Introduction : Emer, the wife of the great warrior Cú Chulainn (The Hound of Ulster) tells the story of their marriage.
My world is broken. Grey skies hang over my agony. The grey lake is a mirror. I do not want that small light prying through. I do not want to hear birds brazening out their song. Birds do not fit this scene. I do not want to see life go on.
Though they are less than before, less birds, less men. Four are up on that high branch, chatting, not fighting, not saying it is a better branch than any other. They know because they can see there are enough trees for everyone. It’s bird logic. Sometimes they bathe in the font in my apple garden. They splash and flutter and sing. I have envied their intactness; grouping so well together. Now I don’t care. I wonder if that four up there are telling each other of their grief. Did some of their breed die from hunger when all the world was fighting. Out, lights out, sun gone, forever. Nature is hard on birds but I think they are spared the riot that is screaming in my head.
Maybe if I remember it all like a chain, give it form. He couldn’t be told, neither could I if I’m honest. We were making names for ourselves. Names to live out past our lives. He, the greatest warrior ever to have lived. I, Emer, the love of his short magnificent life. I, his real love.
He came looking for me: Cú Chualinn whose mother was Deichtre sister to King Conchobar Mac Nessa, whose father was Sualdamh, her husband or was it Lugh, god of all the light that shines. Which one was his father depends on whether Deichtre was asleep or awake when he was made. It’s good enough to say, the start of his life is a pretty tangle, beginning with a flock of birds enticing the King and his warriors to scatter them away from eating the sewn seeds in the fields. Birds can be the bane of men with fields. A woman birthed a baby boy, a mare dropped two foals. The woman gave her baby to Deichtre. The baby died at the same time as a seed made its way into her belly in a drink or was it in a dream. Enough to say it wasn’t a normal start for any man but gods can make like that. And so when he came to find me, he came in secret because he knew the likes of my father Forgall would say, Good fields make a thoroughbred, not good stories. And he’d say, That isn’t even a good story.
Cú Chualinn was looking for a wife, beautiful, smart like himself so he came to my father’s proud expansion at the centre of Ireland without his permission. I liked his cheek. Fifty of my maidens tittered around me waiting to see him overlook my needlework, appraise my beauty. Would he be the envy of all other men if I was his bride? Would his clothes be threaded in silver or in gold? He discarded all that. Other women were like butterflies to a yellow flower, pollinating his fame. Not I. I could speak with him like no other. We spoke in riddles, stories and places with hidden mysteries lying under them. Slants of understanding were between us when we spoke and not one person there, not even his chariot driver Laeg understood a word we had said.
But I knew it wouldn’t fit right if I was easily had. So I said, If I am to be the bride of the hound of Ulster, I must know that you will kill for me. I must see the feats I have heard about so I know they are not rumours. I said, To touch this breast I want you to fight twenty seven men with three sword strokes while sparing three. I want to see your famed salmon leap clear the ramparts of my father’s house. I want to know that you can go without sleep from November to August. I want to know you can stay in this world that I am in and I want to know that you will never doubt that your love will be for me, only me.
He said he would do all that and more to win just one kiss from the pink lips in front of him in this world. He said a kiss from me is where he would find all the heaven he would ever need and he promised he would not be looking into any other worlds for more. I looked at him. I saw in his face the expression of a man that thinks he has amazed a woman with his words. So I said, A first love is always too good to be true and so I didn’t kiss him then. I knew he would love me more if I spent more time in his day dreams.
It was my own maidens told my father of his visit. Instead of fuming over it, Forgall went to Emain Macha* armed with the intelligence I had inherited and enough gifts to plámas* a king. There was a great welcome for him there. King Conchobar was able to do all the showing off he wanted and parade out all the talents of his famed warriors. And so my father had the king’s ear for his great idea. He told the king, that Ulster would be better served if Cú Chualinn was sent to Alban* to be trained by Scathach the teacher of all the arts of war and gentlemanliness. Conchobar loved the idea. Of course my father was hoping Cú Chualinn would be killed in between Scathach and her enemy Aife. But Forgall’s idea was foiled because he returned with me still on his mind. I didn’t find out for a long time after all that had gone on in Alban.
When my father heard about Cú Chualinn’s return he fortified our settlement by re-enforcing the ramparts three deep. I was a prisoner inside and so we were apart for another year. But time is nothing when something is to be and so on a sunny day when the apples were falling heavy and red I saw a salmon the size of a man leap over the widest part of the ramparts of my father’s house and the feelings inside me were like the sun coming up in the morning into blazing. I heard the sound of swords after that and three strikes and out of twenty seven men, three lived. The three that were my brothers. Cú Chualinn took me then in his chariot along with the gold and silver I was due and we went. My father followed us like a man gone wild. He made a leap that was beyond him and died impaled on his own ramparts. And though I was sorry for him, I was glad he had died by his own fault.
