The King of Ireland's Death-Place

Ethna Carbery
Chapter VI

THE hearth fires were blazing high in the hall of King Mongan, of Rathmore. The flickering torches cast a fitful glare over the listening faces of many warriors who leaned breathlessly forward to catch even the least word that fell from the lips of Dallan Forgiall, the far-famed poet and satirist, and writer of the wonderful elegy on Saint Columcille. He sat on the left hand of the King; the Queen's chair stood to the right, and against its tall carven back Breothigern rested her golden head. Her beautiful eyes were fixed upon the face of the blind poet in never-ceasing wonder at the marvellous tales he unfolded night after night—from Bealtaine to Samhain—for the pleasure of the King.

"There were three kings reigning together in Eirinn for the space of one year—the three Fothad brothers," Mongan said, breaking a sudden silence, "and the bards are doubtful as to the death and burial-place of the most famous of the three, Fothad Airgdech. Dos't thou know aught of this, O poet?"

"He was slain at Duffry, in Leinster, O King, and buried near the spot where he fell."

"Not so," cried the King, interrupting him. "Not so. It is false enlightenment thou art giving me. He fought his last fight in our own Uladh, and sleeps on a green hillside therein—a fitting place for the King of Ireland's bones to rest."

Dallan Forgiall rose in fury from his seat. His brow reddened, and his voice was tipped with venom, so that the tumbling, thunderous words could scarce make way.

"And dost thou deny me my knowledge, O King, me who am versed in all that pertains to the history of the dead and the living in Eirinn. Then will I satirize thee, and thy father, thy mother, and thy grandfather, since it is not becoming nor just that thy word should be taken before mine. And I will satirize the waters of thy country so that no fish shall live or be caught in them, and the trees that no fruit may be borne by them, and the plains that they may remain barren of any produce. This will I do, Mongan of Uladh, because of the insult thou hast shown me."

Here the sweet voice of the Queen broke in upon the ravings of the old man, and her words were like droppings of honey, or the tender piping of a linnet in a hidden woodland bower. "Nay, nay," she said soothingly, "my King hath no desire to wound thee nor vex thy heart with anger or jealousy, O poet. Satirize him not, I pray thee, and thy bronze gift-pot shall be filled with gold and silver and precious jewels—even should I strip my neck and arms of these glittering bands."

"And I," said Mongan, "promise thee the value of seven bondmaids, so that thou cast none of thy spells upon me and mine."

Dallan Forgiall's face was set in stony anger, and from his lips came forth no sound.

"Twice seven bondmaids; three times seven," pleaded the King. "Or if thou wilt, take half my territory—all of it—only let me be free from thy blighting tongue."

Still the poet sat as a carven image, unmoved by the alluring bribe.

"All I posses," reiterated Mongan, "save my own liberty and that of Breothigern, my Queen."

Then Dallan Forgiall spoke at last. "One thing hath saved thee, O King—thy wife. She shall be my hostage until the end of three days, and if within that time thou hast discovered the death-place of Fothad Airgdech my hold upon her shall be resigned; if not, then I shall come to claim her at the appointed hour."

For the sake of his honour Mongan consented, but sorrow settled down over Breothigern, and her eyes grew wet.

"Do not grieve, fair one," said the King, "help will surely come."

On the third day they sat waiting, after having in vain sought testimony as to the point at dispute throughout the territory of Uladh. The poet came to enforce his bond.

"Wait until the sun has gone from the heavens," said Mongan. "Even yet all is not lost to me."

Breothigern and he sat together in her bower, and as the hours crept on her tears fell faster. The King bent his head in listening, of a sudden.

"Be not sorrowful, O wife. I hear the tread of one who is coming to our aid. His feet are plashing now through the waters of the Labrinne." After a little while he spake again.

"Weep not, weep not. Even now his feet are in the Maine."

And in another space. "Take comfort to thee, gentle heart; I hear thy deliverer near at hand. He is crossing Lough Lene—now he is over the Morning-Star River between Ui Fidgente and the Arada; he has passed the Suir on Moy-Fevin, in Munster; his mighty stride hath traversed the Nore, the Barrow, the Liffey, the Boyne, the Dee, the Tuarthesc, Carlingford Lough, the Nid, the Newry River, and behold! he is scattering right and left from him the waves of the Larne Water in front of Rathmore."

