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The Boyhood Deeds of Cú Chulainn

Cathub the druid was at Emain with Conchobar mac Nessa; a hundred men were with him, learning magic. That was the number that Cathub used to teach. One day, one of his pupils asked him what the day was good for. Cathub said that a warrior who first took arms on that day would be renowned for great deeds of valor, and for feats of arms; his renown would be over all Ériu.

Cú Chulainn heard this. He went to Conchobar to ask arms. Conchobar said, »Who has instructed you to take them?«

»My friend Cathub«, said the boy.

»We know him indeed«, said Conchobar.

He gives him spear and shield; the boy brandishes them in the middle of the house, but they break at that. So it went until nothing remained of the fifteen sets of arms that were in Conchobar's house, in store against the breaking or taking of arms by any one. In the end, Conchobar gave him his own arms; the boy brandished them, and they withstood him.

»Blessed the king who holds such arms!« said Cú Chulainn. »Blessed the people whose king holds such arms!«

Cathub had heard the uproar, and came to them then. »Has the boy taken arms?« he asked.

»He has taken them«, said Conchobar.

»Ill fortune that, for his mother's son«, said Cathub.

»Wasn't it you that advised it?«, asked Conchobar.

»Not I«, said Cathub, »surely.«

»What trickery is this, sprite?« said Conchobar to Cú Chulainn.

»No trick that, king among heroes«, said the boy; »I came upon him this morning on the field south of Emain; I heard him teach his pupils thus, and so I came to you.«

»The good of the day is this,« said Cathub, »that he who first takes arms therein, his fame is certain: but his life will be short.«

»A great wonder that!« said Cú Chulainn. »I would be content to live for but a day, if only they will remember me!«


Another day a pupil asked the druid what the day was good for.

»Whoever first enters a chariot on this day,« said Cathub, »his name will live in Ériu forever.«

Cú Chulainn heard this. He went to Conchobar to ask a chariot. He gave it; Cú Chulainn put his hand between the two poles to test it, and the chariot broke. He destroyed twelve chariots in this way; in the end, Conchobar gave his own chariot, and it withstood him. He entered the chariot then, and Conchobar's own charioteer with him; Ibor that man's name. The charioteer turned the chariot under the boy.

»Come out of the chariot now«, he said.

»Fine horses these, and I too am fine, their young rider«, said Cú Chulainn. »Go forth, just around Emain, and I shall reward you well for it: for I would the boy-troop should give me their greeting and blessing.«

So the charioteer drives out; but when they are gone about the fort and to the field, the boy says to him, »Work your goad on the horses.«

»Which way are we going?«, asked the charioteer.

»As far as the road will take us«, replied the boy.

They come thereby to Fuad's Mountain; they find Conall Cernach there, for it was his lot that day to watch over the province. Each of the champions of Ulaid would go in turn to the mountain, to protect any man who came to the province with poetry, or to fight any man who came with arms, so that whatever man came, there should be one to encounter him, and none should come unseen into Emain.

»May it grant you prosperity«, said Conall Cernach when he saw them; »May it grant you victory and triumph.« (This was his blessing on the boy, at taking arms.)

»Master Conall,« said Cú Chulainn, »return to Emain and let me keep the watch today.«

»You would suffice to protect a poet«, said Conall, »But if it were a fight against a warrior, you're too young for it.«

»Maybe that will not be necessary today«, said the boy. »For now, let us go together to look at Echtra's Lake: for heroes gather there.«

»I'll do that gladly«, says Conall Cernach.

They go there. The boy threw a stone then with his sling, so that Conall Cernach's chariot-pole broke.

»O boy, why did you throw that stone?« asked Conall.

»To try my hand,« said the boy, »and the straightness of my throwing; moreover, it is the custom of the Ulaid that you do not drive imperilled. Therefore go you now to Emain, friend Conall, and leave me the watch of Ulaid.«

»Fine«, said Conall Cernach.

Conall did not go further than that: but Cú Chulainn with his charioteer sets forth to Echtra's Lake, and they find nobody there. The charioteer advised Cú Chulainn that they should return also to Emain, lest they be too late for the drinking there. But the boy refused.

»Which is that mountain yonder?« he asked.

»Monduirn mountain«, said Ibor.

»Drive me there then«, said Cú Chulainn, »until we reach it.«

So he drove him until they reached it, and once there, Cú Chulainn asked: »What is that white cairn atop the mountain?«

»Whitecairn«, said Ibor.

»What plain is that yonder?« asked the boy.

»The Plain of Brega«, said Ibor.

In like manner he told him the names of each of the chief forts from Temair to Cenandas; moreover, he named the meadows and fords, the dwellings and places of fame, the forts and the heights. He showed him the fort of the three sons of Nechta Scéne: Foill and Fannall and Túachell their names.

»Is it they who say that there are not more alive of the men of Ulaid than they have slain?« asked Cú Chulainn.

»They indeed«, said Ibor.

»Go forth, then, until we have attained the fort«, said the boy.

»A dangerous going indeed, that«, said Ibor.

»It is not to avoid danger we go there!« said Cú Chulainn.

They set forth then; they came to the place where the bog met the river, and unyoked the horses there, to the south above the fort. Cú Chulainn took the spancel hoop that was on the pillar there, and he threw it in the river for the stream to carry off: for that was geis to them, the three sons of Nechta Scéne. They perceive it then, and go out to meet them, but Cú Chulainn goes to sleep against the pillar, saying first to the charioteer that he should not wake him for a few, but only for a host.

