The Celtic Literature Collective

The Little Brawl at Almhain

It was a pleasantly sonorous banquet on the greatest scale that by Finn son of Cumall son of Trenmor was convoked in Leinster’s spacious Almhain: which feast being now prepared and all ready for the eating, the good men and great gentles of the Fianna came to enjoy it. Now they that apart from Finn were the noblest of these, and the most honourable, were: the mighty Goll mac Morna; Ossian son of Finn, Oscar son of Ossian; mac Lugach of the terrible hand, Dermot of the light­some face, and Caeilte son of Ronan; the vigorous children of Dubhdíorma, the children of Smól, and Dubhdádboirenn’s people; Goll gulban, the swift-footed Corr and his sons: Conn, Donn, Aedh and Anacan; Ivor son of the valorous and victorious Crimthann, and two that were sons to the king of Leinster (they both also standing to Finn in the relation of alumni), with Coirell grandson of Conbran. To the feast came likewise two that were sons to the king of Scotland, and along with them divers bold impetuous scions from among the sons of the whole world’s kings and chiefest nobles.

Thither came moreover the Fianna of all Ireland; then Finn sat in the chief captain’s seat at the fort’s one mid-side, the mirthful Goll mac Morna at the other, and under either of them the chieftains of his own folk; after which every man of the company, according to his degree and patrimony, sat in his own appointed and befitting place, even as everywhere and at all times previous had been their use and wont.

Altogether marvelously then the servitors rose to serve and to supply the hail: they laid hold on jewelled drinking horns, studded (every flashing and elaborate goblet of them) with fair crystalline gems and wrought with cunning workmanship in shining patterns, and to those good warriors all were poured strong fermented draughts of smooth luscious liquors: then merriment waxed fast in their youths, audacity and spirit in their heroes; in their women, kindness and gentleness; in their poets, knowledge and the gift of prophecy.

Straight and promptly now a crier stood up and, for the inhibition of serfs and pilferers, rattled a coarse iron chain; a long one of antique silver he shook to check the gentles and chief nobles of the Fianna, likewise their erudite by profession, and all listened hushed in silence. Fergus Truelips, Finn’s poet and the Fianna’s, rose and before Finn son of Cumall sang the songs and lays and sweet poems of his ancestors and forbears. With the rarest of all rich and costly things Finn and Ossian, Oscar and mac Lughach, rewarded the bard wondrously; whereat he went on to Goll mac Momna and in front of him recited the bruidhne or ‘Forts,’ the toghla or ‘Destructions,’ the tána or ‘Cattle-liftings,’ the tochmarca or ‘Wooings,’ of his elders and progenitors: by operation of which artistic efforts the sons of Morna grew jovial and of good cheer.

Here Goll said: “where is my runner?” and: “here am I, royal captain,” she made answer. “Hast thou brought me from the Danes my ‘hand-tribute’?” “Surely I have,” she said and, so soon as she had spoken, rose promptly and on the hail’s floor before Goll deposited as it were the bulk of some huge swine, or a stalwart warrior’s full load, of the beautiful twice-molten [i.e. double refined] gold. He loosed the covering that confined this tribute and, in presence of the concourse, spilt on the ground those noble treasures of great beauty. Goll paid Fergus accord­ing to his wont; nor of all who that night were in Almhain’s fort was there knowledgeable, keen-worded poet, skilled rhymer accustomed to rich guerdons, sweetly melodious harper, well instructed neatly expressive antiquary or other man of science whatsoever, whether of the Eirennachs or Albanachs, but Goll gave him largesse of gold, or of silver, or of divers costly things.

Finn spoke then, saying: “how long, Goll, hast thou this tribute on them of Lochlann: my own rent too being upon them, and a warrior there safeguarding my rent and tribute, my hunting and rights of venery? Ciaran son of Lathairne he is: a hard-bitten hero in the fight, and in his own household are ten hundred that are valiant.”

Goll (for he perceived that Finn was moved by anger and by envy at him) spoke to Cumall’s son, saying: “a long time now, Finn, I have that tribute on the Lochlannachs: even from the hour in which thy father forced on me war and contention, and the monarch of Ireland with his provincials joined Cu mall against me, and I perforce must quit Ireland for them. I went my ways into Britain: which country I took, killed the king himself, and made massacre of his people; but Cumall expelled me out of it. Thence I progressed to Finnlochlann, the king of which, with his household, fell by me; but again Cumall ejected me. On I went, into Scotland: the king of the land fell by my deed, and still Cumall drove me out. I entered into Saxonland: the king of Saxons with his whole household perished by me, yet Cumall put me out of that. But [at last] I came to the battle of Cnucha, and there thy father fell by me; at which very time it was that I acquired this rent upon the Lochlannachs and, when I had pene­trated to the king of Danes’ hold, brought away thyself and thy fifteen men along with thee: the king’s wife being enamoured of thee, and thou therefore after lying for a whole year captive in an underground dungeon, while they had a day fixed on which to put both thee and thy party to death. And by thy hand, Finn, I assaulted the Danish king’s hold: himself, Eoghan More, I slew, and cut off his people, taking from them their gold and their silver. I left a king over the Lochlannachs: Tine son of Trioscall; imposed on them a tribute to myself, and there it is. Now, Finn,” continued Goll, “no ‘tribute of the hand’ [i.e. won by the strong hand] it is that thou hast on them: but in their country enjoyest simple stipend of Fian-command-in-chief and stewardship of vigilance, which I will not to thy detriment impair. Moreover, Finn, in regard of this rent be not jealous of me: for though I had more than that, ‘tis to thee and to all Ireland I would give it!”

