There was a lordly hospitaller among the Lagin people. In fact, most of the manuscripts have rí, »king«; only one has ríbríugu, »king-hospitaller« or »lord-hospitaller«. However, the latter is far closer to the actual situation depicted in the story, and it is generally thought, according with Thurneysen, that ríbríugu is the correct reading; I too adhere to this opinion. A bríugu was one who offered hospitality to travellers and hosts, for which he obtained the judicial status of a king, as well as several particular privileges. It is not known exactly how a person came to be a bríugu, or why anyone would have wanted to be one, as it could be an immensely expensive undertaking — most of the stories involving a bríugu in the Ulster Cycle involve his ruin and that of his hostel — but it is believed to have been a voluntary undertaking by a man of large means and low status, in order to raise his social and legal standing. Comparisons with the modern day are left as an exercise for the reader.
Ailbe the name of the hound. Oddly enough, Ailbe means »fair lady«, but it is obvious from pronouns, declensions, and the other words used to refer to the hound that it is male. If there is an explanation to this it is not entirely apparent.
This hound guarded all Lagin. Compare the hound of Culann the smith in the Táin Bó Cúailnge, appearing in the Boyhood Deeds of Cú Chulainn.
Each man in his turn would thrust the fork into the cauldron. One bad annotated translation of this story that I once saw online considered this to be somehow an oddity or absurdity considering the laws of hospitality; on the contrary, it is by all evidence a very ancient custom in its basic outline, and may have originated as a way to prevent a guest from unscrupulously overtaxing the hospitality of the host. A quite curious similar episode can be found in the fairy-tale The Shee an Gannon and the Grugach Gaire, a story of much, much later date; the episode there seems to have begun as a sort of pastiche of the tradition, and then been altered through retelling by people unaware of the custom. The story in question is notable for containing several such admixtures of very old and entirely invented elements.
Tossing and turning from one side to the other when he tried to sleep. The story actually says only »tossing and turning from one side to the other«; the explicit mention of sleep is an interpolation of my own in order to explain it. As poor as this translation generally is in terms of literality, I do try to avoid alterations this severe, but in this case the intention is insufficiently clear without it, I felt. At least one of the newer manuscripts makes a similar interpolation, but before the phrase rather than after it: »without food, without drink, without sleeping«.
A disturbance of sleep came upon Mac Dathó in his house. In the original, the lines set apart are written in trisyllabic verse, with an ABCB rhyme scheme; the dialogue is a species of poem known as a dunad, beginning and ending with the same word (in this case, tucad, »was brought«). I have been unable to render them in that form in English. It's quite common for disputative dialogues to be rendered this way in Old Irish stories; the roscad later is a similar example.
[The man:] These notations of who is speaking are found in the manuscripts. I follow Thurneysen in the formatting for modern type (and indeed all others that I know of do the same).
One does not give treasure to a slave. We may here observe the immense and customary misogyny of the old and especially the pre-Christian Irish. It is not merely a matter of this glib phrase, but that all of the subsequent destruction and woe descends from the eventual decision of Mac Dathó to listen to his wife's advice; it is arguably the moral of this story that doing what women want is an awful idea. This parallels the election of Bres to the kingship of the Túatha dé Danann in the Lebor Gabála Érenn, the wives' quarrel in Fled Bricrenn, and many other instances. Suffice it here that no laughter is too scornful for those who perpetuate the myth of ancient Celtic egalitarianism, let alone matriarchy.
The hound of Mes-Roída Mac Dathó. This is a good place for a discussion of Mac Dathó's name, as this is the only time that name appears in full: Mac Dathó means »son of the two mutes« or »son of the great god«; it is thus unclear whether »Dathó« is itself a proper noun or descriptive, but it is clear that we should understand his parentage to be highly illustrious. It may be that the intended implication is that he is the son of Dagda, the great sometime king of the Túatha Dé Danann. Mes-Roída means »seed of the great forest« or »acorn from the great forest« (more properly, the relation would be rendered »greatforest-seed«) and seems to refer to the same thing. (Potentially, it could also mean »fosterling of the great forest«, in which case presumably the sense is that he was raised in, not by, the forest, but it is more probable that, like »Mac Dathó«, it is a reference to his parentage.)
