Satire of Cairbre

From An Illustrated History of Ireland by Margaret Anne Cusack

« start... Chapter III. ...continued

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The Firbolg king, however, objected to this arrangement; and it was decided, in a council of war, to give battle to the invaders. The Tuatha De Dananns were prepared for this from the account which Breas gave of the Firbolg warriors: they, therefore, abandoned their camp, and took up a strong position on Mount Belgadan, at the west end of Magh Nia, a site near the present village of Cong, co. Mayo.

The Firbolgs marched from Tara to meet them; but Nuada, anxious for pacific arrangements, opened new negociations with King Eochaidh through the medium of his bards. The battle which has been mentioned before then followed. The warrior Breas, who ruled during the disability of Nuada, was by no means popular. He was not hospitable, a sine qua non for king or chief from the earliest ages of Celtic being; he did not love the bards, for the same race ever cherished and honoured learning; and he attempted to enslave the nobles. Discontent came to a climax when the bard Cairbré, son of the poetess Etan, visited the royal court, and was sent to a dark chamber, without fire or bed, and, for all royal fare, served with three small cakes of bread. If we wish to know the true history of a people, to understand the causes of its sorrows and its joys, to estimate its worth, and to know how to rule it wisely and well, let us read such old-world tales carefully, and ponder them well. Even if prejudice or ignorance should induce us to undervalue their worth as authentic records of its ancient history, let us remember the undeniable fact, that they are authentic records of its deepest national feelings, and let them, at least, have their weight as such in our schemes of social economy, for the present and the future.

The poet left the court next morning, but not until he pronounced a bitter and withering satire on the king—the first satire that had ever been pronounced in Erinn. It was enough. Strange effects are attributed to the satire of a poet in those olden times; but probably they could, in all cases, bear the simple and obvious interpretation, that he on whom the satire was pronounced was thereby disgraced eternally before his people. For how slight a punishment would bodily suffering or deformity be, in comparison to the mental suffering of which a quick-souled people are eminently capable!

Breas was called on to resign. He did so with the worst possible grace, as might be expected from such a character. His father, Elatha, was a Fomorian sea-king or pirate, and he repaired to his court. His reception was not such as he had expected; he therefore went to Balor of the Evil Eye,[3] a Fomorian chief. The two warriors collected a vast army and navy, and formed a bridge of ships and boats from the Hebrides to the north-west coast of Erinn. Having landed their forces, they marched to a plain in the barony of Tirerrill (co. Sligo), where they waited an attack or surrender of the Tuatha De Danann army. But the magical skill, or, more correctly, the superior abilities of this people, proved them more than equal to the occasion. The chronicler gives a quaint and most interesting account of the Tuatha De Danann arrangements. Probably the Crimean campaign, despite our nineteenth century advancements in the art of war, was not prepared for more carefully, or carried out more efficiently.

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[3] Eye.—There is a curious note by Dr. O'Donovan (Annals, p. 18) about this Balor. The tradition of his deeds and enchantments is still preserved in Tory Island, one of the many evidences of the value of tradition, and of the many proofs that it usually overlies a strata of facts.


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