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Life on the Fringe - 12: Anguish and Heartbreak - Caer to Conchobar Mac Nessa in the Emerald Isle

Updated on May 12, 2019
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Alan's inquiring mind knows no bounds. Here he has unearthed more Gaelic legends for you from the Emerald Isle.

The tale of Caer, Gaelic version of Swan Lake

Oenghus saw Caer in a dream. He turned hhimself into a swan to join her and they flew off
Oenghus saw Caer in a dream. He turned hhimself into a swan to join her and they flew off | Source
Cahilleran Castle in Connacht (Connaught) dates back to Norman times, the overgrown keep lets it sit well against the scenery
Cahilleran Castle in Connacht (Connaught) dates back to Norman times, the overgrown keep lets it sit well against the scenery | Source

Caer, Cairbre and Calatin

CAER was the daughter of Ethal Anubal. Oenghus/Aenghus had a dream of a beautiful maiden and fell in love with her. He was set on finding her and asked for help from Bodb Dearg. Having had the maiden identified as Caer, Oenghus asked Medb of Connacht to talk on his behalf to her father Ethal for permission to wed his daughter.

Ethal told him that every other year Caer turned into a swan and sent him to a lake where she could be found with a hundred and fifty others on the Feast of Samhain. If Oenghus could pick out Caer from amongst the others, then he was welcome to marry her.

Able after only a short time to pick her out, Oenghus turned himself into a swan and flew off with her;

CAIRBRE was a name that was fairly common in Irish mythology. He waged war on the Fianna after he had refused to pay tribute and beat them at Gabhra. He slew Oscar in single combat but was himself mortally wounded in the fighting;

CALATIN and his twenty-seven sons were slain by Cuchulainn. His wife bore him six ogres and Medb cared for them whilst they learned their black art skills so they could help her defeat Cuchulainn.

They used their skills on Cuchulainn and marched with Erc against him in the fight that ended his life (see Cuculainn's tale in part 14)

A time of legend, a time of mists,a time without time...

The mists of time - forgotten gods, heroes and kings re-emerge amongst trees and marsh as if they had never left
The mists of time - forgotten gods, heroes and kings re-emerge amongst trees and marsh as if they had never left | Source
Celtic hunting horn, finely crafted with gold trim - a gift to a nobleman or king
Celtic hunting horn, finely crafted with gold trim - a gift to a nobleman or king | Source
Cathbad/Cathbhadh the druid at the court of Conchobar
Cathbad/Cathbhadh the druid at the court of Conchobar | Source

Cathbad the druid, Cesair and Finlan, Cet the warrior and Cian

CATHBAD or CATHBHADH, whose name has several spelling variations, was a druid at the court of Conchobar mac Nessa. He (Cathbad) is thought to have been father to Deichtire and therefore grandfather of Cuchulainn. Cathbad forecast Deichtire or Deirdre would be very beautiful, but that she would bring deep sorrow and havoc to Ireland;

CESAIR was a grand-daughter of Noah, daughter of Bith, who led the many incursions into Ireland before the Flood - a half hundred women and three men, Bith, Ladra and Fintan. Cesair would eventually be Fintan's wife and her travels would feature in the 'Leabhar Gabhala Eireann;

CET was a warrior of Connacht who was asked with his brother Anluan by Medb to join in the quest for the Donn Cuailgne. They were also asked to join in a feast before the quest, where Cet claimed the right to carve the roast meat. Conall Cernach arrived, however, and also claimed the privilege. Cet agreed, but taunted Conall that if his brother Anluan had been there, Conall would have had to yield the honour to him. It was then that Conall drew the head of Anluan from a pouch, threw it onto the table before them and showed he had already beaten Anluan.

Cet stole a 'brain-ball' from Conchobar's court at Emhain Macha, using it later in a slingshot to strike Conchobar's forehead;

CIAN, son of Dian Cecht - god of medicine and healing - had a cow that was stolen by Balor. He went to Tory Isle to get it back. Whilst there he gained access to the Glass Tower in which Balor kept his daughter Ethlinn lest any man seduce her and fulfil a prophecy that his grandson would kill him. Lugh, who was Cian's son by Ethlinn did finally slay Balor


The theme of death and re-emergence is always present in Celtic mythology

Symbols and myths - featured on postage stamp issued by the Republic of Ireland post office
Symbols and myths - featured on postage stamp issued by the Republic of Ireland post office | Source
Display of skulls showing the cult of head collection still rife in the early days of the Gaels
Display of skulls showing the cult of head collection still rife in the early days of the Gaels | Source
A reminder of the continuous inter-clan struggle that mirrored their gods' eternal warring
A reminder of the continuous inter-clan struggle that mirrored their gods' eternal warring | Source
See description below
See description below | Source

Another branch of the Celtic tree. In the 5th Century, the Gaels began to migrate across the narrows between Ireland and Scotland as we know them now. They took with them their traditions. Marie-Louise Sjoestedt investigates. (The Picts who were already there had their own traditions that were more like those of the Welsh to the south west, linked through the southern territory of the Kingdom of the Strathclyde Britons, now Cumbria in England, similar to Cymru - pron. 'Cumra').