Angrily and fiercely Finn retorted, saying: “in this narrative, Goll, thou hast confessed that from the city of Beirbhe thou camest to Cnucha, and there slewest my father; and a bold thing it is for thee to tell me so.” “By thine own hand,” quoth Goll, “wert thou to do me dishonour as did thy father, the very same treatment that I gave Cumall is that which I would mete to thee.” “Goll,” answered Finn, “my power were good not to ‘let that go with thee’: for as against every one man in thy household, I have a hundred warriors.” “So too thy father was,” said Goll, “and I avenged my dishonour on him; in like wise also would I do to thee, didst thou but deserve it of me.”

Cairell Whiteskin, grandson of Baeiscne, spoke [mockingly], saying: “many a man, Goll, thou hast quelled in Finn mac Cumall’s household!” Conan mae? (or ‘the bald’) mac Morna, man of imprecations, spoke and said: “by my weapons I swear that, however few he might have with him, Goll never yet was without having in his household a hundred and one men each one of whom would have quelled thee!" “And is it of them that thou art, thou crooked-spoken, sconce-peeled Conan?" asked Cairell. “Of them just, thou comb-wearing, nail-scratch­ing, rugged-skinned Cairell of little strength; and I would undertake to prove on thy person that Finn [when he spoke] was in the wrong."

With that, Cairell stood up and upon Conan discharged a furious buffet; not tamely was this responded to by the patient, but right in among his forehead and his teeth [i.e. over his whole face] he dealt Cairell another. At all events, they then administered each to the other’s skin and entire body a series of rapid and spiteful stabs, so that from that great struggle these good men’s breasts and chests were well mangled.

Then rose two sons of Ossian’s son Oscar: Echtach and Illann; of their shields they made as it had been close dense bulwarks round about them, and in the mêlée inflicted upon Conan deep thrusts, hardly to be healed. Which when Goll mac Morna’s two sons saw, that Conan was in that extremity namely,. they too stood up and in the fight wounded Oscar’s progeny.

Then the strong lion, Oscar of the great deeds, son of Ossian, rose and in his sumptuous gold-adorned battle-gear harnessed his comely body: assuming upon his neck a fine, artfully wrought. tippet of proof; his great shield on his left arm and, in the other, hand, his hard straight-bladed sword; in which guise, impetuously. and with high courage he went to relieve his sons and Cairell his kinsman. He never bared his sword however, but betook him to lay on sledging-blows: that is to say, in this sudden outbreak he used in either hand a sledge-hammer; and Conan said to him: “the gods I thank for it that thou, Oscar, in fair fight comest in my way, for I will e’en snip thy life’s thread!"

Then Oscar and Conan encountered, and their meeting’s upshot was that Conan was worsted and that Oscar forced from him a groan of distress. Conan looked at Art Oge mac Morna, that powerful champion stood up, and by him Oscar was wounded. This might not be endured by Finn’s son, Ossian, and by him Art Oge was hurt. Garbfoltach or ‘Rough-hair’ mac Morna rose, and by him Ossian was wounded. The bold mac Lugach rising invested himself in his fighting garb, and Garbfoltach was hurt by him. The broadchested Garadh mac Morna stood up, and by him mac Lugach was wounded.

At this point Finn’s son Faelan, having with him his three hundred kinsmen, rose and resolutely entered the press; by whom all the sons of Morna were put from their places.

Then rose that hardfighting pillar of battle, Goll mac Morna, and took on him his vesture of battle: about his neck, his hand- some tippet of the best; upon his smooth skin, his white-bordered hempen jack; in his pinknailed fist, his sharp-pointed sword, solid, well-balanced for the stroke; his ample bossy shield on his left arm. Irresistibly he burst into the fray, and neither flaming taper nor flaring all-illuminating torch in the great hail he left unextinguished, nor a single table but he made small disinte­grated fragments of it.

Triumphantly now Finn vented his battle-cry or ‘forest-shout,’ and on all Ireland’s Fianna enjoined to utterly quench and unsparingly to kill the sons of Morna [i.e. all clan-Morna].

