The Conception Of Cú Chulainn
There follows the Conception of Cú Chulainn from the
Book of Druimm Snechta.
Conchobor and the nobles of Ulster were at Emain Macha. A flock of birds arrived
on the plain before Emain, and ate, leaving not so much as a root or a leaf
or a blade of grass in the ground. It was upsetting for the Ulstermen to see
their land so despoiled. That day they made ready nine chariots to chase them
away, for hunting birds was a custom of theirs.
There was Conchobor in his chariot, his full-grown daughter Deichtine beside
him, for she was her father's charioteer. Then the champions of Ulster in their
chariots, Conall Cernach and Lóegaire Buadach and everyone else. Even
Bricriu was with them.
The birds went before them effortlessly, past Slíab Fúait, past
Edmond, past Brega. There was neither earthwork nor fence nor stone wall in
the country of Ireland at that time, only level plains (it wasn't until the
times of the sons of Áed Slane that they created boundaries in Ireland,
so great were the number of dwellings).
The flight of the birds, and their song, captivated the Ulstermen with their
beauty. There were nine score birds in all, with a silver chain between each
pair of birds, and each score flew its own way. And two birds flew out in front,
a silver yoke between them.
As evening drew on, three birds split off from the rest and flew on ahead towards
the Brug na Bóinde. Night fell upon the Ulstermen, and there was a great
fall of snow. Conchobor told his retinue to unyoke the chariots and to have
a look for some shelter for them.
Conall and Bricriu went to have a look. They found a single, newly-built house.
They went in, and found a couple there, who made them welcome. Then they returned
to the retinue. Bricriu said it wasn't fit for them to stay in a house that
couldn't offer them food or clothing, and which was on the small side, but they
went all the same, taking their chariots with them.
They barely fit into that house. Immediately they saw a door to a storehouse.
When it was time to serve food, the Ulstermen were soon merry with drink and
in good humour.
Then the man of the house told them his wife was in labour in the storehouse.
Deichtine went in and gave her assistance, and she bore a son. At the same time,
a mare gave birth to two colts in the doorway of the house. The Ulstermen took
the boy, and they gave him the colts as a gift. Deichtine nursed him.
When morning came, the Ulstermen found themselves to the east of the Brug, and
neither the house nor the birds could be seen, only their own horses, and the
boy and his colts. They took them to Emain with them, and the boy was raised
to early childhood among them. Then he took sick, and died of it. He was mourned.
Deichtine was devastated at the loss of her foster-child. Her sighing made her
thirsty. She asked for a drink from a copper vessel, and one was brought to
her. When she brought it to her lips, a tiny creature leaped from the liquid
into her mouth. When she put it down, empty, she felt drained. As she slept
that night, she saw a man who spoke to her. He told her she would bear his child.
It was he who had brought her and her companions to the Brug na Bóinde,
and it was in his house they'd spent the night. The child she had nursed was
his, as was the one he had put into her belly. His name was to be Sétanta,
and the colts were to be reared for him. The man was Lug mac Ethnenn himself.
And so the girl was pregant, and this was a matter of concern among the Ulstermen,
because she didn't have a husband. They attributed the child to a drunken Conchobor,
for the girl used to sleep next to him.
After that, Conchobor betrothed the girl to Súaltaim mac Róich.
She was very ashamed to go to her husband's bed pregnant by another, so she
went to the bedstead and stabbed and beat her belly this way and that, until
she was virgin-whole. Then she slept with her husband, and immediately became
pregnant again. She bore him a son.
Culann the smith took him as his foster-son. When he was a lad, he killed Culann's
dog, which came from the síd, when he was playing, and because of that
he said, 'I'll be your dog, master.' And that's how the name Cú Chulainn
- Culann's Hound - became attached to him.
Once, Deichtine, sister of king Conchobor of Ulster, vanished
along with fifty of her maidens, and neither Conchobor nor the Ulstermen knew
where she had gone. They searched for three years, but no trace of them could
Then Deichtine and her serving maidens came to the plain of Emain Macha in the
form of a flock of birds, and destroyed all the vegetation, leaving nothing
so much as a root or a blade of grass there. This distressed the Ulstermen greatly.
The harnessed nine chariots to drive the birds away, for hunting birds was a
custom of theirs. Among the hunting party were Conchobor, Fergus mac Róich,
Amergin, Blai Briuga, and Bricriu.
The birds went before them, southwards across Sliab Fuait, over the Ford of
Lethan and the Ford of Garach, and over the Plain of Gossa between the men of
Ross and the men of Arda. But night fell, and they lost sight of the birds,
so they unharnessed their chariots and Fergus went to look for shelter.
He came upon a small, newly-built house. Inside there lived a couple who made
him welcome and offered him food, but he wouldn't accept because his companions
were still outside with no shelter.
'Then bring all your companions, and there will be welcome for all of them,'
said the couple. So Fergus went out to his companions and brought them all,
men and horses, to the house. When he returned the house was large and magnificent,
and everybody went in.