We were married at Emain Macha and we were like the first ever couple of the whole kingdom even beyond the king if joy and merriment were measured and the sun shone as if it would shine forever.
Marriage to the hound of Ulster was a different rampart around me. I was the one who knew how to calm him if he was upset but what if I didn’t? What if I goaded him into a riastradh*? Would there be a person left in the whole kingdom? I liked that. It meant I had respect wherever I walked. It meant that I surpassed all the wives of his comrades. Even when Bricriu* with his poison tongue tried to pit us against each other telling each woman she the was the most beautiful. I won every time. I liked that and I had it in my mind that it would continue that way. And it might have if that glutton from Connaught: the arousing Meadhbh hadn’t marched on Ulster with all the men of Ireland at her rear, cross as a wet hen because she couldn’t have our bull to make her the equal of her husband Ailill in all possessions. Meadhbh, Queen of everything and everyone commanding the men of Ireland by intoxicating them with her scent and her witchery, inflaming them with promises of her daughter before she sent them to their death.
Meadhbh went to war and the men of Ireland marched behind her and as they marched the strength of the men of ulster weakened because there was a power that was bigger than any order a king could make and that was Macha’s curse.
To the men from the land that bears my name. From this day on you will witness the world opening inside you alongside the agony of bone tiredness. Everything you hold dear and beyond will be out of the reach of your shielding. Life will ebb and death will taunt and war will march all over you and while you watch your helplessness, you will be a living testimony to my outrage, for when you need her most this horse will bolt.
Macha’s curse. A whole province cursed by their own goddess Never upset a goddess I could have told them. If a goddess wants to be a normal woman for a while, even if she wants to forget she is a goddess, you let her. And they didn’t and so Cú Chualinn was the only man left standing for Ulster. Oh I could have told them there’s a craft tangled into being a woman that men don’t understand and if that is not bad enough they don’t want to know what it is they don’t understand.
And so, Cú Chualinn, the hound of Ulster was the only man free from the curse and able to fight because he was infused by Lugh of the very light. And he fought them with his skill and his cleverness, tested by warrior after warrior while I, at home tried to remember the thin veil I wore over my naked body to charm him into our bed and the brilliance of the sun shining on his unblemished skin through our window in the morning. I tried to make my sweet memories cloud the thoughts coming to the front of my mind dressed in red: blood falling over blood and everything and everyone going against him. Even the war crow* came to annoy him in the shape of a woman pressing her breasts into his face, in the shape of an eel crawling up his leg, in the shape of a snarling wolf with eyes white as teeth.
Cú Chualinn’s unbending mind wounded every one of her shapes and continued to kill each and every man who had the gall to fight him. Until it was simple then for Meadhbh and Ailill to see that they needed to find a warrior as great as my husband if she was to win her bull. And so she sold her daughter Findabhair again and tricked Ferdia with her guile, taunting and goading him with lies saying Cú Chualinn had laughed at him. Cú Chualinn and Ferdia, friends who had suffered trial upon trial together in Alban under the women warriors, great for their cuteness and their weapons. Ferdia who he loved like no other man on this earth.
For four days they fought. At the end of each day a messenger came to tell me about the two that had shared so much together, fighting and lamenting what had come to pass because it was either that or be ruled by a woman and Cú Chualinn could never give in to that. Women were for loving not for ruling over him. That is how my husband’s thinking went. I thought the heart of me would burst with the news of that day that had ended with the warriors kissing each other as if it would heal best friends throwing casting spears into each other’s flesh. And I was told their healers worked together for them both on common ground that night as if that was news that would soothe me.
An account of the second day spilled more blood than the first as they had fought with broad spears and still they ended with kisses and tears after opening wounds the size of sliotars* in each other. All the healers could do was clot the flowing blood so they could find sleep and still they slept on common ground and I thought I would fall into pieces so scattered that there would be no part of Emer big enough to bury.
On the third day they fought with swords and ended with kisses full of mourning. Their healers held them upright that night to sleep on their feet for if they lay down they would never stand again. I walked from window to window knowing that I would never find a peaceful sleep again and I cried red tears out of my eyes.
On the last day they fought with curved swords knowing well it was close to an end. And as they did their last showing off to each other Cú Chualinn knew he had enough of hurting his friend. He asked his chariot driver to fire jibes and insults at him telling him he was at the butt of this fight so he would find his riastradh and come out of his tiredness and when he did he took up his most feared weapon: the Gáe Bolga*, the weapon that Ferdia did not have. He thrust it into his friend and it opened inside him and as Ferdia lay dying, the two friends said goodbye there at the ford over the river where my husband fought for Ulster until their warriors could awaken from Macha’s curse. And from my womb I bled away everything that was ever to be good again.
Oh he was so tired and quiet and sullen and though I gave him my love over and again, sorrow was swallowing him and there was nothing for me to do but to bathe him and feed him and wait for the apples to redden again.