Then around themselves the Fianna made of their shields -- close, solid palisades; Finn put himself at the head of those men of might, and the two parties fell unrelentingly to bone-splitting of each other. A fermentation of anger took Goll, and to shelter his people he turned himself into a shield, massive, infrangible the various bands and their chieftains waxed furious; the chain pions, reckless; the combatants increased and, from the tough unloving battle which they fought together, the martial men were full of hurts. Plentiful there the blood was, a-flowing in streams down the sides of free-born offsprings; gashes deep and incurable covered those destructive and not-to-be-parted phalanxes. An ill place it had been for feeble invalid, or delicate taper-fingered woman, or aged senior of long date, to be in: the little brawl at Almhain on that night, a-listening to groans of young and old, of high and low, as they lay maimed, faint and infirm, or were stricken down and cut up. At this game then they endured from the first of night to rising of the morrow’s sun, nor ever gave each other quarter.

Then rose the sapient trenchant-worded poet--the richly-rewarded good man of verse--Fergus Truelips and, together with him, the Fianna’s men of science all, and to those corn panies of men-at-arms chanted their duans, their skilled rhymes and eloquent panegyrics, with a view to check and to assuage them.

Thereupon, with the poets’ music, they ceased from their hacking and hewing, and suffered their weapons to fall on the ground; these arms the poets picked up, and between their owners they effected a reconciliation. Finn however affirmed that with clan-Morna he would not make peace until he should have had the king of Ireland’s judgment in the matter, that of Aillbhe, daughter of said king Cormac son of Art son of Conn of the Hundred Battles, of Cairbre Lifechair [his son and] Ireland’s heir, of Fithal and of Flathri; the crowning judgment to lie with Fintan son of Bóchna: all which Goll said that he would concede to him. They bound themselves (the poets going security for them) to abide by that peace, and appointed a certain day: one fortnight from that present, upon Tara’s green.

The Fianna’s losses were examined now, and those of Finn’s people were eleven hundred men and women: for many a most noble and hitherto fortunate lady, and lovely woman of many charms, and gentle maid of sweet discourse, and gallant warrior, were fallen there; while many a slashed nose, many an eye ruptured and ear lopped, many a leg shorn through the bone, arm chopped, carcass mangled, and side bored in holes, had such of Finn mac Cumall’s people as still lived.

As for Goll and his good folk, the clan-Morna, of them were wanting none but eleven men and fifty women; it was not that the women were slain however, but that with fear they simply died. Every one of them that was curable was put to be treated and, for as many as on either side were slain, very deep and broad-sodded graves were dug.

Then that great house of Almhain was cleansed, and again every one of them seated himself in order of nobility and patri­mony: in which guise they pass fourteen days, and at such period’s end repair to Tara. Cormac and Cairbre, Aillbe and Fithal, Flathri and Fintan mac Bochna, sat in the place of judgment, and first of all Finn addressed himself to tell his tale; but Goll objected: “it is not to thee, Finn, that willingly we would assign the recital of any such matters that should be betwixt us, seeing that as against me thou wouldst turn a he into truth, and of truth make a lie; wherefore to Fergus Truelips entrust we either one of us the statement of his case, and let him by his gods swear to do justice between us.”

Finn consented, and Fergus guaranteed to deal equitably; then he told how it was Cairell first that had lent Conan a buffet; that Goll’s two sons came to Conan’s aid, and Oscar to succour his own; that with that the Fianna in general and clan­Morna rose at each other, and from night’s beginning to sunrise on the morrow ruthlessly engaged in mutual bone-hewing; that Finn’s losses during the time consisted in eleven hundreds of men and women, clan-Morna’s being eleven men and fifty women; over and above which, in virtue of this onfall a great number of them on both sides were badly hurt.

Cormac said: “considering the numbers that were against them, I wonder at the smallness of clan-Morna’s loss;" to which Eergus answered that it was Goll had interposed to cover his own people: “and such, O king of Ireland, is the history of this broil,” he ended. Then Flathri pronounced: “damages to clan­Morna; for in this cause it was upon them that the aggression was committed.” “That is no decision of a jurist’s son,” said Cormac: “for to his lord every simple warrior owes obedience.” “That,” said Flathri, “holds good for the ‘white-striking’ [i.e. for the fisticuffs]; not so for the bloodshed.” Fithal pronounced: "inasmuch as they were the first aggrieved, we hold clan-Mama exempt from payment of all damage; farther: Finn also we exempt, in consideration of his copious loss.” Fintan son of Bochna assented: “that is the award of a jurist’s son;" Cormac likewise, and Cairbre, commended the same.

This done, the Fianna were summoned to the spot, the judgment was imparted to them, and on this wise peace was made between the parties. So far then ‘the Little Brawl at Almhain.’