The plain of Fál will lack its people. »The plain of Fál« is a poetic locution for Ireland as a whole, so named for the Lía Fáil, the Stone of Fál, one of the Four Treasures of the Island of Ireland, brought by the Túatha Dé Danann from their city of Falias in the uncertain land whence they came. This stone was located at that time and for many centuries in Temair, now called Tara, in Meath; its particular power was that it screamed when trodden on by the rightful High King of all Ireland, and it came in that way to symbolize the whole island. It is not known whether the Old Irish saw the foreboding in this image of the island screaming under the foot of its ruler.
It is not known by whom he was given. This appears to be a joke. From the immediately previous mention of the singular and Christian God, we already know that the original line has been altered or replaced; the content of this following half is perhaps originally provoked by the need to fit the line back to the meter after that alteration. It seems to refer to the fact that the hound Ailbe, in the story The Death of Celtchair Mac Uthechair, was found in the barrow (or, as some versions strangely have it, brain) of Conganchnes Mac Dedad, one of three puppies; the story says that he was given as a gift to Mac Dathó, but makes no mention of the giver's identity. That is not in itself curious, of course, and from context it seems obvious that Celtchair was the giver, but it seems to have aggrieved the copyist.
The same day, west and east. These are the positions of the provinces relative to one another; they are both north of Leinster.
The two fifths of Ériu came. This is naturally not to be taken literally as two-fifths of the population. The provinces of Ireland were anciently known as cóiced, fifths, because there were five of them: Ulaid, Connacht, Mumin, Lagin and Míde. They correspond to Ulster, Connaught, Munster, Leinster and Meath respectively. The first four of these quartered the island in roughly equal pieces; the last, Míde, was the seat of the High King of all Ireland, and was counted its own province for that reason. It is now mostly part of Leinster, the remainder forming a piece of Ulster.
Three hundred years before the birth of Christ the battle occurred. This is visibly a gloss reproduced from some lost exemplar manuscript, and not part of the story as it was told. It conflicts with the chronology in many other stories in the Ulster Cycle, which assert that Conchobor mac Ness was conceived and born on the same days as Jesus, and died from a burst of blood caused by rage when he heard that the same had been put to death. However, these latter are obviously interpolations dating to the time after the Christianization of Ireland, and probably often scribal, as opposed to bardic, and it is quite possible that the dating given here is the one traditionally held to be accurate in the time before the island was christened — although of course they would not then have used the birth of Christ as referent. As Patrick was sent as bishop to Ireland in 432 A.D. (indicating, contrary to the popular myth, a sufficient quantity of already existing Irish Christians to warrant such a position), it is highly unlikely that the story was first written down before that time, or some time afterward, so that the tale refers to events that occurred about a millennium before it took its extant shape.
There was poison in it for the men of Ériu. This passage appears to be notoriously hard for people to interpret correctly, for some reason; many become possessed of a literality which is absurd not least in the face of Conall actually eating the pig to no ill effect. Perhaps it is simply a belief that »savage« cultures are incapable of metaphor; in any case, the idea is simply that the pig is »poisonous« because it is bad for them, in causing strife between the warriors. The image is hardly unexampled even within the Old Irish corpus; compare Bricriú Nemthenga, »poison-tongue«. In fact, the association of poison with strife may have been formula.
There are bullocks and pigs aplenty. The word »aplenty« here is again an interpolation, motivated by my desire to clarify the phrase while retaining its form as much as possible. This turned out to be the easiest way to do both, oddly enough.
How shall the pig be divided, O Conchobor? To the modern reader, »equally« will probably seem like the obvious answer, to the extent that the question and its consequences seem absurd and highly disproportionate. In Old Irish literature, however, a frequently recurring motif is the curadmír or »hero's portion«, the best part of a feast, set aside for the greatest champion present, and to qualify for this a warrior must participate in a boasting contest, which is precisely what occurs just after. In other words it is no mean question who shall get what at the feast, and it is almost as though Conchobor and Ailill try actively to avoid this outcome, foreseeing the danger in it, until they are thwarted by Bricriú. It is worth mentioning also that the poetic treatments of this same story have a quite different plot, where the pig is not slaughtered, and is itself the object of the contention of the two provinces; there is a hypothesis that this represents the real form of the story, and that the prose version which survives to us is but a parody on the authentic tale.