I wonder now if the only form on this story is how my husband was so easily put to task. Like the day he was bidden to capture white birds on the grey lake for the woman at the king’s court. He didn’t want to, until the case was put to him that he would be soothing them with that gesture and did he not he feel sorry for them for being so in love with him. I wasn’t there to spot the luring so he went and on his way he met two women dressed in cloaks, red and green like apple trees. They hit him with sticks. Cú Chualinn had no defence for such an assault and so he fell into a weakness and asleep and into all the skulduggery that lives in bliss. It was what I always feared and I was right because even in the telling of it I am feeling a daze come over me. But I, have a tight hold on my wits and so it was that in his dreams he met Fann the beautiful daughter of Manannán Mac Lir* who had been loving him all the way from the other world. I always knew sleeping would be bad for him, hadn’t I said it. I was angry at the whole of ulster for leaving him there for a whole year. Why had they not scoured the world for healers to bring back the champion who had fought a war alone for them.
But sleep didn’t get the better of him in the end because in his weakness he sent for me. He knew I would bring him back. I came to him and I said, You are the champion of ulster, you are the husband of the best woman in Ireland, come back to me now and don’t worry because I will put a stop to that Fann who is sending you into gormlessness. And I did and I told her to go and she went away crying her eyes out and I told the men of ulster what I thought of them for leaving him there for so long. They walked backwards away from me so that I could see the fear an angry woman can put into a man.
But Cú Chualinn’s greatest wound was yet to come when his past arrived into our present. When his life in Alban came after him. When Scathach’s enemy Aife sent her son that was his son too: Connla, a child by him that I had never known about.
When he parted from Aife, she was going to have his child. All he gave her was a ring for their child to grow into so he would recognise him when he was a grown man. When Aife heard about our marriage she collected up her jealousy and kept it, until the boy became as great a warrior as he could be. She sent Connla to Ireland with his comrades and told him. Never turn back, never refuse a fight. Never say your name. She thought her son would kill his father without knowing who he was and that would avenge her. That’s the size of the harm a jealous woman can do.
A fighting ship was seen coming to the shores of Ireland and Cú Chualinn was sent and he met his own son in combat and he killed him without knowing who he was killing until he looked down over his young body and saw his own ring on his thumb.
And even after that, cruelty wasn’t finished with him when the children of the men he had killed in the war came after him. The three one eyed sisters, daughters of Cailitín, Erc son of Cairbre, and Lugaid son of Curoi and all he wanted to do was to go out and fight them so he could die to be with his son.
But King Conchobar took charge and said there’ll be no fighting for you until Conall Cearnach comes back to go with you and now you will go Glean-na-Bodhae the silent valley that blocks out all noise where you wont hear the taunting of the one eyed bitches or the sneers of your enemies.
But I knew he had stopped living, even for me, so I said to Niamh who was a young girl that I knew he loved, Go with him and console him until Conall Cearnach is back. But the hags had magic and one took on the form of Niamh and so he was tricked into fighting alone, again. And they came with their armies and the first to be killed was his beloved chariot driver Laeg who Cú Chualinn had trusted all his life. Next to go was his stallion, the Grey of Macha fell back into the grey lake from where he had been sent by the goddess herself. And the last of the swords then, were cast into my love and he crawled to a rock and he tied himself there with his belt so that it would never be said he had died lying down in front of his enemies.
Cú Chualinn was dying there for three days until the war crow landed on his shoulder. That was when his enemies knew he was dead, when the cowards came to take his head. But just at that moment the grey stallion of Macha came back out of the grey lake with a whinny loud enough to scorch the world so all they managed was to cut off was his hand and ran away without it. His beautiful young scarred hand that I put into mine and I touched the red that was still on his cheek and I washed the blood from his golden hair and kissed his sweet lips gone blue and I told him I loved him from the first day I saw him. I said I was sorry because I would have gone with him if he was a beggar, if he had never killed a soul to have me. And now where are you gone and is the only form on this story that you are dead. Oh I hope you are sleeping softly at last for that is where I want to be with you, far away from this harsh world where I thought we would be happy and far away from where I am now listening to the last few notes of birdsong that I will ever hear.
Painting by Kathy Tynan
- Emain Macha : Fort is an ancient ceremonial monument near Armagh, Northern Ireland. It was one of the great royal sites of pre-Christian Ireland and the capital of the Ulster at that time.
- Plamás : Empty Flattery
- Alban : Scotland
- Riastradh : A warriors battle frenzy
- Bricriu with the poison tongue : A druid known for his satire
- Meadhbh : See my retelling called Pillow Talk Post War
- Macha : See my retelling called The Curse of Macha
- War Crow : The goddess Morrigan associated with war and doom
- Sliotar : The ball used in the game of hurling. When Cú Chualinn was a child he was known for his great hurling skills.
- Gáe Bolga : A vicious weapon that entered a man with one wound and then opened into thirty barbs when inside him.
- Manannán Mac Lir : Irish God of the Sea