The gray dusk of coming night was gathering round the royal Dun now, and Dallan Forgiall had renewed his importunities to the King, while the Queen sat, palid and sad in her beauty, by the couch.

"Be not in such haste, thou vengeful bard," cried Mongan, "for it is given me to know that thy bond shall be released from thy covetous hand ere long. I see a man approaching the Rath from the South. Even now, by aid of a headless spear-shaft he carries, he hath leapt across the three ramparts as a bird might wing its flight, and now is in the middle of the garth, and now——"

The stranger stood before them. He was taller than the tallest man in the kingdom, and the face of him was young and very fair. His dark cloak was in a fold about him, of strange material and quaintly fashioned, and his hair fell curling to his shoulders.

"What trouble is there on this house?" said he.

"A wager I have made, O stranger, with yonder poet concerning the death-place of Fothad Airgdech, the Ardrigh. He hath said the King sleeps in Duffry, of Leinster—I say it is not so," answered Mongan.

"It is false history this poet hath been telling," said the warrior, "for the monarch lies in a grave not near Leinster nor yet on its borders, but within the borders of Uladh instead."

"May sorrow overtake thee," cried the angry poet, "for that thou hast put contradiction upon me. What proof hast thou?"

"Proof in plenty," replied the warrior, "which I shall now unfold for the comfort of the King. I was of the army of Fionn Mac Cumhaill, and we were on our return from Alba when we met Fothad Airgdech in battle in the Valley of Ollarva. When the fight was at its fiercest I saw the King standing at the base of a sloping hill watching how the conflict went. Behind a stone, some little distance off, I knelt, and taking careful aim, hurled my spear at him. It passed through him and entered the ground at the other side, leaving its bronze blade firmly in the soil. This," and he held forth the handle, "is the handle which was in that spear. The bald rock from which I threw that cast will be found there, and the blade of the spear is still embedded under the grass. The cairn of Fothad Airgdech will be found near it a little towards the east. There is a stone coffin holding what remains of his manhood—on it are his two Fails (bracelets) of silver, his Buinne do At (twisted hoops), and his Muintorc (neck-torque) of silver, and a rock stands as a memorial to him, with an Ogham inscription on the end which is in the ground. What is written on it is this—'Fothad Airgdech is here, who was killed in battle by Caoilte, on the side of Fionn.' Our warriors buried him as I have described, and it was by us that his funeral obsequies were performed."

"Caoilte, didst thou say?" cried the King. "Art thou, then, that great warrior of the Fianna and kinsman of Fionn Mac Cumhaill himself? By what marvel hast thou returned from the dark halls to clear our doubts away?"

"Because the Fianna ever loved the truth, O King, and beyond the grave we watch the hills and vales of Eirinn as through a mist; growing glad in its joys and sorrowing in its griefs; so when doubt arises as to the past, our hearts ache until it is granted one of us to resume a mortal body and return with wise words of counsel and knowledge to those whom we have left behind. Seek ye the cairn of Fothad Airgdech—all shall be found as I have said—the mouth of Caoilte MacRonan knoweth naught of falsehood."

Mongan found the grave on the green slope,* in the Valley of Ollarva, and near by he recognised the stone from which Caoilte had thrown his cast. On the stone coffin he also found the ornaments of the King—as the warrior of the Fianna had foretold.

He returned to Moylinny—that is Rathmore—with tidings to the Queen, and from henceforth there was no place at his royal board for Dallan Forgiall, nor ever again did Breothigern despoil her white neck and radiant head of gold and jewels at the poet's pleasure.

* * * * * * * * * *

* Now known as Ballyboley Hill, in the Valley of the Sixmile water, where the cairn is to be seen to this day, as well as the stone—a field off—from which the cast was thrown. The country people guard the "King of Ireland's grave" with due reverence, being careful not to uproot a boulder nor disturb the sloe tree which rises sturdy and wide-spreading over all.