A great fear comes upon Ibor then, and he yokes the horses again to the chariot, and pulls at the cover-skins: but Cú Chulainn was sleeping on them, whom he dared not wake, since the boy had said that he should be awoken only for a great host.

The sons of Nechta Scéne come there then.

»Who is it that has come?« asked one of them.

»A little boy,« said Ibor, »making his first expedition in a chariot.«

»May it not be to his prosperity,« said the warrior; »may it not be to his fame, his first taking of arms. Let him leave our land, and let his horses graze here no longer.«

»The reins are in my hand«, said Ibor. »No reason for you to make enemies of the Ulaid. Besides, the boy sleeps.«

»Indeed, I am neither asleep nor a boy«, said Cú Chulainn; »nor have I come but as a warrior seeking battle.«

»I am pleased with that«, said Foill.

»Be you pleased in the ford yonder, then«, said Cú Chulainn.

»It is fitting you should heed who comes against you, Cú Chulainn«, said Ibor. »Foill his name: and if you do not reach him with the first thrust, you shall not reach him until evening

»I swear by what my people swear by,« said Cú Chulainn, »not again will he ply his feats on the Ulaid, after the broad-pointed spear of master Conchobar has touched him. Mine an enemy's hand upon him.«

He threw the spear at him then; it went through him so that it broke his back. Cú Chulainn took his head and his arms.

»Take heed of the next man«, said Ibor. »Fannall his name: and no more heavily does he tread the water than swallow or swan.«

»I swear by what my people swear by,« said Cú Chulainn, »not again will he ply that feat on the Ulaid. You have seen how I tread the pool at Emain.«

They clash in the ford then; Cú Chulainn slays the man, and he took his head and his arms.

»It is fitting you should heed the next who comes against you«, said Ibor. »Túachell his name: and no wrong name that, for arms will not slay him.«

»The del chliss for him, to ravage and red-riddle him«, said Cú Chulainn.

He throws the spear at him, so that his limbs come apart; he goes to him then and strikes his head off. He takes his head and his arms and brings them to the charioteer. Then they heard the caoine of Nechta Scéne behind them, the mother of the three sons; but Cú Chulainn took his spoils with him into the chariot.

»Indeed I will not abandon this triumph until I reach the walls of Emain«, he said.

They set off with their spoils of victory then; Cú Chulainn said to Ibor: »You promised me a good driving, and indeed we need it now, by reason of the strife and the pursuit that goes behind us.« They drive thence to Fuad's Mountain, and such the goading of Ibor, that the horses outrun the wind and the birds in flight; and Cú Chulainn could catch the shot of his sling before it met the ground.

When they reached Fuad's Mountain, there was a herd of deer there before them.

»What beasts are those that leap so nimbly?« asked Cú Chulainn.

»Wild deer«, said Ibor.

»Which is thought best among the Ulstermen«, asked Cú Chulainn: »to bring them dead or alive?«

»It is more wondrous to bring them alive,« said Ibor, »for not many among them can perform that feat; but dead, there is not one of them who cannot do it. You cannot attain it, to carry them off alive.«

»I can indeed«, said the boy; »ply your goad on the horses now, that they be driven into the bog.«

The charioteer obeys; the horses stick in the bog; Cú Chulainn leaps out, grasping the nearest deer, and that the finest of them. He drove the horses out of the bog, and, overcoming the deer at once, lashed it between the two poles of the chariot.

Anon there was a flock of swans before them.

»Which is thought best among the Ulstermen«, asked Cú Chulainn: »to bring them back dead or alive?«

»The most valorous and accomplished bring them alive«, said Ibor.

Cú Chulainn aimed a small stone at the birds and struck eight; he aimed a large stone at them and struck twelve: a blow that stunned.

»Gather the birds«, said Cú Chulainn to Ibor; »If I go to gather them, the deer will be upon you.«

»No easy task that«, said Ibor. »The horses are become wild and will not let me past them, the two iron wheels of the chariot are too sharp to pass, and I cannot pass the deer either, for his antlers fill the gap between the two poles of the chariot.«

»Step over the deer«, said Cú Chulainn. »I swear by what my people swear by, with the bending whereby I will bend my head at him, and the eye whereby I will affix his eye, he will not dare to turn his head on you, nor dare to move.«

They did that then. Cú Chulainn tied the reins, and Ibor gathered the birds. Cú Chulainn bound the birds then to the thongs of the chariot, and in that manner they go to Emain Macha: the wild deer behind the chariot, the flock of swans flying above, and the three heads in it.

They come to Emain then.

»A man in a chariot is coming to you!« cried the watchman at the fort. »He is in a red rage, and he will shed the blood of every man that is in this fort, unless you heed him well.«

Then Cú Chulainn turned the left side of the chariot toward Emain, for that was geis to it, and he cried: »I swear by what my people swear by, if a man is not sent out to fight me, I will shed the blood of everyone in the fort!«

»Naked women to meet him!« said Conchobar mac Nessa.

The women of Emain go out to meet him, and Mugain, wife of Conchobar, with them, and they bare their breasts before him.

»These the warriors you will contend with today!« said Mugain.

The boy hides his face then, and the heroes of Ulaid grapple him. They hurl him into a barrel of cold water; that bursts around him. They hurl him into a second barrel, and it boils with bubbles like fists. The third barrel into which he went, that one he warmed so that that heat and cold were equal in it. They bring him out; Mugain the queen puts a blue cloak about him, and a silver brooch on that cloak, and a hooded tunic: they place him at Conchobar's side, and that place was his ever after.

That was the deed Cú Chulainn did in his seventh year.

The Boyhood Deeds of Cú Chulainn

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