»How, indeed!« said Bricne mac Carbaid. »Bricne« is a variant on Bricriú; as for the rest, it is his real name. Nemthenga is a cognomen, meaning »poison-tongue«, as noted above. It is probably easy for the reader to imagine why he has received it.
Senláech Arad from Crúachan Con-Alad. This oddly anonymous person is the only one figuring in the paragraph who is not otherwise known. His name literally means »Old Warrior of Arad«. It may be that »the old warrior of Arad« is a sort of poetic locution for a figure the intended audience would have recognized, but if so, it is beyond me. The unsatisfied reader can surely find the answer in Thurneysen's Irische Helden- und Königsage, if it is to be found at all.
They've been stuck up to their backsides in the marsh. The word »backsides« is perhaps insufficiently vulgar a translation. The word is tóin; certain readers may recognize this from the origin story of the Pogues. Chadwick goes so far as to translate it »backs«, forcing a different and almost certainly inaccurate interpretation of the entire sentence. This is surely going too far in delicacy; I have tried to find a middle ground.
The great Loth mac Fergus meic Léti, who was left lying by Echbél mac Dedad. That is, he was killed. Compare the English »struck down«. The name of the victim is often rendered Inloth Mór, which indeed translates literally to »the great Loth«, as I have it in the text, but Mór is also a title, which indicates that he was Chief of the Name of clan Loth; a form of titulature which abides in Ireland to this day. (The British reader will perhaps recall the scandal of MacCarthy Mór.) Clan Loth does not abide, however, perhaps because of the incident related here. For the rest, mac means »son«, of course, and meic means »grandson«; thus, no part of this name is the victim's own given name.
Conganchnes mac Dedad, whom I killed. This is the incident alluded to earlier in these commentaries, which originally produced the hound Ailbe, and must presumably have taken place some few years previous. On the myriad of remaining place and personal names in this paragraph I have opted not to elaborate. Let it suffice that with the exception already noted, above, they are all familiar from other stories.
Carve the pig to our faces. The literal phrase here is »before our lips«. As an idiom it is the direct equivalent of that used in the text, but it is not readily identifiable as such; hence I opted to translate the sense. The full sentence is also one of several formulaic lines which you will find repeated throughout the boasting-contest passages.
Wait a little, Lóegaire, so that we may speak! This is where the story begins in earnest to be comical, perhaps even a satire of the Ulster Cycle; in the subsequent boasting contest, many of the famous heroes of the cycle are ridiculed and even emasculated by Cet. Later on, as you will see, the story gets abjectly silly, in incidents such as Fer Loga's ransom demand. This is in stark contrast to most of the stories of the Ulster Cycle, which are dead serious; however, the story ends with a Dindsenchas, a toponymic myth, normally a very serious function of Irish stories, which does not seem to be in any way satirical or jocular. Nor does the exchange between Conall and Cet seem at all humorous in intent, barring Conall's laconism over the head, which one would associate more with a Viking saga than an Irish legend. In a similar vein, the boasting contest as such is an established trope, and many of the injuries described by Cet here are well known from other stories, like Cúscraid's stutter, which is even eponymous, Mend Macha meaning »the Stammerer of [Emain] Macha«. With all this in mind, it is possible that some of the sillier elements, or all of the humor, are innovations of the person who cast the story in its current form, and that it was originally as straightforward as the rest of the cycle.
You left behind the wheel and the chariot and the horses. What wheel? This is obscure. Nevertheless the manuscripts largely agree; I have left it thus for the reader to make up his own mind. (One manuscript has »charioteer« instead, which seems an obvious substitution by someone else who was confused by the original, but resolved to fix it.)
