The Celtic Literature Collective

The Death of Muircertach mac Erca

When Muircertach son of Muiredach King of Ireland, was in the palace of Cletech, on the bank of Boyne of the Brug—and he had a wife, Duaibsech daughter of Duach Brazentongue King of Connacht—that king came forth one day to hunt on the border of the Brug, and his hunting companions left him alone on his hunting mound.

He had not been there long when he saw a solitary damsel beautifully formed, fair-headed, bright-skinned, with a green mantle about her, sitting near him on the turf mound; and it seemed to him that of womankind he had never beheld her equal in beauty and refinement; and all his body and his nature filled with love for her, for gazing at her it seemed to him that he would give the whole of Ireland for one night’s loan of her, so utterly did he love her at first sight. And he welcomed her as if she were known to him, and he asked tidings of her.

“I will tell thee,” she said. “I am the darling of Muircertach mac Erca, King of Erin, and to seek him I came here.”

That seemed good to Muircertach, and he said to her, “Dost thou know me, O damsel?”

“I do,” she answered; “for skilled am I in places more secret than this, and known to me art thou and the other men of Erin.”

“Wilt thou come with me, O damsel?” said Muircertach.

“I would go,” she answered, “provided my reward be good.”

“I will give thee power over me, O damsel,” said Muircertach.

“Thy word for this!” rejoined the damsel.

And he gave it at once and she sang this song:

This is power that is opportune,
But for the teachings of the clerics, etc.

“I will give thee a hundred of every herd, and a hundred drinking-horns, and a hundred cups, and a hundred rings of gold, and a feast every other night in the house of Cletech.”

“Nay,” said the damsel; “not so shall it be. But my name must never be uttered by thee, and Duaibsech, the mother of thy children, must not be in my sight, and clerics must never enter the house that I am in.”

“All this shalt thou have,” said the king, “for I pledged thee my word; but it would be easier for me to give you half of Ireland. And tell me truly,” said the king, “what name is thine, so that we may avoid it by not uttering it.”

And she said, “Sigh, Sough, Sin (Storm), Rough Wind, Winter­Night, Cry, Wail, Groan.”

So then he uttered this lay:

Tell me thy name, O damsel,
Thou most beloved, starbright lady, etc.

Each of these things was promised to her, and thus he pledged himself. Then they went together to the house of Cletech. Good was the arrangement of that house, and good were its household and staff, and all the nobles of the Clan of Niall, cheerfully and spiritedly, gaily and gladly consuming the tribute and wealth of every province in the trophy-decorated house of Cletech above the brink of the salmon-filled, ever-Ailech Neit or for Cletech a house the like of it. And give thou testimony as to this house,” said the king.

So she said:

Never has been built by a king over flood
A house like thy home above the Boyne, etc.

“What shall be done here now?” demanded the damsel.

“That which thou desirest,” replied Muircertach.

“If so,” said Sin, “let Duaibsech and her children leave the house, and let a man of every craft and art in Ireland come with his wife into the drinking-hall.”

Thus it was done, and each began praising his own craft and art, and a stave was made by every craftsman and artist who was therein:

Delightful, delightful the noble realm
Of Erin’s land, great is its rank, etc.

When the drinking was ended Sin said to Muircertach, “It is time now to leave the house to me, as hath been promised.” Then she put the Clan of Niall, and Duaibsech with her children, forth out of Cletecb; and this is their number, both men and women, two equally great and gallant battalions.

Duaibsech went with her children from Cletech to Tuilen, to seek her confessor the holy bishop Cairnech. When she got to Cairnech she uttered these words:

O cleric, bless my body,
I am afraid of death to-night, etc.

Go thou thyself, O cleric, there
To the children of Eogan and Conall, etc.

Thereafter Cairnech came to the Children of Eogan and Conall, and they went back together to Cletech, but Sin would not let them near the fortress. At this act the Clan of Niall were dis­tressed and mournful. Then Cairnech was greatly angered, and he cursed the house, and made a grave for the king, and said, “He whose grave this is hath finished; and truly it is an end to his realm and his princedom!” And he went to the top of the grave, and said:

The mound of these bells forever
Henceforward everyone will know,
The grave of the champion Mac Erca:
Not slack have been his journeyings.

A curse upon this hill,
On Cletech with hundreds of troops!
May neither its corn nor its milk be good,
May it be full of hatred and evil plight!

May neither king nor prince be in it,
May no one come out of it victoriously!
During my day I shall remember
The King of Erin’s grave in the mound.

So then Cairnech cursed the fortress and blessed a place therein, and then he came forth in grief and sorrow. And the Clan of Niall said to him, “Bless us now, O cleric, that we may go to our own country, for we are not guilty as regards thee.”

