Cuchulain fights the ocean waves

From Lady Augusta Gregory’s "XVIII. The Only Son of Aoife", from Cúchullin of Muirthemne (1902).

THE time Cúchulainn came back from Alban, after he had learned the use of arms under Scathach, he left Aoife, the queen he had overcome in battle, with child.

And when he was leaving her, he told her what name to give the child, and he gave her a gold ring, and bade her keep it safe till the child grew to be a lad, and till his thumb would fill it; and he bade her to give it to him then, and to send him to Ireland, and he would know he was his son by that token. She promised to do so, and with that Cúchulainn went back to Ireland.

It was not long after the child was born, word came to Aoife that Cúchulainn had taken Emer to be his wife in Ireland. When she heard that, great jealousy came on her, and great anger, and her love for Cúchulainn was turned to hatred; and she remembered her three champions that he had killed, and how he had overcome herself, and she determined in her mind that when her son would come to have the strength of a man, she would get her revenge through him.

She told Conlaoch her son nothing of this, but brought him up like any king’s son; and when he was come to sensible years, she put him under the teaching of Scathach, to be taught the use of arms and the art of war. He turned out as apt a scholar as his father, and it was not long before he had learnt all Scathach had to teach.

Then Aoife gave him the arms of a champion, and bade him go to Ireland, but first she laid three commands on him: the first never to give way to any living person, but to die sooner than be made turn back; the second, not to refuse a challenge from the greatest champion alive, but to fight him at all risks, even if he was sure to lose his life; the third, not to tell his name on any account, though he might be threatened with death for hiding it. She put him under geasa, that is, under bonds, not to do these things.

Then the young man, Conlaoch, set out, and it was not long before his ship brought him to Ireland, and the place he landed at was Baile’s Strand, near Dundealgan.

It chanced that at that time Conchobar, the High King, was holding court there, for it was a convenient gathering-place for his chief men, and they were settling some business that belonged to the government of that district. …

Cúchulainn rose up then and went to where Conlaoch was, and he still handling his arms. And Cúchulainn asked him his name and said: ‘It would be well for you, young hero of unknown name, to loosen yourself from this knot, and not to bring down my hand upon you, for it will be hard for you to escape death.’ But Conlaoch said: ‘If I put you down in the fight, the way I put down your comrade, there will be a great name on me; but if I draw back now, there will be mockery on me, and it will be said I was afraid of the fight. I will never give in to any man to tell the name, or to give an account of myself. But if I was not held with a command,’ he said, ‘there is no man in the world I would sooner give it to than to yourself, since I saw your face.

But do not think, brave champion of Ireland, that I will let you take away the fame I have won, for nothing.’

With that they fought together, and it is seldom such a battle was seen, and all wondered that the young lad could stand so well against Cúchulainn. …

But Cúchulainn threw his spear, the Gae Bulga, at him with all his might, and it struck the lad in the side and went into his body, so that he fell to the ground.

And Cúchulainn said: ‘Now, boy, tell your name and what you are, for it is short your life will be, for you will not live after that wound.’

And Conlaoch showed the ring that was on his hand, and he said: ‘Come here where I am lying on the field, let my men from the east come round me. I am suffering for revenge. I am Conlaoch, son of the Hound, heir of dear Dundealgan; I was bound to this secret in Dun Scathach, the secret in which I have found my grief.’ …

And then the sorrow of death came upon Conlaoch, and Cúchulainn took his sword and put it through him, sooner than leave him in the pain and the punishment he was in.

And then great trouble and anguish came on Cúchulainn …

‘I am the father that killed his son, the fine green branch; there is no hand or shelter to help me.

‘I am a raven that has no home; I am a boat going from wave to wave; I am a ship that has lost its rudder; I am the apple left on the tree; it is little I thought of falling from it; grief and sorrow will be with me from this time.’

Then Cúchulainn stood up and faced all the men of Ulster.

‘There is trouble on Cúchulainn,’ said Conchobar; ‘he is after killing his own son, and if I and all my men were to go against him, by the end of the day he would destroy every man of us. Go now,’ he said to Cathbad, the Druid, ‘and bind him to go down to Baile’s Strand, and to give three days fighting against the waves of the sea, rather than to kill us all.’

So Cathbad put an enchantment on him, and bound him to go down. And when he came to the strand, there was a great white stone before him, and he took his sword in his right hand, and he said: ‘If I had the head of the woman that sent her son to his death, I would split it as I split this stone.’ And he made four quarters of the stone.

Then he fought with the waves three days and three nights, till he fell from hunger and weakness, so that some men said he got his death there. But it was not there he got his death, but on the plain of Muirthemne.