The Celtic Literature Collective

The Death of Conchobar

Once upon a time the men of Ulster were greatly intoxicated in Emain Macha. Thence there arose great contentions and com­parisons of trophies between them, especially between Conall and Cu Chulainn and Loegaire. “Bring me,” said Conall, “the brain of Mesgegra, so that I may talk to the competing warriors.” At that time it was a custom with the men of Ulster to take the brains out of the head of every warrior whom they slew in single combat, and to mix lime with them, so that they were made into hard balls. And whenever they were in contention or at comparison of trophies, these were brought to them, so that they had them in their hands.

“Well, O Conchobar,” said Conall, “until the competing warriors perform a deed like this in single combat, they are not capable of comparing trophies with me.”

“That is true,” said Conchobar.

Then the brain was put on the shelf where it was always kept. On the morrow every one went his way to his sport. Then Cet mac Matach of Connacbt went upon a round of adventures in Ulster. This Cet was the most troublesome pest that was in Ireland. This is the way be went, across the green of Emain, having with him three warriors’ beads of the men of Ulster.

While the jesters of Emain were at play with the brain of Mes­gegra, one of them mentioned to the other what it was. Cet heard it, and snatched the brain out of the hand of one of them and carried it off; for be knew that it had been foretold of Mesgegra that he would avenge himself after his death. In every battle and in every combat which the men of Connacht had with the men of Ulster, Cet used to carry the brain in his girdle to see whether he could compass a famous deed by slaying a man of Ulster with it.

Once then Cet went eastwards until he took a drove of cows from the Men of Ros. The men of Ulster overtook him in pursuit. Then the men of Connacht came up from the other side to rescue him, and a battle was fought between them. Conchobar himself went into the battle. It was then that the women of Connacht begged Conchobar to come aside so that they might see his shape. For there was not on earth the shape of a human being like the shape of Conchobar, both for beauty and figure and dress, for size and symmetry and proportion, for eye and hair and whiteness, for wisdom and manner and eloquence, for raiment and nobleness and equipment, for weapons and wealth and dignity, for bearing and valor and race. Conchobar was faultless indeed. However, it was by the advice of Cet that the women importuned Conchobar. Then he went aside alone to be seen by the women.

Cet went into the midst of the crowd of women. He adjusted the brain of Mesgegra in the sling and threw it so that it hit the crown of Conchobar’s bead, so that two-thirds of it entered his head, and he fell upon his head forward to the ground. The men of Ulster ran towards him, and carried him off from Cet. On the brink of the Ford of Daire Da Baeth it was that Conchobar fell. His grave is there where he fell, and a pillar-stone at his head, and another at his feet.

The men of Connacht were then routed to Sce Aird na Con. The men of Ulster were driven eastwards again to the Ford of Daire Da Baeth. “Let me be carried out of this,” said Conchobar. “I shall give the kingship of Ulster to any one who will carry me as far as my house.”

“I will carry you,” said Cenn Berraide, his own attendant. He put a cord around him and carried him on his back to Ardachad in Sliab Fuait. The attendant’s heart broke within him. Hence the saying “Cenn Barraide’s kingship over Ulster,” to wit, the king upon his back for half the day.
However, the fight was kept up after the king from one hour of the day to the same hour of the next day, after which the men of Ulster were routed.

In the meantime Conchobar’s physician Fingen was brought to him. It was he who would know from the smoke that arose from a house how many were ill in that house, and every disease that was in it.

“Well,” said Fingen, “if the stone is taken out of your head, you will be dead forthwith. If it is not taken out, however, I would heal you, but it will be a blemish for you.”

“It is easier for us,” said the men of Ulster, “to bear the blemish than his death.”

His head was then healed; and it was stitched with thread of gold, for the color of Conchobar’s hair was the same as the color of gold. And the physician said to Conchobar that he should be on his guard lest anger should come on him, and that he should not mount a horse, that he should not have connection with a woman, that he should not eat food greedily, and that he should not run.

In that doubtful state, then, he was as long as he lived, seven years; and he was not capable of action, but remained in his seat only, until he heard that Christ had been crucified by the Jews. At that time a great trembling came over the elements, and the heavens and earth shook with the enormity of the deed that was then done, Jesus Christ, the son of the living God, to be crucified without guilt.

“What is this,” said Conchobar to his druid. “What great evil is being done on this day?”

“That is true, indeed,” said the druid (who then tells the story of the Crucifixion).

“Awful is that deed,” said Conchobar.

“That man now,” said the druid, “was born in the same night in which you were born, on the eighth before the calends of Janu­ary, though the year was not the same.”
It was then that Conchobar believed. And he was one of the two men that believed in God in Ireland before the coming of the Faith, Morann being the other man.

(The story, which ends with a piece of rhetorical fantasy supposed to have been uttered by Conchobar, is clearly incomplete, for it does not tell of Conchobar’s death. The following paragraph, taken from another version, gives the conclusion.)

And thereupon Conchobar said, “The men of the world would know what I can do in fighting against the Jews for the sake of the crucifixion of Christ, if I were near Him.”

Then he rose and made the onslaught, until Mesgegra’s brain jumped out of his head, so that Conchobar died forthwith. Hence the Gaels say that Conchobar was the first pagan who went to Heaven in Ireland, for the blood that sprang out of his head was a baptism to him. And then Conchobar’s soul was taken out of Hell until Christ encountered it as He brought the captive host out of Hell, so that Christ took the soul of Conchobar with Him to Heaven.