STORY OF IRELAND

By A. M. Sullivan

CHAPTER V.

From the Atlas and Cyclopedia of Ireland (1900)

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THE DEATH OF KING CONOR MAC NESSA.

I HAVE alluded to doubts suggested in my mind by the facts of authentic history, as to. whether King Conor Mac Nessa was likely to have played the foul part attributed to him in this celebrated bardic story, and for which, certainly, the "sureties" Fergus, Duthach, and Cormac, held him to a terrible account. All that can be said is, that no other incident recorded of him would warrant such an estimate of his character; and it is certain he was a man of many brave and noble parts. He met his death under truly singular circumstances. The ancient bardic version of the event is almost literally given in the following poem, by Mr. T. D. Sullivan:

DEATH OF KING CONOR MAC NESSA.

I.

'Twas a day full of sorrow for Ulster when Conor Mac Nessa went forth
To punish the clansmen of Connaught who dared to take spoil from the North;
For his men brought him back from the battle scarce better than one that was dead,
With the brain-ball of Mesgedra [1] buried two-thirds of its depth in his head.
His royal physician bent o'er him, great Fingen, who often before
Stanched the war-battered bodies of heroes, and built them for battle once more,
And he looked on the wound of the monarch, and heark'd to his low breathed sighs,
And he said, "In the day when that missile is loosed from his forehead, he dies.

II.

"Yet long midst the people who love him King Conor Mac Nessa may reign,
If always the high pulse of passion be kept from his heart and his brain;
And for this I lay down his restrictions:—no more from this day shall his place
Be with armies, in battles, or hostings, or leading the van of the chase;
At night when the banquet is flashing, his measure of wine must be small,
And take heed that the bright eyes of woman be kept from his sight above all;
For if heart-thrilling joyance or anger awhile o'er his being have power,
The ball will start forth from his forehead, and surely he dies in that hour."

III.

Oh! woe for the valiant King Conor, struck down from the summit of life,
While glory unclouded shone round him, and regal enjoyment was rife—
Shut out from his toils and his duties, condemned to ignoble repose,
No longer to friends a true helper, no longer a scourge to his foes!
He, the strong-handed smiter of champions, the piercer of armor and shields,
The foremost in earth-shaking onsets, the last out of blood-sodden fields—
The mildest, the kindest, the gayest, when revels ran high in his hall—
Oh, well might his true-hearted people feel gloomy and sad for his fall!

IV.

The princes, the chieftains, the nobles, who met, to consult at his board,
Whispered low when their talk was of combats, and wielding the spear and the sword:
The bards from their harps feared to waken the full-pealing sweetness of song,
To give homage to valor or beauty, or praise to the wise and the strong;
The flash of no joy-giving story made cheers or gay laughter resound,
Amid silence constrained and unwonted the seldom-filled wine-cup went round;
And, sadder to all who remembered the glories and joys that had been,
The heart-swaying presence of woman not once shed its light on the scene.

V.

He knew it, he felt it, and sorrow sunk daily more deep in his heart;
He wearied of doleful inaction, from all his loved labors apart.
He sat at his door in the sunlight, sore grieving and weeping to see
The life and the motion around him, and nothing so stricken as he.
Above him the eagle went wheeling, before him the deer galloped by,
And the quick-legged rabbits went skipping from green glades and burrows a-nigh,
The song-birds sang out from the copses, the bees passed on musical wing,
And all things were happy and busy, save Conor Mac Nessa the king!

VI.

So years had passed over, when, sitting mid silence like that of the tomb,
A terror crept through him as sudden the noon-light was blackened with gloom.
One red flare of lighting blazed brightly, illuming the landscape around,
One thunder-peal roared through the mountains, and rumbled and crashed under ground;
He heard the rocks bursting asunder, the trees tearing up by the roots,
And loud through the horrid confusion the howling of terrified brutes.
From the halls of his tottering palace came screamings of terror and pain,
And he saw crowding thickly around him the ghosts of the foes he had slain!

VII.

And as soon as the sudden commotion that shuddered through nature had ceased,
The king sent for Barach, his Druid, and said: "Tell me truly, O priest,
What magical arts have created this scene of wild horror and dread?
What has blotted the blue sky above us, and shaken the earth that we tread?
Are the gods that we worship offended? what crime or what wrong has been done?
Has the fault been committed in Erin, and how may their favor be won?
What rites may avail to appease them? what gifts on their altars should smoke?
Only say, and the offering demanded we lay by your consecrate oak."

VIII.

"O king," said the white-bearded Druid, "the truth unto me has been shown,
There lives but one God, the Eternal; far up in high Heaven is His throne.
He looked upon men with compassion, and sent from His kingdom of light
His Son, in the shape of a mortal, to teach them and guide them aright.
Near the time of your birth, O King Conor, the Savior of mankind was born,
And since then in the kingdoms far eastward He taught, toiled, and prayed, till this morn,
When wicked men seized Him, fast bound Him with nails to a cross, lanced His side,
And that moment of gloom and confusion was earth's cry of dread when He died.

IX.

"O king, He was gracious and gentle, His heart was all pity and love,
And for men He was ever beseeching the grace of His Father above;
He helped them, He healed them, He blessed them, He labored that all might attain
To the true God's high kingdom of glory, where never comes sorrow or pain;
But they rose in their pride and their folly, their hearts filled with merciless rage,
That only the sight of His life-blood fast poured from His heart could assuage:
Yet while on the cross-beams uplifted, His body racked, tortured, and riven,
He prayed—not for justice or vengeance, but asked that His foes be forgiven."

X.

With a bound from his seat rose King Conor, the red flush of rage on his face,
Fast he ran through the hall for his weapons, and snatching his sword from its place,
He rushed to the woods, striking wildly at boughs that dropped down with each blow,
And he cried: "Were I midst the vile rabble, I'd cleave them to earth even so!
With the strokes of a high king of Erinn, the whirls of my keen-tempered sword,
I would save from their horrible fury that mild and that merciful Lord."
His frame shook and heaved with emotion; the brain-ball leaped forth from his head,
And commending his soul to that Savior, King Conor Mac Nessa fell dead.

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NOTES

[1] The pagan Irish warriors sometimes took the brains out of champions whom they had slain in single combat, mixed them up with lime, and rolled them into balls, which hardened with time, and which they preserved as trophies. It was with one of these balls, which had been abstracted from his armory, that Conor Mac Nessa was wounded, as described in the text.


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