness of running and of painful effort he vanquished and struck him to the earth; neatly and expeditiously he made him ready and before that same great fire put him down to roast, with a turning contrivance to the spits that should keep them going of themselves. Then the Carle started, nor ever halted before he attained to the baron of Inchiquin’s house (that was a score and ten miles from Slieveluachra) and brought away two barrels of wine, two pewter dishes, all as much bread as there was ready in the house, a table and a chair, the whole of which he carried in the one load and so regained Slieveluachra. Here he found his meat roasted before him; half of the boar, a moiety of the bread and a barrel of wine he set aside to provide for the morning; the other half of each he served to himself upon the table, and comfortably, luxuriously, sat down. He ate his full quantum of meat, after which he ingurgitated into his person a barrel of wine; upon the floor of that caravanserai he shook out a copious layer of rushes, and was wrapped in sleep and lasting slumber until on the morrow’s day both the all-brilliant sun rose, and Cael an iarainn (who during the night had been on the mountain’s side without meat or drink) came and roused him from his snooze, saying: “rise, bodach! it is now time for us to set about our journey and our wayfaring.” With that the Cane woke up, rubbed his eyes with his palms, and said: “there is an hour’s time of my sleep that I have not worked out yet; but since thou art in a hurry, I yield thee my consent that thou be off, and undoubtedly I will be after thee.”

Accordingly Cael went ahead upon the way, not without great misgiving by reason of the small account which he saw the bodach make of him. When now the latter had slept his stint he rose to a sitting posture, washed his face and hands, served himself up meat on the table; then at his perfect ease sat down to it, ate up the remaining half of boar and bread, and finally swigged off the second barrel of wine.

At this point the Cane got up, in his drab coat’s skirt he carefully stowed away the pig’s bones, and away with him at the speed of a swallow or of a roe, or as it had been a blast of the searing March wind careering over the summit of some hill or rugged-headed rock, until he overhauled Cael an iarainn and across the way in front of him pitched out the porker’s bones, saying: “try, Cael, whether upon those bones thou mayest find any little pick at all; for sure it is that after passing last night in fasting condition on Slieveluachra thou art full of hunger.” “Thou shouldst be hanged, Carle,” he answered, “ere I would go look for meat upon the bones which with thy glutton-tusks thou hast gnawed!” “Well then,” said the bodach, “it were none too much for thee to put on a gait of going better than thou hast done as yet.”

Here he pushed on as though he were turned to be a madman, and in that one heat went thirty miles; then he fell to eating of blackberries from the brambles that were on either side of the road or way, till such time as Cael came up to him and said: “bodach, thirty miles back from here is the spot in which I saw one skirt of thy drab coat twisted round the neck of a bush, and the second tangled in another bush ten miles behind that again.” “Is it the skirts of my coat?" asked the Cane, looking himself all down. “‘Tis they just,” Cael said. “In that case,” argued the bodach, “that which it were the right thing for thee to do would be to delay here eating of blackberries, in order for me to return and bring back the skirts of my coat.” “It is very certain that I will do no such thing,” answered Cael, and: “so be it,” said the bodach.

Cael went his road, while the Carle returned till he found the skirts of his coat as the other had said; he sat down, pulled out his needle and thread, and so stitched them on in their own place again. This done he retraced his steps, and Cael was not gone far when the Carle caught him up and said to him: “Cael, thou must put on a gait of going better than thou hast done yet, if an thou hast already expressed thou wouldst carry off all Ireland’s tribute; for I will do no more turning back now.”

Then with the speed of swallow [etc. as before] the bodach set off as though converted into a madman; and such the impetuous rush of pedestrianism which carried him along, that soon he surmounted the crown of a certain hill within five miles of Ben-Edar, where he devoted himself to eating of blackberries from the brambles until he had made of himself a juice-filled sack. He then put off his drab coat, again produced his needle and thread, and sewed up the garment so as to make out of it a long and wide bag, very deep. This he stuffed to the muzzle with blackberries, and on his skin rubbed a quantity of the same so that he was as black as any smith’s coal; said load he hoisted upon his shoulder and, stoutly, nimble-footedly set out, making for Ben-Edar.

The position of Finn and of the general Fianna was that they were filled with great apprehension of Cael an iarainn’s being in front, for without knowing in the world who he was they had pitched all their hope in the Carle. Now abroad on a tulach’s top Finn had a certain emissary to spy whether of the two that raced held the lead; and he, so soon as he caught sight of the Carle, went in and told Finn that Cael came along in the way and the bodach dead upon his shoulder. “A suit of arms and of armour,” cried Finn, “to him that shall bring us tidings better than these!” and a second messenger when he was gone out recognised it to be the bodach that was there. Around him the Fianna of all Ireland flocked together joyously, and sought news. “I have good news for you,” he said: “but for the magnitude of my hunger it is not possible for me to publish it before I eat my sufficiency of parched-corn meal and blackberries mixed: my share of these I have brought with me, and let you now provide me my fill of such meal.” On Ben-Edar now a great cloth was opened out on which to serve the Carle, with a heap of meal in its very centre; in among the meal he shot his sack of blackberries, and with a will turned to at eating them.

But soon they saw Cael along the road, with his hand at his sword’s hilt, his two eyes blazing red in his head, and he ready to charge in among the Fianna to hew them and to bone-split When then the bodach saw him in this array, he picked up his great paw’s fill of the meal and blackberries, and upon Cael discharged the mess to such purpose that he banished his head to the distance of a fair scope of ground from his body; then where the head was thither he ran, and with it a second time let fly at the trunk in a way that he fastened it on as solid as ever it had been. The manner of him now however was with his face to his back, his poll upon his chest; so the bodach ran at him, dashed his whole carcase violently to earth, lashed him up hard and fast and inextricably, and said: “Cael, was it not a mistaken thing for thee to say that on this occasion the chief rent and sovereign power of Ireland, though there were none but thyself alone to strive for it, would be suffered to go with thee? nevertheless none shall ever have it to say to Ireland’s Fianna that to a solitary warrior, he having none but himself to take his part, they would administer grievousness of death and of short life. If therefore thou be one to swear by sun and moon in guarantee of thy transmitting the rent of Thessaly yearly during thy life long to Finn and to the Fianna, thou shalt have thy life in the guise which now thou wearest” By sun and moon Cael swore yearly to fulfil that all his life.

Then the bodach takes him by the tips of his fingers, leads him to his ship and puts him in sitting posture into her; to the vessel’s afterpart he gave a kick, and with that same sent her seven leagues out to sea. There you have the fashion in which the expedition of the king of Thessaly’s son Cael an iarainn turned out with him: to be dismissed home under the conditions of a fool or simpleton, without power ever again so long as he should live to strike a blow in battle or in tough single encounter. The bodach came back to Finn and the Fianna, and told them that he was the fairy chief of ráth Chruachan or ‘Rathcroghan,’ that came to loose them out of the fetters in which they had been [i.e. to succour them in their straits]. For the fairy chief Finn then made a feast and banquet of a year and a day.

So far then the adventures of Cael an iarainn, the king of Thessaly’s son, and of the Carle of the Drab Coat

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