The Celtic Literature Collective

The Debility of the Ulstermen

There lived on the heights and in the solitudes of the hills a rich cow-lord of the Ulstermen, Crunnchu mac Agnoman by name. In his solitude great wealth accumulated to him. He had four sons around him. His wife, the mother of his children, died. For a long time he lived without a wife. As he was one day alone on the couch in his house, he saw coming into the mansion a young stately woman, distinguished in her appearance, clothing, and demeanor. Macha was the woman’s name, as scholars say. She sat herself down on a chair near the hearth, and stirred the fire. She passed the whole day there, without exchanging a word with any one. She fetched a kneading-trough and a sieve and began to prepare food. As the day drew to an end she took a vessel and milked the cow, still without speaking.

When she returned to the house, she turned right about, went into his kitchen and gave directions to his servants; then she took a seat next to Crunnchu. Each one went to his couch; she remained to the last and put out the fire, turned right about again and laid herself down beside him, laying her hand on his side. For a long time they dwelt together. Through his union with her, he increased yet more in wealth. His handsome appearance was delightful to her.

Now the Ulstermen frequently held great assemblies and meet­ings. All, as many as could go, both of men and women, went to the gathering. “I, too,” said Crunnchu, “will go like every one else to the assembly.”

“Go not,” said his wife, “lest thou run into danger by speaking of us; for our union will continue only if thou dost not speak of me in the assembly.”

“I will not utter a word,” said Crunnchu.

The Ulstermen gathered to the festival, Crunnchu also going pith the rest. It was a brilliant festival, not alone in regard to the people, but as to horses and costumes also. There took place races and combats, tournaments, games, and processions.

At the ninth hour the royal chariot was brought upon the ground, and the king’s horses carried the day in the contests. Then bards appeared to praise the king and the queen, the poets and the druids, his household, the people and the whole assembly. The people cried: “Never before have two such horses been seen at the festival as these two horses of the king: in all Ireland there is not a swifter pair!”

“My wife runs quicker than these two horses,” said Crunnchu. “Seize the man,” said the king, “and hold him until his wife can be brought to the race-contest!”

He was made fast, and messengers were despatched from the king to the woman. She bade the messengers welcome, and asked them what had brought them there. “We have come for you that you may release your husband, kept prisoner by the king’s com­mand, because he boasted that you were swifter of foot than the king’s horses.”

“My husband has spoken unwisely,” said she; “it was not fitting that he should say so. As for me, I am ill, and about to be delivered of a child.”

“Alas for that,” said the messengers, “for thy husband will be put to death if thou dost not come.”

“Then I must needs go,” she said.

Forthwith she went to the assembly. Every one crowded round to see her. “it is not becoming,” said she, “that I should be gazed at in this condition. Wherefore am I brought hither?”

“To run in contest with the two horses of the king,” shouted the multitude.

“Alas!” she cried, “for I am close upon my hour.”

“Unsheath your swords and hew yonder man to death,” said the king.

“Help me,” she cried to the bystanders, “for a mother hath borne each one of you. Give me, O King, but a short delay, until I am delivered.”

“It shall not be so,” replied the king.

“Then shame upon you who have shown so little respect for me,” she cried. “Because you take no pity upon me, a heaviei. infamy will fall upon you.”

“What is thy name?” asked the king.

“My name,” said she, “and the name of that which I shall bear, will for ever cleave to the place of this assembly. I am Macha, daughter of Sainreth mac Imbaith (Strange son of Ocean). Bring up the horses beside me!” It was done, and she outran the horses and arrived first at the end of the course. Then she gave vent to a cry in her pain, but God helped her, and she bore twins, a son and a daughter, before the horses reached the goal. Therefore is the place called Emain Macha, the "Twins of Macha."

All who heard that cry were suddenly seized with weakness, so that they had no more strength than the woman in her pain. And she said, “From this hour the ignominy that you have inflicted upon me will redound to the shame of each one of you. When a time of oppression falls upon you, each one of you who dwells in this province will be overcome with weakness, as the weakness of a woman in childbirth, and this will remain upon you for five days and four nights; to the ninth generation it shall be so.”

Thus it was. It continued from the days of Crunnchu to the days of Fergus mac Donnell, or till the time of Forc, son of Dallan, son of Mainech, son of Lugaid. Three classes there were upon whom the debility had no power, namely, the children and the women of Ulster, and Cu Chulainn, because he was not descended from Ulster; none, also, of those who were outside the province were afflicted by it.

This is the cause of the Noinden Ulad, or the Debility of the Ulstermen.