The Sorrowing of Conal Cearnach

Ethna Carbery
Chapter I

THE autumn night had set in with a dreary darkness full of the howling of angry winds that swept up from the sea, and flung clouds of salt foam even to the crest of the gray cliffs that stood sentinel over the Northern coast of Uladh. White screaming flocks of seagulls darted inland, flying low, as is their wont when the storm-fiend comes to take his pleasure; and in scanty hedge or stunted fir-tree the little timid land-birds cowered before the blast. The air held the chill of coming winter; the moaning waters seemed to chant a dirge for all the dead whose bones lay far beneath among the weeds and wrecks and tossing shells; and overhead the thick clouds went drifting by without the glimmer of a single star to light the gloom, while, through this maze of storm and darkness, with sorrow in his heart and on his brow, after his many and perilous wanderings over distant countries, Conal Cearnach, the chieftain of Dunseverick, and Champion of the Red Branch Knights of Uladh, came back to his own.

But though the storm might sport and rave in ecstacy as it circled the open coast-line, it seemed to shriek its madness round the towers of the Caiseal, which stood but a short way from the brink of a tall cliff that sheered straight down into the foaming wild water. It hissed and swirled through the broad open chimney of the banqueting hall, scattering the flames in the heart of the glowing logs piled high upon the hearth, and sending showers of light peat ashes almost to the feet of Conal Cearnach himself, who, sitting silent in his carven chair of dark oak, with mournful eyes gazing steadily at the leaping fire, heeded neither the rattle, as each fresh gust hurled itself against the timbers of the walls, nor the chanting of his harper, nor yet the sweet voice of his lady as she strove to win him from the bitter thoughts that held him in that sad and woeful quietude. Many and melodious were the strains by which the harper sought to rouse his master; now soft and silvery as the thrush's warble in the glow of a mellow summer eve; anon bursting into loud and triumphant pealing like the return of a victor army from the field of conflict, and again sinking into melting harmony as when a mother croons at slumber-hour above the baby on her bosom.

Clear and tuneful the song rose with the harp-music, telling of Conal Cearnach's wonderful and world-enduring feats; of his manly beauty and his valour; of his loyalty to friend and vengefulness to foe, of all the glorious attributes that had raised him to the Champion's place in the Court of the Red Branch, and won him renown at home and afar as the flower of Uladh's matchless chivalry. Loudly and proudly did the music-maker chant the death of Misgedhra, the great soldier, slain single-handed in a trial of skill by the Chieftain of Dunseverick. Solemnly he related the making of the brain-ball of that valiant fighter, and how the dead had been revenged upon Uladh afterwards, when this ghastly trophy, that belonged to Conal Cearnach by right of prowess, and was lodged for safety in the royal palace of Crovdearg, passed into the hands of the enemy through the hands of a fool, and brought about the gravest sorrow under which Uladh had ever bowed, in the death of her gifted and noble ruler Conor Mac-Nessa. And as he sang the death-lament for Conor, the warriors ranged all down the long hall took up the strain, and mingled their praise and regret for the kingly king with the twanging of the harp until the sob of the wind seemed hushed outside and the hissing of the waters died away. Then in the distant chamber of the Lady of Dunseverick her waiting women and maidens, hearing this weird and mournful chanting, took up the caoine, and shrilled the dead man's praises with clapping of palms and rending of hair, until, in sooth, throughout the Caiseal from end to end no sounds but those of grief and dismay echoed on this the return-night of the Chieftain. Once, and once only, was his brooding gaze lifted, and his brows arched, not in anger, but in surprise, as he asked curiously—

"Wherefore this clamour in my halls to-night? There seems but storm without and storm within, and it vexeth me. Hush ye, hush ye, my people."

The harper rose, flushing red because of the reproof, and vouchsafed a reply.

"It was the death-lament for Conor the King we sang, my honoured lord, and inasmuch as he hath died but a short time since, we feared you sorrowed for him in silence. And because our battle-strains or strains of love have been powerless to win you from your grief, in our affection we have fallen in with this mood, and have joined in your regrets. The death he died was a strange one, and unknown in all the annals of the land."

"I, too, have looked on death," said Conal Cearnach, slowly and reverently, still gazing into the burning brightness on the hearth, "but not such a death as a King of Eirinn might die. Nay, 'twas such as only a God could endure and make no moan. A great end and a terrible. Yet the divine pity in His eyes bore naught but forgiveness for those who tortured Him, and their dying glory hath made me His slave for ever."

"My lord, my lord," pleaded his wife, rising and clasping her white arms round his neck, "put these haunting thoughts away, I pray thee, and turn to the feast where thy kin and clan await to give thee welcome home. Tell us how thou didst bear thyself at Rome, and of thy wrestling feats in those far distant cities. Thou wert champion swordsman there as well as here, my love and brave knight, were thou not? They indeed had courage who accepted the challenge of Conal Cearnach and strove to match their strength with his. Sad for Ceat was the day when he met thee; he that was ever a champion of renown. Sing, harper, sing the death of Ceat, son of Magach of Connacht, that my lord may remember only his own great fame and forget this grief that holds him enchained."

