James Lloyd visits a Norman castle in Ulster that stands on the site of one of the most famous and most amusing myths of Ancient Ireland.
The ruins of a twelfth-century castle overlook the village of Dundrum in County Down. It was begun by John de Courcy, who had come over to Ireland with Strongbow and would later be captured by the de Lacy family. The site had already been occupied by an Irish fortress and this may have been intended as the scene of a notorious myth.
Bricriu (“brick-ree”) Poison-Tongue was a troublemaker, a manipulative and devious man, who revelled in chaos and confusion for the sheer pleasure of it. Seeing an opportunity to set the warriors of Ulster against one another, he went to see the King of Ulster, Connor MacNessa, at his court at Navan (the foundation of which has been related in a previous blog). He told the King that he had built a special feasting hall at Dundrum and he invited Connor and his best warriors to a dinner in their honour.
The King was interested but the warriors knew Bricriu’s reputation and refused. Bricriu threatened that, if his invitation were spurned, he would set the young warriors against the old warriors, until they had all killed one another. When they still refused, he threatened to set son against father or daughter against mother and yet still they refused to come to his feast. Finally he threatened that he would cause the breasts of all the women in Ulster to beat against each other, until they were reduced to a bruised and bleeding mess. This image horrified Connor and his courtiers and they agreed to come to the feast.
Bricriu then went privily to one of the most famous of the King’s warriors, Lóegure Búadach and assured him that, as he was the greatest of the champions of the Ulster, the best slice of meat, the so-called “champion’s portion”, would be reserved for him, recognition that would thereafter entitle him to the same privilege in the King’s hall at Navan. However, Bricriu then went to Lóegure’s great rival Conall Cernach and made him the same promise and then he went to meet Cúchulainn, one of the youngest warriors of Ulster but also the most promising and told him that he would receive the champion’s portion.
When the day of the feast arrived, King Connor and his warriors processed to Briciu’s hall at Dundrum. Bricriu greeted them and invited them to eat. They agreed but only on condition that he left the room. They still did not trust him but his plan had foreseen this eventuality. As he left for his bedroom upstairs, Bricriu left the champion’s portion on the table and invited whoever was best of the warriors of Ulster to help himself to it.
While the three men to whom the champion’s portion had been promised argued over which of them should have it, their wives arrived at Dundrum. Lóegure’s wife refused to let Conall’s wife enter before her. Conall’s wife could not bear to think of Lóegure’s wife preceding her and Cúchulain’s wife thought they were both being presumptuous. All three tried to enter at once, with their trains of handmaidens. When their husbands saw what was happening, they only argued amongst themselves all the harder.
Only Cúchulainn saw a way out of the impasse. He grabbed the bottom of the wall of the house and, with his immense strength, he lifted the whole building and tossed it onto its side. All three women entered together and then Cúchulainn put the house back the way it had been but they soon heard a feeble knock on the door. Standing outside was Bricriu, covered in muck. He had been tossed out of his bedroom and fallen in the midden. Would the champions of Ulster be so good as to let him back into his own house?
The dispute did not end with the feast. Back at Navan, Lóegure, Conall and Cúchulainn continued to argue over which of them was entitled to the champion’s portion. King Connor suggested that they asked Cú Ruí, King of Munster, to arbitrate. Cú Ruí was a respected authority, partly because of his magical powers. He set the three champions a succession of tasks, all of which Cúchulainn won and yet Conall and Lóegure always contested it and another challenge had to be performed. Eventually, with Cúchulainn apparently victorious, the party returned to Navan but once again Lóegure and Conall claimed that no agreement had been reached about the champion’s portion and Cúchulainn was too tired to pursue the matter.
One evening, while the warriors were eating in the King’s hall, a stranger arrived at Navan. He was a peasant, roughly dressed but of enormous and disproportionate stature. He carried a huge axe and announced that he had travelled the world, looking for someone brave enough to accept his challenge. Having found no takers elsewhere, he had come to Ulster, a land famed for heroes, to see if any would be brave enough to chop off his head, provided that he would be allowed to deliver a retaliatory blow to the champion on the following night. It hardly seemed a challenge at all. Lóegure agreed. The peasant lay down on the block and Lóegure chopped of his head with one blow.
Then, the headless corpse stood up, picked up its head and walked off. Lóegure began to entertain second thoughts about the wisdom of this exercise and, the following night when the peasant returned to Navan, head firmly re-attached, Lóegure was no where to be seen.
The peasant expressed his disappointment at the cowardice of the so-called warrior and Conall decided that it was up to him to restore the honour of Ulster. He took the axe and chopped off the stranger’s head but, as before, the stranger merely put his head back on again. The next night, where he returned to the hall, Conall had vanished and no one in Navan knew where he was.
Exasperated, the peasant demanded to see Cúchulainn, supposed hero of Ulster. Initially Cúchulainn declared that he wanted nothing to do with the stranger but, when his quarry interpreted his rejection as a sign of cowardice, Cúchulainn took the bait, along with the axe and lopped off the peasant’s head so enthusiastically that it hit the rafters. Cúchulainn chased after it as it rolled along the floor and smashed it to pieces.
Yet, the instant he was finished, the pieces re-assembled and the torso picked up the head. The peasant walked off and people suspected that even Cúchulainn would not be so foolish as to submit himself to the ghoul’s axe the next evening. They were wrong to doubt him. Cúchulainn was there, waiting, when the peasant returned. Without complaint, he lay his neck down on the block and the peasant swung his axe down upon it.
The axe, which he was holding the wrong way round, stopped just a fraction of an inch short of the flesh. The peasant laughed and congratulated Cúchulainn for his bravery and his honour. He was indeed entitled to the champion’s portion and his wife was entitled to enter the hall before other women.
For the stranger was no peasant or phantom. He was Cú Ruí, who had finally found a way of side-stepping the dishonesty and stubbornness of Conall and Lóegure.
The legend of Bricriu’s feast is recorded in several manuscripts, the oldest dating back to the early twelfth century. The story itself is probably hundreds of years older. Indeed, certain elements of the plot may go back to before the time of Christ. Posidonius of Rhodes in the first century B.C. had commented upon the Gauls’ custom of reserving the choicest cut of meat for their best warriors. Ethnographers delight in seeing this custom paralleled in another Celtic-speaking society.
Another motif that appears elsewhere is the beheading of Cú Ruí, which bears a striking resemblance to the Green Knight of Arthurian romance, who delivered a very similar challenge to Sir Gawain. That adventure, recorded in a fourteenth-century English poem, may be evidence of the survival of a Celtic myth of a beheaded god who tests champions that survived from before the Irish and Brittonic peoples diverged.
Alternatively and much less excitingly, it may simply be evidence that the legend of Briciu’s feast had entered into the mainstream of the literature of the British Isles. The legend would have begun life as an entertainment sung in the halls of Ireland’s chiefs by wandering bards, who would have added to or subtracted from the list of challenges that Cú Ruí set the heroes (compressed to a summary in this blog) according to the taste (or patience) of their host.
Perhaps the de Lacies who lived at Dundrum Castle and became increasingly Irish in their own tastes and manners the longer they spent in Ireland, heard this story recited in their hall, the scene of its events and imagined the warriors of old bickering over the choicest cut, their wives trying to squeeze past one another in the doorway and Bricriu himself, the cause of all the trouble and the founder of the first castle at Dundrum, knocking sheepishly on the gate, splattered in well deserved muck and asking to be let back in.