The Bath of the White Cows

Patrick Kennedy
1891 (2nd Edition)

Mrs. K———, of Cromogue, in the "Duffrey," is the only authority we have for the veracity of the following very ancient tradition. A version of it is to be found in Keating; but we have several reasons for believing that she and her authorities had got their legend through an oral channel. It is out of our power to settle the question of the navigability of the Slaney to Enniscorthy at the date of the story. The corrachs, as may be supposed, drew but few feet of water. Another admirer of past things, who only remembered a small portion of the story, placed this fortress some miles lower.


A great many years ago, when this county was so thick with woods that a very light person might walk on the tops of trees from Kilmeashal to the Lady's Island, a little king, or a great chief, had a fortification on the hill side, from the Duffrey gate in Enniscorthy, down to near the old abbey—but I don't know if there were any abbeys at the time.

This chief had three beautiful daughters, and all were married, and themselves and their husbands lived inside of the fort; for the young families in old times were not fond of removing far away from the old stock. One fine morning in harvest, the watchman on the big ditch that ran round the fort struck his shield, for down below was the river covered with corrachs, all full of foreigners, and all with spears, swords, shields, and helmets, ready to spring out and attack the dun.

But my brave chief, and his son, and his sons-in-law had no notion of waiting an attack within their ditches and palisades. Out themselves and their kith, kin, and following, rushed, and attacked the Welshmen, or Woodmen, as they were called; and a bloody fight went on till the sun was near going behind the White Mountain, At last the captain of the strangers blew a great blast on his bugle-horn, and asked the Irish chief to lay aside the fight till next morning. He consented, and both sides separated, one party moving up to the great rath, and the other down to the boats that brought them up from the Bay of Wexford, that was called Loch Garman in old times. Well, just as they separated, a flight of arrows came from the hill on the far bank, and struck several of the Wexford men. No matter how small a scratch was made, the flesh around it began to itch, and smart, and turn purple, and burn, till the man dropped, crying out for water, and twisting himself in the greatest agony. Those that were untouched hung their shields behind their backs, and carried all that were not yet dead inside the gates.

The three sons-in-law were dead before they could cross the drawbridges, and in the chief's family there was nothing but lamentation. One of the married daughters fell on the dead body of her husband in a faint, after striving to pull out an arrow-head that had pierced into his side. But the beard of the arrow scratched her nice white wrist, and she was soon roused from her faint with the purple spreading round the mark, and the pain going to her very heart.

Well, they were bad enough before, but now they didn't know which way to turn; the poor father and the mother and brothers and sisters looking on, and no one able to do a single thing. While they were expecting every moment to be her last, three strangers walked in—an old and a young warrior, and a Druid. The young man came at once to the side of the dying princess, took hold of her arm, and fastened his lips to the wound. The Druid cried out to bring a large vessel, and fill it with the milk of a white cow and water from the Slaney; and to get all the milk from all the white cows they could lay hands on, fill vessels with it and Slaney water, and dip every wounded man that still had a breath of life in him. The young man sucked away until the bath was ready, and she was hardly lain in it till the pain left her, and in half an hour she was out of danger. All the still living men recovered just the same; and after a great deal of bustle and trouble, things got a little quieter, and it's a wonder if they weren't grateful to the strangers.

Just as the armies were parting in the evening, these men crossed the river about where the island is now. They left a hundred men at the other side; and when they all sat down in the rath to their supper, you may be sure there was cead mile failthe for these three.

The chief and his people were eager enough to know something about their welcome visitors, but were too well bred to ask any questions till supper was over. Then the old man began without asking, and told all that were within hearing that himself and his son, and all their people, were descendants of a tribe that was once driven out of Ireland by enchanters and pirates, and sailed away to Greece, where their own ancestors once ruled. They were badly treated by their relations, and made to carry clay in leather bags to the tops of hills. "And even my own daughter," said he, "was carried away from her home by the wicked young prince while I was away fighting for his father. My son, at the head of some of our people, overtook and killed him; and when word was brought to me I quitted the army at once. We seized some ships and sailed away, searching for the old island where our forefathers once dwelt. My daughter fell sick on the voyage; but our wise Druid foretold that a draught of water from the Slaney would bring her to health, and that on our reaching its banks we should save hundreds of lives."

Well, there was not much sleep in the rath that night. The friendly strangers on the other bank where the chief's sick daughter still stayed were provided with everything they wanted. Other things were looked to, and a little after sunrise the men of the rath were pouring out of their gates, and the men of the woods landing from their corrachs, and forming their battle ranks. Before they met, a shower of darts flew from the woody hill down on the Irish, but pits were ready, lined with yellow clay, and filled with milk and Slaney water, and the moment a man found himself struck he made to the bath. The ranks were on the point of engaging, when a great shout was heard from the hill, and the Woodmen were seen running down to the bank, pursued by the strange young chief and his men, that were slaughtering them like sheep. They were nearly all killed before they could get to the boats; and into these boats leaped the friendly strangers, and rowed across. So between themselves and the men of the fort rushing down hill, the Woodmen were killed to a man. No quarter was given to the people that were so wicked as to use poisoned arms, and no caoine was made, and no cairn piled over them, and no inscription cut on an upright stone to tell their names or how they perished. Their bodies were burned, and the ashes flung into the river; and the next night, though there was some lamentation in the fort, there was much rejoicing along with it.

The Druid did not allow his people to remain long there; he said that Scotland was to be their resting-place. Some of them stayed all this time in a little harbour near the place now called River Chapel, and there they set sail again. But the young chief and two friends would not leave without the three widowed princesses, and the only return he made was to leave his sick sister, that was now as well as ever she was, with the son of the chief of Enniscorthy. The lady whose life he saved was not hard to be persuaded to marry him after he risked his life for her, and her sisters did not like to let her go alone among strange people. Maybe that's the reason that the Irish and the Highlanders like one another still, and can understand one another when they meet and begin a conversation.

End of this Story