Cairnech blessed them and left a grant to them, namely, to the Clan Conall and the Clan Eogan, that whenever they had not the leadership or the kingship of Ireland, their power should be over every province around them; and that they should have the - succession of Ailech and Tara and Ulster; and that they should take no wage from any one, for this was their own inherent right, the kingship of Ireland; and that they should be without fetter or hostage, and that there should be decay upon the hostages if they absconded; and that they should gain victory in battle provided it was delivered for a just cause, and that they should have three standards, namely, the Cathach and the Bell of Patrick (i.e., of the Bequest), and the Misach of Cairnech, and that the grace of these reliquaries should be on any one of them against battle, as Cairnech left to them, saying:

My blessing on you till doomsday,
O Clan of Niall wontedly, etc.

Each of them went into his own stronghold and his own good place. 

Cairnech came on towards his monastery, and there met him great hosts, namely the descendants of Tadg son of Cian son of Ailill Olom. And they brought Cairnech with them to make their arrangement and their treaty with Muircertach mac Erca; and when the king was told of this, he came forth from his stronghold and bade them welcome. 

But when Muircertach espied the cleric with them, there came a great blush upon him, and he exclaimed, “Why hast thou come: to us, O cleric, after cursing us?”

“I have come,” he answered, “to make peace between the descendants of Tadg son of Cian and the descendants of Eogan mac Neill.”

Then a treaty was made between them, and Cairnech mingled the blood of both of them in one vessel, and wrote how they had made the treaty then. And Muircertach said to Cairnech:

Go, thou cleric, afar,
Be not near, against our will, etc.

Then when the treaty had been made, and when Cairnech had blessed them all, and left shortness of life and hell to him who should knowingly infringe the treaty, he quitted them and returned to his monastery. And the king went to his stronghold, and those hosts with him, to guard against the Clan of Niall. The king sat on his throne, and Sin sat on his right, and never on earth had there come a woman better than she in shape and appearance The king looked on her, and sought knowledge and asked questions of her, for it seemed to him that she was a goddess of great power, and he asked her what was the power that she had. Thus he spoke and she answered:

Tell me, thou ready damsel,
Believest thou in the God of the clerics?
Or from whom hast thou sprung in this world?
Tell us thy origin.

I believe in the same true God
Helper of my body against death’s attack;
Ye cannot work in this world a miracle
Of which I could not work its like.
I am the daughter of a man and a woman
Of the race of Adam and Eve;
I am fit for thee here,
Let no regret seize thee.
I could create a sun and a moon,
And radiant stars:
I could create men fiercely
Fighting in conflict.
I could make wine—no falsehood— 
Of the Boyne, as I can obtain it,
And sheep of stones,
And swine of ferns.
I could make silver and gold
In the presence of the great hosts:
I could make famous men
Now for thee.

“Work for us,” said the king, “some of these great miracles.” Then Sin went forth and arrayed two battalions equally great, equally strong, equally gallant; and it seemed to them that never came on earth two battalions that were bolder and more heroic than they, slaughtering and maiming and swiftly killing each other in the presence of every one.

“Seest thou that?” said the damsel; “indeed my power is in no wise a fraud.”

“I see,” said Muircertach, and he said:

I see two battalions bold and fair
On the plain in strife, etc.

Then the king with his household came into the fortress. When they had been a while seeing the fighting, some of the water of the. Boyne was brought to them, and the king told the damsel to make wine of it. The damsel then filled three casks with water, and cast a spell upon them; and it seemed to the king and his household that never came on earth wine of better taste or strength. So of the fern she made fictitious swine of enchantment, and then she gave the wine and the swine to the host, and they partook of them until, as they supposed, they were sated. Furthermore she promised that she would give them forever and forever the same amount; whereupon Muircertach said:

Hitherto never has come here
Food like the food ye see, etc.

So the descendants of Tadg [Teigue --MJ] son of Cian, when the partaking of the magical feast was ended, kept watch over the king that night. When he rose on the morrow he was as if he were in a decline, and so was every one else who had partaken of the wine and the ficti­tious magical flesh which Sin had arranged for that feast. And the king said:

O damsel, my strength has departed, 
My final burial has almost come etc.

Then the king said to her, “Show us something of thy art, O damsel!”

“I will do so indeed,” said she.