Cobthach Coel, Conaire Mor, Conall CernachLa

COBTHACH COEL drove Labhraidh Loingsech into exile and caused him to lose his voice;

CONAIRE MOR was the son of Eochaidh Airemh and his own daughter. Divers bonds or geis were put on him at birth but he ignored them, in particular warnings not to visit Da Derga's hostel where he met his death;

CONALL CERNACH or CEARNACH is a name borne by several noteworthies that have been. confused with one another. Of them Conall Cernach, or Conall of the Victories, is the best known. One of the three warriors who competed for the honour of carving the roast at Bricriu's feast. He was also the one who slew Mesgedra, king of Leinster, and made a -brainball of the king's brains mixed with lime that he gave Conchobar - a treasured keepsake stolen soon after by Cet, who made a slingshot of it that struck Conchobar's forehead. Some sources put this down to Conall Cernach.

THe wound was not the obvious cause of Conchobar's eventual demise, but may well have led to it.

Conall Cernach has been confused with Connlai, also known here and there as Conall, child of Cuchulainn by Aoife (2). When Connlai set foot on Irish soil he was called out to a fight by Conall Cernach, who defeated and slew him.

Conchobar mac Nessa

Conchobar mac Nessa, in his prime a great warrior but latterly set on flab at the time he meant to wed Deirdre
Conchobar mac Nessa, in his prime a great warrior but latterly set on flab at the time he meant to wed Deirdre | Source

CONCHOBAR MAC NESSA was the son of Nessa, wife of the giant Fachtna.

Yet according to another myth Fachtna may not have been Conchobar's father. He may have been the son of the druid Cathbad.

Conchobar was made king of Ulster when Nessa agred to marry Fergus mac Roth - or have a fling with him - on condition he agreed to her son becoming king for a year in his stead. At the end of the year Conchobar refused to yield the throne, forcing Fergus into exile. Conchobar had a band of warriors known as the Red Branch at his court of Emhain Macha.

Another legend about Conchobar concerns Deirdre, daughter of his Fili.(a bard or poet). It was foretold that she would be the most beautiful woman in Ireland, but that she would also bring sorrow and hardship to the land. Hearing these prophesies, many wanted Ireland to be spared of these disasters and pressed for Deirdre to be slain at birth. Despite that, Conchobar was drawn by what was said about her great beauty and had her spared, saying he would one day marry her.

By the time she grew to maturity Conchobar was elderly and she hated the thought of being wedded to him. She fell instead for Naoise and talked him into leaving with her to Alba (Scotland). Conchobar was angered by their flight, yet after a few years he made out he had forgiven them and offered an amnesty on their return to Ireland. He sent Fergus mac Roth and a few companions to ask for their return and swore to their safe conduct.

Conchobar however went back on his word and had Naoise and his brother killed. Fergus was livid with Conchobar for breaking his word, attacked Conchobar's household - killing many fellow Ulstermen - and went over to Conchobar's sworn enemy, Medb of Connacht. Deirdre meanwhile threw herself from a travelling chariot, hit a rock and split her skull.

Another myth about Conchobar tells about his death. Conall Cernach slew Mesgedra, king of Leinster, and had the brain removed, mashed and mixed with lime - a deadly missile if thrown at anyone. Conchobar saw it as a treasure or keepsake but it was stolen from him by Cet. It was either Cet or Conall Cernach who used it in battle as slingshot and hit Conchobar on his forehead. His physician told him that to remove the ball could kill him, but that if he stayed calm he would be well. With his temper, however, Conchobar soon became angry and the brainball split within his skull and he died.

Next - 13: Connacht, Connlai, Cormac mac Airt, Craftiny and Da Derga's Hostel

Gaels, Picts, Britons on the fringes of Britain

The ethnic make-up of mediaeval Scotland looked like this (with a sprinkling of anglo-Norman and anglo- Flemish (Wallace's claim to fame stems from the Normans being invited into Scotland at the time of King David I (before they 'invited' themselves)
The ethnic make-up of mediaeval Scotland looked like this (with a sprinkling of anglo-Norman and anglo- Flemish (Wallace's claim to fame stems from the Normans being invited into Scotland at the time of King David I (before they 'invited' themselves)

© 2013 Alan R Lancaster

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