James Lloyd visits County Antrim, where an orator with delusions of grandeur and easily deflated pride was outwitted by a desperate king, with a little help from the dead.
Rathmore Trench, in the townland of Rathmore in the parish of Antrim, is all that remains of the great fortress (the meaning of “ráth mór”) of King Mongán mac Fiachai, ruler of the Ulaid in the early seventh century. There, in his hall, he would sit beside his Queen, the beautiful, albeit unpronounceable, Breothighearn, while his warriors caroused around the fire before them.
One evening his court was entertained by the Chief Poet of Ireland, Dallán Forgaill. In pre-Christian times, poets were among the most respected figures in Irish society. They were the preservers of the nation’s history and memorized whole sagas for public performance. Unfettered by borders, they moved from kingdom to kingdom, offering their services. They were also willing to immortalize the achievements of contemporary rulers just as much as historical ones and this gave them the power to cement or destroy a king’s reputation. As a result, they were feared, as well as respected and Dallán Forgaill was more feared and respected than most.
He was, it had to be said, getting on in years. His hair (what remained of it) was bedraggled, his teeth (what remained of them) were rotten and broken and his face had been quarried by age into a mine of wrinkles. Nonetheless, he was Chief Poet for a reason and on that night he regaled King Mongán’s court with the tale of Fothad Airgtheach, a favourite among the Ulaid.
Fothad Airgtheach, so legend had it, slew his own brother in order to become High King of Ireland and thereby earnt the enmity of the royal bodyguard, the Fianna, frenzied warriors under the command of Finn MacCool. In a climactic battle that Dallán Forgaill never tired of repeating and the Ulaid never tired of hearing repeated, the Fianna cut down King Fothad’s followers, before one of the Fianna, Caoilte mac Ronán, delivered the killing blow, plunging his spear into the usurper’s head, within which the spearhead remained buried when the shaft was pulled out.
The courtiers cheered as they heard the narration completed. King Mongán lifted his goblet expectantly and asked “And where was Fothad slain?”
They all knew the answer to this. It was the reason why the legend was so popular in those parts.
“As everyone knows,” Dallán replied, “it was in Duffrey.”
The goblet remained hovering for a few seconds, as the hitherto riotous hall fell silent and then the King slowly lowered it and asked the poet to repeat his answer. Again the Chief Poet of Ireland replied that Fothad Airgtheach had been killed at Duffrey, in modern County Wexford, which he maintained with a haughty insistence.
“You are mistaken,” the King informed him. “We all know that the battle was fought here and that Fothad’s remains are buried under the cairn just outside my hall.”
Dallán Forgaill’s face screwed up till his eyes were barely visible. Then he roared a roar that rattled the spine of even the bravest of Mongán’s warriors. He, the Chief Poet of Ireland, had been contradicted. His knowledge of the epics of the past had been challenged. This could not be allowed to stand. He threatened to place a terrible curse on the Ulaid.
The King’s face turned white at the thought that his realm might fall under the bann of the Chief Poet. He thought how the rivers and sea would become stripped of fish, the farms of produce and even the trees of fruit. He rose from his throne and seriously considered falling on his knees before Dallán. He put his hands together and begged him to spare his people. The poet said that he was willing to withhold his curse, as long as Mongán agreed that Fothad had been killed at Duffrey but the King would not abandon his own country’s claim to that honourable episode.
“Then cursed you shall be,” Dallán stormed and he turned to march out but now the King did fall on his knees and, grabbing his cloak, he offered to give him anything, up to and including half his kingdom, if only he would spare them. That puckered face peered round at the genuflecting monarch and then his bleary, yellow eyes slid upwards toward the Queen, sitting on the throne. Her own gaze met his and instinctively looked aside, compelled less by fear than by his ugliness.
“Very well,” the poet croaked. “I shall spare the Ulaid, if you give me Breothighearn.”
The King was, it is fair to say, of two minds, though, given the haste with which the Queen’s hands covered her face, her own was already quite made up. So, Mongán made a second request: That Dallán would give him three days in which to prove that Fothad had been killed at Moylinny and buried under the cairn in the palace grounds. Dallán, confident that he could not be disproven, agreed and, with as stately a gate as his crooked legs would allow him, he left the hall.
Mongán sent messengers throughout his kingdom to find anyone who could prove the local version of the legend. No one volunteered, so that on the third night they were gathered in the hall again. The King paced back and forth. The Queen wept quietly on her throne. The warriors sat around the walls, looking awkward and then Dallán Forgaill hobbled in, the porter shutting and barring the door behind him. He did not bow to the King but merely demanded his wife, not even bothering to ask if he could prove his claim. Mongán could not bring himself to reply but looked away and Queen Breothighearn, trembling, rose, still unable to look at her new husband and, gingerly, began to descend the steps of the throne.
That was when other footsteps were heard, coming from outside. They were slow and deliberate and everyone looked to the door. The footsteps stopped outside and then, as the porter looked to the King for permission to draw the bar, it drew itself and then the doors fell open, revealing a tall, young man in armour, carrying a spear with the head missing. He stepped inside and the air, despite the fire in the centre of the hall, turned so cold that the company’s breath wraithed around their faces.
“Wh- Who are you?” the King finally stuttered, as the stranger stopped in front of him.
“I am Caoilte mac Ronán,” he replied, in a voice that whispered and yet also thundered, “warrior of warriors, champion among the Fianna and slayer of Fothad Airgtheach.”
The Chief Poet of Ireland was having none of this. “Impossible!” he snarled. “Caoilte died four hundred years ago.”
The young man turned to the old but suddenly he was a young man no more but a skeleton, his flesh sinking away like a shadow. “Indeed, I did,” he hissed, before turning back to the shaking King, his flesh slipping back over him, “and my soul was re-born in the Otherworld, where your appeal, oh King, did eventually reach me.”
Mongán gulped. “And where, sir, did you slay Fothad Airgtheach?”
“Here,” the ghost answered. “I stood on the granite slab on the knoll behind this hall, I raised this spear,” he held it up, “and threw it at him and he fell where the cairn now stands. Dig under the cairn and you will find a coffin of stone. Open the coffin and you will find Fothad’s body. Open Fothad’s skull and you will find my spearhead.”
The Queen rushed forward, her hands shaking with gratitude. “Oh, thank you, spirit.”
“You have no need to thank me, lady,” Caoilte replied. “Know you not the slogan of the Fianna?”
They all did but none had the courage to answer. A freezing wind suddenly blew into the hall, extinguishing the fire. In the darkness, Caoilte mac Ronain became a glowing white skeleton again and rattled “The Truth against the world!” As the wind died down and silence returned to the hall, the company realized that their visitor was gone.
Being a little shaken, they waited until the morning to look around the fortress grounds, Dallán Forgaill remaining sulkily at the back of the crowd. They found the mound, with a granite slab on the top. Then they went to the opposite side of the compound and examined the cairn. They dismantled it and found the stone coffin. They opened the lid of the coffin and found a skeleton. The King lifted up the skull and rattled it. A spearhead fell out through the eye socket.
“There we have it,” he announced, struggling to suppress a smug grin. “Oh Chief Poet of Ireland, what say you to –“
He looked round to finish his sentence in triumph but all he could see of Dallán Forgaill was his twisted back, as he hobbled, with the speed of the chastened, from the fort.