Once more the harper ran his fingers across the strings, breaking into high, proud chanting. The oft-told tale, ever new because of their joy in it, brought a glint of battle-fury into the eyes of all those listening warriors. Only the Chieftain heeded not, though well he might have gloried in that marvellous recital. How Ceat came out of Connacht to fight the stoutest champions of Uladh, and how he slew three of them, one by one, in single combat. And setting forth with their heads as trophies to show to his own people he was pursued by the Chieftain of Dunseverick and overtaken at Athceitt. Then the bloodiest and most furious combat that had ever been known in Eirinn took place between these two. Shields were pierced and swords were hacked, and many men died that day, but it was left to the two champions to decide the issue of war. And the victory was with Uladh, for after many most wonderful exploits Ceat of Connacht fell by the hand of Conal Cearnach, who, pierced with wounds, lay well-nigh dead himself upon the field. The song told how Conal was carried into Connacht by Bealchue Breifne and tended until his strength was restored to him, when, for fear of his strong arm and following, his host sought to put the Ultonian to death, repenting that he had saved him. How Conal baffled the treacherous schemers, and made his way back into Uladh, all was chanted, and chorused and cheered. But still the hero sat silent, taking no pride, as of yore, in his own exploits, and slowly the voices sank, the harping ended in a few faint silvery echoes, and all grew mournful because of the brooding eyes of their lord.

This was the vision that Conal Cearnach saw in the heart of the fire that night of his return to Dunseverick.

He saw himself at the beginning of this, the most curious adventure that had yet befallen him, setting forth with a strong, well-chosen band, on a foray into Britain, a country lying beyond a narrow sea to the east of the land of Eirinn. Many were the tales that had reached his ears and the ears of other warriors of Uladh concerning the descent of the mighty, world-famed Romans upon this island; how they had exhibited to the people their much-vaunted feats of athletic skill until the report of their daring and courage had penetrated the Court of Emania.

What wonder that the war-like, hot blood of Conal Cearnach pulsed to hear the deeds of the Roman soldiers, that he longed to try his strength with theirs on battle field or in the field of sport. And when he had come amongst them, and they noted his great height, his agile limbs, and the muscles that swelled adown the length of his powerful arms, their admiration and awe of him surpassed all bounds. Easily did he overthrow the stalwart wrestlers sent from the Roman ranks against him; easily did he bear away the victor's palm at the hurling of weights and enormous stones; and more easily still did he excel their highest leaps by the swift-darting of his strong and beautiful body. Then, ere their exclamations had time to die away, he rose once more into the air in his last and most marvellous feat—the salmonsault; shooting up like that great fish from a river, turning over in his flight once and twice, and coming down to earth again as surely and as swiftly as the salmon might dive into the broad river from which it had sprung so boldly.

But envy as well as admiration grew in the hearts of the Romans, and they said, "Wert thou in our arena at Rome thou had'st met thy master, all powerful as thou art, O Conal. Come with us for thy fame's sake, that thou may'st have tales to tell thy children when the gray is on thy hair—if our gladiators let thee live so long." And the Lord of Dunseverick took up the challenge, sailing from Britain in the company of these world-compelling foreigners, far from his northern home and loving clansmen.

Then the vision changed, and he seemed to see again the wide arena and the crowds of eager faces that watched the mighty wrestlers as they strained and struggled, tight locked in each other's embrace. He felt the long arms of the huge gladiator go round him like a ring of steel—a grand and gigantic figure of equal height with himself, to whom victory would have come readily had his opponent been other than the flower of the Red Branch Chivalry. Across the arena they wrestled, now on foot, now bent on knee, sending showers of sand high into the air, while cries of praise or blame broke from thousands of throats, aye, and from Imperial Caesar too, as the Roman strove to end the contest. But the battle-fury had fallen upon Conal, as it fell on him what time he slew the King of Leinster at Atha-Cliath, and he put forth suddenly his own renowned strength for the final wrestle. He noted how a tremor of strained agony then ran through the frame of the other; how his blood-shot eye-balls rolled, and the beads of sweat gathered on brow and cheek until his bones creaked under the stress of the champion's hold, and his lifeless head fell backwards over his crushed and blackened shoulder. And Conal wore that day upon his ruddy head the palm-crown of the victor.

