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The Death-Tales of the Ulster Heroes (Author: unknown)



It is a remarkable accident that, except in one instance, so very few copies of the death-tales of the chief warriors attached to King Conchobar's court at Emain Macha should have come down to us. Indeed, if it were not for one comparatively late manuscript now preserved outside Ireland, in the Advocates' Library, Edinburgh, we should have to rely for our knowledge of most of these stories almost entirely on Keating's History of Ireland. Under these circumstances it has seemed to me that I could hardly render a better service to Irish studies than to preserve these stories, by transcribing and publishing them, from the accidents and the natural decay to which they are exposed as long as they exist in a single manuscript copy only.

In the well-known list of Irish tales preserved in the Book of Leinster and elsewhere, under the title oitte, i.e. ‘tragical or violent deaths’, eight death-stories of Ulster heroes are enumerated as follows: the deaths of Cúchulinn, of Conall (i.e. Conall Cernach), of Celtchar, of Blái the Hospitaller, of Lóegaire, of Fergus (mac Róich), of King Conchobar himself, and of Fiamain.

The Death of Cúchulinn forms an episode in the story called Brislech Mór Maige Murthemne; and extracts from the version in the Book of Leinster have been edited and translated by Whitley Stokes, in the Revue Celtique, vol. III., p. 175 ff. It is curious that, apart from this twelfth-century version, we have no copies older than the eighteenth century. These modern copies are enumerated by Prof. D'Arbois de Jubainville in his Catalogue de la Littérature Épique de l'Irlande, p. 15. The Death of Conall Cernach is told in a tale, the full title

of which is The Cherishing of Conall Cernach in Cruachan, and the Death of Ailill and of Conall Cernach. It has been edited and translated by me, from the only two existing manuscripts, in the first volume of the Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie, p. 102 ff.

The Death of Celtchar son of Uthechar is found in a very fragmentary and illegible condition in the Book of Leinster, p. 118b. Fortunately there exists a second complete copy in the Edinburgh MS. xl, pp. 9–11.1 It has not hitherto been edited or translated.

The Death of Blái the Hospitaller has been preserved only in the Edinburgh MS., where it occupies pp. 11–13. It is here for the first time edited and translated.

Of the Death of Lóegaire Búadach we have only one ancient copy, again in the Edinburgh MS., pp. 8–9, hitherto unpublished. There is a shorter and later version, which is practically that of Keating's History, contained in two eighteenth-century mss. in the Royal Irish Academy, numbered 23. B. 21, p. 176, and 23. G. 21, p. 142, respectively. Copies of these I owe to the kindness of Mr. R. Irvine Best.

The Death of Fergus mac Róich is also preserved in a single copy only, again to be found in the Edinburgh MS., p. 5. Our only source hitherto has been Keating's version.

The only tale among those enumerated above which has reached us in fairly numerous copies is that of the Death of Conchobar. Prof. D'Arbois de Jubainville, l.c., p. 13, enumerates four manuscripts2 in addition to Keating's account, which is also that of 23. G. 21, and 23. B. 21. To these a fifth must be added, the version in the Edinburgh MS. XL, pp. 1–3, which is unfortunately illegible at the beginning.3 Mr. Edward Gwynn has


kindly supplied me with a transcript of the version contained in the Liber Flavus Fergusiorum; and Mr. R. I. Best has copied, and placed at my disposal, the version in 23. N. 10, a MS. in the library of the Royal Irish Academy. The tale last mentioned in the list, that of the Death of Fiamain, seems now lost. At least, so far as I know, no copy of it has yet been discovered; nor does Keating give any account of it. Fiamain mac Forrói is mentioned in Tochmarc Emire as one of those Irish youths who were learning feats of arms with Scáthach in Britain when Cúchulinn came there for the same purpose (see Zeitschr. III., p. 250, paragraph 67); and in the poem at the end of that tale (ib., p. 262, l. 8) a Fiamain is enumerated among the young warriors in the Cráeb Rúad at Emain Macha. But whether this was Fiamain mac Forrói or some other Fiamain is doubtful. The only other references to the former that I can find are–first, one in Cináed húa Hartacáin's poem on the deaths of some of the nobles of Erin, which has been edited and translated by Whitley Stokes in Revue Celtique, vol. xxiii., p. 303 ff. Here he is said to have been slain at Dún mBinne,4 a fort that has not been identified. A battle of Duma Beinne is mentioned in Cath Maige Rath, p. 211. The other reference to Fiamain mac Forrói occurs in a poem in that tale, p. 213: ‘Seven battles around Cathir Conrói, the wrecking of Fiamain mac Forói, the wrecking of Cúrói, together with the seventeen sons of Deda.’

In addition to these Ulster death-tales, the Edinburgh manuscript contains an account of the death of the redoubtable Connaught warrior Cet mac Magach. Of this story, as it has not hitherto been published, I add an edition and translation.

K. M.