A large fair hero of the Ulaid. It is odd that this description is repeated, occurring twice in close succession. On its own it looks like a scribal error, but there is no surrounding evidence of this.
I have cleaned my spears at last, O Muinremur! This sentence is difficult to make sense of in the original, and probably corrupt. Chadwick has it as »I am the man who last cleaned his spears in Muinremur«, but this seems an absurdity: assuredly in that case Cet would say he soaked or sullied his spears, rather than cleaned them.
It pierced your thigh and your testicles. The literal line reads »your thigh and the top of the fork of your legs«, but this is an obvious circumlocution; the context alone makes this abundantly clear.
Ever since that time you have been gelded. As with the line just above, this is euphemized in the original; the literal reading is closer to »you have had a disease of the urine from that time«, a curious sort of politesse to modern eyes.
Is it right, Cet, that you're carving the pig? This line is quite literally impossible to translate into English, for the simple reason that the Old Irish word I've translated as »right« means both »true« and »just« (or »suitable«, if you prefer), and both meanings are intended at once. I've done my best, but I fear I've taken the worst option. In this node you will find a different one.
Hail Conall, heart of stone. These lines begin the remarkable and matchless roscad of Cet and Conall, on which I have written separately in the node linked. It seems superfluous to reproduce those remarks here.
I swear by what my people swear by. Or, »the one my people swear by«. This is a stock phrase, and was probably used in common speech as well as in literature; the name of the god of each túath (approximately but not quite »tribe«) in the pre-Christian Irish society appears to have been a taboo. Such things are very common in primitive, tribal religion. (It may perhaps be necessary to note that »primitive« literally means something like »that which came first«, and is not properly a pejorative; it is certainly not used in that sense here.) The intention of the phrase is thus of a very solemn vow, by the holiest thing imaginable. In more recent times, we might have sworn by the souls of our children, or the graves of our fathers; these days, of course, nobody believes in superstitions like oaths and solemnity.
Told by the men of goads and witnessed by the men of awls. It is not exactly clear who are the men of goads and men of awls. The theory that seems best to me is that they are cattle-drovers and leatherworkers respectively, so that the intention is that the former tell it to the latter over trading the cattle. Drovers would be the serfs of the freemen farmers, and leatherworkers landless craftsmen, so the phrase is probably meant to imply that the tale will be known to everyone, not merely to the poets, but even among the common people. In general, this sentence and that following it are famously obscure; my translation must be understood only as a best guess.
A mouthful of blood spewed from his lips. Another passage that people frequently get wrong, this is often translated to say that the blood spews from the severed head's lips. This is obviously absurd, and not merely because the mouth of a severed head could hardly be expected to contain any blood for very long; the idea is that Conall throws the head at Cet with an immense force sufficient to cause him to spit blood, a straightforward enough notion, whereas it is hard to see what a severed head expressing blood could possibly convey about the throw, or about anything else except that it has been severed.
He devoured the belly. Since Conall is entitled to the hero's portion, which was to be the best part of a meal, we can perhaps infer from this that the ancient Irish culture, like our own, considered the belly to be the best part of the pig. These days we make bacon out of it, of course, which it is presently popular to glorify immoderately. In reality, however, the best cut of the pig is the shoulder.
It was then that Fergus pulled a large oak up by the roots. The way this is phrased suggests that it was a commonly known feat that Fergus once did, and the reader is informed that this is when he did it.
Which of them it would choose, that is, by instinct. The original of the word »instinct« would translate literally as the delightful »dog-knowledge«. I regret much that the obvious good practice here is to translate the sense.
They say it was in Mag n-Ailbe. This and the sentence beginning At Áth Chinn Con constitute the Dindsenchas Ailbe, the onomastics of the hound. It goes without saying, perhaps, that neither of these etymologies are accurate.
The flight went northward. Literally, »from the south«.
He hid in the heather. Concerning the possibility that the comedic elements of this story are late additions, it may be observed here that the comical portion of the ending follows an entirely serious portion which would be satisfactory standing on its own, as well as in line with what one would expect out of a story of the Ulster Cycle. Thus the »comedy ending« could quite easily have been tacked on at a later date.