Again the vision shifted and changed, and he saw himself the comrade of a band of centurions, who had journeyed over land and sea in peaceful wise to the populous and glowing cities of the East. It was afternoon of a certain day when they reached Jerusalem, the city of the Jews, a strange day and a fearful, for the sun hung like a ball of fire in the heavens, and the air was filled with the noise of shouting men and the wailing of women. Past the bare and brown synagogues the strangers went, following in the track of hurrying crowds that stayed not for question or reply, so intent were they on the purpose that drew them onward. Here and there a group of women talked in whispers, pausing at sight of the Romans and the splendidly-clad chieftain of Uladh, whose like they had never gazed upon before. For Conal Cearnach wore his wide-spreading scarlet cloak, fastened with a large brooch of gold, across his breast, and his ruddy hair fell down in many plaits to his broad shoulders, each plait being tied at the end by a string and tiny ball of gold. His short trimmed beard was ruddy as his hair, his cheeks were like an apple when the sun hath kissed it, and his blue bright eyes, keen-glancing, drew the eyes of all to look at him.

And the Jewish women hushed their talk as he came up the way to marvel at his height and grandeur, and it was then that the centurions, seeking speech of them, learned what had so disturbed the wonted customs of the city.

"It is One whom they go to crucify on Golgotha," said the women. "A Man who hath called Himself the Son of God, and we know not if the deed they do be just or wise."

"What crime hath He done?"

"Nay, no crime, unless crime it be to raise the dead to life, or restore sight to the blind, or hearing to the deaf, or give strength to the lame and feeble, and comfort to the sad of heart. All this He hath done, for we have seen it; and there are many who have followed Him in the belief that He is the long-looked-for Messiah, whom the prophets have foretold."

"And is it for this the Jews have given Him to death?"

"Yea," answered the women, "and because that He hath spoken of the Kingdom of His Father and of Himself as King of the Jews."

"Then He deserves death for that saying," cried the Centurions, "for Caesar, and Caesar alone, is your king. We go to see Him die. What name hath He?"

"Jesus of Nazareth."

Up the steep stony road that led to Calvary Conal Cearnach went with his Roman companions. Here and there he noted drops of blood upon the pathway, as they hastened onward with such speed that the crowds gave way before them, and the little black-eyed Jewish children drew aside from their course in terror. Once they stopped before a weeping woman, shrouded in a long dark cloak, across whose knees as she sat was stretched a blood-stained towel, upon which her tears fell thick as rain, and over which many people were bending. Then they saw that the towel bore the impress in lines of blood of a most sad and weary Face—"the Face of Him Who is being crucified," said a bystander, in answer to their looks of wonder. "This woman wiped the sweat from His Brow as He passed by, and His Face is here as a memento of Him whom Pilate hath called 'that just Man.' "

Into the soul of Conal the hot anger came rushing as he broke away from the centurions and sped like a blast of wind towards the mount where the people had assembled. One thought filled his mind, "Shall I be nigh and witness the torture of this Man, whose only crime hath been the good that He hath done? Nay, it were not known in Emania that many should fall upon one; it is the trial of single combat we give even to our enemies. I shall be His champion to the death if He will take me for such."

Yet, alas, and alas! it was a bleeding and dying Christ that hung upon the cross when the Chieftain of Dunseverick drew near and stood beneath. And as he gazed in horror at the dastard deed, a soldier coming up in haste pierced the Victim's side with a spear so that the Blood shot forth and trickled down the rough wood upon which they had nailed Him. And a drop touched the brow of Conal Cearnach ere he knew, and the fury left him for a marvellous and unwonted peace while he watched the Saviour die. Then rocks were rent and graves opened, so that the dead came forth in their cerements in that most awful hour; and lightnings flashed from the black thick clouds that had suddenly covered the sky, and all was dread and unearthly, so that the people shrieked and crouched upon the ground repentant and sore afraid.

"It was indeed a God who died," said the chieftain sadly and slowly, "this cruel and untimely death. My grief, oh! my bitter grief, that the Red Branch Knights are afar, else a sure and fierce revenge would overtake these Jews, aye, their city should be levelled and their name effaced had the chivalry of Uladh been here this day with sword and skian and blue-black lance to hold the battle straight with me."

* * * * * * * * * *

This was the memory that Conal Cearnach dwelt upon the night he returned through storm and darkness, after many wanderings, to his Caiseal of Dunseverick on the bleak sea-swept Northern coast of Uladh.

Note.—The tradition that Conal Cearnach of Dunseverick was present at Jerusalem on the day of the Crucifixion is still preserved amongst the peasantry of the Glens of Antrim. I have never been able to find a written record of this, save in a note to the "Wars of the Gaedhil and the Gall," which merely mentions the legend. It is also said that Conal was at the burial of Christ as well, and that he put his shoulder to raise the lid of the sepulchre when Joseph of Arimathea made it ready for the reception of the Body of our Lord. Taking it for granted that this Champion of the Red Branch Knights did actually exist so long ago, we can well believe in his journey to Rome with the Romans who had landed in Britain, and his subsequent feats in the Arena, and his further travels throughout the the Holy Land. It was decreed that a representative of every race on the earth should be present at the Death upon Mount Calvary, and the tradition that has been lovingly entwined around the heroic name of the Chieftain of Dunseverick ought to be known and treasured by the Irish people. Dunseverick lies on the northern coast of County Antrim, not far from Portrush.