Tales from Irish History - Alice Birkhead

The Land of Great Legend

Ireland has always been a land of heroes, but, in far-off days, these were not real men of flesh, and blood. They were giants of such mighty size that stories of their deeds must needs be greater than any stories of mere men. Even after countless ages, it is still related how they loved and hated, lived and fought. Traces of their presence can be found in all the regions where they dwelt, and in the wild North-country some have left us everlasting tokens lest we should perhaps hear and not believe. There, where Ireland confronts Scotland, through the shadowy mists you can see the marvellous Causeway, built to allow a Scotch giant passage from one land to the other, and not many miles away lies beautiful Lough Neagh, made by Fionn MacCoul as he pursued an enemy in rage, and seized a portion of the earth to hurl after him, and let loose, where the earth had been, a flood of mighty waters, now formed into a lake.

The stories of ancient Ireland are tragic in their theme. The best known of them all are the Three Sorrows—The Fate of the Children of Usnach, The Fate of the Children of Lir, and The Fate of the Children of Turenn.

The children of Usnach dwelt with King Cormac in his great palace of Emania, where assembled warriors famed in annals of war, and poets who chanted their exploits, and musicians who accompanied the lays of the poets on the harp. "The king's room was in the front of the house, and was long enough for thirty warriors. It was ornamented with silver and bronze, and carbuncles and precious stones, so that day and night were equally light therein. A gong of silver hung behind the king, suspended from the roof-tree, and when he struck it with his silver wand with three silver apples, all the men of Ulster were silent."

Disaster fell upon the brave sons of Usnach—Naoisi, Ainle, and Ardan—through Deirdre, the daughter of the king's tale-teller. Very beautiful was Deirdre, but she was sad and lonely as a child, because she was not allowed to play with the ether children of the court, but must watch their games from afar. Dire misfortune was foretold when Deirdre was born, and it was useless to try to avert this prophecy. From her window she saw Naoisi, and straightway loved him for the beauty of his brown-black hair and his white skin, which resembled the driven snow. At night Naoisi visited Deirdre secretly, and, loving her in return, entreated her to fly with him to Alba that they might escape King Cormac's wrath. Accompanied by one hundred warriors, they left their own land and dwelt in a far country, till one day, as they played a game of chess, messengers came to bid the sons of Usnach return to Erin. Deirdre warned her husband in vain that the king meant treachery by his summons. They returned to Emania, and all the three sons of Usnach were slain together, and Deirdre, singing first a mournful lament over their dead bodies, threw herself into the same grave and died with her arms about Naoisi.

The children of Lir were the daughter and three sons of a famous king. When their own mother died, Eva, the second wife of Lir, used them very cruelly, and turned them into white swans; for she was an enchantress, and with her wand could work all evil to those she did not love. She decreed that the swans should never regain their mortal shape till they heard the sound of Christian bells in Ireland. At first the swans sailed on the waters of Lake Darvra, and by day they spoke with the men of Erin, and at night they chanted fairy music with such sweetness that any who listened forgot all pain and grief.

Then the swans were banished to the Sea of Moyle, which lies between Erin and distant Alba. Their hearts were wrung with anguish for the friends they saw no longer, and they suffered cruel hardships from cold and hunger, frost and storm. At last the tale of years had wellnigh run, and the four swans fled to the western sea and endured sore tribulation there, till a saint came to the island and his bells rang faintly the sound of their release. Youth never was restored to them, and all three bore the marks of more than mortal age when they entreated baptism and awaited the happier change of death.

The children of Turenn were three also—Brian, Ur, and Urcar, exceeding all the champions in Tara for comeliness of person, swiftness of foot, and feats of arms. One day these warriors slew King Kian, with whose race they were at feud, and were called to answer for their crime on the great hill, where their own king sat, and by him Luga, son of the murdered man. Their punishment was left to Luga, who claimed an "eric-fine." The sons of Turenn had to bring as gifts to him, first, three apples; second, the skin of a pig; third, a spear; fourth, two steeds and a chariot; fifth, seven pigs; sixth, a hound-whelp; seventh, a cooking-spit; eighth, three shouts on a hill.

The sons of Turenn would have set out joyfully on their quest, had not Luga stopped them to explain the nature of their gifts more fully. The three apples were the golden apples of the Garden of Hisberna (Hesperides) and were guarded by a dragon. The pig's skin belonged to Tuis, King of Greece, and was very jealously guarded because it had the magic power of healing sickness, like the apples. The spear was the property of Pezar, King of Persia, and held precious because the wielder might perform what deeds he chose in battle. The hound-whelp followed the King of Troda, and was such that even the wild beasts of the forest fell down before him. The cooking-spit was to be wrested from warlike women, dwelling on the island of Fincara, and each one of them a match for three warriors in single combat. The shouts must be raised on the Hill of Midkena, where the king watched with his sons to compel all men to silence.

The sons of Turenn had bold spirits that mocked at danger, and they conquered one foe after another, carrying off six parts of the "eric-fine." Then Luga chanced to hear whispers of their strange success, and cast a spell over them, so that they forgot the cooking-spit and the three shouts on Midkena's Hill.

They returned only to set out on the quest again, and when the full "eric-fine" was paid, Luga felt a thrill of satisfied vengeance to behold those spent and weary warriors laying the gifts before him. Yet he had intended death to all three, and he refused the gift of a golden apple, which Brian asked to cure his brothers wounds, knowing only happiness when the news was brought that Brian, Ur, and Urcar had lain down in despair to meet the fate of all men who dare face danger without fear of the deadly reckoning.