They fared forth, that is, Muircertach and all the hosts that were with him. Then Sin made of the stones blue men, and others with heads of goats; so that there were four great battalions under arms before him on the green of the Brug. Muircertach then seized his arms and his battle-dress and went among them like a swift, angry, mad bull, and forthwith took to slaughtering them and wounding them, and every man of them that be killed used to rise up after him at once. And thus he was killing them through the fair day till night. Though great were the rage and the wrath of the king, he was wearied thus, and he said:

I see a marvel on that side,
On the bushy pools of the river, etc.

So when the king was weary from fighting and smiting the hosts, he came sadly into the fortress, and Sin gave him magical wine and magical pig’s flesh. And he and his household partook of them, and at the end he slept heavily until morning, and when rising on the morrow be had neither strength nor vigor. And he said:

I am without strength, thou gentle lady, etc.
Give, says the chaste cleric, etc.

As they were saying this, they heard the heavy shout of the hosts and the multitudes, calling Muircertach forth and challenging him to battle. Then in his presence in the Brug were two battalions equally great, to wit, blue men in one of the two and headless men in the other. Muircertach was enraged at the challenge of the hosts, and he rose up suddenly, but fell exhausted on the floor, and uttered the lay:

A heavy shout, a noise which hosts make,
A battalion of blue men to the north of us,
Headless men who begin battle
In the glen to the south of us.

Weak is my strength: unto a host,
‘Twas many times that I have brought victory;
Oreat was the host, stark their division,
Uude their name, rough their shout.

Then he went into the Brug and charged through the hosts, and took to slaughtering and maiming them long through the day. There came Sin to them and gave Muircertach kingship over them, and he rested from battling. And then the king fared forth to Cletech, and Sin formed two great battalions between him and the fortress. When he saw them he charged through them and began to do battle against them.

Now when he was delivering that battle, then Cairnech sent Masan and Casan and Cridan to seek him, so that he might have God’s assistance, for the high saint knew of the oppression be suffered at that time. The clerics met him in the Brug, while he was hacking the stones and the sods and the stalks; and one of the clerics spoke and Muircertach answered:

Wherefore dost thou fell the stones,
O Muircertach, without reason?
We are sad that thou art strengthless
According to the will of an idolater working magic.

The cleric who attacked me,
I came into conflict with him:
I know not furthermore
That the stones are not alive.

Put Christ’s mysterious cross
Now over thine eyes:
Abate for a time thy furies:
Wherefore dost thou fell the stones?

Then the soldier’s royal wrath ceased, and his senses came to him, and he put the sign of the Cross over his face, and then he saw nothing there save the stones and sods of the earth. Then he asked tidings of the clerics, and said, “Why do you come?”

“We came,” they answered, “to meet thy corpse, for death is near thee.”

And he said:

Why came ye from the church,
O sons of full-melodious study? etc.

The clerics marked out a church there in the Brug, and told him to dig its trench in honor of the great Lord of the Elements. “It shall be done,” said he. Then he began digging the trench, so that it was then for the first time that the green of the Brug was injured. And he was telling the clerics his own tidings, and making God a fervent repentance. He said:

I give thanks to Mary’s son,
My wrath has ended here, etc.
Since I came over sea to Erin,
I remember the number of years,

I have never been a day—lasting the fame—
Without a hero’s head and a triumph over him, etc.

Two years I was east in Alba:
I have killed my grandsire:
I have brought a host there into troubles:
By my deeds Loin fell.

Two years I was afterwards
In kingship over Danes:
There has been no night thereat
Without the beads of two on stakes, etc.

Now after this confession the clerics blessed water for him, and be partook of the Body of Christ, and made to God a fervent repentance. And he told them to relate to Cairnech how be had made his confession and repentance. So then be said:

Faithful, faithful, a poor body of clay,
Remember, remember the form of the stag-beetles. 

The clerics remained for that night in the church of the Brug, and the king went to Cletech and sat there at his lady’s right hand. Sin asked him what bad interrupted his combat on that day. “The clerics came to me,” he answered, “and they put the sign of the Cross of Christ over my face, and then ii saw nothing save fern and stone and puff-balls. And since there was no one there to fight me, I came away.”

Then Sin spoke and Muircertach answered her:

Never believe the clerics,
For they chant nothing save unreason:
Follow not their unmelodious verses,
For they do not reverence righteousness.

Cleave not to the clerics of churches,
If thou desirest life without treachery:
Better sin I as a friend here:
Let not repentance come to thee.

I will be always along with thee,
O fair darned without evil plight;
Likelier to me is thy countenance
Than the churches of the clerics.

Then Sin beguiled his mind and came between him and the teachings of the clerics, and on that night she made a magical wine for the king and his troops. The seventh night she was at her magic, on the eve of Wednesday after Samain (Hallowe’en) precisely. When the hosts were intoxicated there came the sigh of a great wind. “This is ‘the sigh of a winter-night,”’ said the king.

