Queen Mab

From An Illustrated History of Ireland by Margaret Anne Cusack

« start... Chapter VI. ...continued

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Another Historic Tale gives an account of the destruction of the court of Dá Derga, but we have not space for details. The Four Masters merely relate the fact in the following entry:—

"Conairé, the son of Ederscél, after having been seventy years in the sovereignty of Erinn, was slain at Bruighean Dá Dhearga by insurgents." Another prince, Eochaidh Feidhlech, was famous for sighing. He rescinded the division of Ireland into twenty-five parts, which had been made by Ugainé Môr, and divided the island into five provinces, over each of which he appointed a provincial king, under his obedience.

The famous Meadhbh, or Mab, was his daughter; and though unquestionably a lady of rather strong physical and mental capabilities, the lapse of ages has thrown an obscuring halo of romance round her belligerent qualifications, and metamorphosed her into the gentle "Faery Queen" of the poet Spenser. One of Méav 's exploits is recorded in the famous Táin bó Chuailgné, which is to Celtic history what the Argonautic Expedition, or the Seven against Thebes, is to Grecian. Méav was married first to Conor, the celebrated provincial king of Ulster; but the marriage was not a happy one, and was dissolved, in modern parlance, on the ground of incompatibility. In the meanwhile, Méav 's three brothers had rebelled against their father; and though his arms were victorious, the victory did not secure peace.

The men of Connacht revolted against him, and to retain their allegiance he made his daughter Queen of Connacht, and gave her in marriage to Ailill, a powerful chief of that province. This prince, however, died soon after; and Méav , determined for once, at least, to choose a husband for herself, made a royal progress to Leinster, where Ross Ruadh held his court at Naas, She selected the younger son of this monarch, who bore the same name as her former husband, and they lived together happily as queen and king consort for many years.

On one occasion, however, a dispute arose about their respective treasures, and this dispute led to a comparison of their property. The account of this, and the subsequent comparison, is given at length in the Táin, and is a valuable repertory of archaeological information. They counted their vessels, metal and wooden; they counted their finger rings, their clasps, their thumb rings, their diadems, and their gorgets of gold. They examined their many-coloured garments of crimson and blue, of black and green, yellow and mottled, white and streaked. All were equal. They then inspected their flocks and herds, swine from the forests, sheep from the pasture lands, and cows—here the first difference arose. It was one to excite Méav 's haughty temper.

There was a young bull found among Ailill's bovine wealth: it had been calved by one of Méav 's cows; but "not deeming it honorable to be under a woman's control," it had attached itself to Ailill's herds.Flint spear head from the collection of the Royal Irish Academy Méav was not a lady who could remain quiet under such provocation. She summoned her chief courier, and asked him could he find a match for Finnbheannach (the white-horned). The courier declared that he could find even a superior animal; and at once set forth on his mission, suitably attended. Méav had offered the most liberal rewards for the prize she so much coveted; and the courier soon arranged with Daré a noble of large estates, who possessed one of the valuable breed. A drunken quarrel, however, disarranged his plans. One of the men boasted that if Daré had not given the bull for payment, he should have been compelled to give it by force. Daré's steward heard the ill-timed and uncourteous boast. He flung down the meat and drink which he had brought for their entertainment, and went to tell his master the contemptuous speech. The result may be anticipated. Daré refused the much-coveted animal, and Méav proceeded to make good her claim by force of arms. But this is only the prologue of the drama; the details would fill a volume. It must suffice to say, that the bulls had a battle of their own. Finnbheannach and Donn Chuailgné (the Leinster bull) engaged in deadly combat, which is described with the wildest flights of poetic diction.[5] The poor "white horn" was killed, and Donn Chuailgné, who had lashed himself to madness, dashed out his brains.[6]

Méav lived to the venerable age of a hundred. According to Tighernach, she died A.D. 70, but the chronology of the Four Masters places her demise a hundred years earlier. This difference of calculation also makes it questionable what monarch reigned in Ireland at the birth of Christ. The following passage is from the Book of Ballymote, and is supposed to be taken from the synchronisms of Flann of Monasterboice: "In the fourteenth year of the reign of Conaire and of Conchobar, Mary was born; and in the fourth year after the birth of Mary, the expedition of the Táin bó Chuailgné took place. Eight years after the expedition of the Tain, Christ was born."

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[5] Diction.—This tract contains a description of arms and ornaments which might well pass for a poetic flight of fancy, had we not articles of such exquisite workmanship in the Royal Irish Academy, which prove incontrovertibly the skill of the ancient artists of Erinn. This is the description of a champion's attire:—"A red and white cloak flutters about him; a golden brooch in that cloak, at his breast; a shirt of white, kingly linen, with gold embroidery at his skin; a white shield, with gold fastenings at his shoulder; a gold-hilted long sword at his left side; a long, sharp, dark green spear, together with a short, sharp spear, with a rich band and carved silver rivets in his hand."—O'Curry, p. 38. "We give an illustration on previous page of a flint weapon of a ruder kind.

[6] Brains.—My friend, Denis Florence MacCarthy, Esq., M.R.I.A., our poet par excellence, is occupied at this moment in versifying some portions of this romantic story. I believe he has some intention of publishing the work in America, as American publishers are urgent in their applications to him for a complete and uniform edition of his poems, including his exquisite translations from the dramatic and ballad literature of Spain. We hope Irish publishers and the Irish people will not disgrace their country by allowing such a work to be published abroad. We are too often and too justly accused of deficiency in cultivated taste, which unfortunately makes trashy poems, and verbose and weakly-written prose, more acceptable to the majority than works produced by highly-educated minds. Irishmen are by no means inferior to Englishmen in natural gifts, yet, in many instances, unquestionably they have not or do not cultivate the same taste for reading, and have not the same appreciation of works of a higher class than the lightest literature. Much of the fault, no doubt, lies in the present system of education: however, as some of the professors in our schools and colleges appear to be aware of the deficiency, we may hope for better things.



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