Bricriu went outside, and heard the music of Cnú Deireóil. He
didn't know what this wistful, magical music was, but he followed it until he
came to a great, adorned house. He went to the door and looked inside. There
was the master of the house.
'Come on in, Bricriu,' he said. 'Why are you standing outside?'
'You are very welcome,' said the woman standing next to him.
Bricriu looked at this noble, handsome warrior, and said, 'why does the woman
'It is because of her that you are welcome,' said the man. 'Tell me, is anyone
missing from Emain?'
'There is indeed,' replied Bricriu. 'Fifty maidens have been missing for three
'Would you recognise them if you saw them?' asked the man.
'I might not,' said Bricriu. 'The passing of three years may make my memory
'Still, try to recognise them,' said the man. 'The fifty maidens you're looking
for are here in my house, and the chief of them is the woman by my side. She
is Deichtine, and it was she and her maidens who came to Emain as a flock of
birds in order to draw the Ulstermen here.'
The woman gave Bricriu a purple cloak with a border, and he went back to his
companions. On his way, he thought to himself: 'It would flatter Conchobor if
he were the one to find these fifty maidens. So I won't tell him I've found
his sister and his servants - I'll just say I've found a magnificent house,
with a radiant, noble queen and a company of lovely women inside.'
When Bricriu returned, Conchobor asked him the news.
'What's it to you?' said Bricriu. 'I found a magnificent house, and inside I
saw a radiant, noble queen, dear and lovable, a company of fair, pure women,
and a generous, glitering household.'
'Off you go to that house,' said Conchobor. 'The master of the house is a subject
of mine, for he lives in my territory. Let his wife sleep with me tonight.'
Fergus was the only one who would deliver this message, and he was welcomed,
and the woman came with him. But she was heavily pregnant, and her contractions
were starting, so Fergus asked Conchobor to give her respite, and he agreed.
The company all lay down and slept, and when they woke they found a baby boy
in the folds of Conchobor's cloak.
'Take the child and nurse him,' said Conchobor to his sister Finnchoem. Finnchoem
took one look at the child, and said, 'My heart loves this boy as if he were
my own son, Conall.'
'That's not surprising,' said Bricriu, 'for that child is the son of your own
sister Deichtine. She is the one who has been missing from Emain with her fifty
maidens, and this is her here.' The mysterious stranger who was with Deichtire
was Lug Longhand of the Tuatha Dé Danann. The child was named Sétanta
until he killed the hound of Culann the smith, after which he was known as Cú
Chulainn - Culann's Hound.
The men of Ulster began to argue over which of them should foster the boy. They
asked Conchobor to make a decision. He suggested his sister Finnchoem should
bring him up. But Sencha protested: 'I, not Finnchoem, should bring him up.
I am strong and skilful; noble and nimble in combat; wise, learned and prudent.
I have precedence over all others in speaking to the king; I advise him before
he speaks. I judge all disputes that come before him with absolute even-handedness.
No-one but Conchobor himself would make a better foster-father than me.'
'No,' said Blai Briuga. 'Let me foster him. He'll come to no harm or neglect
with me. My household can feed all of the men of Ireland for a week or ten days,
and I deal with them all fairly in disputes. But let my just claim be settled
as Conchobor desires.'
'Have you no respect?' said Fergus. 'His wellbeing is my concern. I will foster
him. No-one can match me in rank or riches, nor in courage or skill in arms.
My honour makes me the ideal foster-father. I am the scourge of the strong,
and the defender of the weak.'
Amergin said, 'Listen to me, and don't turn away. I am worthy to bring up a
king! I am renowned for my deeds, my wisdom and my wealth, for my eloquence
and open-mindedness, and for the courage and status of my family. If I weren't
already a prince, my poetry would entitle me to royal status. I can kill any
chariot-chief. I look up to no-one but the king himself, and owe my allegiance
to none but him.'
'There's no point arguing,' said Conchobor. 'Finnchoem will look after the boy
until we reach Emain Macha, and then Morann the judge will decide.' When they
returned, Morann delivered his judgement.
'He should be given to Conchobor, because he is related to Finnchoem. Sencha
shall teach him eloquence and oratory; Blai Briuga shall provide for him; Fergus
shall take him on his knee; Amergin shall be his teacher; Conall Cernach shall
be his foster-brother; and Finnchoem shall nurse him. In this way everyone will
have a hand in forming him - chariot-chief, prince and sage. This boy will be
cherished by many. He will settle your trials of honour and win your battles
And so he was given to Amergin and Finnchoem, and brought up at Dún Imrith
on Muirthemne Plain.
The first version of this story is found in Lebor na hUidre
(the Book of the Dun Cow, c.1106) and a number of other manuscripts, where it
is claimed to have been copied from the lost Book of Druimm Snechta, believed
to date from the early eighth century. The version given here is translated
by Patrick Brown (http://www.ireland-now.com/ulstercycle/index.html), from the
text edited by A G Van Hamel, and the text of Lebor na hUidre edited by R I
Best and Osborn Bergin.
The later version comes from Egerton 1782 (c. 1517), and the
text is fifteenth century. It's a paraphrase from two incomplete, overlapping