And Sin said:

‘Tis I am Rough-Wind, Sin, a daughter of fair nobles:
Winter-night is my name, for every place together. 

Sigh and Wind: Winter-Night so, etc.

And then she caused a great snow-storm there; and never had come a noise of battle that was greater than the shower of thick snow that poured there at that time, and from the northwest precisely it came. Then the king came forth and went into the house again, and began reproaching the storm; and he said:

Evil is the night tonight,
Never came one equally bad, etc.

When the feasting ended, then the hosts lay down, and in no one of them was the strength of a woman in childbed. Then the king lay down on his couch, and a heavy sleep fell upon him. Then he made a great screaming out of his slumber and awoke from his sleep.

“What is that?” said the damsel.

“A great host of demons has appeared to me,” he answered; whereupon he said:

A Form of red fire has appeared to me, etc.

The house of Cletech as a fatal fire,
Round my head blazing forever,
The Clan of Niall in wrongful suffering
Through the spells of witches, etc.

The cry of a mighty host under red fire;
This is what has appeared to me.

The king rose up, for the vision which he beheld did not let him sleep, and he came forth out of the house, and in the little church of the Brug he saw a little fire by the clerics. He came to them and said, “There is neither strength nor vigor in me tonight.” And he related his vision and his dream. “And it is hard,” said he, “to show prowess tonight even though hosts of foreign enemies should attack me, because of the weakness in which we are and the badness of the night.”

So then the clerics began instructing him. He came in at once and there he said:

Full evil is this storm (sin) tonight
To the clerics in their camp;
They dare not ever sleep
From the roughness of the night’s storms.

Why sayest thou my name, O man, 
O son of Erc and Muiredach? 
Thou wilt find death—feast without disgrace— 
Sleep not in the House of Cletech.

Tell me, thou griefless lady,
What number of the hosts shall fall by me? 
Hide it not from me, tell without commandment, 
What number will fall by my right hand?

No one will fall by thee on the floor, 
O son of Erc of the high rank:
Thou, O king, hast surely ended:
Thy strength has gone to naught.

A great defect is my being without strength, 
O noble Sin of many forms, 
Often have I killed a fierce warrior, 
Though tonight I am under oppression.

Many have fallen by thy effort,
O son of Loin’s daughter!
Thou hast brought a multitude of hosts to silence;
Alas, that thou art in evil easel

“That is true, O damsel,” said he; “death is nigh me; for it was foretold that my death and the death of Loin my grandsire would be alike; for he did not fall in battle, but was burnt alive.~~

“Sleep then tonight,” said the damsel, “and leave to me to watch thee and to guard thee from the hosts; and, if it is thy fate, the house will not be burnt over thee tonight.”

“Truly there is coming with designs upon us Tuathal Maelgarb son of Cormac Caich son of Cairbre son of Niall of the Nine Hostages.”

“Though Tuathal with all his hosts be coming with designs upon thee, have thou no fear of him tonight,” said the damsel, “and sleep now.”

Then he went into his bed and asked the damsel for a drink, and she cast a sleeping charm upon that deceptive wine, so that when he drank a draught of it, it made him drunk and feeble, without sap or strength. Then he slept heavily and he saw a vision, to wit, that he went in a ship to sea, and his ship foundered, and a taloned griffin came to him and carried him into her nest, and then he and the nest were burnt, and the griffin fell with him.

The king awoke and ordered his vision to be taken to his foster-brother Dub Da Rinn son of the druid Saignen, and Dub Da Rinn gave him the meaning of it thus: “This is the ship wherein thou hast been, to wit, the ship of thy princedom on the sea of life, and thou steering it. This is the ship that foundered, and thy life is to come to an end. This is the taloned griffin that has carried thee into her nest, to wit, the woman that is in thy company, to make thee intoxicated, and to bring thee with her into her bed, and to detain thee in the house of Cletech so that it will burn over thee. Now the griffin that fell with thee is the woman who will die by reason of thee. This then is the significance of that vision.”

The king then slept heavily after Sin had cast the sleep-charm upon him. Now while he was in that sleep Sin arose and arranged the spears and the javelins of the hosts in readiness in the doors and then turned all their points toward the house. She formed by magic many crowds and multitudes throughout the house and the sidewalk, and then she entered the bed.

It was then that the king awoke from his sleep.

“What is it?” asked the damsel.

“A host of demons has appeared to me, burning the house upon me and slaughtering my people at the door.”

“Thou hast no hurt from that,” said the damsel; “it only seemed so.”

Now when they were thus in converse, they heard the crash of the burning house, and the shout of the host of demons and wizardry around it.

“Who is around the house?” asked the king.

Said Sin, “Tuathal Maelgarb son of Cormac Caicb son of Niall of the Nine Hostages, with his armies. He is here taking vengeance on thee for the battle of Granard.”

And the king knew not that this was untrue, and that no human host was surrounding the house. He arose swiftly and came to seek his arms, and found no one to answer him. The damsel went forth from the house, and he followed her at once, and he met a host in front of him, so that he went heavily through them. From the door he returned to his bed. The hosts thereupon went forth, and no one of them escaped without wounding or burning.

Then the king came again towards the door, and between him and it were the embers and hails of fire. When the fire had filled the doorway and all the house around and he found no shelter for himself, he got into a cask of wine, and therein he was drowned, as he went under it every second time for fear of the fire. Then the fire fell on his head, and five feet of his length was burnt; but the wine kept the rest of his body from burning.

The day after, when the morning came, the clerics Masan and Casan and Cridan came to the king and carried his body to the Boyne and washed it. Cairnech also came to him and made great grief in bewailing him, and said, “A great loss to Ireland today is Mac Erca, one of the four best men that have gained possession of Erin without trickery and without force, namely, Muircertach mac Erca, Niall of the Nine Hostages, Conn the Hundred-Fighter, and Ugaine Mor.” And the body was lifted up by Cairnech, to be carried to Tuilen and there interred.

Then Duaibsech, the wife of Muircertach, met the clerics while the corpse was among them, and she made a great, mournful lamentation, and struck her palms together, and leaned her back against the ancient tree in Anach Reil; and a burst of gore broke from her heart in her breast, and straightway she died of grief for her husband. Then the clerics put the queen’s corpse aloig with the corpse of the king. And then said Cairnech:

Duaibsecb, Mac Erca’s noble wife,
Let her grave be dug by you here, etc.

And then the queen was buried and her grave was made. The king was buried near the church on the north side, and Cairnech declared the king’s character and uttered this lay:

The grave of the King of Ailech will abide forever, In Tuilen, every pine will hear it, eta.

When the clerics had finished the burial they saw coming toward them a solitary woman, beautiful and shining, robed in a green mantle with its fringe of golden thread. A smock.of priceless silk was about her. She reached the place where the clerics were and saluted them, and so the clerics saluted her. And they perceived upon her an appearance of sadness and sorrow and they recognized that she it was that had ruined the king. Cairnech asked tidings of her and said:

Tell us thy origin,
O damsel, without darkening;
Thou hast wrought our shame,
Though beauteous is thy body:
Thou hast killed the King of Tara,
With many of his households,
By an awful, evil deed, etc.

Then the clerics asked her who she herself was, or who was her father or her mother, and what cause she had from the king that she should ruin him.

“Sin” she replied, “is my name, and Sige son of Dian son of Tren is my father. Muircertach mac Erca killed my father, my mother, and my sister in the Battle of Cerb on the Boyne, and also destroyed in that battle all the Old-Tribes of Tara and my fatherland.” So then Cairnech said and Sin replied:

Say, oh Sin, a statement without question, 
Tell truly who was thy father, etc.

Not dearer to thee was thy own father
Than Muircertach descendant of Niall was to me, etc.

Myself will die of grief for him,
The high-king of the western world,
And for the guilt of the sore tribulations
That I brought on the sovereign of Erin.

I made poison for him, alas!
Which overpowered the king of the noble hosts, etc.

Then she confessed to Cairnech, and to God she made fervent repentance, as was taught her, and she went in obedience to Cairnech, and straightway died of grief for the king. So Cairnech said that a grave should be made for her, and that she should be put under the award of the earth. It was done as the cleric ordered, and he said

Sin: not dear were her doings
Until this day in which we are, etc.

As for Cairnech, he showed great care for Muircertach’s soul, but he did not bring it out of hell. Howbeit he composed a prayer which from its beginning is called Parce mihi Domine (“Spare me, O Lord”), etc., and he repeated it continually for the sake of the soul of the king. Whereupon an angel came to Cairnech and told him that whoever would sing that prayer continually would without doubt be a dweller in Heaven. So then said the angel:

Whoever should sing strongly
The prayer of Cairnech of the mysteries, 
‘Twould be enough to succor
Judas, who was the worst ever born, etc.

So far the Death of Muircertach, as Cairnech related it, and Tigernach and Ciaran and Mochta and Tuathal Maelgarb; and it was written and revised by those holy clerics, commemorating it for every one from that time to this.